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Debate over Fate of 5th Street's Old Station 23

By Eric Richardson
Published: Tuesday, September 01, 2009, at 05:13PM
Fire Station 23 (1967) Los Angeles Times / UCLA Library

A 1967 photo shows the decommissioned Firehouse 23, one year after the Fire Department ceased to use the structure.

Historic Fire Station 23 was decommissioned in 1960, but nearly 50 years later the building's future is still a topic of debate at City Hall.

Prompted by a developer's wish to purchase the building and renovate it, a city council committee today instructed the General Services Department to get an appraisal for the structure and to explore what it would take to sell the nearly century-old fire house.

Before it did so, though, it heard three different visions of what the building should be.

Los Angeles Fire Station 23 opened at 225 E. 5th Street in October of 1910, built at a cost of $53,000. The structure served as the headquarters for the Los Angeles Fire Department between 1910 and 1920.

The third floor of the building even served as a home for Chief Engineer Ralph J. Scott and his wife Addie from 1920 to 1927.

Miles Cotton, a real estate broker who set things in motion by contacting Councilwoman Jan Perry's office, first became interested in the old firehouse eight years ago, and has been making inquiries ever since. He sees a restored structure holding a restaurant on the first two floors of the building, with perhaps a single large residential unit upstairs.

A major restaurant in the middle of Skid Row? "We hope that our project would be a catalyst for activity, for positive change and for making that area more walkable and desirable to be at."

He compares the 5th street site to the corner of 4th and Main a decade ago. "It was one of the worst corners in the world. Things do change," said Cotton. "Had people not developed and installed businesses in that place it would still be exactly the same."

A sale would likely spell an end for Daniel Taylor's plans to see the station turned into a cultural center.

Taylor has lived in the 5th street fire house as caretaker since 1989, and six years ago started the Corporation for History, Art and Culture. He hopes to see the building become a facility that produces and funds cultural, artistic and educational projects exhibits and events.

In recent years, Taylor has opened building to the public for community events, and has hosted his Community Unity Festival on the street outside.

At today's meeting, it was clear that some of Taylor's uses have not had the blessing of the city. Councilwoman Jan Perry questioned the City Attorney's office on whether any money was being collected by the property and if so, where that money was going.

It was during Taylor's time as caretaker that the fire station was the center of a scandal involving fees charged to film companies. The building was featured in productions such as the "Ghostbusters" movies, "Police Academy II," and "The Mask."

On April 18, 1995, an L.A. Times investigative story accused Fire Chief Donald O. Manning and Deputy Chief Gerald L. Johnson of personally collecting over $200,000 in film fees that should have gone to the city. Manning resigned his post eight days later.

Perry also questioned General Services, who took over care of the building from the fire department in the wake of the scandal, on other activity at the fire station, specifically mentioning seeing illegal hot dog carts stored inside the fire house.

General Services reported that it has initiated eviction procedures against Taylor, and that it expects to lock the building up by November 1.

"We've had to go by on several occasions over quite a few years to stop various activities from going on in the facility," said a representative from the department. "And so recently General Services has taken the position that we can totally secure the building with no caretaker."

In the end, though, the property could end up with an entirely different use. The building was specified as a youth arts center in Proposition K, an assessment which Los Angeles voters passed in 1996. $2.3 million was appropriated to the project, and that could prevent the city from taking any other action on the site.

The committee asked General Services and the City Attorney's office to report back in 60 days on what Prop K means for the building, and to begin the process of getting the building's sale value assessed.

Reached by phone before the meeting, Taylor said that while he believes in his efforts, he just wants to see the historic structure put to good use. "I want the community to at least have a fair hearing on the potential of this building," he said. "If the community's ok with it -- be it a restaurant, bar, whatever -- then I'm ok with it."


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