Housing Policy

Activists Try To Stop Redevelopment of 'Historic' Business Over Owners' Objections. Again.

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation is suing to prevent Amoeba Music's Hollywood location from becoming a 200-unit apartment building.


NIMBYs are suing to stop the redevelopment of a historic business over the objections of the business's owners. Again.

In July, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) sued Los Angeles over its approval of a plan to redevelop Amoeba Music's Hollywood location into a 26-story, 200-unit apartment building.

Since the record store chain opened its Hollywood location in 2001, the store has become famous for its distinctive neon signs and murals and for hosting famous musicians like Paul McCartney. These features, the AHF argues, make the Amoeba Music building a significant historic resource that the city cannot lawfully allow to be demolished without further environmental study.

Amoeba Music's owners feel differently. The lawsuit, they say, is actively harming their ability to keep their record store alive.

"Using Amoeba without our consent in their battle against development is more likely to permanently close our doors than anything else we have faced to date," Amoeba co-owner Jim Henderson told the Los Angeles Times.

Amoeba sold its Hollywood building four years ago for $34 million and has since been looking for another, more affordable storefront.

The lawsuit, Henderson tells the Times, is turning off potential landlords who fear they too could run into legal trouble if they rent to Amoeba and later choose to redevelop their property. Henderson also said that declaring the current building a historic landmark could prevent Amoeba from moving its distinctive neon signs to a new location.

The lawsuit, which AHF filed in conjunction with the Coalition to Preserve L.A., has also argued that the city did not do enough to study the impact of a 26-story tower on nearby utilities and that the city did not require the developer to include rent-restricted affordable units that would be rented out at below-market rates.

AHF and its various advocacy arms have gotten deeply enmeshed in housing politics both in Los Angeles and at the state level.

The non-profit was the primary funder of 2018's failed Proposition 10, a ballot measure that would have repealed state-level restrictions on local governments' ability to impose rent control policies. AHF and its allies are currently gathering signatures to place a second rent control initiative on the 2020 ballot.

In Los Angeles, AHF has sued the Los Angeles city government multiple times over its approval of Hollywood-area developments, arguing that these approvals violated federal and state housing laws and that the new developments themselves will lead to gentrification and displacement.

Its attempt to preserve the current Amoeba Music building over the objections of its owners is reminiscent of other historic landmarking battles.

In Seattle, a coalition of preservationists, musicians, and most of the Seattle City Council is trying to prevent the redevelopment of the Showbox music venue into apartments over the objections of Showbox's current owner.

New York City landmarked the Strand bookstore, despite pleading from the store's owner that such landmarking would be detrimental to her business.

Similarly, in Denver, activists tried to landmark the popular downtown restaurant Tom's Diner to prevent its owner from selling it to a developer. The preservationists eventually dropped their landmarking attempt last week after a fierce public backlash.

The desire to preserve old buildings is an understandable one. However, that desire is also often in tension with demands for new housing and commercial space. Ideally, markets would relieve this tension by letting preservationists and developers offer competing bids for urban properties.

But by allowing activists to landmark buildings without having to actually buy a property, and oftentimes over an owner's objections, cities have heavily tilted the scales toward too much preservation and not enough development.