Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
The destroyed building was to be the latest mega-complex by a detested local developer.
"I’m not saying I think someone burned down Geoff Palmer’s building on purpose. All I’m saying is I wouldn’t be surprised."
That's how Stephen Corwin, creator of CityGrows and self-proclaimed "urban development nerd" responded to the fire that engulfed a 1.3 million square-foot apartment building in downtown Los Angeles early Monday morning. While flames were extinguished within 90 minutes and no injuries were reported, two nearby city administrative buildings and freeway signage suffered damage. And the wood and stucco mega-complex, still under construction, was completely destroyed.
This was not just any mega-complex. The "Da Vinci" was to be the latest "resort-style" Italianiate fortress by developer Geoff Palmer. He's built a number of similar apartments along the 110 Freeway corridor, with names like the "Orsini" and the "Medici." In a post decrying Palmer as the "Man Destroying Downtown LA," Curbed LA wrote this just last month:
Palmer's buildings take up full city blocks but face entirely inward. They're notorious for the skybridges that keep tenants off of the streets and sidewalks; their street-level retail spaces sit mostly empty; their many basketball courts and libraries and green spaces (in one case, a one-acre park) are not even a little bit open to the public.
The Da Vinci itself had been in the news recently for its controversial plans for a pedestrian skybridge connecting two parts of the complex. Palmer's company had explained that "transients under the nearby 110 Freeway pose a safety threat to his future renters." The Los Angeles City Council approved the plans in May, despite pleas from planners and architects.
And now that Da Vinci's gone to the demons, Twitter's been ablaze with commentary by Palmer's detractors, many of whom echo Corwin's half-conjecture. Was this an "architectural hate crime"?
Others didn't call arson, but did project some architectural satisfaction.
I feel so awful tweeting this but this DTLA fire/possible arson due to anti-gentrification is going to be such a great episode of Castle/SVU— Deborah (@_totaldebmove) December 8, 2014
Orsini burns in Downtown LA. Hopefully the city won't let him rebuild. http://t.co/YBWChNMZ9q— mimi zeiger (@loudpaper) December 8, 2014
There, design critic Zeiger gets the building's name wrong, but her sentiment was right by architect Daveed Kapoor:
Here, two imaginative ideas on the source of the fire, from CityLab's own Nate Berg:
LA Fire Conspiracy Theory 1: Set by urban design fanatics angry with project's pedestrian bridges. Urbanist version of ecoterrorism.— Nate Berg (@nate_berg) December 8, 2014
LA Fire Conspiracy Theory 2: With original vision for the project altered, architect goes Fountainhead/Howard Roark and blows it up.— Nate Berg (@nate_berg) December 8, 2014
It remains to be seen whether this fire's prime mover was seeking urban vengeance. But the faux-villa's incineration is already under investigation as a criminal fire. "[I]t's very rare for the entire building to be engulfed at once," LAFD Captain Jaime Moore told the Los Angeles Times. "There may have been some foul play."
Meanwhile, not everyone hated the Da Vinci's ersatz aesthetic. Maria Joya, who lives in a freeway underpass encampment near the complex, told the Times she awoke to the blaze because "her feet felt hot." She said she liked how the apartments looked, and the other ones like it. "I feel bad for the owner," Joya said. "Imagine how much money he spent."