Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Panel Upholds Plan for Remodel of Autry Museum
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The City of Los Angeles did not abuse its discretion when it approved the remodeling of the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Griffith Park and found the project exempt from environmental review, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
Div. Two affirmed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Chalfant’s denial of a petition for writ of mandate and complaint for injunctive relief brought by the Highland Park Heritage Trust and Mount Washington Homeowners Alliance. The plaintiffs have been at odds with the Autry over what the plaintiffs have claimed is an effort to permanently shut the Southwest Museum in Mt. Washington.
Financially troubled, and with its 90-year-old building in serious disrepair since the Northridge earthquake of 1994, the Southwest Museum merged with The Autry Western Heritage Museum in 2003 to become the Autry National Center of the American West. The Southwest Museum has been mostly shuttered during that time, with the vast majority of its famed collection of Native American artifacts, about 250,000 in all, in storage.
Autry officials say they want to retain the Southwest Museum in some form, but that it is not feasible to operate it strictly as a museum. They reported spending some $7 million to repair the building and store the collection at an off-site facility.
A few years after the merger, the Autry proposed a 129,000-foot expansion of its Griffith Park campus. The plan was controversial and was abandoned after the final environmental impact report was prepared.
The report considered, and rejected, the possibility of expanding the Southwest Museum site. The city said the site had such little usable exhibit space that only two percent of the collection could be exhibited there at a time, and that significant expansion would negatively impact the surrounding community, in part because of construction noise.
The expansive proposal was abandoned in 2009. In spring of 2010, the Autry offered the smaller proposal that became the subject of litigation, a plan to redesign 18,000 square feet of the first floor. The plan was designated “Facility Remodeling of Exhibit Space for Interpreting Native American Environmental Stewardship.”
A $6.6 million grant for the redesign was obtained from the state under Proposition 84.
In June 2011, the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation—which has land-use jurisdiction over the Griffith Park campus because it is on land leased from the city— concluded that the plan was categorically exempt from review under the California Environmental Quality Act because it involved a “rearrangement” of existing space and would not increase the size, or expand the use, of the facility.
At a hearing before a city council committee, members of the public contended that the plan violated a commitment that the Autry made as part of the merger—to restore the Southwest Museum to full operational status. The committee approved the plan over the dissent of then-Councilman Ed Reyes, whose district included the Southwest Museum vicinity, and the full council voted 10-3 for approval.
Chalfant, in upholding the council’s decision, said the categorical exemption applied; and that CEQA does not apply to “social impacts” of land-use decisions, such as the movement of the Southwest Museum collection as a result of remodeling of the Autry, and the resulting effect on the potential for reviving the Southwest as an operational museum.
Any environmental impact, Chalfant added, would be insignificant, because only about 2,500 items from the Southwest collection would be displayed in the remodeled space.
Presiding Justice Roger Boren, in an unpublished opinion for the Court of Appeal, agreed with the trial judge on all issues, rejecting the plaintiffs’ argument that the Autry was trying to obtain “piecemeal” approval of multiple components of a single project.
The record, Boren said, shows that the Autry abandoned the larger project before it initiated the present one, and that there is no evidence it intends to revive it.
The presiding justice also rejected the contention that the expansion would violate the Northeast Los Angeles Community Plan, which states a public policy of preserving and enhancing the Southwest Museum.
A reading of the policy, Boren said, makes clear it applies to the building, not the museum’s contents.
Attorneys on appeal were Victor J. Otten and Brigid Joyce of Otten & Joyce for the plaintiffs, Timothy McWilliams of the City Attorney’s Office for Los Angeles, and Edward J. Casey and Neal P. Maguire of Alston & Bird for the Autry.
The case is Highland Park Heritage Trust v. City of Los Angeles (Autry National Center of the American West), B242930.
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