No longer will clients of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles have to sit in dark, windowless rooms, squeeze through narrow hallways or speak with lawyers about often-traumatic situations with their children present.
The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles -- one of the region's principal providers of free legal counseling to the poor -- broke ground Tuesday on its new headquarters at 1550 W. 8th St. The construction is projected to cost $17.6 million and will be completed in spring 2017.
The foundation provides legal aid to low-income people in such matters as evictions, receiving government benefits and immigration.
“It’s going to be a great place, not a Taj Mahal, but a place that respects the dignity of its community and its members,” executive director Silvia R. Argueta told donors, staff and others at a special ceremony Tuesday. “It will be a dignified environment for our clients, for our staff and for all of you, our pro bonos, our supporters, to come and enjoy.”
The new building will occupy the same site as the former, two-story headquarters, which had been in use since the 1970s and had fallen into severe disrepair, Argueta said. Among the original building's shortcomings were mold and asbestos, and the lack of an elevator for clients with disabilities.
Dark windowless rooms also made the old building feel "a little bit like a little dungeon,” Argueta said.
The new four-story headquarters will be accessible for people with disabilities and contain a reception area, intake rooms with glass walls to allow parents to speak privately with attorneys while their children remain in view next door. It will also offer a self-help resource center and a community conference room on the top floor.
The foundation has been planning the new building for the last four years and fundraising for the past two, officials said. So far, more than $15 million has been raised and the campaign continues.
The building will be called the Ron Olson Justice Center after Ron Olson, founding partner of the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson, and previous 1984-1985 board president of the foundation.
“What a high, high privilege it is to be associated with this great institution, LAFLA, and its mission,” Olson said, after being greeted by a standing ovation. “This is an institution that adds dignity and fairness to its many clients, and ... adds legitimacy to this nation’s claim of democracy and a rule of law.”
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also spoke at the ceremony, where he congratulated the staff and spoke about his admiration for members of the Olson family, who inspired him to pursue public service.
Garcetti said he has noticed that a “new Los Angeles” is coming about, one in which there is more public concern for social and economic problems.
“I came to L.A. thinking, well, this is not a place that’s known as a civil rights or human rights center, and immediately I found the opposite to be true,” Garcetti said. “LAFLA represents the very best of what the city is about.”