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Entertainment & Arts

LACMA clears key hurdle, but rising costs force new museum to shrink in size

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Aerial view of the building footprint to LACMA’s Peter Zumthor plan, which still spans Wilshire Boulevard.
(Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner / LACMA)

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s $650-million building project has cleared a major hurdle with the release of the county’s environmental impact report, paving the way for LACMA to receive crucial funding, acquire building permits and begin construction on the Peter Zumthor-designed building spanning Wilshire Boulevard.

Whether the latest changes to the Zumthor design trigger excitement or criticism, the release of the EIR will refocus attention to key questions, including to what extent rising construction costs prompted a 10% reduction in the building’s size, how feasible a new opening target of early 2024 may be, and what next steps must be taken to carry the project forward.

The 575-page EIR, which was executed by the consultancy firm Eyestone Environmental, documents how the Zumthor building will temporarily and permanently affect the community and its environment. The report found no permanent environmental impacts created by the proposed building. The museum said it will institute a mitigation plan to address temporary impacts, such as emissions and noise from construction vehicles, and parking and traffic congestion.

LACMA released a statement to The Times that said it’s “thrilled to have reached a major milestone in our new building for the permanent collection project and our goal to create a world-class center for arts and culture in Los Angeles.”

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The EIR will go to the county Board of Supervisors for certification as early as April, at which point the board is expected to vote to release more funds. In 2015 the county dispersed $7.5 million to LACMA for pre-construction costs. The April vote will allow the county, which will own the new building, to disperse the remaining $117.5 million earmarked for the museum, likely by June 30, the county said.

After the county grants final approval, the city of Los Angeles, which owns the airspace over Wilshire Boulevard where the building will span, will begin its approval process.

“The environmental document is a huge milestone. It’s a huge deal for the constituents of L.A. County,” said Brad Bolger, senior manager in the office of county Chief Executive Sachi A. Hamai. “It means we can move to completion of design and start of construction.”

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Rendering of Peter Zumthor’s revised design for LACMA looking north, with the existing BCAM building and “Urban Light” sculpture on the left.
(Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner)

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Bolger implied that a reduction in size of the Zumthor building reflects an attempt to contain costs and not raise the budget from $650 million. The EIR outlines design tweaks that make the building about 10% smaller than the design announced in October 2017. The building has been reduced to 347,000 square feet; the combined square footage of the current LACMA buildings is 392,871 square feet.

“Construction costs have escalated dramatically, and LACMA and the county are very, very serious about staying within their means, financially,” Bolger said. “There’s so much construction going on in L.A. that builders have their choice of what they want to work on and their costs are at a premium — and LACMA wanted to make sure they stayed within the budget.”

LACMA said museum Director Michael Govan was unavailable to comment. A LACMA spokeswoman said that the design changes were made “to improve the design while staying within budget.”

In December, Govan had said construction costs were not rising fast enough to be a major concern. “We’re not worried,” he said.

This week a museum representative would only echo his earlier comments: “We’re on track to stay on budget. The construction budget includes an escalation allowance to cover any rising costs in construction.”

The building’s reduced size did concern some skeptics.

“They’re shrinking — what LACMA sold to us, and told us for years was an expansion, is an abridgment,” art critic Tyler Green said. “I can’t recall an American art museum — certainly not one of LACMA’s stature — tearing down a building and replacing it with less gallery space. That’s unusual to the point of unique.”

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Art writer and author William Poundstone said the reduced size was disappointing.

“I’m not as greatly concerned as some people are. It’s going to be a major improvement on, frankly, these terrible buildings they have there now,” Poundstone said. “But this fundraising has been going on for some time, and a lot of other museums are fundraising at the same time, and I think they’ve just hit a wall. They had to make some decisions. In this case, that it had to be a little smaller.”

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The view of Peter Zumthor’s LACMA design, looking northwest across Wilshire Boulevard.
(Atelier Peter Zumthor & Partner)

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Last July fundraising stood at $550 million, and by year’s end the total had risen to only $560 million, all against a backdrop of major fundraising campaigns at the adjacent Academy Museum of Motion Pictures as well as the Hammer Museum across town in Westwood, not to mention projects such as Frank Gehry-designed concert halls for the Colburn School and the YOLA youth orchestra. LACMA said it will soon kick off a public fundraising campaign, reaching out to community members through mailings, phone calls and events.

LACMA is planning satellite locations to display its collection. It has announced plans for two exhibition spaces in South L.A., one on an 80,000-square-foot, city-owned space in the South Los Angeles Wetlands Park area and the other at the Earvin “Magic” Johnson Park, close to Watts Towers. The latter has been put on hold because of expensive environmental cleanup needed on the site.

LACMA also has a partnership with the Autry Museum of the American West in Griffith Park, raising the intriguing question of whether LACMA could play a role in the future of the Autry-owned Southwest Museum, although that Mount Washington site would need repairs running into the tens of million of dollars.

LACMA would only say it has not entered discussions to occupy the Southwest space.

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“Michael Govan has always wanted to decentralize the museum,” Architecture + Design Museum Director Anthony Morey said. “So the desire to scale back [the Zumthor building] is maybe to be able to scale forward and expand into the city, later on. Which is kind of ambitious.”

Morey praised the fact that recent design tweaks appeared to be responses to feedback from community members concerned about some of the early details of the plan, including an inky black exterior that has since been gradually lightened to a sand color, similar to the museum’s current BCAM and Resnick Pavilion buildings.

LACMA’s EIR has been more than 2½ years in the making — a process that started in August 2016. The EIR process for the Academy Museum took two years.

“If you were to look at projects of this magnitude and measure it against other $650 million programs, I think they actually created this EIR pretty expeditiously,” Bolger said. “They had a lot of public meetings to make sure the community was on board.”

In mid-April LACMA will open an exhibition on the ground floor of its Ahmanson building showcasing the latest Zumthor designs, with a model, renderings and timelines.

Groundbreaking on the building is planned for early 2020, with building completion targeted for the end of 2023. LACMA pushed the public opening of the new building from late 2023 to early 2024.

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