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Lula Washington company resolves dispute with L.A.

May 23, 2003|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

Ending a three-year legal battle, Lula Washington Dance Theatre has settled its lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles and the Community Redevelopment Agency over planning and permits for land that used to house its studios in South-Central Los Angeles.

The settlement will help the company move forward on fund-raising and renovation of a new headquarters at a different site, on Crenshaw Boulevard, near Leimert Park, said Erwin Washington, executive director of the company and husband of its artistic director and founder, Lula Washington.

In an agreement completed Wednesday, the Lula Washington Contemporary Dance Foundation, which supports the company, will receive $500,000, plus an additional $80,000 to cover legal fees and assist the nonprofit in pursuing future funding, as redress for a 1998 decision by the city to withhold building permits for the South-Central site, which is on West Adams Boulevard.

The permits were not issued because of a Community Redevelopment Agency development proposal that would have incorporated the company's land, which is part of a redevelopment district, into a commercial development.

Erwin Washington said the value of resolving the case goes beyond money. "The settlement lifts a really heavy burden off of us; the lawsuit with the city has really held us back in a lot of ways. People were afraid to be on our board, and funders doubted us," he said. "Getting it over with kind of wipes the slate clean. The city is now helping Lula Washington instead of fighting Lula Washington."

Assistant City Atty. Dov Lesel, who acts as counsel for redevelopment agency, called the settlement a "win-win on both sides. Although there was a lawsuit, I think both parties at some point recognized that it was in their benefit to work together." The settlement also includes a loose promise from the city to give the dance company "future support." The city has provided a consultant to help the dance company seek funding for environmental clean-up at the Crenshaw property. The building was used as an ambulance dispatch service, and its parking lot contains a defunct fueling station that reeks of gasoline.

The city has also promised the dance organization that it will receive a portion of the city's "percent for art" requirement on the Crenshaw property. The city mandates that 1% of construction budgets of nonresidential projects costing more than $500,000 be spent on on-site art or be put into a city trust fund for arts programs.

The lawsuit settlement goes some distance toward closing a difficult chapter in the dance company's history. It had just opened its studio in South-Central when the Northridge earthquake hit, damaging the building so severely it had to be demolished. The company has been displaced, in cramped rental quarters, since then.

Initially, the Washingtons sought to rebuild on the West Adams site, even to the point of acquiring additional lots to meet new zoning demands for parking lots. They began planning to expand operations beyond the dance studio, envisioning an arts center that would include a juice bar, a theater, low-cost artists' housing, a visual arts studio and a small jazz club.

But by the time its plans were in place in 1998, the redevelopment agency had begun to eye the property for a possible mall development, and the city did not issue building permits for the new arts center. "We had gotten to third base, and everything after that was supposed to be routine," Erwin Washington said. "But the home-run people wouldn't offer a permit."

The Washingtons had been promised $1.3 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency funds for the rebuilding project. In late 2000, Erwin successfully petitioned to allow those funds to be used instead to purchase a new building, and the company closed a deal on the Crenshaw property in 2001. As it turns out, the Lula Washington Dance Theatre is now free to do as it pleases with the lots it owns on West Adams, because the redevelopment agency's project has been shelved. Washington says the organization may lease the land to small businesses to generate income.

Still, the end of the lawsuit does not end the company's financial challenges. The Washingtons will need to use about $350,000 of the settlement money to open the Crenshaw building; the rest of the settlement will be eaten up by taxes, insurance and other expenses. Washington estimates that the renovation costs -- including such non-construction essentials as theatrical lighting equipment and seating -- will total $1.3 million.

And the company wants to raise more than twice that amount. As was its goal at the site on West Adams, the organization still envisions creating an expanded arts center, with increased dance classes and more ambitious programming and even artist housing. To realize all of its goals, Erwin Washington says $3.4 million needs to be raised.

"Our goal is now to resume the work we started in 1988 to make ourselves a full-time professional dance company with a school and a rehearsal facility that is an resource for the community," he says.

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