An Island of Lights in University Park

by Jim Childs

“Third Time is the Charm.”
“The Right Time and the Right Place.”
“If You Build It They Will Come.”

The clichés swirled around in my head as I dusted off the 20-year-old project again in February. Maybe this would finally be the moment when “ISLAND OF LIGHTS” would finally be green-lighted. A beacon of lights would finally illuminate the gateway to University Park.

And why not? The concept of a public art installation, designed by a famed artist utilizing historic street lights as a centerpiece to the revival of a small pocket park called the Hoover-Union Triangle, is just as valid today as it was in 1993, when the project was first proposed, and again in 2000, when the project was revived –– the first time.

But today the Hoover-Union Triangle is still a vacant, derelict remnant parcel of land. Its patches of brown grass and dirt sends the wrong visual message as a gateway to our University Park community: that we are a neighborhood that’s been overlooked by city officials and citizens alike. This long-neglected site, controlled by the Los Angeles Department of Public Works and the General Services Department, distracts passing visitors away from all the positive growth in our community that has been made possible by the dedication of a resilient group of neighbors working hard for several decades.

It is true that the task of historic preservation coupled with commercial revitalization can

be a lengthy and arduous journey. University Park’s longtime commercial owners and tenants have, over the decades, revitalized the immediate area around the Triangle themselves. The rehabilitation of several of the historic buildings, now known as Victorian Village, was completed due to the commitment of the owner Anne Merelie Murrell. Pete Zinelis redesigned his simple Pete’s Burgers into a family dining experience with a Victorian theme.

The conversion of a sweatshop warehouse into the 24th Street Theater led by Jay McAdams has enabled neighbors and their children to experience live theater first-hand in their own neighborhood. Director Sara Velas and the Velaslavasay Panorama group, through a grant from the Cultural Affairs Department, succeeded in the neon- relighting of their historic Union Theater movie marquee.

Today there is also a new energy around the Triangle. Victorian Village’s successful wine-bar, “Bacaro LA,” founded by the Kronfli brothers, and their spin-off, the “Nature’s Brew” coffee house (which now offers Thursday evening open mic sessions), will soon be joined by a new Japanese restaurant, “Misoya.”

But this new enthusiasm also raises questions. Why is the Hoover-Union Triangle, a gateway to University Park and USC, such an ill-kept, inhospitable, wasted opportunity?

Reenter myself as Chair of A.D.H.O.C., the Adams Dockweiler Heritage Organizing Committee. I serve as one keeper of the neighborhood’s communal memory, with a duty to both move forward and acknowledge the community’s history. The Island of Lights project came into being after a fortuitous 1993 TV broadcast by the late Huell Howser documenting a public art installation called “VERMONICA,” created by the internationally renowned artist Sheila Klein ( This led to a meeting with the community and Klein’s eventual retention as the designer for the Island of Lights project, facilitated in part by a grant from WAHA.

Klein’s installation in Hollywood of some of the City’s extraordinary abundance of historic light-standards on a site devastated by the 1992 L.A. Riots appeared to be a solution to exactly what University Park itself needed: a public use for the public blight that had become the Hoover-Union Triangle; a chance to reclaim the community’s 18 usurped historic “UM-1906” light-standards lost from the junction of Adams and Figueroa; to gain respect, through an artistic voice in a public forum, for the University Park story; to work together in a tribunal collaboration of entities from public agencies, the private sector, and the neighboring community to achieve a positive resolution; and to physically enhance the northern gateway to University Park with a welcoming beacon, an Island of Lights.

In 1990 CALTRANS was in the process of developing a project for the High Occupancy Vehicle (“HOV”) double-decking of a section of the Harbor Freeway with a planned terminus at 23rd Street. Strong community opposition to that proposal resulted in a change that moved the terminus to Adams Boulevard. The project also required the widening of Figueroa Street to facilitate adequate traffic flow during the construction phase. The community, in response to removal of the historic UM-1906 streetlight standards for the widening, sought additional mitigations through the CEQA process. CALTRANS, in issuing a supplementary EIR, agreed with the community and eventually the City was forced to install replacement replica light standards in 1999, but that’s another story for another issue.

However, back in 1991, the community was simply confronted by the continuing bureaucratic abuse. Our historic lighting would be removed and utilized simply as replacement parts for other historic streetlights in downtown. University Park during this period was a CRA/LA Project Area: Adams-Normandie 4321. The local stakeholders who made up the required Project Area Committee were well schooled in administrative process and rallied to resolve the mistreatment. For a minute, we thought we had reached a consensus solution: we would get to keep 18 of those historic streetlights, and they would be incorporated into the Island of Lights public art project. But the 1990s were filled with many bad times for the larger Los Angeles community: the Northridge earthquake, the Rodney King decision and resulting riots, a recession, and the energy crisis, among other pressing challenges. The decision makers had more important issues than ours, and Island of Lights was placed on the back burner.

In 2000, with the conversion of our neighborhood from a Redevelopment Project Area to the University Park Historic Preservation Overlay Zone, and with a then-new City Councilman, Ed Reyes, at the helm, a second attempt for approval was undertaken. The artist Sheila Klein had relocated to Seattle, Washington but, when reached, was still on-board. However, once again events intervened. This time it was 9/11, and then eventually the 2008 recession, the L.A. River project, and Taylor Yards that would command priority from elected officials.

Maybe this third time will be the charm. Sheila Klein has again been found –– this time in Argentina –– and is still a willing performer. The re-surfaced Project has already been embraced by community members, organizations, and again by the University Park HPOZ Board. It will be scheduled for public hearings before NANDC (The North Area Neighborhood Development Council Neighborhood Council) late in February and in early March for additional community comment.