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The Murky Finances of Skid Row’s 'Infamous' Firehouse #23, a Prop. K Project

PROP K - Firehouse #23 is situated on 5th St., in the heart of Downtown’s Skid Row. It has seen better days.

Built in 1910 and part of the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, it is also № 37 on the City of Los Angeles’ Historic Monument Registry and was a set for the 1984 cult classic, Ghostbusters. Firehouse #23 has been City-owned since 1996, when voters approved the Proposition K Ballot Measure, which singled it out for rehabilitation as an “Arts Center to serve youth”. Referendum language reads, “…the City’s youth infrastructure is inadequate or decaying in many places, resulting in serious unmet needs for park, recreation and community facilities…”.

Much has been made of the “assets” LA Council people and a local labor leader spoke of on recently leaked audio tapes. By all accounts, Firehouse #23 is a true community asset — a publicly-owned and historic property nestled in an underserved area that lacks civic and recreational gathering space. 

The New Republic reported:

Members can be heard on the tape jockeying for economic “assets,” which include infrastructure, manufacturing, sports stadiums, and large residential projects…But these assets, Vilchis insisted, “do not change the conditions of the community” or improve the quality of life of those who live there. 

When Prop. K passed, there were still many independent SRO (Single Room Occupancy) hotels near the Firehouse that housed families. NGOs sprung up around that time that specifically served youth — among them, School on Wheels and S.A.Y. Yes! . The only low-income housing that allows families in Skid Row today is in the Union Rescue Mission (transitional). The children staying at the URM continue to be served by School on Wheels (and those with no fixed address) but the S.A.Y Yes! Program shuttered its doors in 2013 and sent out a press release by way of explanation that read, in part:

“As an organization, we have watched the changing environment in Skid Row over the last few years. The redevelopment of the historic core of downtown Los Angeles has seen many welfare hotels turned into upscale, market-rate housing. Other welfare hotels have converted to serve adults only or other special populations, and they no longer accept families…we have seen fewer and fewer children coming into our program.”

This radical demographic shift would appear to make the very idea of a brand new “Youth Arts Center” in Skid Row out of place at this time. It’s also worth noting that less than 10 blocks from the Firehouse, sits the Inner-City Arts Center, which is a thriving “Youth Arts Center” that has served the community and beyond since 1992. In fact, the Inner-City Arts was the recipient of Prop. K funding, along with Artshare LA and the Little Tokyo Service Center– all Downtown.

Like the old saying goes, follow the money…

Although Prop. K was approved by voters in 1996, the City did not actually begin the work of bringing the Firehouse up to code until about a year ago, when the Bureau of Engineering began overseeing “Phase I”, which includes seismic upgrading. The Firehouse had been boarded up since 2009. Pre-2009, a caretaker named Daniel Taylor had been staying inside for about 20 years, at the pleasure of a then Fire Chief named Donald Manning, who later resigned under somewhat murky circumstances. It’s unclear how the caretaker’s stay tied into to Prop. K funding. What was reported at that time by the Downtown News, was that Manning collected over 200K for filming at the Firehouse under a nonprofit he started after Taylor left.

Present Day

Much is still murky and there is no word from the City about when the Firehouse might be open. There is an unknown but critical shortfall to finish the job and still (probably) illegal filming occurring inside, based on new evidence obtained by Attorney Doug Ecks. City officials are also cagey about where the funding has come from so far. The City Attorney’s office steadfastly maintained there was zero non-Prop. K funding allocated to the Firehouse until they were provided with emails from a separate Public Records Request contradicting those numbers, then, suddenly that number was amended.

It’s worth repeating that Prop. K passed almost 30 years ago by voters and is set to “sunset” or end in 2026.

Ghostbusters Quid Pro Quo?

Although Firehouse #23 is not currently up to code, based on a Aug. 11, 2021 video posted on Youtube, this has not stopped the City from allowing filming of a Ghostbusters: Afterlife montage inside.

An email dated Jul 21, 2021, indicates Sony wanted to make a donation to the City to “help” with the Firehouse. While permits are mentioned, it should be noted the Firehouse itself is still under construction. 

From: Blayne Sutton-Wills <[email protected]>

Date: Wed, Jul 21, 2021 at 1:51 PM

Subject: Re: Ghostbusters Donation for Engine Co. 23

To: Bernyce Hollins <[email protected]>

Cc: Justin Lawson <[email protected]> 

Apparently, Sony Pictures Studio is making another Ghostbusters movie and has already booked the Engine Co 23 as a location shoot. They already have the usual permits to film there. They understand the building is under renovation and approached BOE to make a donation to help with the project. Proposed filming will be for a few days around August 16th.

 

Presented with the above email, the City Attorney provided evidence that a donation in the amount of $5,000 did in fact occur. 

Is this quid pro quo? It sure looks like it. Is this illegal? Possibly. Does the surrounding community benefit from this Sony donation? No, and the Advisory Body for this project called the Local Volunteer Oversight Committee (LVNOC) was never informed of it. LVNOCs are specific to Prop. K projects and are appointed by the area Councilperson and the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA), who manage the art programs once established and designed by the LVNOCs. This gets back to concept of the Firehouse as a community asset — asset for whom? Who is benefitting from this donation and the ongoing filming here?

Tangential vs. Substantial

At the last LVNOC meeting in November of 2018, multiple City staff made a point of lecturing area residents and activists that Firehouse #23 was to be converted to an arts center to serve youth exclusively. City Attorney Marcia Gonzales stated at this meeting at the 21:05 mark:

“I can tell you that under that ballot description, it cannot be anything other than a youth center. If there are opportunities for adults to use it, it would have to be tangentialinconsequential…It basically has to be incidental...” [Emphasis Added]

All the LVNOC members, as well as meeting participants agreed that youth arts programming was well and good, but due to the demographics of modern-day Skid Row, adult use was also necessary.

For reasons still unknown, City staff seemed to be then and continue to take the position that adult use is untenable because the Prop. K referendum demands it. But a careful reading of the language proves otherwise (something mentioned at the meeting). 

SECTION 7. Any park or facility acquired, developed, rehabilitated or restored with funds derived under this Ordinance shall be open and accessible to the public without discrimination as to race, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, religious belief, national origin, marital status, physical or medical handicap or medical condition. [Emphasis Added] 

As the LVNOC continued to deliberate that November, what came up was the City’s use of the phrase “tangential”. The LVNOC pushed back on the minimizing of adult use and determined that a sharing of the space was possible, legal and would encompass far more than tangential use, but instead be substantial.

Prop. K Funds vs. Non-Prop. K Funds — Why This Matters

Much like the issue of the original Prop. K language contradicting the City’s initial claim that the Firehouse can only be used to serve youth, so too are the multiple sources of funding indicative of how the project can be accessed and by whom.

The City Attorney had been adamant that no non-Prop. K funding had been used. A Public Records Request reply dated 4/28/2022 came back with the number “0” for “All other funding sources”.

But when pressed, they changed their tune. A revised document from the City now shows something different. 

2020-21             Sites and Facilities $450,000.00

2021-22              Sites and Facilities $116,511.00

Subtotal $566,511.00

2021-22             General Fund $450,000.00

2022-23             General Fund $1,650,000.00

Subtotal $2,100,000.00

[Emphasis Added]

Phases 1,2 and Programming

Phase 1 of the Firehouse project includes seismic strengthening and bringing it up to code (its where things stand now).

Phase 2 is the interior development of the building to satisfy the programming requirements. For this phase, Prop. K requires the City to convene and work with the LVNOC. So, for example — if the community wants a recording studio, this needs to be determined at this next Phase so that the money can be allocated to build one out (and there were several requests for this at past meetings).

The last and final phase will be the programming that the community decides upon. At the second LVNOC meeting on April 11, 2018, Skid Row activist General Jeff (RIP, Oct. 23, 2021) mentioned the following:

“Services for the adult community could be as follows: recording studio, writing class, poetry, art, guitar, music, theater, relief from daily pressure, quiet room, library, art gallery, show work, rehearsal space, performance spaces, adult education classes. Long hours of accessibility.”

The Future

Although emails obtained show inter-department concerns for the continuing avoidance of future LVNOC meetings, when asked, no one at the City wants to provide updates — which the referendum requires. Poking around funded Prop. K projects leads one to the conclusion that this money has seemed more like slush fund for Council people’s pet projects, few having to do with youth arts programming — such as a YCMA gym upgrade and improved bike paths (which serve the greater Public).

With four years left to go and no plan in place for the build-out based on the arts programming the Skid Row community clearly stated it wants and needs (referenced above), no outreach by City staff since 2018 and a massive shortfall projected, it looks like the City is washing its hands of their duty to finish the Firehouse before Prop. K sunsets. Is this legal? Unclear. But many millions of PUBLIC dollars have been allocated to a project that the surrounding community has never benefited from.

For more about Firehouse #23, visit:

The Fight for Community Access to Engine Co. 23 — Skid Row, Downtown Los Angeles (skidrowneighborhoodcouncil.com)

This blog post is dedicated to the memory of my friend and mentor, General Jeff.

 

(Katherine McNenny works in Los Angeles' garment industry as a Patternmaker and lives Downtown. She is co-founder of Industrial District Green, an organization that has planted over 400 trees in the area. Her focus is on issues that affect the Skid Row neighborhood and how to improve City urban forestry policy.)