Fate of Eastside Murals Still Undecided

By Ileana Najarro, EGP Staff Writer

The unincorporated East Los Angeles-based Save the First Street Store Coalition experienced both a setback and win yesterday at a public hearing of the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission.

The coalition, concerned that construction for a new charter high school on the former site of the First Street Store could result in the destruction of an important and culturally significant 18-panel tiled mural titled the “Story of our Struggle”, sought to block the commission’s approval of the building project.

Related stories: Property and Artists’ Rights at Odds Over East L.A.’s 1st Street Store Murals, Art and Development On Collision Path In East LA

The commission unanimously denied the coalition’s request that a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR) be conducted on the First Street Store site; granting Pacific Charter School Development (PCSD) approval to move forward with a transitional parking project that will demolish a small back portion of the former First Street Store.

The existing parking lot and area to be demolished will serve as a parking zone and drop-off area for the proposed Alliance College-Ready Middle Academy, which will replace the Ranch Market next-door.

PCSD — which is handling the development for Alliance —did however announce that it has amended confusing language in the middle school proposal. Language that Commissioner Esther L. Valadez said could have been interpreted as allowing for demolition of the First Street Store. The revised language now guarantees that the store’s façade, and thus the mural, will be protected during the middle school and parking projects. It does not, however, guarantee the same protection for the new high school building project: those design plans have not yet been submitted to the commission for approval.

“The construction of the middle school is not contingent in any way, shape, or form with the property next-door,” Alex DeGood, an attorney representing PCSD said.

Nonetheless, the hearing did get heated when speakers for the coalition raised their concerns about the high school project proposed on the First Street Store site.

Charter school operator Alliance College-Ready Public Schools owns the property in question. The group’s president and CEO, Judy Burton, told EGP that they have not yet “officially” started planning the high school build project or submitted plans to the commission. But according to public comments made at the meeting, the charter operator has been notifying the community that the high school is coming.

Bringing up a draft blueprint for the project, Commissioner Harold V. Helsley said he suspects the group is taking a “piecemeal” approach to the project—referring to a tactic where a group purposefully separates projects in order to ensure completion of both.

DeGood denied the accusation and said PCSD has no jurisdiction over what Alliance does with its own property.

Burton told EGP that Alliance never had any intention of demolishing the mural and that re-using the First Street Store for a high school would be “an opportunity to revitalize the murals.” An online rendering of the proposed high school shows the mural panels redistributed throughout the school’s exterior.

Boyle Heights native and Alliance parent Isela Zamora admires the coalition’s efforts, but argues that they’re over-complicating the issue.

“I like what they’re doing with preserving it, but [Alliance] isn’t throwing it away, they’re keeping it,” Zamora said.

Susan Brandt-Hawley, an attorney representing the coalition at the hearing, however, says the 18-panel mural designed by artist Johnny Gonzalez, and the Spanish mission architecture of the front façade, are “one whole masterpiece.”

“The murals are integrated with the architecture and cannot be removed without harming the artistic integrity,” Brant-Hawley said.

Isabella Rojas-Williams, executive director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, added that relocating sections of the mural around the proposed high school would ruin the message, since the pieces are connected in a chronological order, narrating the Mexican-American history in the community.

While the coalition is concerned over preserving a major landmark of the community’s culture, Alliance parent Maria Avilas said that a school for the community’s youth should take precedent.

“We have to support our children, and our culture, we keep in our hearts,” Avilas said.

Brandt-Hawley said PCSD’s wording change in the middle school proposal is “a step forward,” but added that the coalition is now looking into appealing to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. The coalition also succeeded in bringing the mural’s future to county officials’ attention.

“Because of the efforts today we took notice of a historic monument,” said Commissioner Valadez.

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August 30, 2012  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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