Newsletter: Essential California: A new face for the La Brea Tar Pits on a changing Wilshire Boulevard

Statues of mammoths at the La Brea Tar Pits in 2017.
(Stuart Palley / For The Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, June 7, and I’m reporting from Los Angeles.

Anyone who says L.A. has no history has never been to the La Brea Tar Pits, where mammal fossils dating back to the last Ice Age have been found in the sticky asphalt. The tar pits and the accompanying George C. Page Museum have become landmarks in their own right, serving as a tourist standby and appearing in countless movies. The park, which borders LACMA, also remains an active site for scientific research, with paleontologists excavating there 361 days a year.

But change may soon be afoot for the 12-acre site.

On Thursday afternoon, officials from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, which manages the site, announced that they would be undertaking a new master plan. Three architectural firms have already been chosen to develop separate proposals for that plan, which will be presented to the public in August.


[Read “The La Brea Tar Pits are getting a makeover. Here’s why” by Carolina Miranda]

Any potential plan will ride an existing wave of change near the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, where a Purple Line subway stop is slated to open in 2023. The Renzo Piano-designed Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is nearing completion, and Peter Zumthor’s LACMA redesign will probably break ground next year. Suffice it to say, the starchitects have landed.

So, what does this all mean for the tar pits and a changing Miracle Mile? I spoke to arts and culture writer Carolina Miranda, who is indisputably the coolest person at the Los Angeles Times, about the tar pits, architectural spectacle and a changing Wilshire.

Is there any other L.A. street with a larger concentration of starchitecture than what will soon exist here?


I think Grand Avenue is probably it. On Grand Avenue, you have the Rafael Moneo Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall, Arata Isozaki’s MOCA and the Diller Scofidio + Renfro Broad museum. That is probably L.A.’s other giant cluster of starchitecture. But this is shaping up to be the second one.

[Check out the Grand Avenue project for more on the street]

What does that kind of starchitecture cluster mean for a person experiencing the city? Do these pieces interact with each other, or is it just a bunch of clashing spectacle?

That really depends on the urban planning that goes along with it. Except for Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall, which is the most externally facing, what you see on Grand Avenue is a lot of more inward-facing buildings. The cathedral has that great plaza, and it faces inward. MOCA has a great place to eat in that courtyard, but you don’t see it until you actually descend the stairs. Those are not buildings that play well with each other.

Everybody’s trying to be an icon. We need more buildings just trying to be a city.

What about Wilshire and Fairfax?

What is going to happen here is unclear. I think it’s a smart thing for the Page Museum to be undertaking the development of a master plan now. This area is set to change extensively if the new LACMA gets built and once the new Metro comes in, in terms of what crowdflow into this space will be like.

The way that the tar pits currently connect to LACMA and ultimately the Academy Museum — it’s like everyone came and plopped down their thing and nobody thought about how one thing would connect to the next. I think this plan is an attempt to think about that, along with the site’s existing infrastructure. The museum was completed in 1977. A lot has been discovered on the site since then. Issues of environmental degradation and climate change are much more important than when the museum first opened.


Are we potentially going to see a new iconic structure here? Or will the building stay the same?

I think that’s still up in the air. That’s part of why they’re looking at architects who’ve done renovations before, and worked on sites where an infrastructure was already there. They might come in and say, “The Page is great, it just needs some updating.” Or they might say, “You know what, the Page isn’t working for your needs and we might need a new building.” That’s part of what this master planning process is supposed to answer.

Does L.A. have a good track record of updating our classic spaces?

Hmm. The example of Parker Center and County General do not offer a hopeful track record, in terms of L.A.’s attention to older landmarks and how we can work with them rather than raze them and start over.

At the same time — and this is something that a lot of modernist preservationists are contending with — the lifespan of a lot of modernist buildings just wasn’t what some Beaux-Arts palace of the late 19th century would be. In many cases, these buildings have shorter lifespans.

And now, and here’s what’s happening across California:


Online degrees made USC the world’s biggest social work school. Then things went terribly wrong. As The Times reported in May, USC’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work is facing a budget crisis so severe that nearly half of the staff may lose their jobs. Here’s how it all happened. Los Angeles Times


More than a dozen members and affiliates of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang were indicted by federal officials in Sacramento. The criminal complaint alleged that top officials within the organization used smuggled phones to order murders and orchestrate a multi-state drug trafficking operation from their cells. Los Angeles Times

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As Hollywood writers battle their agents, finding a judge who doesn’t have personal ties to the entertainment industry becomes a challenge. Los Angeles Times

With nearly 1,500 independent doughnut shops, Los Angeles is “the country’s epicenter of donut culture.” National Geographic

The L.A. Taco team ate tacos with the stars of the Boyle Heights-set Starz show “Vida” and talked about the importance of queer TV. LA Taco

A power outage on Wednesday night at LAX brought hours of chaos, anger and questions. Los Angeles Times

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Mexican authorities have dramatically stepped up law enforcement pressure against Central American migrants in recent days in an effort to stave off a trade war with the United States. Los Angeles Times

Meanwhile, talks between the U.S. and Mexico to avoid tariffs have continued, but no deal has been made yet. Associated Press


Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to spend 22% percent more on his staff than former Gov. Jerry Brown did. Here’s what he’s adding in that office budget boost. Sacramento Bee

The Bakersfield City Council voted to approve adding “In God We Trust” decals to local police vehicles after several hours of debate. Bakersfield Californian


USC may sue actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer J. Mossimo Giannulli, over the couple’s alleged role in the college admissions scandal. Los Angeles Times

An unprecedented $50-million bail was set for the La Luz del Mundo church leader accused of sex abuse. Prosecutors said they feared his followers could raise money to free him from custody and that he would flee the country. Los Angeles Times


A bloom of ladybugs some 80 miles square was picked up on National Weather Service radar Tuesday.
(Jeff Vendsel / Independent Journal)

A high-flying ladybug swarm showed up on the National Weather Service radar in San Diego. Los Angeles Times

An attempt to plug a wasp nest sparked the biggest wildfire in California history. Los Angeles Times


Bakersfield is in the midst of the biggest hotel boom since the Great Recession. Half a dozen hotels are proposed or under construction as developers bet on expectations that the Central Valley city’s economy is on the rise. Bakersfield Californian

In a Central California town reliant on the agricultural economy, housing reserved for migrant farmworkers has sparked tensions amid an already tight housing supply. Wall Street Journal

The Bob Hope house in Palm Springs, long an architectural footnote, now approaches masterpiece status. Los Angeles Times

A Sacramento sportswriter’s fiancee said he could wear a Sacramento Kings jersey to their wedding if he got 10,000 retweets. The internet did not let him down. CBS Sacramento

Veteran radio DJ “Humble Harve,” who murdered his wife, went to prison and then resumed his place behind the microphone for 40-plus more years, has died at 84. Los Angeles Times

At Oakland’s only black-owned sex shop, Nenna Joiner is breaking down barriers, destigmatizing conservations around sex and engaging the community. The Bold Italic


Los Angeles: partly sunny, 73. San Diego: partly sunny, 69. San Francisco: partly sunny, 69. San Jose: windy, 76. Sacramento: partly sunny, 81. More weather is here.


(But where is what I started for so long ago? And why is it yet unfound?)
Walt Whitman, “Facing West from California’s Shores”

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.