Academy's Consultants Warn of "Explosive" Gas Danger at Proposed Oscar Museum

5:00 AM PST 09/04/2014 by Gary Baum
Courtesy of Renzo Piano Building Workshop
A new rendering of the proposed Academy film museum at the former May Co. building in Los Angeles.

AMPAS points to mitigation measures in response to the comprehensive report

The Los Angeles City Planning Department has released a draft environmental impact report that bluntly raises concerns over methane and hydrogen sulfide gas at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences’ proposed site of a $300-million museum dedicated to Oscar and film history. The risk, it declares, could potentially harm construction workers and, eventually, visitors.

The study, quietly released online Aug. 28, triggered a 45-day public comment period on the project, which consists of the renovation of the historic May Co. Building on the mid-city campus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, at the northeast corner of Wilshire Blvd. and Fairfax Ave., as well as an adjacent new wing housing a 1,000-seat theater. Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano is overseeing the design of both structures.

Geosyntec Consultants, a major geo-engineering firm hired by AMPAS to review the site, which exists within a previously designated City of Los Angeles Methane Zone, found in its study that underground gases and impacted soil and groundwater will affect both the museum’s build-out and operation. “During construction-related excavation, hydrogen sulfide can accumulate in low-lying parts of trenches or pits,” Geosyntec notes. (Hydrogen sulfide is a toxic, flammable and colorless gas that’s immediately combustible when mixed with air at certain concentrations.)

During construction and renovation, the consultancy adds that methane – also hazardous and extremely flammable – “can accumulate within confined low-lying spaces such as basements where it can be trapped by overhead ceilings, and hydrogen sulfide can accumulate on the floors. Where such spaces are entirely enclosed, there is no natural ventilation to remove or dilute gases that accumulate.”

Geosyntec goes on to warn of the serious dangers posed to construction workers by participation in the project. Improper ventilation could result in higher concentrations of hydrogen sulfide, resulting in ailments and even death, while impacted soil and groundwater exposure might prompt illness and injury.

As for visitors to the May Co. building, the consultancy conjures a harrowing picture of theoretical peril. It explains how “gas could migrate into the … basement, the underground utility corridor, and ultimately through the building. Gas may migrate through the concrete mat slab foundation and concrete basement topping slab, through basement walls and elevator shafts, and/or through utility corridors and conduits. Methane will rise and accumulate at the highest elevations within a room while hydrogen sulfide will sink and accumulate at the lowest elevations within a room. If allowed to migrate and accumulate, methane concentrations may reach the explosive limits.”

Bill Kramer, the Academy museum’s managing director, acknowledges the findings but explains that AMPAS was fully aware of such challenges in its own initial due diligence, and that “none of the existing conditions on this site were extreme enough to warrant not saying yes.” He also takes pains to frame the consultancy’s warnings, noting, “it’s stark language from a technical firm.”

The spherical new wing, left, and the historic May Co. building, right.
As for Geosyntec’s assessment that implementation of available safety measures could “reduce hazards associated with the operation” of the museum to merely a “less than significant” level: “That’s a technical EIR term,” he explains. “‘Less than significant’ means it doesn’t present any significant risk to the project.”

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter in June, LACMA director Michael Govan had anticipated the grave forthcoming verdict about the disposition of the site, as concerns over gas and groundwater have long been persistent as his institution developed its campus over the past half-century and residential and commercial projects rose nearby – all adjacent to the still-active La Brea Tar Pits, from which methane gas escapes.

“It’s a very difficult site to build on, with the methane gas and the high water table and all of that – and it’s never stopped us,” Govan told THR. “It’s fine and doable and it’s such a great location. It’s worth the few extra dollars you spend on mitigation. There is a premium but it’s not one that’s discouraging; it’s worth it. It’s a killer location – why wouldn’t you want to utilize it?”

Concerns over gas have defined development debates in the area for decades. In 1985, accumulated gas at a Ross Dress-For-Less on Third St. blew out its windows and partially collapsed its roof, sending 23 people to the hospital. The episode long sidelined the now-back-on-track Wilshire subway extension and played a role in initial discussions about The Grove, which sits opposite the Ross site.

AMPAS announced its partnership with LACMA on the museum project in 2011. (The Academy, which paid out a $5 million lease installment to its fellow institution last year, is expected to make good on the remainder of its $36.1 agreement on Oct. 1.) At the time it had already long been planning a museum on an ArcLight-adjacent site in Hollywood with no known land issues that sits immediately north of its Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study, an archive and screening facility. Another Pritzker Prize winner, Christian de Portzamparc, would have designed that project from the ground up. It subsequently sold off the parcel.

The association with Govan’s LACMA offered AMPAS immediate prestige, plus geographic centrality amidst the city’s existing museum row. (It didn’t hurt that current Academy CEO Dawn Hudson had previously worked with Govan in her previous role as head of Film Independent, which helped run LACMA’s cinema offerings.) “The synergy of an existing museum campus, the ability to fully restore a landmark building – the Academy has a deep tradition of committing to historic sites, having restored two buildings before – and that it was more cost-effective for us [than ground-up construction at the ArcLight-adjacent site] – all of those factors made it a fairly easy decision for us.”

So the challenges posed by gas never fundamentally shifted the calculus?

“Correct.”

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