L.A. Doesn’t Need to Save Every Unremarkable Little Building
It’s time to let go.
Photo: Kent Kanouse / Flickr
As Sunset Boulevard heads toward downtown Los Angeles, French restaurant Taix stands out like an anomaly amid shopping malls, a one-story green and cream French chateau adorned with gabled roofs, half-timbering, and clinker bricks. At a meeting of the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission last month, two historians dramatically recounted these French-speaking flourishes in detail, emphasizing French pronunciations like carriage porch, and noting that in addition to this convincing Norman facade, the Taix architects had designed a whole fake Danish town 120 miles to the north. It was the last call – the last chance! – to convey the historic significance of the 60-year-old Echo Park restaurant, which faces the threat of demolition.
Listening to this exchange, I felt like it was a scene that could play out more frequently as the pandemic widened existing cracks in Los Angeles’ economy. It is estimated that half of the small businesses in LA County will have closed for good when the crisis is over. These closures are strangely pervasive throughout the city; in some neighborhoods, it’s not uncommon to walk past a handful of storefronts on the same block, all flanked by yellowed and warped plywood. In contrast, real estate developers seem busier than ever, with cranes hoisting beams into skyscrapers like perpetual motion machines. This perfect, virus-fueled storm of unfettered business closures and capital almost guarantees an accelerated loss of both a family business like Taix and the building it currently occupies – those weird and irreplaceable structures that make up the vernacular of LA. The types of structures that a place like LA, if we’re being honest, have always been susceptible to destroying, pandemic or not.
By designating Taix as a historical cultural monument, the neighborhood heritage group aimed to save the building, and therefore the company. But according to restaurant owner Mike Taix, it was already too late. Many of the “important” architectural details cited by historians, such as pressed pewter ceilings, were not original, Taix revealed, but had been added by Taix himself over the past 25 years. “Our business revenues cannot continue to bear the overhead costs associated with our extremely inefficient and obsolete mega building – the infrastructure is terrible – and the property it’s on, ”he says. In fact – and here’s the twist – it was Taix’s own idea to remake the site in one new large mixed-use development, with accommodation on top and room for a smaller, more profitable restaurant on the ground floor.
Dozens of long-standing clients vehemently disagree with this strategy, showing up at the meeting to chastise and sometimes outright shame the business owner for his decision. “I understand it’s a business and people want to make money,” said one of those clients. “But it takes part of our soul away from us.” Another likened the demolition of a restaurant in 1962 to “the burning of an old forest”. The superficiality of the building itself has not been lost on the cultural commissioners of Los Angeles – “This brick is stuck to the wall,” said Commissioner Richard Barron, adding: “This is not architecture because we want to consider architecture. It’s Disneyland ”- but they seemed sympathetic to commentators’ requests, wondering aloud if the new development could be relocated to occupy the parking lot surrounding the restaurant instead of demolishing the restaurant itself. Which was completely at odds with their arguments for keeping Taix alive: it was clear that they cared more about saving the building than saving the company. And while there are certainly structures in LA that deserve to be properly preserved, the Taix building is clearly not one of them. (It’s not even Taix original location, which dated back to 1926.) While the owner explicitly says that the business itself will not survive, retaining the building as a cultural monument raises additional questions about the culture, exactly, that is preserved. On a fundraising site, the neighborhood heritage group says the demolition of Taix “would leave a deep void in the cultural fabric that holds our community together.” But the heritage group hadn’t issued the same call to action to protect the facade of a nearby Mexican restaurant, which was whitewashed by a barbecue chain in a move as a group of local tenants cited as a latino displacement sign.
This militarization of preservation tactics reminded me of a similar battle that the owners of Amoeba Records faced when they sold their Hollywood building to developers at a considerable profit in order to remain financially viable. The 18-year-old two-story stucco box had been added with just enough retro neon to make it look like it had been there forever. As soon as they put the building up for sale, they had to crush a spotting effort by various groups, including the hyper-contentious AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), which tried to argue that it should be preserved because it was the only place in the United States where Paul McCartney performed a secret concert that was turned into a live album (I’m not making this up). As Amoeba struggled to find a new space in Hollywood – they wanted to stay close but needed more retail space and more performance space – co-owner Jim Henderson said the scouting effort was hurting to their ability to sign a new lease, threatening the existence of the business it claims to hope to preserve. In public statements, AHF President Michael Weinstein has expressed sentiments extremely similar to those of longtime Taix clients, saying he seeks to preserve a valuable cultural asset for the community, but, in the same sentence, accusing the owners of Amoeba of trying to “Cash in and milk for what it’s worth.” He just doesn’t seem like a fan of music, does he?
Like Taix, Amoeba needed a better building. And successful business owners are able to leverage their own improvements to provide another desperately needed asset in Los Angeles: apartments. Taix’s proposal, for example, will not only keep a beloved restaurant afloat, but will add 170 housing units to the top four floors, 24 of which will be subject to acts of restriction for very low-income residents. The planning department should definitely push for these ratios to be higher city-wide, while offering better protection to tenants – including commercial tenants – in neighborhoods that are of interest to developers. But these numbers are extremely good for what is otherwise a parking lot. No one should struggle to preserve an energy inefficient floral wallpaper background for someone’s Paris cosplay dinner when that outcome is so much better for the many people who could actually live and work there. If we honestly want these ventures to be successful, some of Los Angeles’ low-slung and architecturally insignificant stucco structures will simply have to go. Traditional businesses should not be encouraged to stay in buildings they have passed, however charming they may be.
I recently read a beautifully written requiem for a beloved taqueria adjacent to an East Hollywood subway station which will be demolished this year. But the story did not mention three critical details. One, which it will be replaced by 187 housing units with permanent support services, 100% affordable property – you really can’t beat that. Second, the family that owns the taqueria is Ready to continue, their children eventually reopening another location. And three, housing developers are deliberately reaching out to older businesses in the area, many of which are at risk of being relocated, to fill ground-floor retail spaces and food carts at rents they can afford. It’s rarely such a polished narrative, but it should be the model, and there’s no reason the city can’t push these types of policies to make them work for other developments. I, too, will miss sitting on the slippery Formica stalls of El Gran Burrito while measuring how many deliciously charred carne asada tacos I can devour without missing my train. But I look forward to frequenting the half-dozen restaurants that will eventually be located here, happy to know that instead of investing in endless maintenance just to stay in business, they are passing the profits on to their workers.