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The Impending Aesthetics of Displacement

Or, why the North Westlake Design District is just another YIMBY project.

In January of 2018, at a community meeting organized by the Coalition to Defend Westlake (CDW), city planner Craig Weber advocated for the North Westlake Design District (NWDD), stating “It’s important to the city to create an environment that is conducive to walking and does not take a step backward and reorient toward the automobile.” Weber is not entirely wrong: Westlake, like the rest of Los Angeles, could undoubtedly benefit from city infrastructure not built by and for the auto industry. What Weber and his fellow city officials miss in their backing of the Design District, though, is that the NWDD’s pedestrian-friendly pledge comes at expense of the development of the entire area. In considering Weber’s stated reasons of support for the ordinance, it is particularly critical to ask: what purpose (and whose agenda) is served socially, culturally, politically, and monetarily by redesigning an area with pedestrian-friendly spaces if the people who most use transit will soon be pushed out by the ensuing rising rents? To comprehensively answer, it is first necessary to consider what the Design District is, who it targets, and how it bolsters larger systems at work.

The North Westlake Design District (NWDD) is a self-described targeted planning ordinance that addresses zoning regulation for new construction in commercially zoned parcels in the North Westlake area. According to the LA Department of City Planning (DCP), “The purpose of this ordinance is to help ensure that future development is compatible and enhances the existing neighborhood; creates a friendly experience for pedestrians; and promotes mixed-use and small, local businesses.” In order to meet said goals, the ordinance specifically sets forth design standards for parking and site layouts. For example, “unbundled parking” allows parking to be sold or rented separately from residential units and commercial spaces, surface parking lots must be placed behind new buildings, and visible parking at street level must be effectively hidden by “external skin” that meets aesthetic requirements of the city. The ordinance sets forth requirements for signage and business designs down to the paint color of the buildings, exacting that businesses must cover their walls with greenery or original artwork and install uniform signs that aren’t backlit or printed on a canopy.

A 2014 draft of the ordinance included approval of art galleries, bakeries, bars, cafes, and stationary stores — businesses that signify an influx of wealth to an area — while prohibiting community-oriented stores such as auto repair shops, recycling centers, bail bond brokers, fortune telling services, drive-through restaurants, and public storage facilities. Thanks to community organizing and dissent from tenants, the most recent draft does not prohibit businesses; however, the ordinance continues to target the working class area as a potential space for profit. While some (more development-inclined folks) might view the NWDD’s markedly neoliberal requirements with a hopeful first glance, guidelines like these ultimately lead to displacement of low-income, long-time tenants.

a proposed map of the north westlake design district, with the new additions highlighted in red

The area targeted by the NWDD — four major corridors along Temple Street, Beverly Boulevard, and the north side of 3rd Street between Hoover Street and Glendale Boulevard, as well as Alvarado Street between 3rd Street and Temple Street — is the segment of Westlake, just northwest of downtown, called Historic Filipinotown. Situated on stolen Tongva land, Historic Filipinotown was named in 2002 in recognition of the area being one of the few where many Pilipinx Americans began to settle during the 20th Century. Now home to a majority working-class Central American and Mexican immigrant community, Historic Filipinotown is currently designated as the 13th District which falls under the jurisdiction of Mitch O’Farrell, the councilmember who has been critiqued for his lack of accountability, for example failing to respond to phone calls, emails, and requests to appear at meetings and community forums regarding the NWDD—not to mention touting to the press “I just won’t support displacement” while spending the past few years pioneering the Design District.

Under O’Farrell’s oversight, gentrification has begun to creep towards Historic Filipinotown, with construction popping up throughout the area and emerging reports of a new apartment complex that will rent for $6,700 for a three bedroom. With a focus on aesthetic revitalization via an unwavering emphasis on “art and design,” the Design District will continue these patterns of displacement by ignoring the needs and voices of the primarily immigrant, working-class neighborhood. These guidelines work to expand the gentrification that O’Farrell’s district has notoriously experienced, promising to extend Echo Park and Silver Lake’s landscape of mixed-use spaces, grain bowls, and yoga-obsessed hipsters a little further South. And, these calculated patterns of development are part of a broader agenda to shape LA for the rich and white.

As demonstrated case by case, the landlords and real estate agencies directly responsible for developing neighborhoods across Los Angeles are backed by consolidated wealth, the global art industry, and a legacy of corporate enterprise. Time and time again, aesthetic revitalization leads to speculative investment and speculative investment leads to rising rents. In an already saturated market that lacks base-line conditions like universal rent control, rising rents lead to displacement and, for many, displacement leads to homelessness. In a capitalist system sustaining itself on white supremacist logics, these realities impact cash poor people of color most directly.

Initiatives that focus on future development — for example, the NWDD requiring that 30% of ground floor walls have transparent windows in hopes of attracting business — not only ignore current needs of the neighborhood but also embolden the neocolonial trends that accompany white and wealthy people taking up more space. As Arturo Garcer, a leader at the Filipino American Community of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles chapter of the Justice for Filipino American Veterans, put it for the LA Taco, “They [the city] are saying it is a ‘design district,’ but eventually it will be, again, an area for the expansion of downtown. Basically that’s why we are afraid; that this is again a step towards the erasure of our cultural heritage.”

Like other re-zoning initiatives, the NWDD is a barely-disguised, pro-development policy — and community members and neighborhood activists know it. At the forefront of opposition to the Design District is the Coalition to Defend Westlake, a network of individuals and groups mobilizing community power in order to defend their neighborhood. Made up of Westlake neighbors as well as members from Pro People Youth, the Pilipino Worker’s Center, the Rampart Village Neighborhood Council, Kenneth Mejia for Congress, Unite Here, and the LA Tenants Union, CDW understands the ordinance as a catalyst for “fancy galleries and expensive micro pubs and over-priced lofts,” and subsequently demands that the city drop all current plans for the Design District.

More broadly, CDW demands that the city abandon their top-down approach and, instead, let the community craft their own neighborhood. This type of bottom-up planning (more colloquially I’d call it Communities Defining Their Own Needs or People Power or, simply, ‘Bye Bureaucracy), necessitates that the city embrace work with Community Planning Advisory Councils (CPACs) to create and implement a community plan that comes from the neighborhood and is not imposed by the planning department. Conveniently for the city, there is limited accessible information online to explain what a community plan is or how one goes about forming a CPAC, so CDW has begun to gather this information and start the process on their own.

Already, CDW’s organizing has garnered results. While the Department of City Planning (DCP) began concocting the Design District by sitting in their offices, calculating plans for Westlake, and then sending out a monolingual-English flyer to alert the trilingual community of the changes they planned to make, the city has begun to stall the NWDD in lieu of tenant opposition made vocal by CDW’s community meetings and petitioning. Still though, the DCP continues ahead with the NWDD draft and CDW is continuing to push against the wave of evictions that will follow it, fighting for a community built by community members. Starting with Westlake, CDW is demanding that city governance radically alter the way they go about the whole business of improving a neighborhood — starting with taking “business” out of neighborhood building.

In anticipation of an update that the DCP is planning on releasing a new draft of the Design District in the coming weeks, CDW is now asking for community support and is calling on neighbors and accomplices to bombard O’Farrell’s office urging the city to #dropthedraft and listen to a CPAC-made community plan. To participate, call (213) 473–7013 and tell the councilman to end his support of the proposed North Westlake Design District ordinance and, instead, work with community members who are creating a new plan for the neighborhood. After you call, get involved with The Coalition to Defend Westlake and join your local of the LA Tenants Union, because community members know what the community needs not bureaucrats or city officials.