Los Angeles, CA: Cultural Quarter / Promise Zone Arts

Artist rendering of an aerial view of a new building
Photo courtesy of Morphosis Architects

How can a large city take advantage of strategic partnerships to help create affordable live/work spaces for artists?

Recognizing the need for affordable artist housing and rehearsal/exhibition space in the city, the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) spearheaded the “Cultural Quarter” initiative to create a mixed-use facility featuring 100% affordable artists’ housing; a black-box theater; an art gallery; and a satellite campus for the California Institute of Arts (CalArts).The initiative was also designed to provide greater access to creative industry jobs for a more diverse group of Angelenos through internships and training opportunities. The overarching goal was to utilize the arts to promote a safe and vibrant community, create jobs, provide opportunities for artists, and further enhance community development.


Los Angeles is a city of over four million residents that receives over 42 million annual visitors. Downtown Los Angeles is, like the City itself, an expansive area made up of sub-districts. In recent years, Downtown LA has seen the development of new museums, restaurants, and multi-family residential buildings. The area is an increasingly desirable place for both residents and creative businesses, which has created a higher cost of living. At the same time, many areas of LA are still struggling, as evident by the recent Promise Zone designation within the neighborhoods of Hollywood, East Hollywood, Koreatown, Pico-Union, and Westlake.


Counting performing artists, visual artists, producers, directors, designers, architects, and other entertainers, more than 140,000 Angelenos pursue artwork as their primary occupation, with tens of thousands more creating artwork as a second job or a volunteer. Per the 2014 “Otis College Report on the Creative Economy,” 695,100 jobs are connected to the arts and creative economy in the Greater Los Angeles area, or the equivalent of 1 in every 7 jobs. In a needs assessment survey of approximately 2,000 local artists, conducted by DCA as part of NEA Our Town grant activities, however, 60% of respondents indicated an immediate need to relocate to affordable housing, with corresponding income levels well below the area median income for Los Angeles. LA further has a diverse arts community and a number of notable higher education arts programs, including the California Institute of Arts (CalArts), Otis College of Art and Design, Emerson College, the Art Center College of Design, in addition to programs at UCLA, USC, and other institutions.



Prior to its current economic revitalization, Downtown LA had a large concentration of artists that were able to rent live/work spaces at affordable rental costs. Today, however, with rental costs between $2 and $3 per square foot, these artists have increasingly been displaced. In fact, across the City of Los Angeles there is an overall lack of affordable live/work spaces for artists. This lack of both affordable live and work spaces needs to be addressed to ensure LA retains its artist population. Beyond artist housing, creative organizations are in need of rehearsal and performance space. A needs assessment survey sent out by DCA to over 150 creative organizations and businesses found that fifty-seven organizations require informal performance space, fifty-four organizations require formal performance space, and forty-eight organizations require multi-use rehearsal or meeting space.


Recognizing this need for affordable artist housing and rehearsal/exhibition space in the city, DCA spearheaded the “Cultural Quarter” initiative to create a mixed-use facility featuring 100% affordable artists’ housing; a black-box theater; an art gallery; and a satellite campus for the California Institute of the Arts. The initiative was also designed to provide greater access to creative industry jobs for a more diverse group of Angelenos through internships and training opportunities. The “Cultural Quarter” is designed to revitalize the area by attracting creative industry enterprises, adding economic activity to the area. The initiative seeks to foster a vision of creating affordable housing for artists in order to cement their presence in the Los Angeles Promise Zone; to establish relationships with educational institutions (such as CalArts); to create internship and job opportunities within the area; and to serve as a catalyst where arts and cultural activities serve to advance community revitalization goals.



The Cultural Quarter initiative required a significant public/private partnership that included nonprofit organizations and multiple City Departments including DCA; the Department of City Planning; The Actors Fund, a nonprofit service organization for performing arts professionals; Artspace, an organization dedicated to creating affordable space for artists and arts organizations; and CalArts. Artspace and The Actors Fund were selected as the primary project partners due to their demonstrated ability to finance and develop projects per community and City goals. DCA served as the facilitator and project manager throughout the process, and project team members collectively created an open, trusting, immensely progressive, and productive environment. Project partners are expected to continue to join as the project progresses.


In 2010, partners began the planning and pre- development stages, including in-depth community engagement efforts. From the outset, the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles (CRA/LA) had identified a possible site for the project adjacent to the historic Los Angeles Theatre on Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the dissolution of the California’s Redevelopment Agencies in 2012 made it impossible for the project team to gain site control at a cost below market value. Following this, partners explored the potential of a number of other sites in and out of Downtown. In 2014, the City put out a RFP for Parking Lot Number 742, located within the boundaries of the Los Angeles Promise Zone. Being situated directly between Hollywood/Vine and Hollywood/Highland Metro Light Rail Stations strengthens the site’s funding opportunities and increases livability, offering low-income residents convenient access to the city. Partners elected to respond to the Request for Proposals (RFP), and developed a proposal that would meet the City’s community development objectives. At the same time, it placed a central focus on providing a catalytic cultural hub for the community through the introduction of artists living and working in the area, and a new CalArts satellite campus for its MFA Theater program in the Hollywood neighborhood. The proposal is still under review.


The project’s 2010 NEA Mayors’ Institute on City Design 25th Anniversary Initiative award allowed for the initial needs assessment and space needs for the project partners. The information gleaned from these community engagement efforts has been invaluable to project partners in the development and evolution of the project. Additionally, DCA has been able to leverage the grant to obtain further pre-development funding. In 2012, the Cultural Quarter team was able to leverage its 2010 NEA award to obtain large awards from ArtPlace America ($470,000) and the GRAMMY Foundation ($100,000). This funding allowed DCA to commission Morphosis Architects to create an ambitious vision and plan for the project, and CalArts to complete a needs assessment involving faculty, students and administration. Additionally, it provided necessary resources for the project team to complete pre- development needs, including a development pro-forma and financial modeling plan.



While developing the Cultural Quarter, it became clear that it would take several years to finalize construction and apply for and obtain Federal New Market Tax Credits, Low Income Housing Tax Credits, and other financing tools. It was also clear that there was an immediate need for affordable housing for artists. In 2013, the Affordable Housing Partnership for Artists was designed to expand immediate access to affordable housing for the arts and creative communities in LA through strategic use of House Resolution 3221 of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008. As a result, over fifty artist families are now living in subsidized spaces in LA with affordable rental costs guaranteed for thirty years, saving these artists $1,181,118 annually when comparing subsidized rental rates to market rates. This means more of the artists’ income will go to producing and presenting new work, which will in turn increase the cultural vitality of their communities. Throughout 2015, DCA met with City agencies to discuss to discuss expanding access to affordable housing for artists in LA. In September 2015, DCA in collaboration with Bloomberg Consulting, finished development of a two-year “Arts Activation Plan,” aligning DCA activities and programs with Mayoral priorities, including the direction to “enhance LA’s unique cultural neighborhoods” through advancing partnerships with the Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department to connect artists and creative entrepreneurs to affordable housing. Further, DCA received a 2015 Our Town grant to support Promise Zone Arts, a cultural mapping and community engagement program with site-specific arts and cultural experiences.


Cultural Quarter Project Report #1 (revised 2015)
Morphosis Architects completed a study of a property on Broadway in downtown LA, in Little Tokyo, and in Hollywood for the Cultural Quarter Project.

Cultural Quarter Project Report #2 (2015)
Morphosis Architects completed a study of the LA Promise Zone for the Cultural Quarter Project.

Master Planning Report Narrative
Cultural Quarter Project Master Planning Report Narrative by Morphosis Architects

Affordable Housing Workshop in Arts District
Article on AHPA in LA Downtown News on March 13, 2014

Arts colony residents bring creativity to San Pedro’s Pacific Avenue
Article on AHPA in Daily Breeze on May 3, 2015

NEA Awards $5 Million to Cities Including LA, Boston, and New Orleans
Article on Promise Zone Arts in ARTFORUM on July 16, 2015

NEA grant will help artists remain in gentrifying downtown L.A.
Article on AHPA in LA Times on July 19, 2013

LA City Council Selects The Actors Fund and Thomas Safran & Associates for the Hollywood Arts Collective

In January 2014, on the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s initiation of the war on poverty, the City of Los Angeles was awarded federal Promise Zone designation from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The total Los Angeles Promise Zone population is 165,000 residents, with a large concentration of Latino, African American, and Asian residents. The unemployment rate in the Los Angeles Promise Zone is 13%, and one in three households earn less than $20,000 per year.

  • The Actors Fund
  • Artspace Projects, Inc.
  • California Institute of the Arts
  • Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department
  • Los Angeles Local Initiative Support Corporation
  • City of Los Angeles Department of City Planning
  • Morphosis Architects

The full Cultural Quarter project team, including DCA, The Actors Fund, Artspace, and CalArts, is identified in the official Los Angeles Promise Zone Memorandum of Understanding with the Federal Government, as DCA was involved in drafting the application with the City of LA. This allows the team to be an official Promise Zone partner. Therefore, they are eligible to receive prioritized Federal assistance, including prioritization for HUD programs and technical assistance.

The 2010 NEA award made to DCA was essential for the partnership to conduct community engagement efforts, including formal needs assessments, charrettes, stakeholder interviews, and community forums. An initial 2011 feasibility study analyzed data from public meetings attended by over 700 artists, Downtown residents, public officials, and other stakeholders, as well as seven smaller focus groups. Surveys conducted for the project revealed a clear need for affordable housing for the artist community. Out of approximately 2,000 artists surveyed, 60% indicated an immediate need for affordable housing and interest in relocating to Downtown LA and environs. Artpace utilizes a three-fold redundancy formula to indicate the threshold for market strength. Based on this formula, the creation of a 354 affordable housing units were needed in the project area. From this data, it was clear that a large-scale mixed-use facility was needed, leading to a space plan for the project. The original site identified project was in Downtown LA on Broadway, adjacent to the area’s historic theaters. The project received a groundswell of interest from local community leaders and arts and cultural organizations, particularly in light of the cultural renaissance taking place in Downtown LA, a direct result of ongoing City efforts to stimulate activity in the City Center, a once bustling metropolis that suffered over the decades as a result of suburbanization.

The project is now anticipated to be located within the Los Angeles Promise Zone. Being located within the boundary of a Promise Zone prioritizes a project with regard to Federal funding for projects that meet the Promise Zone goals. The Los Angeles Promise Zone goals include increasing affordable housing and educational opportunities for residents.

As of July 2015, the City has shortlisted the proposal submitted by the Cultural Quarter Project Team as well as a proposal from a different nonprofit housing developer to develop the Cultural Quarter in the Promise Zone. A decision as to the future development of the site has not yet been reached by the City, and is expected to be made in Summer 2015. Pending a successful bid for Parking Lot Number 742, Morphosis Architects has agreed to design the Cultural Quarter with special consideration for the project’s unique economic challenges, to allow for the project design and construction to be feasible financially.

In 2013, DCA received a $75,000 NEA Our Town grant to support AHPA. AHPA was implemented at the end of FY 13/14 and throughout FY 14/15. It included workshops designed to educate and train artists on available affordable housing opportunities and affordable live/work space in the City of Los Angeles. 927 artists directly participated in the workshops and 2,004 artists signed up to receive information and updates through the project website (www.affordableartisthousing.org). AHPA deployed a two-step education process. First, it worked with developers and leasing agents to educate private developers on how to address the unstable nature of artists’ income so that they would be more attuned and responsive to the fluctuating nature of artists’ economic realities. Second, it created a methodology and curriculum to help individual artists qualify for assistance. Sixteen seminars and one webinar were held to inform artists about all affordable housing opportunities in Los Angeles that were currently available, and provide technical assistance to complete required forms and obtain necessary documentation. The initiative has further created a set of recommendations that can be used in LA and other urban areas to increase and streamline the opportunities for artists to access affordable housing, and address the need for the creation of new live/work space for artists, in addition to affordable housing arrangements.

House Resolution 3221 of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 stipulates that an artist preference is legal in affordable housing developments. It specifies that for affordable housing developed through the Low Income Housing Tax Credits providing a preference that favors tenants “who are involved in artistic or literary activities” does not violate the requirement that said housing be available for use by the public, and poses no threat to compliance with Fair Housing Law if implemented properly. Yet while artist preference for affordable housing is now spelled out in federal law, it was not widely known by either local developers of affordable housing or the thousands of Los Angeles artists in need of affordable and decent living arrangements.

There were three buildings included in the program, One Santa Fe, the Emerson, and the Pacific Avenue Arts Colony. Of the three, only one (the Pacific Avenue Arts Colony) ultimately utilized an artist preference policy; the decision to create an artist preference for any private development is left to the developer’s discretion. For the Pacific Avenue Arts Colony, the partnership created an easily replicable model and process to create a pool of qualifying prospective tenants of qualified applicants who have a commitment to and/or participate in the creative arts. AHPA considered an artist anyone that can demonstrate consistent participation in or commitment to a creative art; it has nothing to do with employment. An Artist Selection Committee was created to review applications submitted by self-identified artists who were required to submit a CV and answer a set of questions demonstrating their commitment to the arts.

  • “It was educational and packed with practical info.”
  • “Without the help of the workshop I would not have been able to make it through the application process…”
  • “The panel was great. You could tell that there was support and genuine concern towards providing decent housing… I was impressed. I have yet to hear about or encounter such a community outreach here in Orange County where I’ve resided 15+ until current…”
  • “It was great and informative. Provided me with the correct information to fill out my application the right way.”
  • “No issues. Overall good experience. I only wish that more apartments would be available to artists…”
  • “It gave us a better understanding of who is actually eligible, and clarity on the first steps we needed to take in order to apply.”
DCA was awarded $200,000 to support the Promise Zone Arts program. The project team will identify cultural treasures - people, groups, events, places, and practices that help define neighborhoods - located within the LA Promise Zone. To advance Promise Zone goals, community engagement events and arts interventions, including public art, performing arts programming, and multi-media installations, will articulate the value of folk/traditional arts and culturally informed contemporary art to the community. The Promise Zone goals are to improve educational opportunities, economic development, neighborhood safety, and livability for residents of these historic and underserved neighborhoods. DCA is partnering with the Alliance for California Traditional Arts and LA Commons on the project and will be advised by a ten-member task force and various expert consultants.  The project team will work with the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development to ensure that Promise Zone Arts is a core component of the overall Promise Zone strategy.