The Slow Burn of Gentrification in Fairfax


When the venerable Pan Pacific Auditorium in the Fairfax neighborhood went up in flames, it took nearly six decades of Los Angeles history with it. Yet the loss of this landmark could pale by comparison to an even more devastating tragedy looming less conspicuously: the gradual sacrifice of the vibrant Fairfax neighborhood to gentrification precipitated by large-scale commercial development.

Los Angeles needs to treat exceptional, increasingly fragile communities like the Fairfax district that housed the Pan Pacific with special care because we have precious few of them. For nearly 60 years, the Fairfax neighborhood has attracted a population of largely elderly people of modest means, most of whom are Jewish and many of whom are immigrants. Over the years they have been joined by young families eager to share a way of life exemplified by the tiny mom-and-pop stores, small houses of worship, bakeries and delicatessens that line Fairfax and nearby streets, all built on a scale that welcomes pedestrians.

This vision of Fairfax, however, is becoming anachronistic and could become downright obsolete unless creative action is taken soon. Farmers Market, in the center of the neighborhood, is the proposed site of a 2-million-square-foot upscale development, including a hotel, theaters and boutiques. If this collection of enterprises seems incongruous with the description we have just painted of the neighborhood, it is because the developers fully expect the neighborhood to change when the project is completed. Commercial developments of similar scale are contemplated for other neighborhood sites, including the Park La Brea apartment complex. Indeed, until the fire, the Pan Pacific was to have been developed into a commercial complex.


The consequences of this dramatic infusion of nouveau commerce into the neighborhood could be disastrous. Even with the passage of Proposition U and efforts by City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky and others to “downzone” certain blocks, recently one city planner noted that the displacement of low-income seniors in the Fairfax area continues. Small, multiple-unit apartments are being gutted and upgraded, and younger, more affluent tenants are replacing the traditional residents.

This trend is certain to accelerate once developments like the one proposed for Farmers Market take root. And the dilemma is exacerbated by the existence of a provision of the Los Angeles rent-control ordinance, under which an apartment usually may be rented at whatever rate a landlord chooses when it becomes vacant. Of course, new developments are exempt from rent control altogether. Senior citizens on fixed incomes and young working-class families will soon no longer be able to rent apartments that an earlier generation found affordable.

This change in demography also portends another casualty: Without its traditional patrons, the long-extant ethnic commerce of the neighborhood could not be sustained. If this vision were to become reality, an irreplaceable part of our culture and traditions--not that of the Jewish community alone, but in an important way, of all of us--would be lost forever.

They say you can’t stop “progress,” but we can do a much better job of defining our terms. First, the City Council should pass an ordinance that requires city planners to analyze the cultural, social and historical implications of proposed developments before they are approved. And developers should be required to take these implications into account in designing their projects. Municipal planning should be undertaken in a more comprehensive fashion, rather than the all-too-frequent piecemeal basis that has characterized the evaluation of proposed developments. Historic preservation laws should be strengthened to more permanently protect designated monuments and neighborhoods. Those who own property should be permitted to develop it, but not without, for example, creating affordable housing where the development is likely to diminish it. In all, city government must assume leadership in helping developer and homeowner, apartment dweller and landlord to transcend divisive bickering and achieve a result that benefits the community.

If a consequence of the Pan Pacific fire is the awakening of a neighborhood to the necessity of creative action to preserve its existence, then perhaps the destruction of a landmark might lead to the affirmation of a community.