In April, on the occasion of publication of the Los Angeles City Planning Department’s Draft EIR (Environmental Impact Report) for a proposed redevelopment of the Morrison Hotel (Morgan, Walls and Morgan, 1914) and surrounding parcels in Downtown Los Angeles, we submitted critical public comments, which you can read here.
We have serious concerns about the project, which is being spun as “restoration” of the historic hotel with new towers surrounding it. Architecturally, there’s no good reason to let Relevant Group demolish the center bay of the E-shaped building for a courtyard. And morally, we believe that after sitting vacant for almost 20 years as homelessness exploded in the city, the Morrison should be returned to its proper use as affordable housing, and not turned into a boutique hotel and Doors-themed selfie station, as previewed at the January 2020 Day of the Doors event.
There’s also the very real possibility that the troubled Relevant Group is incapable of completing a project of this size, cost and complexity. The company recently lost its local Managing Partner Richard Heyman, is facing a Congressional investigation for alleged EB-5 Chinese investor visa fraud, and had to seek bail out funds from a New York firm specializing in “distressed & opportunistic real estate.” What if they get entitlements, begin demolition of the historic buildings surrounding the Morrison, and then go bust, as happened two blocks away with another Chinese financed mega project, the blighted Oceanwide Plaza?
RELEVANT GROUP REACHES OUT
On April 29, five days after we submitted our critical comments, we got an email from Relevant Group’s development director asking to meet to discuss our concerns. This wasn’t completely out of the blue. We often talk with property owners who hope to restore or remodel historic buildings—not as paid consultants, but as passionate advocates for Los Angeles history who happen to have a large social media following. Smart landlords play nicely and pay attention when we say “Oh man, are you sure you want to do that?”
In 2019, when Relevant Group secured the lease to the Barclay Hotel (Morgan and Walls, 1896) and announced plans to convert the nearly empty SRO into a boutique hotel, we took a group of their employees through the building, sharing its history and pointing out priceless decorative and functional elements that ought to be protected when the city landmark was renovated.
The people walking with us intended the Barclay to be a rowdy party hotel like Dream Hollywood. They weren’t interested in preserving the original sculpted wall coverings, tin ceilings, penciled notes from the bookie working a phone in the basement tunnels or the scraps of brightly colored cigar boxes a bell boy used to decorate his locker. We consider it a small miracle that these relics have survived into the present. That’s why we worked with Craig Sauer to capture them in 3-D, and why we were so relieved when Relevant Group’s project fell through and the Barclay was purchased by nonprofit Healthy Housing Foundation, to be returned to its proper use as affordable housing on the edge of Skid Row.
WAITING FOR THE MAN
But back to the Morrison, and the request for a meeting. Sure. And could we get inside the hotel and see what state it’s in? Most likely. We set a date of May 17. Oddly, we were never told who would be at the meeting. In retrospect, it would have been helpful to know.
When we arrived on the pee-stinking sidewalk on the Hope Street side of the vacant hotel, for a few minutes it was just us and the flies. So many flies. We observed the replica window sign created for the Day of the Doors event, now filthy and boarded up.
Soon preservation architect Robert Chattel arrived with his young associate. Nice to meet you, and do you know, will we going inside the hotel? “If the people with the key bring it.” Next to arrive was Amie Marben, Relevant’s Director of Development who had asked for the meeting, and Michael LoGrande, the project lead. He had the key, and we were going in.
Could we take photos? No. But Michael LoGrande wanted us to see the state of the place, and to hear his contention that the Morrison was not an architecturally significant building and that there was really nothing to save of it.
The ugly black screen door swung open, revealing beautiful tiles in the vestibule, familiar from Henry Diltz’ photographs for the Morrison Hotel album cover. But what we saw beyond the tile was so horrific, it was difficult to process.
We’re the kind of people who take cell phone photos of everything, to help us interpret what we’ve seen afterwards. But these visuals would have to be processed entirely within our heads, which were starting to hurt. Kim gasped, “Who did this?” Michael LoGrande answered they had done it, something about asbestos and remediation.
The lobby was completely gutted, with almost nothing left from the potential National Register landmark that Relevant Group bought in March 2018. The plastered and paneled north wall was stripped to bare brick, with broken bits showing where the hearth had been ripped away. The interior walls were down to the studs and those studs looked suspiciously clean. The only clutter was a pile of burned junk at the bottom of the elevator cage. Nothing to see here, move along. It was a preservationist’s nightmare, but we were awake, trapped in a horrible room with the people responsible.
Why were they showing this to us? Because couldn’t we see that there wasn’t anything worth saving of the Morrison Hotel?
We saw no such thing. The Morrison is still a landmark worthy of recognition and protection, and the interiors can be replicated from the drawings at the Huntington Library and photographs.
So this was weird. It gets weirder. As we stepped out onto the sidewalk, Michael LoGrande asked if we worked for AIDS Healthcare Foundation. No, we told him, we don’t. Robert Chattel kept looking at his iPad. His young associate left. Kim stepped down the sidewalk and took a backward glancing selfie to memorialize this bizarre and disturbing meeting.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
Why had Relevant Group asked us to come and see a gutted building? And asked if we worked for AHF? We found out the following day, when we called Lambert Giessinger, the city’s preservation architect, to inform him that the Morrison had been gutted with no permits, before the project EIR was completed.
Lambert told us that on May 4, Relevant Group’s attorney Lauren K. Chang had requested a copy of the newly submitted Morrison Hotel landmarking nomination. We knew this nomination was in the works, because AHF hired our friend Emma Rault to write it, and we’d provided a few photos to assist her. But how had Chang known to ask for it?
Emma told us she’d emailed Lambert and his Planning Department colleagues on April 26 giving them a heads up that the nomination was coming. Although the general public has no way of knowing that this document exists until it is accepted as complete by the city (which Lambert said might take six months), Relevant Group got a heads up and a copy—but not until May 4, hours after Emma submitted it. On April 29, when they asked to meet us, Relevant might have assumed the nomination was our doing. By May 17, when we met, they knew AHF had commissioned it. And asked us if we worked for them.
READ ALL ABOUT IT
We believe that if lawyers working for people who seek to weaken the historic protections for the Morrison Hotel can have access to Emma’s wonderful work you should, too. So you can find the landmark nomination here.
In the nomination, you’ll read the fascinating history of Belgian immigrant and civic booster Victor Ponet and his Morrison Hotel, master architects Morgan, Walls and Morgan, that famous Doors album cover photo session, and the forgotten neighborhood of car dealers, carnies and characters who called this southern portion of Downtown Los Angeles home. We hope you find it as interesting as we did, and as infuriating that this special place was illegally gutted before it could be granted the full protection it deserves.
We made a public records request of the Air Quality Management Division, which confirmed that they were not notified about any remediation work at 1246 South Hope between 1999 and May 2022. If Relevant Group hired a contractor and had workers remediating lead paint, asbestos or other toxic building materials, it was done in the dark.
As to when the gutting might have happened, two recent occasions when the long shuttered Morrison was opened up help narrow it down. The Day of the Doors event in early January 2020 generated numerous hashtagged Instagram posts, including several in which parts of the intact hotel lobby can be seen behind the replica window sign.
Then in July 2020, architectural photographer Dennis Hill was commissioned by Relevant Group to document the condition of the hotel for HABS, the Historic American Building Survey. Creating a HABS set at owner expense is often a condition of approval for redevelopment or demolition, although the Morrison has no such approvals. Hill found a derelict structure with collapsed ceilings, pigeon droppings and graffiti everywhere, but with great bones and enough evidence of the original decorative scheme that an owner who cared could easily have done a true restoration.
THE JIG IS UP
We wanted to rush home and tell you about what had happened to the Morrison Hotel, but felt frustrated that we didn’t have any photos of the lobby. So Richard taped his cell phone onto a mic stand and we returned to aim it in the clerestory window. The double glazing reflected the street behind him. The image clearly showed a gutted lobby, but it looked like it was under water.
So Richard built a jig out of foam board insulation, with a space in the middle where his cell phone would be isolated from natural light. We returned to the smelly sidewalk filled with flies, so many flies. And this is the photograph he captured. (Yes, vandals really have been inside to tag the brick after the walls were ripped down.)
So when you hear that Relevant Group plans to “renovate and restore… and [reimagine the Morrison Hotel] as a sophisticated playground for today’s artists and innovators; those drawn to the distinctive culture and history of the city” you’ll know the truth is that they have caused harm to a priceless Los Angeles landmark, just because they could.
IS IT A HOUSING CRISIS, OR A HOUSING USE CRISIS?
Then there’s the matter of 111 affordable units, held vacant. Even though it’s been empty for almost twenty years, the city considers the Morrison Hotel to be protected housing stock, and requires an owner seeking a use change to replace it… eventually. Relevant Group has owned the hotel for more than four years, and their plan for replacement is so old that it also references the Barclay, which AHF bought and is converting back to affordable housing.
West of Downtown, in a different council district, is a time capsule called Linwood Avenue. Relevant Group proposes to demolish half a block of naturally occurring affordable multi-family housing to replace the Morrison units. The city is full of vacant lots, but this is what they want to do to one of the prettier streets in Westlake.
RICHARD HEYMAN, MISSING MAN OF MYSTERY
Here’s another thing that’s weird: demolition of the Linwood block was proposed in August 2019, by Relevant Group’s Richard Heyman, and approved by the Planning Commission in February 2020. Demolition and “rushed” new building permits were sought in January-February 2020. But the modular affordable housing project never got permits and never broke ground.
And as mentioned above, the Real Deal got a tip last July that Heyman had quietly left the company he co-founded. When we shared this information with a friend who has spent years in the Hollywood preservation trenches, they expressed shock: there was no Relevant Group without Richard Heyman, as hands-on a Managing Partner as our friend has ever known. It’s uncertain where Heyman is now, and yet some of the projects he developed are still moving forward, while others appear stalled. Like we said, weird.
You know what else is weird? This 2011 article in the Los Angeles Business Journal, which describes Richard Heyman, who our Hollywood preservation pal describes as nice enough, but not the brightest bulb in the box, as having somehow gotten in on the ground floor of a complex international financing scheme relying on EB-5 visas for Chinese real estate investors buying into otherwise failing ground-up projects almost exclusively centered in Mayor Eric Garcetti’s former Hollywood council district and current RICO defendant, then councilmember Jose Huizar’s Downtown.
THE GANG’S ALL HERE
Here’s an extraordinary promotional video starring Garcetti and then councilman Tom LaBonge, promoting Heyman’s citizenship-for-sale scheme in interviews filmed in their taxpayer funded City Hall offices.
It sure looks as if elected and appointed officials cooked up a scheme by which certain favored developers could skate through the Planning Department’s traditional checks and balances and transform Hollywood in a few short years, capitalizing on Eric Garcetti’s and Mitch O’Farrell’s land use policies which had displaced huge swaths of low-income, mostly Latino renters from the surrounding neighborhood.
MICHAEL LOGRANDE HOLDS THE KEY TO EVERYTHING
Tom LaBonge is dead now, Richard Heyman is MIA, and Eric Garcetti can count his remaining days in City Hall on his household’s fingers and toes. But Michael LoGrande has the keys to the Morrison Hotel. He also has a history. If the name rings a discordant bell, you must be an Angeleno with a longstanding interest in city planning, ethics and public corruption.
In 2010, Antonio Villaraigosa named Chief Zoning Administrator Michael LoGrande to the top job in the Los Angeles City Planning Department, an appointment that shocked and troubled architectural critics and colleagues. (If you read no other links in this post, read those two in the previous sentence.)
Upon leaving city employment, LoGrande was almost immediately fined $281,250 by the Ethics Commission for violating the revolving door clause, after a whistleblower busted him for lobbying on behalf of developers.
These clients included Five Chairs, now known as Relevant Group, who he is representing today in the campaign to turn the beautiful and useful Morrison Hotel into a shell of itself. We think it should instead be landmarked, and restored, and be again a home for poor Angelenos who desperately need a safe room in which to live.
LOVING LOS ANGELES IS NOT FOR SISSIES
This has been a hard post to write, and not just because we needed several trips Downtown before we could capture a photograph clear enough to tell the tale. Our meeting in the Morrison Hotel lobby keeps intruding in our thoughts and making us feel sick. It’s one thing to read about public corruption or watch it unfold at structured city hearings, and another thing to be asked to a meeting in an abandoned building by the recipient of the largest revolving door City Hall ethics fine to date.
Again and again, we seem to be two of a handful of people paying attention and documenting blatant corruption and staggering incompetence. The city puts its thumb on the scale to enrich developers who do bad work, destroy good buildings and make Los Angeles worse, while making it almost impossible for ethical, creative people to flourish and for poor people to survive. Councilman Jose Huizar gets arrested for selling votes, but crummy projects he rubber stamped keep moving through the pipeline. Michael LoGrande is fined more money than most Angelenos can save in a lifetime for a few months of crooked work, and he’s still allowed to lobby City Hall. That may be (currently) legal, but it’s not right.
It all hurts, but we love Los Angeles too much to look away. Join us as we fight to see the Morrison Hotel declared a protected city landmark, and for there to be real consequences for the disgusting way the property owners have treated this wonderful building and the 111 protected affordable housing units that sit empty, year after year, as countless Angelenos sleep in the streets.
It’s really something to look at the mess this city is in, and realize that it’s likely the work of a few guys at 200 North Spring Street carving up Los Angeles like a Christmas goose. What dummies: Los Angeles lays golden eggs, if you just treat her nice.
Update June 26, 2022: LADBS has now opened an investigation at the Morrison Hotel property for “construction done without permits or inspections.” You can track the status of the investigation at this link.