LA’s graffiti-tagged skyscraper: a work of art – and symbol of city’s wider failings

<span>The abandoned Oceanwide Plaza in downtown LA.</span><span>Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images</span>
The abandoned Oceanwide Plaza in downtown LA.Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

An asparagus patch is how the architect Charles Moore described the lackluster skyline of downtown Los Angeles in the 1980s. “The tallest stalk and the shortest stalk are just alike, except that the tallest has shot father out of the ground.”

This sprawling city of bungalows has never been known for the quality of its high-rise buildings, and not much has changed since Moore’s day. A 1950s ordinance dictating that every tower must have a flat roof was rescinded in 2014, spawning a handful of clumsy quiffs and crowns atop a fresh crop of swollen glass slabs . It only added further evidence to the notion that architects in this seismic city are probably better suited to staying on the ground.

But, were he still with us, Moore might be cheered to find that, among the huddle of lookalike shafts, there now stands one particularly colourful cluster of asparagus stalks – and no thanks to its architect’s intentions. A planned trio of towers of luxury condos and a hotel, designed as mind-numbingly generic glass boxes by LA firm CallisonRTKL, instead is now a work of graffiti art.

The three towers of Oceanwide Plaza were supposed to perch on top of a “lifestyle podium” of shops and restaurants (AKA a mall), wrapped with a 700ft-long LED ribbon – an “eye-catching technological standard-bearer”, in the words of the project’s Chinese developer. But they have ended up being transformed into something more eye-catching than the builder could ever have dreamed of. Forty floors of graffiti tags now loom above the street, forming a vertiginous vertical canvas of street art, and providing one of the most colourful base-jumping platforms around.

“With all due respect, shit’s abandoned, doing nothing,” one of the artists, known as Hopes, told the art and design website Hyperallergic. “Let’s put some colour on this bitch and do what we do if they ain’t gon finish the job.” Another artist, called Aker, concurred: “This building has needed love for years,” they said. “If the owners aren’t doing anything about it, the streets of LA are happy to make something out of it.”

The dystopian sight has drawn comparisons with other such abandoned high-rises around the world, including the Torre de David in Caracas, the Sathorn Unique Tower in Bangkok, and the pyramidal “hotel of doom” in Pyongyang. But how did this come to pass in Los Angeles, home to some of the most expensive real estate on the planet?

The project began in 2015 – not coincidentally, the same year that LA’s 2028 Olympic bid was confirmed, triggering a tidal wave of development interest in this part of downtown, where the Arena will host the basketball games. The luxury residential development, which is part of CallisonRTKL’s wider sports and entertainment district masterplan, formed a key prong in Beijing-based Oceanwide’s strategic expansion into the US. A year earlier, the company had announced plans to build a 2.4m sq ft mega-project in San Francisco, designed by Norman Foster, and later a 1,400ft-tall tower in New York and a 44-acre resort in Honolulu. Both projects have since stalled.

As is often the case with Chinese investment projects, these developments were to be funded by off-plan sales to Chinese nationals, who were enticed to invest by the promise of the EB-5 immigrant investor visa programme: an easy route to a green card for $800,000. Such projects were popular with China’s newly rich, as they were seen as safe havens to park their capital, securely out of reach of the communist government’s grasp.

In the years following president Xi Jinping’s corruption crackdown, beginning in 2012, there was an increasingly voracious appetite among Chinese elites to get their assets out of the country, lest they be seized by the state. A bit like Hollywood’s American Storage Building, a gigantic castle of storage built in the 1920s, the Oceanwide towers were essentially going to be high-rise vaults – literal stacks of safety deposit boxes for Chinese cash, wrought in concrete and glass.

But a combination of the Covid pandemic and a change to China’s laws, curbing overseas investment, would prove to be a lethal blow to such schemes. Although 273 EB-5 investors provided over $136m for the downtown LA project, court filings show that Oceanwide struggled to secure additional funding to complete the $1bn development. The company’s woes were compounded by the fact that a number of investors sued Oceanwide Plaza’s senior credit line lender, LA Downtown Investment LP, over alleged mismanagement of their funds, resulting in a notice of legal action being placed on the property. By April 2020, US Citizenship and Immigration Services began denying investors’ EB-5 petitions because it determined the project had stopped.

Adding to the frenzy of lawsuits was one from a security firm hired to protect the site, filed because the developer had ceased paying them – which might explain why it was so easy for the taggers to access their 50-storey canvas. It almost seemed like an elaborate art world stunt, perfectly timed for the Frieze fair crowd to roll into town. Perhaps a collector could have coughed up and acquired the largest work of street art in the world, diversifying their Banksy collection and bailing out the project in the process.

Instead, the city council voted last month to allot almost $4m of taxpayers’ money to remove the graffiti and secure the site. “I’m not holding my breath waiting for the developer to clean up their property,” councilmember Kevin de León told the Los Angeles Times at the time of the vote. “The purpose of my motion is clear: to prepare our city to take decisive action if the Oceanwide Plaza developer ignores their responsibility and to put them on the hook for costs incurred by the city.”

They might be waiting a while. In January, Oceanwide’s parent company filed papers with the Hong Kong stock exchange announcing it was winding up the group and appointing a liquidator.

These three spray-painted concrete carcasses might look like an anomaly – an exaggerated stage set of urban art, plucked from a television series – but they are symptomatic of a wider, less visible phenomenon that threatens the pre-pandemic revival of downtown LA. Neighboring towers might not have been tagged, but many of their floors stand empty. Office vacancy rates in downtown reached a record 30% last year, with several building owners struggling to offload their blocks. Rising interest rates and falling real estate prices mean that many owners now face debt burdens greater than the market value of their properties. The appetite for downtown living has also waned, with apartment vacancy rates rising from 6.4% to 11% last year, according to real-estate analytics company CoStar.

Yet downtown living of another kind is booming. Less than a mile away from Oceanwide’s abandoned blocks, the unhoused community of Skid Row has grown to an estimated 6,000 people. While they struggle to find basic shelter, Oceanwide planned to offer its 500 residents an “unparalleled amenity package” of private screening rooms, gyms, co-working spaces, and even a dedicated “dog washing facility”, along with a swimming pool cantilevered above a water-intensive lawn.

Given that the luxury lifestyle dream has evaporated, this crass monument to a city in thrall to overseas investment should be turned over to those who most need it. A billboard of Olympian speculation could become a beacon of a true commitment to affordable housing, ready in time to show off on the global stage when the world’s TV cameras show up for the sporting circus.