Business & Economy

End of an era? Downtown LA punk club the Smell gets a demolition notice

Legendary all-ages nightclub The Smell, alongside the Downtown Independent movie theater in downtown Los Angeles in 2011.
Legendary all-ages nightclub The Smell, alongside the Downtown Independent movie theater in downtown Los Angeles in 2011.
Chris Jepsen/ Flickr Creative Commons

Over the past decade, a redevelopment has swept through downtown Los Angeles replacing cash-only taquerias and underused vintage buildings with with market-driven gastropubs and chic live-work lofts.

Through it all, the Smell has remained one of the holdouts from the area's scrappier days. The venue recalls a time when artists, musicians and weirdos of all stripes could afford to call the neighborhood home.

That might change soon.

On Friday evening before Memorial Day weekend, Jim Smith, owner of the Smell, learned of a demolition notice, which he shared on his Facebook page, that had posted on the punk club's building.

Located at 247 S. Main St. (although patrons enter the venue through a back alley), The Smell shares a parcel with the New Jalisco bar, which is also facing the same threat of demolition.

"It was a surprise," Smith tells KPCC. "There's been some signs that something is maybe in the works. Our building was sold a year ago to L&R and they bought the building down the block. I wasn't aware until last night they also bought the Downtown Independent, our neighbor to the south."

Smith is referring to the L&R Group of Companies, which owns WallyPark and Joe's Auto Parks.

According to Smith, L&R now owns all of the land on the west side Main St. between 2nd and 3rd streets. He says all of the businesses in that stretch — the Smell, the New Jalisco, a parking lot, a few other shops and the Downtown Independent movie theater — all received a demolition notice. The Downtown Independent tells KPCC that it, too, has received a demolition notice. 

KPCC has reached out to L&R about its plans for the block but hasn't been able to get in contact with anyone from the company.

LAist reports: "A county representative tells LAist that no information regarding the notice or plans for demolition has been made available yet, and won't be available until at least Tuesday, as all governmental offices are closed for the Memorial Day weekend."

Iconic downtown watering hole Bar 107 closed last year. The Hotel Cecil is about to get a major revamp. Nearly a dozen hotels, many tilting toward the luxury end of the consumer spectrum, are in the works.

The Smell holds a special place for many in the indie music world. When it opened in 1999 in its current location, after nearly two years in North Hollywood, rent was $1000 a month.

Inspired by venues like Jabberjaw and the Impala, Smith says he and his two co-founders wanted to maintain L.A.'s tradition of "DIY spaces that are more focused on the art and the music and the scene in general and not so much on being a bar."

The result was an all-ages venue that nurtured a slew of legendary local bands including No Age, Best Coast, Mika Miko, Abe Vigoda and Health. When performers weren't onstage, you'd often find them working at the nonprofit, volunteer-run space.

Even as much of the neighborhood changed around the venue, things were okay at the Smell, says to Smith — up until last year. In April or May of 2015, L&R became the venue's new landlord.

"They raised the rent, like within a month or two. That's been a little bit of a struggle because they really jacked it up. It went from $2,375 to $4,000 overnight, so almost a 70 percent increase right there," Smith says.

Smith says he has received a huge outpouring of support. He's still trying to assess the situation. "If we can avoid this, we'd love that. I don't know if that's possible. If we can't avoid this, we'd like to look at other possibilities, maybe relocating or purchasing a building," he says.

Is it possible for a music venue like the Smell — or a bar like the New Jalisco or a theater like the Downtown Independent — to survive amid downtown's booming real estate market? 

"We'd love to stay in downtown," Smith says. "The direction downtown is going, that might be impossible, but it's definitely something we'll explore. And if it can't be in downtown, we'll find another location and make our home there."

Update, June 2: A representative from the L&R Group of Companies responded to KPCC. Kevin Litwin, the Chief Operating Officer of Joe's Parking (which is a subsidiary of L&R), writes that he spoke by phone with Jim Smith and sent him a letter, a portion of which is below:

"We should have reached out earlier to communicate our intent to all our tenants so that they understood the process. The notice that was posted on your door last Friday was merely a formality to keep our options open. It is required to obtain a demolition permit in the event that it may be needed in the future. We support you and your message of providing a community within Los Angeles."