In An Effort To Guide Changes To Their Neighborhood, HiFi Community Organizations Take The Initiative
When after more than two decades of operating, the independent music venue The Bootleg announced it was closing, many breathed a sigh of relief upon learning it would continue as a space for live performances.
The couple that co-owned the Bootleg and confirmed its closure “mentioned that the buyer came in last minute to save the nearly 100-year-old theater from demolition,” according to the publication LA Taco, which first reported the news.
Though the property was advertised as a venue, not a development opportunity, “we had all types of buyers kicking the tires, including developers,” said Lee & Associates West LA principal Paul Brehme, who, along with JLL senior associate Caitlyn Ross, had the listing and was marketing the property.
Most of the interest came from would-be owner-users, especially entertainment-related companies, Brehme said. The building’s high ceilings and brick walls would have lent themselves well to creative office or showroom uses.
Search to Involve Pilipino Americans, or SIPA, was considering buying the venue, which is not only a local fixture but has also showcased art from Asian American, Filipino American and local Historic Filipinotown, or HiFi, artists over the years. Ultimately, the organization didn't move to purchase the space, but it has been eager to connect with the new owners.
Historic Filipinotown is just south of Silver Lake and Echo Park, two neighborhoods that are often held up as prime examples of a working-class neighborhood-turned-hub of high rents, fancy bars and displacement. As new projects small and large continue to spring up throughout the neighborhood, some of Historic Filipinotown’s established community organizations have taken a proactive stance, reaching out to developers and working to build the kinds of projects they know the neighborhood needs.
The area of northern Westlake was officially designated Historic Filipinotown in 2002, and at that time, its real estate was not a hot commodity.
“No one wanted to move into the neighborhood back then,” Michelle Magalong, executive director of the advocacy group Asian & Pacific Islander Americans in Historic Preservation, told Curbed LA in 2018. “There wasn’t a threat of displacement whatsoever. Gentrification was not even a term on anyone’s mind.”
That's largely not the case anymore.
The neighborhood has attracted new restaurants and bars and a handful of small entertainment studio offices attached to big names. For years, many in Historic Filipinotown have been aware of rising rents and new, high-end construction. The average rent citywide is $2,376, according to Rentcafé. Westlake, the northern part of which is where Historic Filipinotown is located, has an average rent of $2,052. Though the rents are below the citywide average, Westlake also traditionally has a low average median income both by county and city standards.
City efforts in 2018 to adopt a design district in the neighborhood — an overlay for the area that was meant to encourage walking and transit use through rules for new construction — were aimed at addressing fears that the neighborhood's changes would negatively affect existing residents, but in some cases only served to further worry them.
Since then, some long-standing organizations have taken a more proactive approach to new development in the neighborhood.
For about the past three years, SIPA has been putting a lot of effort into proactively reaching out to developers with new projects in the neighborhood.
It isn't feasible for local groups to snap up every property in the neighborhood, but by reaching out to the companies that are building within HiFi, organizations like hers can at least be involved, SIPA Executive Director Kimmy Maniquis said.
SIPA has partnered on a project now underway with affordable housing developer Linc Housing. The development, called HiFi Collective, will replace SIPA’s offices with new office space for the organization, plus programming space and a community center on the ground floor. Upper levels will hold 63 supportive housing units.
Maniquis said she sees this project as another step toward preserving the neighborhood’s history as a welcoming place and as a place for “people who are looking to find the last affordable place to live within the bounds of LA.” Though the population isn't predominantly Filipino — with Latinx residents making up the majority — the neighborhood remains a place for people of color, for immigrants and for the working class. It will take work to keep it that way, Maniquis said.
Many factors converged to help make the HiFi Collective project possible, Maniquis said, but she acknowledged that while it will be impactful and an asset to the community, it is just one building.
Ambiculture Advisors Managing Principal Jennifer Taylor serves as vice president on the board for SIPA and advises it on real estate matters, including the HiFi Collective project. Taylor also tracks real estate developments for a newer group called the HiFi Coalition, a group founded in 2019 that is made up of established nonprofits in Historic Filipinotown — Pilipino Workers Center and Filipino American Service Group Inc. — as well as other stakeholders, including Filipinos in Institutional Real Estate, FilAm Arts and individuals from the neighborhood. The idea is that by keeping tabs on what is going up in the neighborhood, developers can connect with community organizations that are established there, hopefully for the benefit of the community, business owners and stakeholders.
Too often, Taylor said, she has seen instances of residents and community members not finding out about a project or city plan that affects them until it is already well along in the approval process and there is little left to discuss.
In the instance of the design district that would have affected the neighborhood's future developments, a number of residents and activists said in 2018 they were unaware of the plan, although it had been in the works for years.
“Staying in front of these developers has been very helpful,” Taylor said, though she notes that at best, the results of these conversations are a compromise.
“Everybody should know going into these discussions that we are all going to be equally unhappy. Nobody is going to get everything they want.”
One instance of a project where developers and a community organization have connected is Cityview’s 1800 Beverly project. The 243-unit residential development is expected to break ground this month. The project is largely market-rate, with 21 units that will be available for very-low-income households. In Los Angeles County, a two-person household making $47,300 or less would qualify as very-low-income.
Cityview Vice President of Asset Management Melissa Delgado said that the neighborhood’s central location and proximity to transit were factors in the site’s attractiveness, but so was the “authentic feel of the neighborhood,” with its unique designation and active community organizations.
Delgado said Cityview’s development team has been “highly engaged” with SIPA on the 1800 Beverly project, especially about its 3.5K SF ground-floor retail space. Once the project opens, Cityview will be talking to SIPA for ideas on possible tenants.
Delgado said it is typical for Cityview to reach out to neighbors or local businesses when they are developing a project, but because there are so many very active local groups here, they ended up connecting with them, and specifically SIPA, very early on.
That seems to be exactly what SIPA and Maniquis have hoped would happen as they work to find and reach out to newcomers.
“If it’s not ownership of a property, it’s at least getting in front of them so they know that community organizations and community groups are present and invested in making sure that whatever and whoever moves in is benefiting the community,” Maniquis said.