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L.A. County OKs Mexican American Cultural Center

September 15, 2004|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a plan to build a $70-million Mexican American cultural complex across from the historic Olvera Street plaza.

Supervisor Gloria Molina, who spearheaded the project and will help pay for it with public funds from her discretionary account, called the planned Plaza de Cultura y Artes a "lifelong dream" that will become one of the cultural jewels of Los Angeles County.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 22, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Mexican American center -- Articles in the California section on Sept. 14 and 15 about Supervisor Gloria Molina's plans to build a Mexican American cultural center said Los Angeles County does not have any center devoted to that heritage. The Mexican Cultural Institute, whose mission is to preserve Mexican culture, has been operating on Olvera Street since 1990.

To pacify preservationists, the supervisors also offered an eleventh-hour compromise that could save a historic 19th century brick building that had been slated for demolition.

"This is a partial victory, a reasonable compromise," said Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy, which tries to protect the area's cultural and architectural heritage.

He called the project "very exciting" and said, "Los Angeles needs it."

Others were even more effusive.

"I'm elated," said Jonathan Yorba, executive director of the Plaza de Cultura y Artes Foundation, which will run the center. "And so will be the millions of Mexicans, Mexican Americans and other Latinos who are constituents of the county."

The 106,500-square-foot educational and cultural center will rise just north of downtown on a 4.5-acre county-owned parcel between Spring and Main streets.

Construction on the center could begin in the next few years.

Backers envision a community center for weddings and parties, a 500-seat theater for music and dance performances, a gallery for art exhibitions, a genealogical center, and classrooms for teaching dance, art and traditional Mexican cooking.

The site is occupied by three earthquake- and fire-damaged 19th century buildings that have been abandoned and boarded up for more than 30 years.

County officials plan to renovate two of the buildings: the Plaza House, built in 1883, and the Vickrey-Brunswig building, built in 1888.

Officials had planned to raze the Brunswig annex, saying they could not afford the estimated $5 million it would take to save it. Preservationists say they think the building was erected as early as 1871 and housed the Los Angeles Gas Works; county officials believe it went up in the 1890s and functioned as a warehouse.

In a compromise worked out in whispered conferences in a corner of the Board of Supervisors chamber Tuesday afternoon, officials agreed to put off a final decision on that building until closer to the beginning of construction. Preservationists hope rehabilitating it will not be as expensive as expected, or that money can be found to save it.

Those on both sides of the preservation debate agreed that the center will fill an unmet need in Los Angeles, where there is no center devoted to Mexican American culture.

Many local museum directors, from such institutions as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Skirball Cultural Center, pledged their support in working with the new institution. And Molina said foundation officials have had talks with Mexican government officials about displaying exhibits from that country's famed museums.

The county, using money from Molina's discretionary accounts and state park bonds, will pay up to $20 million to rehabilitate the historic buildings. The foundation plans to raise money from private sources to pay for the new construction.

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Times staff writer Sue Fox contributed to this report.

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