LA Center opens up, not just to students

Program aims to include community

by Evan Sporer / Beacon Staff • January 16, 2014

The new LA Center offers a view of the Hollywood sign and local businesses.
The new LA Center offers a view of the Hollywood sign and local businesses.

It’s just past noon as the inaugural class of Emerson students moves into the college’s new Los Angeles Center. In the lobby is a familiar sight: laundry carts for students to shepherd their belongings, and student welcome crew clad in highlighter yellow vests. 

There’s also Kevin Bright, the program’s founding director, schmoozing with parents and taking Polaroid photos of student-and-parent groups in the building’s entrance, with the Hollywood sign in the background.

“You’ve made a statement,” one parent says to Bright. 

For Emerson, and Bright, the attempted statement is one of inclusivity. The Los Angeles program has traditionally been considered a satellite semester with an internship. But during the second day of move-in, Bright describes his vision as one where Emerson gives back to the surrounding Hollywood community. 

“From the LA community, and our students, it’s really important now that we have this building, that we are no longer perceived as this kind of study-abroad mentality for this program,” he says in an interview in his office. “We’re now brick-and-mortar; we’re not rentals anymore. It’s very important in order to separate ourselves from the rest of the study-abroad-ish programs that are out here, which every college seems to have copied us and has one now, is to have a relationship with the LA community.” 

As Bright leans back in his office chair, he paints a picture of the way he envisions the program functioning in the community, and how he expects this new Center to be received. While Emerson has finally achieved its Los Angeles enterprise, he emphasizes doing right by the city, and becoming a part of it.

“Not being perceived as invaders, interlopers, carpet-baggers, anything like that,” says Bright, who has been working on the project for years. “We’re now here, and we’re trying to earn a place of really belonging here.”

Bright lists two ways Emerson has already tried to accommodate its surroundings. A below-level parking garage was created at the behest of the city to eliminate street traffic. The college has begun an E-Connect program — a scholarship it currently offers to two local high schools — which sends students to Glendale Community College for two years, and then gives them a full scholarship to Emerson for their final two years.

“You only get what you give back, and I think we need to start putting that in students minds before they leave here,” Bright says.

*** 

As Cristina Escobar snakes down the four aisles of her small grocery store and points out the trinkets and knick-knacks that line its shelves, a woman walks in and approaches the register.

“What kind of pastry is that?” she asks a man at the counter, pointing to one of the many Latino products in Escobar’s shop.

Located directly across the street from Emerson’s new building, Tinti’s Mini Market is a small store that Escobar both owns and runs. It’s one of several nearby businesses preparing for the arrival of 200 students. Although Escobar said times are tough, her smile returns whenever the topic of new students living across the street is introduced. 

“I was waiting, sitting in a chair for you guys, because it’s a really difficult time,” she says. “I was thinking about closing the store because there is nothing. But finally, they decided to make something huge over there.”

Escobar said she immigrated to this country from Guatemala by herself when she was just 16 years old. Now, the only family she said she has left in the United States are her two daughters, 16 and 13 years of age, and her husband. She needs her store to support them. 

“The ‘plan B’ was to go back to the same job. I was working in one restaurant, and I got about $12.50 for an hour,” she says. But the construction project gave her more confidence she could sustain in the shop. “I think I’m going to stick with my dream. I’m not going to drop.”

Escobar said her daughters have had a chance to see all the construction, and one day hope to attend Emerson. 

“This is the most sensitive part for me, my daughters,” she says. “Every time I do something, I do it for them. You never know, tomorrow, maybe I’m going to die, and who’s going to help them? So this is really about the future.”

Her store offers simple groceries and a variety of other things that she points out: reusable bags she purchased when the city of Los Angeles threatened to- and later did- ban plastic ones, floral arrangements for Valentine’s Day, and food products she said students might be interested in purchasing.

“Maybe one day, the kitchen doesn’t have tomatoes, and I have tomatoes for them,” she says. “I wish I could know what they’re looking for.”

The market also has a Guatemalan flare, which she hopes will attract student customers. 

“I’m thinking about preparing coffee, if they want to taste another kind of coffee,” she says, pointing out her favorite blend from her home country. “Just for 75 cents; who’s not able to buy it?”

Diagonally across from her small shop, and located down the street from the Center’s entrance are two bar/restaurants, a fast-food window, and a to-go deli, all owned by George Abou-Doud.

Sitting in one of his bars, Delancey, Abou-Doud describes working with Emerson since the college purchased the land, and how much this section of Hollywood is changing. 

“In the beginning, anything that would have happened on the lot would have been great,” says Abou-Doud, who began purchasing properties on the 6000 W. Sunset Blvd. block six years ago. “What makes it better is that it’s a school that really ties to LA — entertainment — and what happens out here.”

While he describes Delancey as more of a sit-down restaurant, two storefronts down and within an arm’s length of the Center is Mission Cantina, which could turn into the West Coast version of Sweetwater Tavern.

“One of the managers at Mission suggested we do an Emerson Night three nights a week because he thought it would be fun, and maybe we will,” Abou-Doud says. “It’s right next door, so it comes with another benefit that there’s no drinking and driving. Drink here, and then walk back.”

A few blocks away from the 6000 W. Sunset stretch is Burrito Hub, a small restaurant that cashier Daniel Ventura said has been open since September 2013. On Sunday, the first day of Emerson’s move-in, Ventura said he’s served eight customers all day, and it’s nearing dinner time. 

But while Ventura said he did not know of the new Emerson building, he did say the college’s demographic might help Burrito Hub. 

“We are very close to a lot of nightclubs, that’s why we try to stay open late,” Ventura says. “If people are drunk, they might want to have a burrito.”

***

From afar, the Center looks like a cube. But inch closer, and the cube opens up, with the geometry of its structures creating natural openings that provide a gateway into the residential community that sits directly behind it. An open design was always part of the plan, according to Aaron Ragan, of the architectural firm Morphosis, which designed the project.

“We think of it as three buildings in one, and it’s three buildings in one sitting on a podium,” says Ragan. “We took the large residential component and divided it into two towers to have the center be really open and create all these outdoor spaces that carve out the center of the building.”

The building is impossible to miss. Rubberneckers, bike riders, and pedestrians all crane their necks to get a glimpse of the 10-story behemoth. Some even climb its front steps to go into the lobby and ask if tours are being offered.

Ragan describes not only the visual mission the architects sought to accomplish, but the meaning behind the building’s design. 

“LA has these weird conditions where they develop tall buildings around boulevards, and then it quickly drops down into low-rise,” he says. “A lot of developers… build a wall, and it just walls in the boulevard from the surroundings, and it walls in residential from the hills. By carving it out, it was also a play we were trying to do with the surroundings.” 

One of the goals Emerson passed along to the architects was to create a space that would not only make a statement, but also welcome in the outside community and become a center for all its inhabitants. 

“Even though it’s a private building, you open things up to the public, and open things up to the surroundings,” Ragan says. “We tried to also provide a variety of event spaces, either for the students or for the community, but at least the spaces are there to engage the community, or invite the community in.” 

With a red colored-pencil in his ear, Ragan says Morphosis is more than pleased with the way the project coincided with Emerson’s vision.

“What’s exciting for us is not just that it stands out, but how it stands out,” he says. “It’s not just a kind of superficial gesture that’s applied, stuck on the outside, but what really is going to stand out is you’re so used to seeing buildings as complete, solid enclosures, but as you come down Sunset, what looks like a big solid box opens up.”

The completed project comes full-circle when the cultural message Emerson is trying to convey and the architectural nuances meet in the building’s open spaces. 

“What everyone is going to see is not just the architecture doing its thing, but the students and community doing their thing, in action,” Ragan says. “It’s a pretty active façade because you can see so much of the building, and so deep into it.”

It may be Emerson’s building, but Bright hopes it doesn’t stay that way.

“Certainly from my position from here, I certainly intend to do everything — especially here in Los Angeles, particularly in the Latino community, there’s an incredible opportunity here,” he says. “I’m really hoping to use this building as a launching pad to engage the community.”