The Los Angeles City Council’s Art Parks Health and Aging Committee, by a vote of 2-1, recommended today that the full City Council uphold a city Recreation and Parks Board authorization of an Autry National Center remodel in Griffith Park. It also recommended that the City Council deny an appeal of a finding that the Autry’s project does not have to undergo an environmental evaluation under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
The matters go before the full City Council at 10 a.m. tomorrow.
The CEQA appeal was filed by the Mount Washington Homeowners Alliance, a community organization of 600 plus members, and by local historian and preservation advocate Charles Fisher.
Speaking on behalf of the Mount Washington Homeowners Alliance, Land Use Committee member Mark Kenyon took the position that the organization does not object to the Autry receiving the $6.6 million is state Proposition 84 funds that it is using to fund a remodel of its Griffith Park site, a move the Autry is making in part to display artifacts from the Southwest Museum collection.
“We don’t have a problem with the Autry sharing the collection at both sites,” said Fisher. “There’s plenty of collection to go around.”
“However,” said Kenyon, “the Autry should not be allowed to break the law.”
The Mount Washington Homeowners Alliance, Fisher and the more than 70 organizations that have come together under the umbrella of the Friends of the Southwest Museum Coalition ask that the Autry comply with Northeast Los Angeles City Councilmember José Huizar’s request that a commitment to keeping the Southwest open as a museum be put in writing.
CEQA requires that any entity undertaking a major project involving land use disclose any negative consequences that could come about as a result of that project. The Autry argues that it is only remodeling within its existing footprint and that CEQA applies to physical changes only.
The appellants pointed out that moving two galleries worth of artifacts from Mount Washington to new galleries with the same themes in Griffith Park and eliminating the ethno-botanic garden in Mount Washington while creating a new one in Griffith Park create negative impacts in Northeast Los Angeles. They say the Autry’s actions are illegal under city planning law, as they violate the Northeast Community Plan, which holds the Southwest Museum to be a centerpiece of Northeast Los Angeles life and culture.
Any potential negative impacts on a historic resource would normally trigger CEQA.
Further, Daniel Wright, a pro bono attorney representing the appellants, argued before the council committee that, even aside from effects on Mount Washington, the change of use of parts of the Autry Museum in Griffith Park would inevitably cause changes in that area involving issues such as traffic impacts and parking.
The appellants contend that the Autry may well be avoiding CEQA by piecemealing a broader plan. They cite Autry documents of a year ago that refer to “the first phase of this multi-year project.” The Autry denies that it is piecemealing, and says that it has no plans beyond its immediate remodel.
The Autry’s lease agreement is also a cause of controversy. The center holds a $1 lease on city land in Griffith Park. Proposition 84 fund recipients have to hold 30-year leases on their sites. The Autry’s 50-year lease expires in 2037.
David Burton, an Autry official who oversaw the writing of the Proposition 84 grant, told the council committee that he has spoken numerous times with officials in Sacramento, and an extension of the lease does not have to be dealt with until a couple of years before it is set to expire.
However, Ana Cubas, Chief of Staff to Councilmember Huizar, who represents the district where the Southwest campus is located, told the committee that their office has been in touch with State Senator Kevin de León’s office. (De Leon authored the provision in the Prop 84 law that directs programming money to urban areas such as Los Angeles that are in need of such resources. He also represents much of Northeast L.A.) Cubas reported that de Leon’s office says that grantees have to provide a 30-year lease agreement.
Cubas told the council committee that discussions with the Autry “have come up short” in terms of getting the Autry to put a commitment to the Southwest in writing.
In addition to the appellants, a dozen community members from Garvanza, El Sereno, Mount Washington, Highland Park and Montecito Heights spoke of their belief in keeping the Southwest Museum open as a functioning museum in Mount Washington.
An approximately equal number of people—all but one of them Autry staff or attorneys—spoke in support of the Autry positions.
One Northeast LA resident, Rob Schraff, also spoke on behalf of the Autry, but used most of his allotted time criticizing the Friends of the Southwest Museum community group.
Councilmember Ed Reyes asked Pamela Hannah, Director of American Indian Outreach at the Autry National Center, who was very much involved in building the relationship between the Southwest Museum and the community when she used to work at the Mount Washington museum, if it would be possible to keep a portion of the artifacts on display in Mount Washington to allow the local community to have access to them. Hannah replied yes, that has been the plan since 2006. Reyes then asked if it would be possible to retain artifacts at a level equal to that of 15 years ago.
“We don’t feel a full museum is possible,” replied Hannah.
Reyes attempted to get the Autry/Southwest matters referred to the council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee, which he chairs, for an examination of ramifications of city planning law and for a look at how do deal with the historic nature of entities involved. He was turned down by Arts Parks Health and Aging Chair Tom LaBonge.
LaBonge was joined by the third committee member, Herb Wesson, in voting to deny the CEQA appeal and in supporting Recreation and Parks belief that the Autry project is exempt from CEQA review. Reyes voted in support of the appeal.
Wesson did say that he would like to see the Autry put a commitment to the Southwest Museum in writing. But he joined LaBonge in voting to allow the Autry to accept the grant for its remodel.
The Art Parks Health and Aging votes are not binding. They are recommendations to the full council, which will take the official vote tomorrow. The Council can let the Recreation and Parks Board approval of the Autry remodel stand. Or it can make changes, which would have the effect of sending the matter back to the Recreation and Parks Board.