You just never know what the City of LA will come up with next….
There was an empty lot in my neighborhood that had been sitting vacant for years. After a developer pitched a hotel for the site and got turned down, a new project came along consisting of 18 3-story condos. It seemed like a good fit, the Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council (HHWNC) looked it over and gave it a thumbs up, and construction started last year.
Everything seemed okay until last November when I noticed what looked like a railing going up around the perimeter of the roof. Were they adding rooftop decks? That wasn’t mentioned in the hearing notice for the project or the environmental assessment, and it wasn’t part of the project approved by the HHWNC. Not long after the railing went up, it became clear that the construction crew had added staircases leading to the roof, and soon they were building stairwell coverings.
Why was I concerned? Well, here in Hollywood people like to give parties. Nothing wrong with parties in general, but sometimes they get pretty noisy, and sometimes they go on really late. It’s already an issue in the neighborhood, and building 18 individual rooftop decks seemed like it was just increasing the chances of someone throwing an all-night open-air bash.
So initially my concern was selfish. I was worried about the noise this project might create, and I was wondering why the rooftop decks hadn’t been included in the package that was presented to the community and approved by the Department of City Planning (DCP). I called up my City Council office, and talked to a very nice guy who said he’d look into it. Over the next two months I sent three e-mails to this Council Office staffer asking for an update. Never got an answer.
But during that time it occurred to me that there might be another problem with this project, a much more serious issue than raucous late night parties….
You see, these condos are going up right next to the Hollywood Freeway. I’d say at the farthest point the structure is about 150 feet from the freeway and at the nearest point about 50. I started wondering if building so close to a major traffic corridor wouldn’t pose health risks for the future occupants, so I got on the net to do some research.
Probably everybody reading this already knows what I found out. There’s a large body of research showing a higher incidence of respiratory problems among people who live near freeways. The risk is especially high for children and seniors. In fact, young people can suffer lifelong damage since ongoing exposure to pollutants from auto exhaust may affect the development of their lungs. This problem has gotten a lot of media attention recently, but the information has been out there for years. USC has been studying the effects of air pollution on children since the 90s. Here’s an article published by USC News back in 2004.
USC Study Links Smoggy Air to Lung Damage in Children, September 2004
Not long after, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) published their Air Quality and Land Use Handbook, warning cities about the risks of building housing near freeways. Here’s the number one item on the handbook’s list of recommendations.
“Avoid siting new sensitive land uses within 500 feet of a freeway, urban roads with 100,000 vehicles/day, or rural roads with 50,000 vehicles/day.”
So the information has been out there for more than a decade, and the City Council is well aware of the health impacts to people living close to freeways. They’ve talked about ways to deal with the risks, but very little has happened in the way of concrete action. In fact, in recent years the Council has approved thousands of residential units in close proximity to freeways. They argue that LA’s housing shortage is so dire we can’t afford to prohibit construction in these areas even if there are health risks. Even though I don’t buy that argument, I know that many people would agree.
But rooftop decks?! Are they crazy?!
After reading up on the potential health risks, the idea of adding rooftop decks to these condos seemed so absolutely insane I thought it was worth making a few phone calls. I rang up the woman at the DCP who prepared the initial study for the project. I explained that the rooftop decks hadn’t been included in the project description or the renderings that were shown to the HHWNC, and that the height had increased by 30%. She said that the project complied with existing zoning and that the Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) had the final authority over what was permitted. I asked how the DCP could allow this since noise impacts from rooftop decks weren’t considered in the environmental assessment. She replied that the DCP had considered operational impacts from the project and had approved the assessment. Finally, I pointed out that the rooftop decks posed significant potential health risks to the future tenants. Her response was that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) did not require the DCP to consider impacts to those who would live on the site in the future.
I was angry, but not really surprised. I’ve realized over the last few years that the folks at the DCP really don’t care about how proposed projects will affect the lives of the people who live in this city. It’s all about keeping the developers happy.
Who knows why I even went on to contact LADBS. I guess I must get some kind of sick kick out of banging my head against a wall. Anyway, here’s their response.
The roof top decks and the overall building height of 44.9 feet is allowed by right, therefore LADBS does have the ability to approve the project as proposed. The Zoning Variance reviewed by City Planning only addressed a parking requirement. City Planning has approved the plans for the current project.
LADBS’ authority to approve projects is based on Building Code requirements. The Building Code does not have any restrictions for a rooftop deck near a freeway.
So according to LADBS, they did everything by the book. They don’t see a problem.
But there is a problem here. It’s bad enough that a developer is allowed to present one project to the community and then build something substantially different. But it’s even worse when a developer is allowed to create a clear health risk for the people who will live in the finished building.
I tried arguing with the bureaucrats who approve these projects and got nowhere. Maybe it’s time to take it to the higher-ups. If you feel there’s a problem here that needs to be addressed, I hope you’ll feel strongly enough about it to write an e-mail to the three people listed below. And please use the following subject line….
Freeway-Adjacent Rooftop Decks at 2111 Cahuenga
Eric Garcetti, Mayor
Vince Bertoni, Director of City Planning
Frank M. Bush, LADBS General Manager
This seems like a lot ‘you’ knowing what’s best for other people. This really reads as someone who is just trying to find multiple reasons to support why their complaints are justified. There are air purification standards for buildings near highways and for those who want to hang out on their rooftop decks near a highway…let them. I’m sure the noise of the highway isn’t much worse than some people hanging out late.
Try to think of developers as manufacturers or factory owners… only their product is housing. I think this may help you to understand their role in the economy better. For the fashion industry there are people who will buy jeans with ripped knees…unfortunately, some people will hurt their knees if they fall, or their legs might get cold. The product filled a niche and the consumer purchased to fill that demand, the creator is not responsible for the wearer. Same with development.
As for the planning proposal, it sounds like the intention of the proposal was to illustrate the parking variance. They may have generated a supplemental permit for a revision in their design which then included the rooftop deck, not as a means to sneak past planning, but perhaps an idea that came up later. I think rather than viewing development in LA as a boon and yourself as a victim, maybe see that there’s a process which you personally don’t understand very well, and feel slighted for not having someones vision adhere to your own…but honestly, if they are putting the work and time in to create housing, what equivalent work have you put into the neighborhood to justify that you can tell them how to build? I’m sure you’re good intentioned, I’m just growing tired of the victimized finger pointing from Angelenos towards developers providing housing. City of LA gives a long list of tools to help renters, homeowners, and communities to govern future development and in my personal opinion, too many.
Thanks for your comment. Yes, there’s a lot of anger and criticism surrounding development in LA, some of it justified and some of it unjustified. But there are good projects and bad projects, and many projects that fall somewhere in between. We do need to build housing, but that doesn’t mean all housing projects are good. Also, I strongly believe that the public should be engaged in planning for development in their community. Sure, that takes time, and can cost the developer money. But poorly planned projects can have serious impacts on a neighborhood. It can also have negative impacts on the people who live in newly built units.
There are decades of research showing that living next to freeways significantly raises the risks of heart and lung disease. I cited the study from USC in my post, and I also referred to the handbook published by the California Air Resources Board. Yes, there are air purification standards, but they obviously aren’t strong enough because there is ample, documented evidence of LA residents who suffer health harms from living near freeways. Exposure would be greater sitting on a rooftop deck, but the evidence shows that peoples’ health is impacted even when they’re staying indoors. You can say that people have the option to choose whether or not they want to live in these buildings, but children usually don’t have much say in the matter, and they’re the group that would be most impacted. Children can suffer lifelong lung damage from living close to freeways. And the City doesn’t even require developers to notify residents of the health risks.
The comparison to manufacturing jeans with holes in them doesn’t seem to really work. Skinned knees and lung damage are very different injuries with very different consequences. A better comparison might be to prescription drugs. Prescription drugs can offer many important benefits, but they can also have side effects. If a manufacturer fails to notify doctors and patients of severe, lasting side effects, they can be held liable.
We need to build housing, but we need to build housing that actually benefits the community. While there are many responsible, reputable developers who take pride in their work and want to provide a quality product, there are also developers who are just out to make a buck who don’t really care what happens after the project is finished. Unfortunately, instead of providing real oversight, the City of LA seems only interested in rushing projects through the pipeline. After seeing the Department of City Planning approve a pair of skyscrapers on a site crossed by a major quake fault (Millennium Hollywood) and a large residential/commercial project in a high fire severity zone (The Vineyards in Porter Ranch) I have to say I’m very cynical about LA’s approval process. These are just two examples. There are many more. I’m happy to support good development, like The Crest apartments on Sherman Way that provide permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless people, or the LGBT Center’s new Rosenstein Campus. But when developers propose projects that have serious problems, I think it’s important for residents to speak up, not just to protect their own interests but for the benefit of the community.
We’re probably not going to agree on this subject, but I still appreciate your comments. We may have different perspectives, but I’m sure your intentions are good. Thanks for taking the time to respond to the post.