With a 4-2 vote on Monday night, West Hollywood’s Historic Preservation Commission gave its blessing to the proposed French Market project. That vote both certified the Final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and also approved the certificate of appropriateness for the historic building.
Located at 7985 Santa Monica Blvd., at Laurel Avenue, the French Market Place building dates to the 1930s when it opened as a grocery store. However, its historic significance dates back to 1972, during the early days of the burgeoning gay liberation movement, when it became a major gathering place for the LGBT community. Many gay political organizations met there as did HIV/AIDS groups. Likewise, many LGBT diners ate on the front patio, in clear view from the street, at a time when it was a huge risk to be seen in a gay establishment.
The French Market closed in 2015, but development company Faring, owned by Jason Illoulian, plans to build an 83,000-square-foot project on the site and preserve the exterior of the French Market building. The area that was the French Market’s parking lot will see a new building erected for retail and restaurant space. A four-story, 60-foot-tall office building will be constructed at the rear of the property.
The project will also include a two-level subterraneanparking garage with 174 parking spaces (a change from the original plans which called for three underground levels and 269 spaces). The French Market building will be underpinned with steel beams while the garage is being dug beneath it.
The Historic Preservation Commission’s task on Monday night was limited to the historic aspects of the project. Commissioner Yawar Charlie said it was “well thought out,” and the changes Faring made to the original plans nicely addressed the concerns the commission raised when it discussed the draft EIR in October 2018.
Commissioner Matt Dubin thought it was an “excellent project,” although he did have concerns that the French Market building would be “dwarfed” by the new, taller buildings.
Of the 13 people speaking during the public comment period, all supported it. Resident George Credle thought it was “impressive,” while David Reid said it was a “beautiful project” that deserves support.
Resident Brian Barnes felt it did a good job of balancing both the historic nature of the building while moving into the future.
“It honors the past while keeping an eye on what is possible for the future,” said Barnes.
Commissioners Ed Levin and Gail Ostergren both voted against the project because only the exterior walls will be preserved. Nothing on the building’s interior will preserved, including the roof and floor (which will be removed while digging the underground parking garage). They questioned whether such a limited area of preservation would meet the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s standards for historic integrity.
Levin noted that plans call for only the exterior walls of the Santa Monica Boulevard and Laurel Avenue sides to be entirely preserved, while two-thirds of the wall on the building’s east side (the one facing the current surface parking lot) will be preserved. The back (north) wall will be removed entirely.
“I don’t think you can maintain integrity of the building if all that’s being retained is two and two/thirds walls,” Levin said.
Jennifer Alkira, recently named the city’s acting planning manager for current and historic preservation projects, assured the commissioners that the interiors are not essential to convey the historic significance of the site, saying that the exterior walls along with the front patio were enough to convey the importance to LGBT history.
Faring noted that three different consulting groups – Rincon Consultants, Chattel, Inc., and Architectural Resources Group – signed off on the project saying it was feasible while also maintaining the site’s historic significance.
Commissioner Jake LaJoie agreed that the building itself was not as important as what happened within that space.
The West Hollywood Preservation Alliance (WHPA) also supported the project, noting it had contacted LGBT leaders across the nation and determined that the French Market was one of the first places, if not the very first, to have an outdoor dining space in a gay-owned establishment on a major thoroughfare where LGBT people could dine without fear of reprisal.
“[The dining space on a public terrace] is, in our estimation, the single most important historic factor of the site,” read a WHPA letter supporting the project.
News that the interiors were not being preserved left some disappointed since the New Orleans-style interior with wrought iron railings and gazebo, plus the mezzanine level overlooking the dining tables were all unique to the space and part of the French Market experience.
Jake Stevens, Faring’s director of community engagement, said that a restaurant would go back into the space and that it would operate 24 hours. He said a restaurant operator has not yet been chosen and that it would be up to that operator to select interior décor and layout.
Plans to paint a mural of faces of famous LGBT people on the side exterior walls have been abandoned in favor of a mural chronicling the history of the French Market building. That mural, planned for the east side of the building, will be done by Los Angeles-based artist Judy Baca.
Commissioner Christopher Winters was absent.
The French Market project next goes to the Planning Commission for consideration, likely in late September.