Housing Near Freeways: We Can Do Better


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A truck passes by the recently completed Da Vinci in Downtown, where balconies offer a stunning view of the freeway.

The folks at City Hall have known for years that building housing within 500 feet of freeways significantly increases the risk of health problems for inhabitants. Years of research have shown that people who live near freeways are at a higher risk of asthma, heart disease, stroke and lung cancer. The dangers for children are especially alarming, because long-term exposure to the high concentrations of pollutants near freeways can inhibit the development of their lungs and lead to lifelong respiratory problems.

So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when, at a recent City Planning Commission (CPC) hearing, Commissioner Dana Perlman voiced concerns about approving a residential project sited around 200 feet away from the Harbor Freeway. Specifically, Perlman didn’t like the fact that the units facing the freeway had balconies. He pointed out that living next to freeways is unhealthy, and said residents shouldn’t be encouraged to spend time out of doors where they’d be exposed to auto exhaust coming off the 110. While the developer had agreed to reduce the size of the balconies, Perlman argued for turning them into “juliet” balconies, in other words, making them strictly decorative.

Perlman’s suggestion makes perfect sense, and you’d think the other Commissioners would be in total agreement. But no. CPC President David Ambroz interrupted Perlman and asked a staffer to talk about the measures that the project included to mitigate the health impacts of living next to the freeway. Department of City Planning (DCP) staff explained that the developer was required to do a Health Risk Assessment, and it was found that the risk of siting the project 200 feet away from the 110 “didn’t reach any level, threshold that SCAQMD* recognizes”. Also, per city code requirements, the developer would be required to install high-quality air filtration systems and maintain a record of their inspection and maintenance for 5 years.

This is a classic example of how the DCP uses bureaucratic double-talk to shut down any honest discussion of a project’s negative impacts. Just because the SCAQMD doesn’t recognize a problem doesn’t mean it’s not there. Over two decades of research shows significant increased health risks for those who live near freeways. For a survey of the literature, follow this link….

USC Environmental Health Centers

City Hall knows about the health impacts. The DCP has been reminded of this issue repeatedly. And still they have the nerve to pretend that a problem doesn’t exist because the SCAQMD doesn’t see one.

Just as disturbing is the fact that they respond to Perlman’s complaint by saying the developer will install MERV 13 air filtration systems. It should’ve been obvious to everyone at the hearing that these systems will do absolutely nothing to protect someone who’s sitting outside on a balcony. And, as Perlman also pointed out, the requirement to maintain these systems for five years is completely inadequate. It’s likely these buildings will stand for decades. Basically the City is saying that they don’t care what happens to the residents after five years. Unbelievable.

During the discussion it came up that the project also included an internal courtyard, and according to Curbed (Planning Commissioner Rails Against Balconies), Ambroz offered the brilliant observation that, “It’s the same air.” Yeah, David. It’s all bad. But Ambroz’ response is typical of his pro-developer attitude. He often refuses to see a problem even when it’s staring him in the face.

The larger issue here is the City’s approach to building housing near freeways. For years scientists have been talking about the health impacts. City Hall argues that the housing crisis is so severe we can’t afford to rule these areas out. For the sake of discussion, let’s accept City Hall’s argument. So if we have to build near freeways, when we know that it puts residents at increased risk of lung disease, stroke, and cancer, shouldn’t we be making every effort to protect these people? Shouldn’t the City be working with healthcare experts to develop a strict set of guidelines to minimize the risks? LA’s planning code requires projects to include a certain amount of open space. Shouldn’t we consider waiving that requirement for freeway-adjacent housing in view of the potential health problems? Shouldn’t we ban balconies and rooftop decks when it’s clear that using them will expose inhabitants to toxic air? Shouldn’t we mandate enclosing recreational space in these projects? Shouldn’t we require inspection and maintenance of air filtration systems in perpetuity?

But Ambroz’ move to cut Perlman off in favor of a meaningless recitation by DCP staff tells you how much the City cares about these issues. For the most part, the folks who work at the DCP and serve on the City Council don’t give a damn about what happens to the people who live in these buildings. Do they care about whether these tenants live in a healthy environment? No. It’s just about greenlighting projects.

You think I’m being too harsh? Remember, our elected officials have known about this problem for over a decade. The entities that have warned about the effects of near-roadway air pollution include the University of Southern California, the California Air Resources Board, and the Environmental Protection Agency. So finally in 2012 the CPC approved the Advisory Notice Regarding Sensitive Uses Near Freeways. What does it do? Not much. It talks in vague terms about health impacts and offers some recommendations, but does not include any new requirements for developers building in these areas. And here’s the really crazy part. While the City mandates that this notice be given to all applicants for new projects within 1,000 feet of a freeway, there is no requirement that residents of these buildings be given any notice at all. Many people probably understand that living next to a freeway isn’t the best thing for their health, but I doubt most realize that prolonged exposure to that level of pollution makes it more likely they’ll develop heart disease or suffer a stroke. And how many parents know that choosing a freeway-adjacent apartment could result in lifelong damage to their children’s lungs?

If City Hall insists that we have to build near freeways, the least they could do is require that rental and purchase agreements contain a paragraph outlining the potential health risks. That way people who are thinking of renting or buying in these areas can make an informed decision. It makes no sense for the City to share this information with developers without requiring that the same information be shared with prospective inhabitants.

But our elected officials’ lack of concern for the health of LA’s citizens is nothing new. In fact, it’s completely in line with their total disregard for rational planning. Forget the endlessly recycled clichés you get from the Mayor and the City Council about building healthy communities. It’s really all about keeping the developers happy.

I respect Perlman for taking a stand on this issue. Unfortunately, it didn’t make a damn bit of difference. He voted no. The rest voted yes. The future residents at 31st and Figueroa will be able to step out on their balconies and enjoy a view that will take their breath away. In some cases, literally.

If you have a problem with developers including balconies and rooftop decks on freeway-adjacent housing, please write to Director of Planning Vince Bertoni and tell him to put a stop to it.

Here’s a suggested subject line….

“No Balconies or Rooftop Decks Near Freeways”

Here’s Bertoni’s e-mail address. And while you’re at it, might as well copy the Mayor.

Vince Bertoni, Director of Planning

Mayor Eric Garcetti


* South Coast Air Quality Management District


Traffic on the Harbor Freeway at rush hour.


The News Keeps Getting Worse: So Long, LA Weekly

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Back in October the word came down that the LA Weekly had been bought by Semanal Media, a company no one seemed to know anything about. It didn’t look good, and this week our worst fears were confirmed. The new owners got rid of most of the Weekly staff, firing all the editors and all but one writer. Shortly after a notice appeared on the Weekly web site listing some of the people behind Semanal. The group includes real estate players Paul Makarechian and Michael Muger who hold extensive assets in Southern California and beyond, Kevin Xu, a wealthy biotech entrepreneur, and David Welch, an attorney who apparently specializes in marijuana law. The announcement also said that Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of UC Berkeley’s law school, “plans to invest”. It’s interesting that even though Chemerinsky isn’t on board yet, the new owners decided to include him anyway. Possibly to add some kind of scholarly legitimacy, since only one of the people involved has any background in journalism at all.

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Is it possible this group of investors is seriously committed to maintaining the Weekly’s reputation as an energetic and engaged observer of life in LA? Sure. It’s also possible we could wake up to a snowstorm tomorrow. But don’t bet on it. Let’s just think about the way they handled the purchase of the paper and the firings. A group of investors hiding behind a newly invented company buy the Weekly while keeping their identities a secret. Doesn’t sound like they have much interest in openness or transparency, both requirements for legitimate journalistic enterprises. Then, instead of approaching the staff shake-up by letting employees know what their intentions are and preparing a transition plan, the new owners keep the staff in the dark for weeks, finally letting the axe fall days before they reveal who they are. Can’t say their methods inspire much confidence. And honestly, it seems to me they reveal a deep streak of cowardice.

LAW 10 Thelma Louise

The recent shutdown of LAist and its sister news sites was bad news. The turn of events at the Weekly is beyond bad. I’d like to cling to a desperate optimism and hope for the best, but the more I read about the new owners, the more depressed I get. Brian Calle, who will be taking over editorial management of the paper, wrote the post on the Weekly web site that finally revealed the names of the investors. Here’s a quote….

“Our new ownership team is a patchwork of people who care about Los Angeles, care about the community and want to once again see an incredibly relevant, thriving L.A. Weekly with edge and grit that becomes the cultural center of the city.”

I may be pessimistic, but to me this sounds like nothing more than insincere drivel. Is it just me, or do the words “incredibly relevant” sound to you like the kind of marketing-speak you get from second-rate publicists? Generally I feel like the people who throw around words like “edge and grit” are desperately trying to make themselves feel “authentic”.

LAW 15 Cops

I’d never heard of Calle before this week, so I went looking for info on the web. This piece from the OC Weekly didn’t give me much hope. While the writer takes some nasty swipes at the LA Weekly, he also gives some disturbing background on Calle’s tenure as an editor at the Orange County Register. Forget about sincerity. It sounds like the guy has a hard time reaching for accuracy.

LA Weekly’s New Head Honcho from OC Weekly

LAW 20 Chast
And so the outlook for local journalism in LA keeps getting more and more bleak. There are still good reporters at the Times, but it seems like it’s probably only a matter of time before Tribune Publishing/TRONC manages to kill it. The Daily News has been struggling for a while. LAist is gone, and while LA Observed does good work, they don’t have the resources to reach a broad audience. CityWatch is a great grab bag of local news and opinion, but I get the feeling its audience is also limited.

Like everybody else in print journalism, the Weekly has struggled in recent years. I’m kind of a pack rat, and I have a few boxes stuffed with old newspapers. Yesterday I pulled out an issue of the Weekly from August 2001. It contained almost 200 pages. Recent editions run anywhere between 40 and 70. Back in the 80s and 90s it not only covered local politics but national politics as well. At its peak, the Weekly did a phenomenal job of keeping its readers in touch with the latest in art, music, film, theatre, and whatever else was happening on the local scene. And despite shrinking resources in recent years, the staff still made a valiant effort to cover LA news and culture.

I’d love to be proven wrong. I’d love to see the new owners show that they “care about Los Angeles [and] care about the community”. Nothing I’ve seen from them so far gives me any hope that they’re sincere.

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Mama Shelter, DJs and the DCP


MS Side

Side view of Mama Shelter

[This post has been updated.  The first version implied that the DCP had deliberately failed to send me a notice for the Mama Shelter hearing.  But I was cleaning out my inbox recently, and found the e-mail, unopened.  I must have let it slip past.  So my fault, not theirs.]

Last week I went to a hearing down at City Hall. The agenda item I was concerned about was a request by a Hollywood hotel, Mama Shelter, to allow live entertainment, including DJs, on their rooftop until 2:00 am.

Let me explain why I was worried. I like to have a drink and listen to live music as much as anyone, but the Hollywood party scene has grown to the point where it’s really causing problems for the community. I don’t live close enough to the boulevard to be bothered by the noise, but over the years I’ve heard many people complain that sometimes it gets so bad they can’t sleep. There are a number of apartment buildings close to Mama Shelter, and senior housing just a couple blocks away. The other problem is that as the party scene grows, the crowds are getting increasingly rowdy. Violent crime in Hollywood has been rising for years, and the LAPD doesn’t have enough staff to keep up. Check out this recent report and you’ll see that, except for homicide, violent crime has risen in every category over the past two years.

LAPD Hollywood Area Profile, November 2017

So I had some definite concerns about Mama Shelter’s request, and on the day of the hearing I was going to let everybody in the room know I was not happy. But instead I got a nice surprise. The first person to speak was the rep for the hotel. He said they knew the community was concerned about the noise, and for the time being they were withdrawing their request for live music on the roof. He didn’t say it was completely off the table, but the hotel will try to work with the LAPD to find a compromise. I was impressed. Who knows what the eventual outcome will be, but at least these people are listening. I do hope a compromise can be reached. I should also mention that LAPD vice officers spoke at the hearing, and they gave the hotel high marks for adhering to the law. Hollywood has had numerous problems with bad operators, so it was encouraging to hear their praise for Mama Shelter.

MS Grnd Floor

The problem for Mama Shelter is that they’re dealing with increased competition from new hotels that are springing up all around it. City Hall has decided they want to turn Central Hollywood into party central, and the Department of City Planning (DCP) is approving pretty much every crazy request they get from developers. Almost every hotel project that’s been pitched for the area in recent years includes a rooftop bar/lounge. Hollywood has been a mix of residential and commercial for over a hundred years, and it’s always been a balancing act. But in recent years the City has shown increasing contempt for the people who live in the area. There are already well over 60 places you can get a drink in Central Hollywood, and the DCP keeps approving more liquor permits, showing little concern for alcohol-related harms. And they don’t seem to care about people getting a good night’s sleep either, as they continue to approve requests to offer live entertainment. Do they have any idea how much extra work they’re creating for the LAPD? I have no problem with people coming to Hollywood to have a few drinks and hear some music, but more and more it seems to be drawing party animals who just want to get wasted and cut loose. Not good for the community.

Actually, I have a few problems with the DCP. Not only have they shown a growing disregard for rational planning practices, but the agency is becoming increasingly opaque and dishonest.  The experience with the hearing for Mama Shelter is a classic example.  When a friend forwarded the hearing notice, I saw that to review the impacts of allowing music on the rooftop they’d done an addendum to Mama Shelter’s original environmental assessment. (Put simply, they’re using the hotel’s original environmental assessment and adding a new section to talk about what impact live music might have on the community.) I was thinking I’d like to take a look at the addendum, but I couldn’t find it on the net. So on Monday, November 6, I send an e-mail to the zoning administrator (ZA) asking if he can forward it. A couple days go by. No response. On Wednesday I send another e-mail. This time he writes back to say….

“In reviewing the case file, as the size and overall mode of operation will not change, a categorical exemption in lieu of the reconsideration will be prepared for the project.”

There are a couple of big problems here. In the first place, the ZA is saying that even though Mama Shelter is asking to allow live music on the rooftop until 2:00 am, the “overall mode of operation will not change”. What?! The DCP’s original determination for Mama Shelter specifically prohibited live music. Now the ZA is saying that having DJs on the roof doesn’t represent a change in the way they operate? This is ridiculous, and to my mind it shows how the DCP is willing to completely ignore reality in order to serve the interests of property owners.

But the second problem is even more serious. The hearing notice said this change of use was being assessed by an addendum to the environmental assessment. Now, less than a week before the hearing, the ZA tells me that it’s being handled with a Categorical Exemption (CE), which means that the DCP sees no significant impacts at all. Forget about that fact that they’re pretending live music on the rooftop won’t impact the neighborhood. Now the ZA is changing the content to be considered less than a week before the hearing. And what’s even more bizarre, no revised agenda was ever posted. I checked the DCP web site the day before the hearing. It still said the addendum would be discussed.

I brought all this up at the hearing, and the gentleman who presided said he would discuss it with the ZA. Since Mama Shelter had withdrawn their request for live music it didn’t seem important to take it further. But this isn’t an isolated incident. This may seem like a relatively minor case, but I’ve been following development issues for years now, and more and more the DCP has been resorting to shady maneuvers like this to slide things through.

You want some examples?

Let’s talk about the North Westlake Design District (NWDD). The DCP wants to create a zoning overlay for the area roughly bounded by Temple/Beverly, Glendale, Third, and Hoover. The 2014 draft proposal says it will “guide new development that will complement the existing character of the neighborhood, create a pedestrian friendly environment, and provide neighborhood-serving amenities.” Translation: This community is next on City Hall’s gentrification hit list. Why do I think this? The first thing on the list of permitted uses: art galleries. The list also includes bakeries, bars, restaurants and cafés. And what are the prohibited uses? This list includes pretty much any business related to cars, including sales, storage, upholstery and repair. This list also prohibits bowling alleys, public storage facilities, and recycling sites. The latest version of the NWDD has dropped this list of approved and prohibited uses, but the intent is still clear. Many of this low-income community’s existing businesses would gradually be phased out to create another upscale enclave populated mostly by white people. And who proposed this new zoning overlay? Did it come from the community? Or course not. The draft proposal says up front, “The zoning ordinance is initiated by the City of Los Angeles.” Why isn’t the DCP instead initiating an update of the Community Plan, starting with public meetings to get input from residents? Because that would thwart City Hall’s plans to turn the area over to developers for yet another round of gentrification and displacement.

Or how about this item. Earlier this year the City Planning Commission (CPC) approved the tommie, a hotel slated for a vacant parcel on Selma near Wilcox in Hollywood. This 8-story building will have bar/lounges on the ground floor and rooftop deck and will offer live entertainment. This will be a party hotel, and the developer reps at the CPC hearing said they hoped to draw the crowd from the Cahuenga club scene. I mentioned earlier that I was concerned about the DCP’s willingness to dump projects like this on an area that’s already dealing with rising violent crime over the past few years. But to really understand how little the DCP cares about the community, you should take a look at the environmental assessment. In the section entitled Surrounding Uses, it fails to mention that Selma Elementary School is less than 500 feet away. (ENV-2016-4313-MND, See page II-5) What’s worse, even though the members of the CPC were informed during public testimony that the school was there, they never mentioned it once during their deliberations. They didn’t question the assessment’s conclusion that construction of the hotel would not make a significant difference in the quality of the air these kids were breathing. Apparently diesel exhaust and particulate emissions from trucks and heavy equipment during the 23 months of construction would not impact their health. It also seems that noise from the construction site would have no impact on classroom instruction. Unbelievable.

This last example is hot off the presses. Just this month the LA Weekly reported that a high-rise apartment building in Downtown has been transformed into a hotel. During the DCP’s approval process, Onni Group’s Level Furnished Living (LFL) was described as a residential project. The City argued that the building would provide new dwelling units at a time when housing supply is tight. But when the Weekly asked Onni about the change of use, a representative responded that the DCP was in the process of finalizing a permit that would allow transient occupancy at LFL. In other words, it seems that the city agency that approved the construction of the project claiming that it would supply badly needed housing, has now decided that housing isn’t so important after all, and is willing to turn these units into hotel rooms.

Sure, the DCP’s bizarre switch in advance of the Mama Shelter hearing is a minor problem. But it’s just one more example of this agency’s dishonest and deceptive practices. When the ZA wrote to say they were going with a CE, I wrote back saying I still wanted to see a copy of the addendum. That makes three times I requested a copy. I never got it. Based on the ZA’s sudden shift to a CE, I have a feeling the addendum was never prepared. My guess is that it was just language inserted into a notice to make it look like the DCP was following the rules.

It’s clear they’re not.

MS Roof