The City of Los Angeles is being sued over its willingness to allow the Autry National Center to absorb the Southwest Museum. A suit has been filed by the Highland Park Heritage Trust and by the Mount Washington Homeowners Alliance.
The two Northeast Los Angeles organizations allege that the Los Angeles City Council, in allowing a Recreation and Parks Board decision permitting the Autry to remodel in Griffith Park, ignored city zoning law and state environmental law.
The absorption of the Southwest by the Autry was presented to area residents in 2003 as a merger that would result in both the Autry Museum in Griffith Park and the Southwest Museum in Mount Washington continuing to exist under one umbrella. However, the Autry closed the Southwest and is planning on remodeling in Griffith Park to present part of the Southwest collection there.
The community groups bringing the suit contend that city zoning law, specifically the Northeast Los Angeles Community Plan, in essence, enshrines the Southwest, the City’s oldest museum, as a central cultural and geographic component of Northeast L.A. and requires the City to take impacts on the 104-year old Southwest Museum and its 97-year old Mount Washington campus into account in any land use decision.
However, at a City Council meeting on the subject of the Autry remodel, Councilmember Tom LaBonge, who represents the Griffith Park area on the council, declared that the Southwest Museum no longer exists.
The lawsuit takes the Autry to task for burying the Southwest Museum name and for moving a land use from Mount Washington to Griffith Park--where new Autry gallery and garden components will bear names and descriptions strikingly similar to those of the Southwest Museum. The contention is that the move is a violation of the City Plan and a violation of the 2003 merger agreement. The lawsuit blames the City of Los Angeles for approving the actions.
The Highland Park Heritage Trust and the Mount Washington Homeowners Alliance also contend that State environmental law needs to be taken into account.
The California Environmental Quality Act mandates that all negative impacts of any significant action must be fully explored and disclosed before the action is taken--a step the organizations believe the City skipped over in granting the Autry permission to remodel on the land it leases from the City in Griffith Park.
On the table before the City is the issue of conversion of space within the existing footprint of the Griffith Park structure into gallery space and an educational garden area. The Autry contends that this is the sum total of what it has planned for the site.
The lawsuit points out, however, that “Autry’s construction drawings submitted to the Recreation and Parks Department staff in May 2010 showed Autry’s total construction project will convert tens of thousands of square feet of non-public space (collections storage and back office space in the Autry Museum’s Griffith Park basement) into expanded new public use spaces (exhibition galleries, special event areas for rental income, new restrooms, etc.).”
The bringers of the suit say that proposed new uses would bring corresponding increases in visitors, traffic and parking needs, all of which mandate a thorough review of impacts on Griffith Park and on its surrounding communities.
The case is being handled for the local organizations by the law firm of Otten & Joyce. This is the firm that won a court decision in the well-known Lopez Canyon Landfill case that found the City of Los Angeles to be in violation of its own laws in authorizing a truck driving school on land that had been dedicated as passive open space.
“Autry broke into pieces its proposal to expand the Southwest Museum land use in its Griffith Park building,” said Brigid Joyce of Otten & Joyce. “Then Autry claimed the City had ‘no discretion’ but to approve the move and no requirement to review environmental impacts.”
When the matter of the Autry remodel went before the City Council in June, only Councilmembers Ed Reyes and José Huizar, who represent the neighborhoods around the Southwest Museum, supported the contention that environmental review was required.
“This is a classic real estate developer ploy to piecemeal a project to evade environmental review,” said Joyce, “and the City went along with a wink.”
The Highland Park Heritage Trust is a nonprofit organization with a 29-year history of advocating for the heritage and historic preservation of communities along the Arroyo Seco in Northeast Los Angeles. The Mount Washington Homeowners Alliance is a nonprofit residents’ association with a membership of nearly 700 residents of Mount Washington.
Three City Council Members--Reyes, Huizar and Paul Koretz--voted to send the Autry remodel back to the Recreation and Parks Board as opposed to giving it the okay.
“Mr. Huizar, Mr. Reyes and Mr. Koretz at least took the vote for integrity,” said Nicole Possert of the Highland Park Heritage Trust at the time.
But the three councilmembers were outnumbered by their colleagues who voted to let the Autry move ahead.
The suit will take an estimated nine months to reach a hearing in the local Superior Court.