“Starchitecture Doesn’t Trump our Heritage”

L.A. Conservancy sues City of Los Angeles over Frank Gehry project

Architecture Development News Preservation West
The LA Conservancy has filed a lawsuit against the City of L.A. in response to the approval of the Gehry Partners'-designed 8150 Sunset project (Courtesy Visualhouse / Gehry Partners)
The LA Conservancy has filed a lawsuit against the City of L.A. in response to the approval of the Gehry Partners'-designed 8150 Sunset project (Courtesy Visualhouse / Gehry Partners)

The Los Angeles Conservancy is suing the City of Los Angeles for “blatantly disregarding environmental law” and violating the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by approving the Gehry Partners—designed 8150 Sunset development last month.

The $300 million mixed-use project has faced community push-back from all sides, especially from wealthy neighbors who contested the project’s height, density, and parking provisions, even though the project is located on the Sunset Strip commercial corridor. Those partisans won out over the course of the approval process, as developers and even Frank Gehry himself, in an in-person testimonial before the Planning and Land Use Management Committee (PLUM), pledged to rework the project to ameliorate community concerns. At that meeting, the starchitect said, “I’m going to make it, as best I can, something special for the community. Something that we would all be proud of.”

The development was ultimately approved by PLUM and, later on, the L.A. City Council, but with a few caveats. In a nod to the neighbors’ concerns, the project’s residential towers were approved with a 56-foot height reduction, an additional number of affordable housing units, and increased number of parking stalls. Overall, the project will contain 229 market rate units, including 38 affordable units, 65,000 square feet of commercial space, and 494 parking spaces in a group of rumpled towers located on a site featuring multiple public plazas and ground-floor retail.

8150 Sunset calls for the demolition of the historic Lytton Savings bank building designed by Kurt Meyer in 1960. (Courtesy LA Conservancy / Hunter Kerhart)

8150 Sunset calls for the demolition of the historic Lytton Savings bank building designed by Kurt Meyer in 1960. (Courtesy LA Conservancy / Hunter Kerhart)

But one point the designers and developers behind the project would not flex on—and that neither PLUM nor the L.A. City Council were eager to emphasize—was whether to save the historic, modernist-style Lytton Savings bank building currently occupying a portion of the site from demolition. The iconic structure, which features a striking folded concrete roof and large expanses of glass, became a rallying point for preservationists who were not necessarily against the project, per se, but hoped the developers would incorporate the structure into the proposal. The bank building was designed in 1960 by Kurt Meyer and since plans were announced, a group of preservationists rallied around saving the structure. The structure was quickly nominated as a Historic Cultural Monument (HCM) status by Friends of Lytton Savings. HCM status offers some degree of protection against demolition, except that PLUM delayed the structure’s nomination and the L.A. City Council was able to approve 8150 Sunset in the augmented form described above. The building’s existence is now in peril, and as a result, the Los Angeles Conservancy has filed suit to “force the City of Los Angeles’s compliance with (CEQA).” The Conservancy argues that under CEQA regulations, a project must “avoid significant impacts such as the demolition of a historical resource if the fundamental project objectives can be met without demolition.”

The Conservancy’s logic stems from a series of development proposals incorporated into the Environmental Impact Report (found here) developed as part of the project’s approval process that called for reusing the structure as part of the commercial component of the Gehry Partners development (the building currently operates as a Chase Bank branch). Those alternatives, however, were shut out of consideration by the developers, who simply preferred to start with a blank site. Previously, Adrian Scott Fine, director of advocacy for the LA Conservancy, had told The Architect’s Newspaper that the Gehry project would “unnecessarily demolish a historic cultural monument,” and added,  “there’s a very clear way for this project to move forward while preserving the bank building.” 

Friends of Lytton Savings founder Steven Luftman told The Architect’s Newspaper via email that his group is “still proceeding with the Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument (HCM) application with the full support of Councilmember David Ryu. The application goes to a vote with the LA City Council on Wednesday December 7th.”  When asked whether the group would support relocating the endangered structure as part of a comprehensive preservation approach, Luftman replied, “We continue to believe the best solution is for the building to remain at its current site. Incorporating this city’s rich architectural past with the new project can lead to an exciting and vibrant development,” adding “(Lytton Savings) functions beautifully as a bank and it has wonderful potential for adaptive reuse. Once the alternatives are appropriately explored, as a last resort we would consider a sincere commitment by the developer to relocate the building.”

For now, however, the Lytton Savings bank stands imperiled as part of a long line of Modernist structures falling to the wrecking ball and the project stands to move forward as approved.

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