LAC issue New Chapter re Skid Row Firehouse on 5th St.

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Steve Tepperman
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LAC issue New Chapter re Skid Row Firehouse on 5th St.

Postby Steve Tepperman » Tue Sep 08, 2009 11:13 am

New Chapter Looms for Skid Row Firehouse

The city is looking to sell the historic Fire Station No. 23, and it’s got at least three potential suitors with different visions for the site. Photo by Gary Leonard.
City Considering Sale of Historic Structure
by Ryan Vaillancourt
Published: Friday, September 4, 2009 4:21 PM PDT
DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - With its grand arched front entrance, ornate ceilings and marble paneling, the Fire Station 23 on Fifth Street was once a gleaming gem. The nearly 100-year-old structure is a city Historic-Cultural Monument and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

But, as of Sept. 1, the decommissioned and structurally ailing firehouse was deemed surplus property by the city.

The City Council’s Information Technology and Government Affairs committee on Tuesday ordered that the site be appraised and possibly sold. Developer Miles Cotton hopes to purchase the site, restore it and open a restaurant.

“The developer’s proposed improvements would potentially eradicate blight, create new property tax and sales tax revenue, unburden the city with the financial and legal responsibilities associated with owning the building and significantly revitalize the Toy District landscape,” Councilwoman Jan Perry said in the motion approved by the committee on Tuesday.

But any effort to sell the building to a private developer could be thwarted by a 1996 ballot measure that targeted the site for an upgrade and conversion to a youth arts center, said Marcia Gonzales-Kimbrough, a deputy city attorney. The building was one of the city properties identified in Proposition K, and $2.3 million was to be appropriated for its transformation, she said.

“The fact that the site was specifically identified in the ballot measure does restrict its future use,” Gonzales-Kimbrough said.

Perry said she wants to look into whether there could be both a nonprofit community-oriented use and a private business in the site.

Kristen Gunn, who runs an arts education program called the Artist Collective that trains high school drop-outs to refine their artistic abilities and become teachers, is also eyeing the building.

The Artist Collective, which operates according to a nonprofit model, has its official nonprofit status pending. Once its status is approved, Gunn and partner Adrianne Ferree, an architect in the county Sheriff’s Department, would like to draw from the Prop. K funds to rehab the firehouse and convert it into the Artist Collective’s permanent home, Gunn said.

Cotton’s vision for the firehouse is not unique to Downtown. It would essentially mimic the conversion of Fire Station No. 28, now known as the popular Financial District restaurant Engine Company No. 28.

The developer, who works primarily as a real estate broker, said his foremost interest is to rehabilitate a historic property. But as for keeping it alive, he argued that a private business would be more viable than a nonprofit model.

“When there’s a threatened historic property, the tendency is to turn it into a community center, but it’s not an economically sustainable idea because it’s always going to require private fundraising, or it’s going to require public funds,” Cotton said.

Skeletons in the Closet

The new interest in the facility rekindles a checkered past for the property at 225 E. Fifth St., which was once slated by the Fire Department to become a museum. A nonprofit was established to support the project, though when the museum was shifted to Hollywood, the nonprofit continued to function under former Chief Donald Manning. According to a Los Angeles Times investigation, the group collected more than $200,000 from production companies that used the site for filming.

A City Controller’s audit later confirmed the Times report and concluded that the city was at risk because fire officials did not require a “caretaker” tenant to have $1.5 million in liability and property damage insurance.

Manning retired around the same time the scandal was uncovered, but the site has continued to host film production, said Daniel Taylor, the site’s caretaker for the past 20 years. He is currently challenging an eviction by the city.

Taylor established the nonprofit Corporation for History, Art and Culture, which aims to turn the firehouse into a community center. When production companies shoot at the site, in addition to paying the city, Taylor often asks for a donation to his nonprofit, he said. The nonprofit uses the money to pay for basic maintenance and community events, he said.

“Just because we don’t have a lot of money doesn’t mean we don’t have access to resources,” said Taylor. “We want this place to serve the community.”

But the fact that the events are happening at all is problematic for the city, which continues to retain liability for the property, city officials said. Taylor has opened the facility for free community events (donations are accepted, but not directly solicited, Taylor said) on most weekends over the past few months. According to the Department of General Services, which oversees the property and is administering Taylor’s eviction with the City Attorney’s office, such events are not authorized.

The committee is slated to take the issue up again within 60 days.

Contact Ryan Vaillancourt at ryan@downtownnews.com.

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