East LA celebrity tree site development project sparks controversy

The owner of the property plans to build a duplex around the tree, but some community members disagree with the decision.
EAST LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- The Chicano '90s film "Blood In, Blood Out" featured many stars, among them was an Australian Bunya Pine tree in East Los Angeles. The tree is now a community dubbed landmark known as 'El Pino' or 'The Pine Tree.'

"I grew up around there, and then obviously the movie, 'Blood In, Blood Out' and there's just been other movies. So there's a lot of history," said Art Gastelum, owner of the property.

The property where the tree is located has been empty. But that will soon change, Gastelum plans to break ground in March for a new duplex - which will surround the iconic tree.

"I didn't know how important the tree was. I knew it was important, but I didn't realize how important it was to so many people around the world," said Gastelum.

But there has been resistance from some community members against the duplex project; among their concerns is gentrification.

"My primary concern as a homeowner here is that on this project it's going to have a huge impact on the community that I came to live in and then I bought my home in. And so for us in the community, we'd rather see it remain a public space, declared a historic landmark and really help create a public park there," said Miguel Paredes, who lives near the tree.

Paredes also said he's concerned the construction can damage the tree and he doesn't believe the owner plans on saving the tree, despite assurance from Gastelum.

"We don't, we don't believe that. And I don't think there's anybody in this community, or that fully understands what's happening, who believes that building two buildings on this property is gonna somehow save the tree," said Paredes.

Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo and Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda Solis, who both represent the area, both told ABC7 in separate statements there is a commitment from the owner to preserve the tree.

Gastelum said his initial plan is to lease out the duplex. He also plans to add a plaque to honor and preserve the tree's history and said it will still be available for photo opportunities.

"I elected to do something that would be the minimum amount of intrusiveness in the community, build something that I'm going to be proud of, and I think that the community would be proud of," said Gastelum.

Rossana D'Antonio, Deputy Director of the Los Angeles County Public Works, Development Services said in a statement: "Public Works has approved the building plans for a proposed two-unit single family dwelling located at 520 N. Indiana. Since all clearances have been completed, the builder can request that the building permit be issued and start construction at any time."

Gastelum said he plans to break ground in March and expects to complete the duplex project by the end of the year.

Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo's statement in its entirety:
"L.A. County sold the property where El Pino is rooted half a decade ago, and as someone who grew up in East L.A., I want El Pino to remain healthy for generations to come. I want El Pino protected and appreciate that there is a commitment from the new property owner, Mr. Gastelum, to ensure its preservation."

Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chair Hild Solis' statement in its entirety:

"I appreciate the property owner's swift response to engage with residents and stakeholders on the concerns surrounding 'El Pino' and its future," said Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda L. Solis, Supervisor to the First District. "The current approved development plans do not illustrate any impacts to the tree's canopy - and my office has confirmed through the property owner that they have no intentions to remove the tree, but rather preserve it as part of East Los Angeles' cultural landscape. The tree has a long history, and I look forward to future generations being able to experience its significance."

This is an updated version of the story which was originally published on February 8, 2021.

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