Ghostbusters Quid Pro Quo? Updated Tales About Skid Row’s Infamous Firehouse #23
(Just In Time for Halloween)
Firehouse #23, or as the City of Los Angeles has taken to calling it, Engine Co. 23, is situated on 5th St. (the Nickel) 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 reference in leaked audio tapes published in early October by Knock LA and the LA Times. 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. Assets drive campaign contributions from investors, serve as bargaining chips for members to negotiate “benefit agreements” with nonprofit and labor groups, and pad their reputations…But these assets, Vilchis insisted, “do not change the conditions of the community” or improve the quality of life of those who live there. The trio’s stalwart support of the Olympics — Herrera sat on the organizing committee — makes this contradiction clear: The games benefit investors and tourists, while locals get displaced and policed.
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 the Union Rescue Mission (which is transitional in nature). The children staying at the URM continue to be served by the tutoring offered 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. As a natural consequence of this demographic change, 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 moment in time. It’s also worth noting that less than 10 blocks from the Firehouse on Kohler and 7th, 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. Firehouse #23 is still in a state of disrepair and decay and has not ever served the community in the way that that it was supposed to do per the referendum.
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 building up to code until about a year ago, when the Bureau of Engineering began overseeing “Phase I”, which includes seismic upgrades. Before its current rehabbing, Firehouse #23 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.
Coming back to the present day, it appears much is still murky and there is no word from the City about when the Firehouse might be open to the Public. There is an unknown but critical shortfall that exits 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.
(SECTION 11. The Assessment is hereby levied for a period of 30 years at the rate set forth in the City Engineer’s Report to fund the acquisitions, capital improvements, and maintenance and servicing of those improvements as set forth in Section 5.)
Ghostbusters Quid Pro Quo?
Although Firehouse #23 is not currently up to code, based on the below Aug. 11, 2021, video, this has not stopped some within the City from allowing filming of a Ghostbusters: Afterlife montage inside.
Below is an email dated Jul 21, 2021, which indicates Sony wanted to make a donation to the City to “help” with the Firehouse. While permits are mentioned, it would stand to reason that they were issued only for the outside of the building as the Firehouse itself is under construction and unsafe for the Public.
Below is evidence that that donation occurred.
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 either. 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? Why does the Firehouse seem to stay putting money in people’s pockets, yet fail to have its doors open to the people of the neighborhood?
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, although some muti-generational art programming would be allowed. 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 tangential, inconsequential…It basically has to be incidental…The very, very tricky part would be if this facility starts actually offering programs that are for adults. That’s where, legally, it is very much at risk.” [Emphasis Added]
An email obtained reveals that City staff organized talking points before this meeting and anticipated community members requesting adult use for the Firehouse.
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.
This is something that LVNOC Board Member Carol Goldstein mentioned at this meeting at the 41:20 mark:
As the LVNOC continued to deliberate that November, what came up was the City’s use of the phrase “tangential” and how they saw adults being able to access the Firehouse. The LVNOC pushed back on this 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.
This is something that LVNOC Board Member John Malpede mentioned at this meeting at the 49:50 mark:
“Yeah, I think … I’ll just say three words … I think clearly then it could be substantial and not interfere. And I think that’s the way people were imagining it. As Carol said, pretty much everybody at the last meeting, whether they be from Cultural Affairs, or the public, or this group or anybody. Everybody seemed to be imagining … We spent about 20 minutes imagining stuff that would 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 with only tangential or inconsequential adult use, so too are the multiple sources of funding indicative of how the project can be accessed and by whom.
Up until Attorney Ecks pressed, the City Attorney had been adamant that no non-Prop. K funding had been used for the project thus far. A Public Records Request reply dated 4/28/2022 came back with the number “0” for “All other funding sources”.
A revised document from the City now shows something different. This new document shows alternative sources of funding used for Phase 1 of the structural upgrading — and this does not even include the money that is still needed to build out the interior (Phase 2) or run the programming.
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 in order to build one out (and there were several requests for this at past meetings). All work is to be done meeting the requirements of a historic building.
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.”
After such a prolonged period since the last LVNOC meeting, Leslie Thomas from the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) finally concluded that the original plan for Firehouse #23 was no longer relevant and urged his colleagues to re-think things.
Reversing course somewhat, a new list of “Possible Partners in Our Programming” was emailed inside DCA but it is unclear what happened to these suggestions.
Although emails obtained show inter-department concerns for the continuing avoidance of future LVNOC meetings to determine next steps for Firehouse #23 (Phase 2 and Programming), when asked, no one at the City wants to provide updates — which the referendum requires. Poking around Prop. K projects that have received funding 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. A valuable asset indeed, but one that needs to be taken hold of and fought for. Is anyone in the City fighting for the community? Hello?
For those interesting in asking questions, the new Prop. K Lead at the City Administrative Officer’s Office is named Melinda Gejer. Her email is: email@example.com.
An email letter addressed to Senior Planner Emma Howard in Kevin de León’s Council District 14 office can be read here, there was never a formal response to it.
For more about Firehouse #23, links to past articles, meeting notes, videos and documents 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.