LACMA Controversy Stirs Up Memories of LA’s Past Environmental Disasters

Friday, September 20, 2013

Zumthor’s design could disrupt the La Brea Tar Pits (Museum Associates)

Peter Zumthor’s design for a new central building at LACMA has some experts concerned with its environmental effects. Critics including John Harris, chief curator of the National History Museum’s Page Museum, worry that the project could disrupt the La Brea tar pits, the same ecological features that inspired the building’s blob-like shape. At a meeting last month the county Board of Supervisors voted 4-0 to request a presentation from the Page Museum fleshing out the curator’s concerns. That presentation has not yet been scheduled, according to the Page Museum’s press office.

A view of Ballona Wetlands from above (friends of Ballona Wetlands)

A view of the  Ballona Wetlands from above (friends of Ballona Wetlands). Many surrounding wetlands were destroyed to make way for west side developments.

If Harris’s hunch proves correct, the LACMA redesign would join a long list of local architectural-environmental disasters, stretching back decades, to the earliest days of European settlement. For instance, Los Angeles Aqueduct had drained Owens Lake by 1924, and in 1941 began diverting water from Mono Lake. Only last month did the city of Los Angeles and other parties including conservationists reached a tentative settlement that would repair some of the damage done to Mono Lake.

So without further ado, below is our list of some of the most significant environmental catastrophes (and near-catastrophes) in LA history. We hope LACMA’s issues will be addressed, and that it won’t be added to this list:

Beginning in the early twentieth century, Los Angeles’s 14,000 acres of wetlands were filled in to make way for tony residential developments like Marina del Rey, dedicated in 1965. An earlier suburban enclave, Surfridge (part of Playa del Rey, developed in 1921 by Dickinson & Gillespie Co.), wiped out 300 acres of sand dunes that were home to the El Segundo Blue Butterfly, an endangered species.

Restoration of the El Segundo Dunes, near LAX, is ongoing. (Travis Longcore)

Restoration of the El Segundo Dunes, near LAX, is ongoing. (Travis Longcore)

When LAX was built in the early 1960s, the airport took over Surfridge and razed the homes there—but not to restore the dunes. Instead, airport authorities bought the neighborhood to appease residents complaining of noise pollution and fenced it off without touching the dunes.  Restoration would take another three decades to initiate and is ongoing today.

On March 24, 1985, a methane gas leak caused a massive explosion in a Ross Dress-For-Less Department store in the Wilshire-Fairfax District of Los Angeles. Though the cause of the explosion remains the subject of debate, two Stanford professors argued in a 1992 paper that it was a product of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a technique that is once again being debated in the city. In any case, the disaster prompted Rep. Henry Waxman’s (D-CA) ban on tunneling under Wilshire Boulevard, which in turn rerouted the subway’s Red Line.

A street view at Playa Vista (tk)

A street view at Playa Vista (tk)

In recent years, Playa Vista, a giant development located just south of Marina del Rey, has been the site of a high-profile contest between architecture and ecology. The original plan for Playa Vista, initiated by Howard Hughes’ heirs after his death, would have destroyed 94 percent of the Ballona wetlands’ remaining acreage. After the plan was approved, the Friends of Ballona Wetlands filed a lawsuit. Following a period of inaction, the development was sold to Maguire Thomas Partners in 1990. The new developers agreed to rededicate a portion of the land to conservation and pay millions for restoration.


Edward R. Roybal Learning Center, formerly Belmont Learning Center (DLR Group)

Rounding out the list is the infamous Belmont Learning Center, now known as the Edward R. Roybal Learning Center. The high school, the nation’s most expensive at over $400 million, was built on top of the Los Angeles City Oil Field.  Concerns over methane gas below the site resulted in an almost 20-year delay in the building process. The revision of state and local policy regarding school construction, and the installation of a $17 million gas-mitigation system, allowed construction to go forward, with a completely new architectural plan. Operating the system costs the school, which finally opened in 2008, between $250,000 and $500,000 annually.

2 Responses to “LACMA Controversy Stirs Up Memories of LA’s Past Environmental Disasters”

  1. Jonah says:

    How are the Ross gas explosion or Belmont Learning Center land contamination examples of environmental disasters?

    Also, Mono Lake has been protected since the 80s – while the recent news just speeds the healing process.

    Lastly, how does building on an already occupied site equate to any of these? I agree it could be detrimental to the experience of viewing the tar pits, but they’re not exactly filling in wet lands (which also isn’t all that accurate, given that Marina Del Rey was carved out, not filled in.)

    Now how about focusing on cities that are still destroying their environments?

  2. Mattia says:

    Right on, Jonah.

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