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How Does a Popular Attraction Change a Neighborhood?

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Los Angeles is no stranger to change, but its latest addition is a rare thing, indeed. One that leaves people driving through the area asking themselves, “Is that a concrete spaceship that has landed?” Over the past 10 years, locals living in LA’s Miracle Mile district have seen a former department store turn into a blockbuster museum with a giant concrete dome (it looks a bit like the Death Star of Star Wars fame). This new museum, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, is slated to open this September, boasting a building designed by Renzo Piano and a collection of film memorabilia.

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is most vulnerable before it is fully operational.

But with enormous cultural development comes neighborhood change. Who knows what will happen to the district, which is already flooded with museums? It’ll open at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, an area known as “Museum Row,” with several museums, including the nearby Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Petersen Automotive Museum, the A+D Architecture & Design Museum and the Craft and Folk Art Museum.

In fact, when most attractions plunk down in new neighborhoods, the locals are the ones to suffer. According to the Miracle Mile Residential Association, new senate bills propose upzoning, potentially creating 10-unit complexes out of residential houses. “Today, Wall Street and private trusts own 67 percent of all rental property in Los Angeles,” claims the association in a newsletter. “If these bills are enacted, they’ll soon own a much bigger chunk of our city.”

Cultural attractions typically aim to make a neighborhood more attractive. It ties back to the kind of city, one with a strong creative center, that pioneering urbanists like Jane Jacobs only dreamed of. These ideas were advanced Richard Florida, friend of Jane Jacobs and writer of the now bestselling book on urban economics The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life.

But to urban theorist Carole Rosenstein, policy agendas to build “creative cities” are not helping cities fulfill the vision of what makes a city truly live. “Many analysts have critiqued policy developed out of Richard Florida’s ideas,” writes Rosenstein. “It propels gentrification and privileges real-estate development over other kinds of economic and community development that benefit a broader urban population.”

In other words, developing a city culturally isn’t always smooth sailing. In 2017, a protest was staged outside the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City ahead of an exhibition by Laura Owens. A group of anti-gentrification activists targeted the museum, as Owens sells her paintings with Gavin Brown, a gallerist who was accused of “artwashing” a working-class neighborhood after he opened an art gallery in Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights neighborhood (the gallery’s other locations are in New York City’s working class areas, Harlem and Chinatown). The protesters, a group called the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement, claims that: “Boyle Heights will continue to fight against the false promises of development and community improvement that are supposed to benefit us, but end up displacing us from our home.”

Cultural attractions being at odds with the locals isn’t always the case, however. At Dollywood, a Dolly Parton-themed theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, they offer discounted tickets to residents of the nearby Sevier County ($5 entry), with all proceeds donated to the Sevier County Food Ministries, which helps provide food for people in need. Last year, they raised over $16,000. 

The theme park also donates to the food ministry among the most difficult months of last year. Jim Davis, director of the food ministry said that Dollywood’s donations has helped a great deal, “in doing everything it possibly can to help their employees and our community during this situation,” he said.

Just as Parton is an advocate for health and support (she recently helped fund the Moderna vaccine with a $1m donation to help get it across America), Dollywood has a Community Relations department. They aim to “give back to the communities that so graciously support us.”

In New York’s Upper East Side, the Guggenheim Museum gives back through a number of city programs, from free museum entry for front line workers, to free handmade masks to workers in need and food drives that help the local non-profit City Harvest, where they donate 100 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables across all five boroughs every week. 

When museums enter a new neighborhood, they are entering delicate territory. In 2018, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Toronto moved from its original location (the gentrified strip of Queen Street West), into a much larger industrial building they renovated in the Lower Junction neighborhood, where many artists live. One artist and musician Rosina Kazi, who runs a local non-profit art space called Unit 2 in the Lower Junction, has watched the area gentrify after the museum moved across the street.

People enjoying a sunny afternoon in front of the modern facade of Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Art

“We knew it was inevitable, but it took much longer than we thought,” said Kazi. “A lot of artists were pushed out of affordable housing and workspace. This was and is, a hub for those of us who just want to do our art and be off the map.” Kazi claims that rents in her building have “doubled or tripled, depending on when you moved in,” she said. 

Though the museum initially tried to connect with local artists in the area back in 2018, there was a staff change and that initiative was not continued. The museum claims to have a new Equity Committee, established in January, which aims to train their staff internally on “Indigenous cultural competency, anti-racism and anti-oppressive practice,” but have yet to work with the local art community in their own backyard. 

Going forward, there’s still a chance for the museum to build bridges with local artists in the neighborhood. “I do believe there is good intention to build with the local art community, and there’s amazing potential to do so much,” said Kazi. “Often big institutions have so many hoops to jump through to get to a point of doing things, but I am hopeful. I’m looking forward to trying to heal and build a relationship with the MOCA.” 

What’s the solution? According to economist Stephen Sheppard, who created a study based on four U.S. museums and cultural centers (in Ohio, New York, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts), home properties near the museum had their value increased by 20 to 50 percent. This effect tapered as the distance increased. With that spike comes responsibility as it certainly is a force to displace lower-income residents. To counteract this museums can do outreach in underserved neighborhoods, claims Sheppard, or create other equitable programs to support affordable housing.

In San Francisco, Kelvin Tetz, who works as a partner with Moss Adams, a real estate and wealth management firm, explains the appeal. “Research has shown proximity to sought-after amenities can significantly increase nearby real estate demand and values, from greenspace and parks to transit stations,” he said, noting the moniker they fall under, ‘Transit Oriented Development’ (TOD).

“Cities and urban centers that offer cultural and entertainment amenities are one thing that attracts knowledge workers, and San Francisco is one of the most desirable places to live and work,” said Tetz.

Wenli Wang, the partner in charge at the San Francisco office of Moss Adams, loves that their San Francisco office is two blocks from a cultural district boasting the Yerba Buena Cultural Center, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and other cultural venues for music, dance and art.

Cultural attractions make neighborhoods a place to both live and work. “It’s seen as a significant amenity, and with walking-distance to trains and other benefits, it’s one of many reasons we chose to locate where we did,” said Wang. The people working in these districts then, in turn, provide opportunities for the attractions. According to Wang, “We are occasionally involved in events there and I know our employees frequently attend museum events, at least they did pre-pandemic.” This can create a virtuous cycle for artists and art lovers but one that can leave out struggling local residents if not properly thought out.

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