The Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission voted Wednesday to grant historic status to an abandoned Pacific Electric subway tunnel and substation building near downtown.
The decision is likely to allow a developer to break ground for a 276-unit apartment complex around the structures before the end of the year, while it thwarted a community group’s alternative proposal for a public “graffiti art park” on the gritty Belmont Tunnel site.
“We’re going to take that area, make it nice, and the legal status [of the area] will be private open space,” said John Huskey, president of Meta Housing, which plans to reserve 57 of the apartment units for affordable housing. “We’re part of the community now.”
A group called Belmont Art Park United had hoped the commission would protect the entire 2.45-acre Toluca Yard property at 2nd Street and Glendale Boulevard, based on the fact that for two decades the yard’s walls have served as an unsanctioned gallery of West Coast graffiti art.
The elaborate murals, while written off as urban blight by some, have drawn fans and art enthusiasts from around the world and have been documented in books and films.
But commission President Mary Klaus-Martin said that although graffiti was a recognized art form, the murals around the tunnel were neither old nor unique enough to justify a historic designation on their own.
Klaus-Martin, who in the meeting displayed her personal copy of a graffiti art book featuring Toluca Yard murals, said an art park would not serve the true interests of those who frequent the site.
“They like it to be dangerous,” she said in an interview. “So if you designate it an art park and made it legal and validate it, would it become important to them? I don’t know. It takes off the edge.”
The commission’s vote will be forwarded to the City Council for final approval. Councilman Ed Reyes of the 1st District, which includes the Belmont Tunnel site, said affordable housing was sorely needed in the densely populated neighborhood.
“It’s a plus for people who are trying to find a way to put a roof over their head,” Reyes said. “We are now in a position to preserve a very historic place.”
Until it was shut down in 1955, the tunnel was the portal for Red Car trolleys traveling between downtown and Hollywood. Over the years, it had become a magnet for gang activity, taggers, and also a group of immigrant workers who on weekends play an ancient Mexican ballgame in the dirt-covered yard.
Huskey said Meta’s development plans would be revised to include restoring the tunnel and substation. Tours of the site will be offered to the public, he said.