To further promote the vision of its late founder, Affordable Living for the Aging (ALA) has demolished a tangible piece of its history in order to house 17 homeless seniors in West Hollywood.
That sacrifice was celebrated on Friday, when officials held the groundbreaking ceremony for the Janet L. Witkin Center, which is being constructed on the site of the agency’s headquarters of more than 20 years.
ALA had operated out of a residence on the site since the late 1980s, but the home, which was the focal point of the agency’s advocacy for so many years, was razed in February to benefit more seniors.
West Hollywood City Councilwoman Abbe Land said seniors need housing that is supportive, creates community, offers respect and retains the dignity of its tenants.
“That’s what this project will do,” she said. “And how incredibly marvelous that it will be for seniors who have lost of all of those things.
The legacy project started at the end of 2009, months after Witkin died of breast cancer at the age of 62. Newly-appointed ALA president and CEO David Grunwald made the project one of his first initiatives.
Located at 937 Fairfax Ave., the center will offer seniors an open air courtyard, an edible rooftop garden and flexible community space. All of the units will have pocket doors, walk-in showers and counters at different heights for residents with disabilities.
The facility, expected to open in early 2014, will also offer new programming opportunities for tenants and other ALA residents. Offices on site will provide mental health services for previously homeless residents, and community areas will be utilized for classes, social programs and special events.
In the garden, officials will place a stone pedestal portrait bust of Witkin, sculpted by artist Simon Toparovsky, who created the life-size bronze crucifix at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles.
While Friday’s event centered on the groundbreaking ceremony, it also served as an opportunity to honor Witkin, who relentlessly pursued additional living options for seniors after lamenting her grandfather’s lack of choices years ago. To push the effort, she often relied on partnerships with elected officials, such as Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who had worked with her as a member of the Los Angeles City Council.
“It wasn’t exactly a partnership. It was more like a dictatorship. She was the dictator,” Yaroslavsky joked, adding that he was honored to speak at the event. “This is such a special day for all of us who knew Janet. This is the ultimate gift that will keep on giving in Janet’s name. It’s the gift that Janet left us. Her legacy will live on long after she left us.”
He said he was delighted that the legacy project was being built on Fairfax Avenue — in a neighborhood and city that Witkin loved. Yaroslavsky said it is the area in which ALA began its mission.
“[You] couldn’t have found a more central place, geographically, to Janet’s life,” he added.
Yaroslavsky said Witkin was a “visionary” who “willed her vision into reality.” Even when people were skeptical about her ideas, Witkin pulled people along with her confidence, he said. The supervisor said her ideas were “sound” and “sustainable.”
“I said to my staff, ‘If Janet calls and she wants something, just say yes. It will take us a lot less time than arguing about it,’” Yaroslavsky said, adding that the office wouldn’t get into trouble because, “Janet was always right.”
He said one of big reasons he won his election for Los Angeles City Council in 1975 was because he included affordable housing for seniors on his campaign platform — a move that was spurred by his conversations with Witkin. When she died, it left a void, Yaroslavsky said.
“She was radiant,” he said. “She was resilient and she was a visionary. She did what each and every one of us would like to believe we have done, which is to make a difference while we were alive on this planet, and make a difference that will be sustained beyond our lives.”
West Hollywood Mayor Jeffrey Prang said that when he initially ran for office, ALA founding member Bob Burke told him that he would meet Witkin, and Burke wanted him to be prepared. He said the legacy project served as a reminder that officials must continue to push for affordable housing, which is increasingly difficult.
“We need to recommit ourselves to make certain that this need continues to be provided [for] by city government — not just in West Hollywood, but every place in Los Angeles County and throughout the country,” Prang added.
Land agreed, citing the dissolution of the state’s redevelopment agencies.
“We are all going to have to become advocates to figure out other opportunities and other funding sources for affordable housing,” she said.
West Hollywood City Councilman John Heilman also spoke of Witkin, saying that she was irrepressible, a workaholic, out of control at times and a zealot in the best sense of the word.
“We talk about this being a legacy project for Janet, but the reality is every building project that ALA has and maintains and operates is Janet’s legacy,” he said.
Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz, 5th District, a former West Hollywood council member, said Witkin was “kind of a force of nature.”
“I don’t think I ever met anyone who said ‘no’ to Janet — at least anyone who said ‘no’ and made it stick,” he said, adding that ALA has kept her vision alive. “We know this will keep going, and keep expanding and keep providing people with amazing services for the years to come. I appreciate that.”
Grunwald promised that ALA would continue to grow, and said Witkin’s legacy will be spread nationwide through an upcoming shared housing campaign. He said the agency would keep working to ensure that aging is something “we all embrace and care about.”
“We’re going to live up to Janet’s expectations,” Grunwald said.
ALA officials said there are many seniors on waiting lists for affordable housing units, and requested contributions to benefit future projects. The center is the only ALA project currently under construction, but the agency is awaiting financial approval for a 15-unit project in the Lancaster area.
Seniors looking for affordable housing units are advised to speak with an ALA housing counselor by calling (323)650-7988. For information, visit www.alaseniorliving.org.
This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.