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Artists are sharply divided over project near L.A. River

Supporters see a boon to the arts district in the proposed complex of housing, shops and gallery space. Foes see an out-of-place, outsize 'wall.'

November 09, 2007|Ari B. Bloomekatz | Times Staff Writer

The proposed building sprawls across three city blocks and reaches 70 feet high. To some, One Santa Fe would sweeten the gritty streets that run along the Los Angeles River east of downtown. To others, the $140-million project is a monstrosity.

Along this stretch of Santa Fe Avenue, between the bridges on East 1st and 4th streets, chain-link fences topped with razor-wire enclose Metro Rail car repair depots and an employee parking lot. The river is barely visible, and delivery trucks pass noisily along.

"To me, this is visual blight I'm looking at," said Father Spencer T. Kezios, a city planning commissioner. "We have lemons and we're getting lemonade."

But the massive, 500,000-square-foot development has divided local residents, pitting artist against artist -- with violin-makers, architects, designers and painters choosing sides.

At stake, many residents say, is the fate of the arts district, an area that was once a beacon for artists who needed affordable living and work space.

Opponents cannot stomach "the great wall" and argue that One Santa Fe is a byproduct of a sweeping downtown gentrification that is rapidly changing the complexion of local communities.

"This is something that we're going to regret in a decade," said Jeremiah Axelrod, an area resident and history professor who started an opposition website,

"My big objection is to the scale of the project," he said. "It's going to be an eyesore."

But supporters say builders have compromised with community groups, and would bring vital additions to a neighborhood that has been struggling in recent years. Several neighborhood organizations have signed on to the project; they include the Historic Cultural Neighborhood Council, the Los Angeles River Artist and Business Assn. and the adjacent Southern California Institute of Architecture.

"It's going to provide a lot of neighborhood amenities that have been desperately needed for years," said Tim Keating, 58, who has lived in the district for over two decades.

One of those amenities is a 5,000-square-foot arts community center that developer McGregor Co would lease to Keating's own neighborhood arts organization for $1 a year. The center would provide gallery space, show films and host a variety of cultural activities.

Other plans include 439 rental units, 50,000 square feet of retail space, parking and improvements to the streetscape, such as dozens of trees. Developers hope to break ground next summer. World-renowned architect Michael Maltzan's designs for One Santa Fe are built around the existing Metro structures, and drawings show a narrow series of buildings rising six stories.

But despite Maltzan's prestige, his designs for One Santa Fe look to opponents like nothing short of a large wall.

Foes have described the development as "aircraft carrier-sized." They also say that it lacks affordable housing for young artists and that the complexion of the district will change as One Santa Fe fills up with people who can afford the market rates of luxury lofts.

Julie Rasnussen, who has lived in the arts district about four years, said she would support the project only if it were used exclusively for community art space or to house artists.

She called the design a "weird, mammoth, monster building."

The arts district emerged around the 1970s when young artists illegally moved into abandoned buildings in the area and used the large spaces to both work and live in. The city passed an ordinance in 1981 that legalized artists' dwellings in the abandoned industrial buildings.

Once a major hub in L.A.'s art world, with an array of galleries buzzing each weekend, the area in recent years has not been the flourishing arts community that many residents had hoped for. The One Santa Fe project reflects the differences in opinions about how to move forward.

At last month's Los Angeles Planning Commission meeting, artists gave radically different predictions of what effect the project would have on the community.

One woman speaking for the opposition called the project "the essential death of the arts district," while a supporter viewed it as a good thing because "it's an area that needs to be activated."

After more than three hours of discussion, the commission passed the first zoning changes necessary for the project to move forward. The City Council must still approve the development before builders break ground.

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