Preservationists, elected officials, LGBTQ activists, and West Hollywood residents are split over a debate—that has often turned ugly—concerning the fate of a historic building in Boystown.
On June 5, the West Hollywood City Council voted 4-1 to approve plans for the partial demolition of The Factory, a 90-year-old building that formerly housed the Mitchell Camera Company’s headquarters and, from 1974 to 1993, was a pioneering gay nightclub called Studio One Disco. The vote allowed Faring Capital, a West Hollywood real estate and development company, to move forward with plans to construct a 114-foot, 241-room hotel and retail complex called the Robertson Lane Project.
The Project also calls for portions of the Factory building—which is currently home to a gym and a nightclub—to be dismantled, moved, and reassembled such that it would be positioned parallel to Robertson Boulevard. Preservationists who oppose the move contend that The Factory, which was deemed eligible for inclusion in registries of historic places of significance to the LGBTQ community, would likely no longer qualify for local, state, and national landmark status under the current proposal.
West Hollywood City Council member Lauren Meister, who split with her colleagues to vote “no” on the Robertson Lane Project, told the Los Angeles Blade the potential loss of The Factory’s eligibility for the register represents one of the three main reasons for which she opposes the plan .
Additionally, she said, the 114-foot building will tower over neighboring structures, setting “a precedent of bigger, taller buildings for future development in the surrounding area.” And the assumptions provided by staff that were used to estimate the value of the public benefit of the project, Meister said, didn’t make sense.
According to Meister, hotels in the area have been selling for one million dollars a room. It didn’t make sense to her that this hotel would be valued nearly 40% lower than other West Hollywood hotels. Meister added, “It’s our fiduciary responsibility as Councilmembers to question the experts when the experts are not making sense. Their analysis directly impacts the public benefit. And that impacts our residents.”
“I came with questions, and the Mayor [and City Council member John Duran] said, ‘You’ve been asking questions for 10 minutes.’ I thought ‘You know, this is a $250 million project. I think 10 minutes worth of questions is not a lot to ask. I had 20 pages of notes. My colleagues didn’t really engage with me to consider compromise—or consider the points that I was bringing up.” Meister continued, “This is a huge project. [The developer was] getting a lot from the city. They were asking for a lot from the city. Changing the zoning, doubling the height and FAR …I mean, it’s a 114-foot tall building.”
Concerning the Environmental Impact Report, Meister wishes feasible alternatives had been presented in order to preserve the Factory in place. “It’s become a divisive issue,” she said, “which is a shame, because ultimately the people who are taking the developer’s side to save The Factory really believe that’s what they’re doing. I think they’re well intentioned.”
Kate Eggert and Krisy Gosney, co-founders of the West Hollywood Heritage Project, fear the Robertson Lane plan will compromise the structural integrity of The Factory and hamper the conservation efforts they have led since 2015. Gosney explained, in a post published on the group’s Facebook page that she and Eggert secured the inclusion of The Factory in both the California State Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places. However, the building is not listed in the latter register because the building’s owner so far has failed to formally accept the listing. “Unfortunately,” Eggert told the Los Angeles Blade, “state and national registers don’t have any legal teeth to keep people from demolishing or changing the buildings.”
The Facebook post alleges that Faring Capital initially sought to demolish The Factory entirely but changed course after the building was accepted into the National Register. Faring, however, says they also “consulted with The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Los Angeles Conservancy, the West Hollywood Preservation Alliance and hundreds of individual stakeholders.”
The Los Angeles Conservancy (LAC), the West Hollywood Preservation Alliance (WHPA), and the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) signed off on Faring Capital’s current plan for the Robertson Lane Project.
Gosney and Eggert feel betrayed, too, by members of the West Hollywood City Council, particularly Mayor Duran. “We had lunch with him,” they explained, “and the first thing out of his mouth was, ‘how do we save The Factory building?’” His decision to ultimately vote in favor of the Robertson Lane Project was “just incredibly disappointing and heartbreaking,” the women said. They added that when they spoke before the City Council’s decisive meeting, Duran appeared not to know important details about the developer’s plans for The Factory.
“The ultimate stake in the heart,” Gosney claims, “is they’re making The Factory an entrance into a parking garage and coffee shop.” Eggert added, “The original camera factory was positioned in an East-West orientation to take advantage of the sunlight and wind patterns, to save money on electricity. To change it [as is the plan] to a North-South orientation would really strip away an aspect of its integrity.”
Duran told the Los Angeles Blade he carefully considered the plan in its current iteration, but generally makes a habit of looking only at the final renderings because changes happen often throughout the political process. He added that he has worked with the developer to outline ways of honoring The Factory/Studio One and all that it represents to people in the community—himself included.
“I enjoyed meeting and talking with Krisy and Kate,” he said, “and their intentions are good. But as a policymaker—as someone who’s responsible for a city—I have to balance between the nostalgic history concerns and the fact that our local economy has to continue to grow. And it has to reflect the reality of the day.”
Another rift over the building concerns a darker element of The Factory’s history. Don Kilhefner, a self-described “gay tribal elder” told LAist last year that Studio One Disco operated with an unwritten policy in which women and non-white club-goers were effectively turned away at the door. When the Los Angeles Times ran an exposé in 1976, then-owner Scott Forbes told the paper he was trying to keep “the bad element out.”
In spite of its reputation as a venue that welcomed only white men, Studio One Disco hosted entertainers like Liza Minnelli, Madonna, and Joan Rivers—who hosted one of the first fundraisers for AIDS research in the early 1980s. “All marginalized communities are at risk of their history being pushed aside by the dominant culture,” Gosney wrote. “Our buildings play a huge role in making sure our history doesn’t eventually ‘disappear.’”
Gosney and Eggert feel the focus on racism and sexism respective to this building’s historic value represents a double standard, considering that other non-LGBTQ sites are not held to the same scrutiny—despite the fact that they were typically no more or less culpable of these charges than The Factory was.
Duran said that gay men, in particular, were less concerned with social movements in the early 1970s than they were with finding a sense of community. As a patron of Studio One, Duran said “The whole nostalgia around Studio One is something I’m very familiar with. It’s the first gay bar I went to. It’s where I met my circle of friends and circle of lovers.”
The climate has evolved, he explained, and while gay men were once relegated to cloistered environments—industrial spaces with poor ventilation and few windows—LGBTQ bars must now meet the needs of younger members of the community. He said that he appreciates the legacy of The Factory/Studio One, as someone who was personally affected by loss after the AIDS crisis and then witnessed the community come together to heal.
On the developer’s plans to honor that history, “When Jason and I sat down,” Duran said. “I told him what I needed in exchange for the property being approved. I said I needed photographs of Studio One in the hotel; I needed a memorabilia wall recognizing the history of what happened there. He’s creating a new nightclub in the project. I said the façade had to pay tribute to that time, to the disco era, to Studio One, to what they represented. A lot of the design elements to come are going to capture that history in photographs and in architecture and in public art. And I think it’ll be complemented by the AIDS monument across the street and the One Archives across the street.”
Eggert remains skeptical of the verbal promises and concessions offered by the developer. “Just because they say they’re going to do it,” she said, “doesn’t mean they will.”
“Robertson Lane is the only plan that will truly save the Factory,” said Jake Stevens, Director of Community Engagement for Faring. “Developed in close partnership with accredited historic conservation groups and licensed experts, not two just people with opinions, Robertson Lane will invest millions of dollars to thoughtfully restore the Factory and ensure the building lives on for future LGBT generations to experience.”