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LA's graffiti towers weren't a flash in the pan. They spotlighted a national problem

Floor upon floor of graffiti tags made two in-the-works high-rise buildings a linchpin of public debate over housing and development.
Los Angeles graffiti
Posted at 6:57 PM, May 10, 2024

As the 66th annual Grammy awards opened in February, millions of viewers were greeted with a striking sign of an expensive problem challenging cities coast to coast: two in-the-works high rises turned mega-canvas, towering over downtown Los Angeles; each tower covered in floor upon floor of graffiti.

"It was something like in the two or three days before the Grammys in which the graffiti just on the buildings just exploded," Carolina Miranda, design columnist for the Los Angeles Times, said. She'd been keeping her eye on the Oceanwide Plaza development ever since construction stalled in 2019.

The development promised a 184-room Hyatt Hotel, a massive open-air galleria for shops and restaurants and more than 500 luxury condos. It broke ground in 2015 but building halted four years later when funds apparently dried up. Then, the buildings sat empty for years with little attention paid.

That is, until graffiti artists broke in.

"What I always check is, are there any affordable units in the mix? In this case there were not," Miranda said. "What's concerning about that is housing for normal people not being a priority to the members of government who approve these sorts of projects."

The tagging, some of it swallowing several stories of floor-to-ceiling windows, made the development a linchpin of public debate.

"I think it makes a real statement about a lot of graffiti artists who don't have much except their spray cans and the types of apartments that the, you know, the type of audience that these apartments were geared for, which are two completely different universes," Miranda observed.

Access to the towers has since been scuttled, and city leaders approved millions of dollars to remove the graffiti and secure the towers.

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While Oceanwide Plaza is unique in the spectacular manner in which it failed, it has plenty of company in other developments that have gone belly-up; and when construction projects stall or buildings otherwise wind up abandoned, governments often have a hard time putting them to good use.

In New York City, a would-be upscale apartment complex is now a homeless shelter after the developer reportedly hit money problems and left the nearly-finished building vacant. But it took more than a decade for the space to see that conversion.

Even the U.S. government struggles to convert its own abandoned buildings to shelters. The Guardian reported last year that of the more than 200 buildings made available to homeless shelter providers since 2016, just 11 properties were transferred to nonprofits.

In Los Angeles, it's the local government that seemed to have trouble getting the resources together to take control of Oceanwide Plaza.

"The problem does seem to exist in that there are too many hurdles for the local government to come in, acquire this project — not leave it empty, stalled for five years — and build something more socially beneficial out of it," said Vinit Mukhija, an urban planning professor at UCLA. "There has to be a way in which the city — probably with support of state money, maybe even federal money — comes in and takes over the project without any obligation to past debts."

LA City Councilmember Kevin de Leon, who represents downtown LA, told a neighborhood group the city didn't have the money to take over the project, leaving their options limited. This week, Colliers, an investment management company, announced it would work with Hilco Real Estate to finally sell the unfinished project.

So, how did LA find itself in this situation to begin with?

The development was approved when former Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar was in charge of new development approvals in Downtown LA.

He was sentenced earlier this year to 13 years in prison for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes related to those approvals. Oceanwide Plaza wasn't mentioned in the indictment, and prosecutors say the development didn't come up in related criminal cases, but Huizar pleaded guilty to taking bribes from several developers, including some based in China.

It's not clear how the criminal conduct in city council at the time could have influenced the approval for a billion-dollar development that ultimately went belly up, but one thing is for certain:

"If the graffiti artists have done anything for us, it's like really, really just draw attention not just to the fact that the building is abandoned, but everything in the system that led it to be abandoned," Miranda said.

"This should be an opportunity to make it into the kind of housing we want more than luxury housing," Mukhija added. "If there's any housing we want more than luxury housing, it is affordable, non-market-rate housing."

If the announcement from Colliers is any indication, the building's sale won't shift the ultimate purpose of the space: The company is still marketing it as a mixed-use development for the Hyatt hotel, retail and luxury condominiums.