Flea and the Battle for L.A.'s Coolest Corner

Gary Leonard
Flea, left, with L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti

"It used to be a lot more sleepy, a lot less expensive, it wasn’t hipster central — but I still really love it," the Red Hot Chili Pepper says of Silver Lake, where a new complex could threaten the vibe

Sunset Junction, gateway to the hilly and hipster-friendly Los Angeles enclave known as Silver Lake, is currently a battlefield. And Flea may be its only hope.

The spot where two railway lines once converged has come to represent a certain upscale, bohemian ethos — the Williamsburg of the West, where on any given day you might spot locals like James Franco or Chris Pine thumbing through scripts outside the always bustling Intelligentsia Coffee bar.

But Sunset Junction will soon welcome a controversial new addition: a mixed-use development — big, boxy and blue — housing 100 apartments and street-level retail space. Nine of those units are designated as "affordable housing," offered at far below market rates to select tenants who qualify as low-income. In exchange, landlords are given higher-density allowances by the city, meaning they can build bigger.

Locals are up in arms, saying the construction — one of three planned projects in the area from urban developer Frost/Chaddock — will destroy the low-key charm of L.A.'s hippest hood.

Frost/Chaddock's rendering of a mixed-use development in Sunset Junction (SLNC)

Enter Michael "Flea" Balzary. The Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist has lived in the area for 30 years, and 13 years ago founded the Silverlake Conservatory of Music – a nonprofit music school meant to fill a void in L.A.'s dwindling arts-education programs. Sandwiched between Intelligentsia and a leather accessories boutique, the conservatory has long outgrown its tiny storefront home, housed inside a Mediterranean-style shopping complex owned by Gareth Kantner, son of Jefferson Airplane co-founder Paul Kantner.

Flea has offered to buy the 4000 Sunset plot, which is directly across the street from the conservatory. There he proposes a much larger school capable of comfortably accommodating 1,400 students. (The current location can barely handle the 700 it has now.) Its design will adhere to the look of Kantner's terra-cotta-colored retail strip, offering a quainter, two-story structure tucked away from the street behind a grassy courtyard.

But despite making an "above market" offer for the land, the amount of which was not specified at the meeting, Frost/Chaddock — which stands to make millions off this hot, housing-starved location — is not budging. Both sides faced off on Sept. 4 at a Silver Lake Neighborhood Council meeting, where Flea himself showed up to make his heartfelt case. 

"I truly love this neighborhood," Flea, 51, told a packed auditorium at the Micheltorena Elementary School. "I’ve watched it change over the last 30 years a lot. It used to be a lot more sleepy, a lot less expensive, it wasn’t hipster central, but I still really love it." 

"If those units are put in," he continued, "it will stress the infrastructure of the neighborhood, parking will be a nightmare, and it will be the beginning of the downfall of the neighborhood." Later, residents took turns at a microphone to vent their frustrations at Dave Rand, a land-use attorney representing the project.

Frost/Chaddock acquired the three Silver Lake development sites in 2006 and 2007. Another planned site several blocks away currently houses a creepy, abandoned hotel nicknamed the "Bates Motel." (It's conveniently located at the corner of Bates Street.) No one is objecting to anything going up at that address.

But 4000 Sunset is a different matter. The trouble began in 2011, when Frost/Chaddock demolished a row of shops that once stood there. The shops, one of which was once home to trailblazing LGBT bookstore A Different Light, were in the running for designation as historic cultural monuments.

What followed were years of hand-wringing and debate over what, if anything, should happen on the razed lot. The conservatory has issued three letters of intent to Frost/Chaddock offering bids for the property, two of which were sent in 2014.

How the same corner would look as the new home to Flea's Silverlake Conservatory of Music. (SLNC)

In his remarks, Rand defended his client. "I can tell you in my career as a land-use attorney, I have never been in a project that has been so participatory," Rand said, stressing that Frost/Chaddock revised the design to make the structure less imposing, added subterranean public parking spaces, agreed to keep chain stores out of the retail spaces and set aside free-to-use community space for local nonprofits. 

One iteration of the project designated 5,000 square feet of leasing space for the school, but the conservatory, wanting to own its new home, turned it down. "This is not about us versus the conservatory," Rand pledged. But Flea feels differently. "They own it, it's their business what they're going to do with," he conceded. "But the community has a say."

Both sides now await the results of an environmental impact report for all three developments, the last hurdle before construction is set to begin. The report is expected to be presented in early 2015.