Just Upzoning the Suburbs Won’t Solve Our Housing Problems

Anybody who pays attention to the news knows that there’s a heated, ongoing debate in LA, and across California, about how to solve our housing problems.  There are lots of different proposals floating around, but the message we hear most often from elected officials and the development community is that we have to upzone to allow a whole lot more density.  The argument goes that it’s just a matter of supply and demand.  If we upzone our cities and upzone our suburbs, that will unleash the power of the free market and we’ll have plenty of cheap housing for everybody  

One idea that’s especially hot right now is the proposal to upzone areas dominated by single-family homes (SFH).  Some State legislators have embraced this approach, resulting in bills like SB 1120.  The City of LA hasn’t yet made a move to upzone SFH areas, but the concept is popular among local progressives who believe we just need to build more housing.  Heated debates have erupted over the topic on social media.  At a recent hearing on the Hollywood Community Plan Update (HCPU) some members of the public expressed enthusiastic support for ending SFH zoning. 

It’s easy to see why the idea is popular.  Young people, especially young people of color, are finding it difficult or impossible to afford housing these days.  Whether you’re renting or buying, prices are sky-high.  If you accept the argument that just creating more supply will drive prices down, it must seem insane to maintain zoning that only allows single-family homes.  The argument is that older, affluent homeowners are selfishly defending their own turf, shutting out young people who struggle to make ends meet.  Proponents of upzoning SFH areas also point to the history of racism that used tools like zoning to promote segregation.

Taking the last point first, there’s no question that racism has been a huge factor in housing policy in LA (and across the nation).  There’s a well-documented history of real estate interests working with city officials to favor whites over people of color.  It’s naive to think that racism doesn’t still play a part in the housing market today.  Beyond that, it’s completely understandable that young people who can barely afford to pay the rent would look at the suburbs and ask why some people own single-family homes when they’re just a step or two away from homelessness.  And there’s another reason the idea of upzoning SFH areas is attractive: It’s simple.  If just building more homes will allow everyone to have housing, how could anyone argue against it? 

And that’s the problem.  The way case is being stated is too simplistic.  It assumes that all we have is a problem of supply and demand.  But the 21st century housing market is far from simple.  There are many reasons why housing is so inaccessible for so many people.  Zoning is a factor, but it’s just one aspect of the problem.  The biggest factor, one that’s often ignored in heated housing debates, is that real estate has become a global industry powered by trillions of dollars in investor cash. In The Vacancy Report (SAJE/ACCE/UCLA Law, 2020) researchers point out that in recent decades housing has rapidly become financialized.  Private equity and corporate entities have come to dominate the housing market, and they’re only interested in getting the highest rate of return as quickly as possible.

So if we’re talking about upzoning, it’s important to say up front that the value of urban and suburban land is determined by how much you can build on it.  As soon as you upzone a parcel, its value increases.  The more you can build, the more it’s worth.  If you take a parcel that’s zoned for one single-family home and upzone it to allow four, eight or more units, you’re actually making the land much more valuable and therefore much more costly.  The cost of land in LA is already extremely high, and increasing allowed density will drive the cost even higher. 

If the key issue is the lack of affordable housing, upzoning by itself does nothing to solve the problem.  As Patrick Condon points out in his book Sick City, when a city just increases allowable density, it’s really increasing the cost of the land, and that additional cost is ultimately paid by the household that’s renting or buying.  The benefit goes to the landowner, not the renter or buyer.  For a solution, Condon holds up Cambridge, Massachusetts, where city officials adopted an ordinance that allows increased density but only for the construction of permanently affordable units. 

This is a radical solution, and one that probably has no chance of being adopted in a city like LA.  The first people to object would be real estate investors, who would argue that they can’t possibly make a profit by building affordable units.  Exactly.  Because the Cambridge ordinance includes strict affordability requirements, it increases allowable density without jacking up the value of the land.  This opens the door to not-for-profit affordable housing developers who can build what we most need: housing accessible to middle-income and low-income people.  California legislators claim that bills like SB 1120 will help solve our housing problem just because they increase density, but without an affordability requirement, we might as well just be stuffing cash in the pockets of real estate investors.  

And now back to the Hollywood Community Plan Update.  The HCPU Community Plan Implementation Overlay (CPIO) is also based on the idea that increasing density will solve all our housing problems.  It offers generous incentives for residential projects in Central Hollywood that include some affordable housing.  Projects that offer between 10% and 23% affordable can receive a 100% density bonus, along with other incentives like increased floor area ratio (FAR) and reduced setbacks. 

This is actually a rehash of the Transit Oriented Community (TOC) Incentives, a program that’s already in place.  The City boasts about the affordable housing created by the TOC program, but what they don’t mention is that many TOC projects involve the demolition of existing rent-stabilized (RSO) units.  The City does require replacement units to be built, but it allows the developer to count replacement units toward the affordable total.  So a project recently approved at 4629 W. Maubert includes 17 new affordable units, but it also involves the demolition of 14 RSO units, meaning we have a net gain of 3 units accessible to low-income households.  The TOC approved for 1920 N. Whitley includes 3 affordable units, but replaces 3 RSO units.  No gain there.  At 1341 N. Hobart the approved project offers 7 affordable units, but will erase 9 RSO units, meaning a net loss of 2.  These projects will produce dozens of new high-end units, but there’s no shortage of those.  What we really need is housing accessible to low-income tenants.   

Since the vast majority of housing in Central Hollywood consists of RSO apartments, the hefty incentives offered by the HCPU are basically putting a target on the backs of renters who live in the area.  For instance, a developer buys a property containing a rent-stabilized four-plex where existing zoning would allow 20 units.  Taking advantage of the HCPU density bonus, they propose a new building with 40 units, including four extremely low income units to satisfy the affordable requirement.  The developer gets a huge profit as a result of doubling the allowed density.  The RSO tenants get an eviction notice.  And there’s no net gain in low-cost housing.  In other words, by jacking up density in Central Hollywood the HCPU incentivizes displacement.  And it gets even better for developers.  Under the Plan’s CPIO, City Planning can approve the project without holding a single hearing.  There’s no requirement for community engagement, and no possibility of appeal.  If the project meets the CPIO’s requirements, it’s a done deal. 

If just increasing density made housing more affordable, Manhattan would be one of the cheapest places on earth to live.  It’s not.  It’s one of the most expensive.  New York City has been on a building binge over the past decade, with massive upzoning leading to a swarm of super-tall skyscrapers.  What’s the result?  A glut of units at the high-end of the market, while middle-income and low-income households are still struggling to keep a roof over their heads, in spite of inclusionary zoning requirements that were supposed to deliver affordable housing. 

Increasing density can bring benefits, but only when coupled with careful planning.  Sweeping proposals to upzone large swaths of urban or suburban land will do nothing to increase affordability.  They’ll just funnel more money into the bank accounts of real estate investors.  And upzoning urban land can be especially dangerous.  Without strong protections for tenants (which the HCPU does not have) density bonus measures will likely lead to even more displacement. 

There are no simple answers.  Upzoning by itself will not solve anything.

Another Gathering Place Goes Down

Photo by Elina Shatkin/LAist

A couple days ago I came across a piece on LAist the really resonated with me. The author, John Kamp, talks about the impending demolition of a favorite hang-out, El Gran Burrito, near the Metro station at Santa Monica and Vermont. I’ve never eaten there, but Kamp’s description of this funky taco stand reminded me of so many other LA gathering places that have disappeared.

I understand the reasons why El Gran Burrito is getting bulldozed. The City has approved a Permanent Supportive Housing complex with 187 units, 105 for Extremely Low Income households, and 80 for Very Low Income households. (The two remaining units are for managers.) The City desperately needs Permanent Supportive Housing, and it makes perfect sense to build next to the Metro station so that residents will have easy access to transit. I really can’t object to the project. Still, we need to acknowledge what we’re losing.

Kamp identifies himself as a landscape and urban designer, and he’s not happy about the trend in LA toward “generic, modern, high-density apartment buildings with retail spaces on the ground floor”. He laments the loss of our “quirky, shacky spaces tucked into hillsides and between larger buildings”. I know where he’s coming from. And it’s not just the bland conformity that characterizes so many of the new buildings. The really painful thing is the loss of community. These low budget, lowbrow restaurants are where Angelenos gather and mingle. You stop in with a group of friends and run into some other folks you know, or maybe you start talking to a group of total strangers. You get to know the people behind the counter. You get to know the community.

I’m thinking of Carnitas Michoacan #3 in Boyle Heights, which got turned into a Panda Express. Longtime patrons were saddened to lose a place they’d been coming to for decades. Taix on Sunset has been purchased by a real estate investment group, and there are plans to construct a six-story mixed-use complex on the site. (The new project would include space for a scaled-down version of Taix.) One of the most depressing losses was El Chavo, also on Sunset, which was bought up by another real estate investment group. What used to be a cozy, old-school Mexican restaurant was turned into an oppressive modernist fortress. The plan was to make it into an upscale restaurant/nightclub with multiple bars. Last time I passed by the place looked like it was closed.

I also think of the way Union Station has changed. Up until a few years ago it had a great little bagel shop where you could pick up something to eat and drink while you were waiting for your train. There was also a small newsstand where you could get gum, snacks, sodas. Today both of them are gone. Instead of a mom-and-pop restaurant serving fresh bagels they now have a Starbucks serving cardboard pastries wrapped in plastic. Instead of the newsstand they now have a chain convenience store with all the personality of a concrete block.

But we also have to take the longer view. I love Union Station, but in order to build it the City razed a good part of LA’s original Chinatown. Many people were pushed out of their homes. As a compromise, the City agreed to build a new Chinatown, which is the one we know today. While many Angelenos have a real affection for the area’s funky charm, let’s face the facts: an authentic immigrant community was levelled with zero regard for how the residents would be impacted; the “replacement” was a faux-Chinese outdoor mall designed to lure tourists.

Nothing lasts forever. Especially restaurants. The City is constantly changing. If El Gran Burrito gets bulldozed to create housing for the people who need it most, I can see the justification. But in many other cases, including the ones listed above, it’s just a raw deal for the community. While fast food chains and investment groups boost their profits, neighborhoods lose gathering places that brought people together. Seems like this is happening more and more often in LA these days.

Kamp is one of the many Angelenos mourning these losses. If you’ve seen a beloved hang-out get bulldozed, you’ll want to take a look at his piece in LAist.

A Farewell To El Gran Burrito, East Hollywood’s Perfect Late-Night Pit-Stop

Now Leasing

Scene from the corner of Ivar and De Longpre in Hollywood.

I was on my way to the market when something caught my eye at the corner of Ivar and De Longpre.  Actually, it was two things.  The first was a massive new apartment building on Cahuenga, with a huge banner that exclaimed “NOW LEASING”.  The second was a homeless encampment on Ivar.  Seeing the pricey new apartments and the row of makeshift shelters so close together struck me as a perfect image of what’s happening in Hollywood these days, and really what’s happening across so much of LA.  The City keeps telling us that building expensive new housing will alleviate the housing crisis, but upscale units like these are completely out of reach for the people who need housing most. 

Part of what makes the scene so perfect is the banner shouting “NOW LEASING”. I have no idea how many of the units have been rented, and maybe it’s almost full, but I doubt it.  A June 2020 report to the LA City Council from the Housing + Community Investment Department offers data on vacancy rates in various LA neighborhoods.  While it uses multiple sources to assess vacancies, the report’s authors state that data from the LA Department of Water & Power is probably the most reliable.  Does it surprise you that according to LADWP the vacancy rate in Hollywood is 10.7 percent?  That’s 1,372 empty apartments in the Hollywood area, and I bet most of them are in new buildings like the one you see in the picture.  You know, the ones where the rent for a single starts around $2,000. 

Now, the US Census says that the average household size in LA County is 2.8 people.  So if we multiply 1,372 units by 2.8 we find that you could house about 3,841 people in the apartments that are sitting vacant in Hollywood right now.  Interestingly, the 2020 Los Angeles Homeless Count found that Council District 13, which covers much of Hollywood, has a total of 3,907 people experiencing homelessness.  (A 22% jump over 2019.)  In other words, you could fit almost all of the homeless people in CD 13 into the units that are sitting empty in Hollywood. 

Of course, none of those homeless folks could afford $2,000 for a single.  Let alone $3,000 or $4,000 for a one-bedroom or two-bedroom unit.  But the LA City Council keeps telling us that if we just keep building housing, any kind of housing, even housing that the average Angeleno couldn’t possibly afford, it will help alleviate the housing crisis. 

So they keep on approving high-end apartment complexes.  And the homeless population keeps on growing larger.

Hollywood Uprising

Hlwd Protest Art Call

The last couple of weeks have been intense. Protests throughout the nation sparked by the killing of George Floyd. The National Guard being deployed in major cities. Viral videos exploding across social media. Politicians scrambling like mad to try and cover themselves. It’s been a wild time.

And it’s been pretty wild here in Hollywood. I have not personally been involved in any protests. I’ve been mostly hanging out in my apartment, scanning the news for the latest developments and listening to the sirens wailing outside. And even without having been in the thick of the crowds, it’s been an emotional rollercoaster. Horror over the death of George Floyd. Excitement about the growing protests. Anger over the looting. Depression at seeing the National Guard on LA’s streets. Again.

And then today, I actually feel kind of happy and kind of hopeful. Let me tell you how I got here….

Like I said, I haven’t been to any of the protests, but I was following the news reports of the massive gathering last Tuesday in Hollywood. The next morning I was out on Hollywood Blvd., and here’s some of what I saw.

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Boarded-up storefront on Hollywood Blvd..

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National Guard troops inside a parked vehicle.

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LAPD action at Hollywood and Vine.

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Photographer at Hollywood and Vine with her camera trained on the LAPD.

Hlwd Blvd After Protest 200603 Sign

Discarded sign lying on the sidewalk.

It was definitely depressing to see the boarded up windows and the National Guard vehicles parked on the boulevard. I have vivid memories of the unrest that rocked LA back in 1992. Walking down the street on Wednesday morning it was hard not to draw parallels.

On Saturday afternoon I needed some groceries and when I walked down to the market I caught the tail end of another gathering. A few hundred protesters were blocking the intersection at Hollywood and Vine. Lots of car horns honking. It was hard to tell whether the drivers were mad at the delay or glad to see people taking to the streets.

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Protesters at Hollywood and Vine.

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Some protesters were sitting on top of cars parked in the street.

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Protesters are demanding that funding for the police be cut.

And at the same time that I’m trying to follow what’s happening locally, the national news media is feverishly trying to document the protests, chase down the politicians, and keep up with the seemingly neverending stream of daily controversies. Elected officials across the country are trying to demonstrate their empathy and understanding, with wildly varying degrees of success. A lot of promises have been made, but we’ll see what those promises mean six months or a year from now.

I wish I could say I was completely enthusiastic about this massive uprising, but actually I had a lot of doubts about where this is all heading. First, I don’t have much faith in politicians, and I’m pretty certain that for the most part the carefully thought-out statements they’ve been feeding the press over the last week or so will quickly be forgotten. Second, while I think the protests are a great way to start a movement, making real change happen means taking things a lot farther. It’s exciting to see so many young people take to the streets to demand justice, but the only way to ensure that justice is delivered is to stay on top of elected officials, show up at city council meetings and go to the polls on election day. In other words, it takes years of difficult, sustained work to guarantee progress. Sure, I’m glad to see thousands of people marching for justice, but I wonder if these same people will still be on board for the less exciting and more challenging job of re-writing our laws and re-thinking our budgets.

But today all my pessimism magically disappeared. Not to say all my doubts are gone forever, but this afternoon they were pushed way into the background, at least for a while. As I walked along Hollywood Blvd., I saw that artists had transformed all the boarded-up windows into canvasses bursting with color. These are the images that greeted me when I walked out of the Red Line station at Hollywood and Vine.

Hlwd Protest Art Be the Change

Be the Change You Want to See

Hlwd Protest Art Be the Change Artists

Artists at work transforming the streetscape.

Hlwd Protest Art Butterfly

Another artist covering drab boards with vibrant color.

Hlwd Protest Art Floyd

George Floyd

Hlwd Protest Art Psychedelic Eye

A splash of psychedelia.

Hlwd Protest Art Angelou

Maya Angelou

Like I said, it’s not as though I’ve buried all my doubts, but I forgot about them for a little while. Walking down Hollywood Blvd. today, looking at all this amazing art, I felt happy. I felt hopeful.

Hlwd Protest Art Heart

Life in LA Under Lockdown

C19 PlaBoy Sign

Many people have been documenting how life has changed in our cities since stay-at-home orders were issued. Sorry if this post seems redundant, but because this blog is about reporting on life in LA, I felt like I had to write something about this episode.

Life is definitely pretty strange these days. I’m fortunate in that my health is good and none of my family or friends have been infected with the virus, but it’s heartbreaking to read about those who are dealing with the worst impacts. In addition to those who have been infected, there are so many people who’ve been hammered by the shutdown. What’s going to happen to the folks who have lost their jobs? While some may return to work when the stay-at-home orders are lifted, it’s clear that the economy is getting pounded, and it seems like many jobs will just go away. In LA the City Council took action to stop evictions during the pandemic, but there’s still no certainty as to how affected households will make up rent over the long term. I’m concerned about the pandemic, but I’m actually much more worried about what comes next. The news from the US and abroad seems to point to a global downturn.

But right now I can only focus on what’s in front of me, and that’s getting through the day during the lockdown. I can’t say it’s been especially difficult for me personally, but, as I’m sure everyone has noticed, life in LA is pretty weird these days.

Last week I was out to get groceries, and on my way home I saw a young woman standing on a street corner waving a styrofoam head that was wearing a black mask. I had no idea what it was about. Then yesterday I went out again and realized that there are a number of street vendors selling masks, and many of them are waving styrofoam heads at passersby. It does look kind of surreal, but I guess that’s just a part of the landscape right now.

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Street vendor selling masks in Panorama City.

One of the strangest things about the pandemic is the contrast between the businesses that have shut down and the businesses that must remain open. Grocery stores are so busy they can’t keep the shelves stocked. But many other businesses are shuttered. Here are a couple of photos to illustrate how this looks in Hollywood.

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People waiting to enter Trader Joe’s at Vine and Selma.

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Businesses shuttered on Hollywood Boulevard.

The closure of the newsstand on Cahuenga is one of the things that worries me most. Obviously, print journalism has been getting hammered for years. This newsstand has been shrinking steadily for over a decade. Will it ever reopen? And even more troubling is the question of what will happen to newspapers. I heard that the LA Times has lost one third of its advertising revenue and could be laying off 40 people. I’m sure other papers are getting hit as hard or harder. Will more papers fold as a result of the pandemic? Probably. And if that happens, we’ll see even less local news than we do now. This is very scary. The internet has pushed local news reporting to the brink of extinction. (Aside from TV news shows that focus on murders, fires and sports scores.) Already the vast majority of LA’s citizens have no idea what’s going on at City Hall. As a result, the Mayor and the City Council have been letting the City go to hell for years. Corruption is rampant at City Hall, homelessness is out of control, and we’re facing huge budget deficits. If the LA TImes and/or other local papers go under, we’ll have even less local reporting and less oversight. This is very dangerous.

C19 Hlwd Cahuenga Newsstand Closed

Will this newsstand on Cahuenga ever reopen?

Of course, signs are popping up all over the place. Stores are posting their rules, restaurants want you to know they’re open for delivery, and public notices tell you what you can and can’t do.

C19 Orange Line Bus Sign

You have to use the rear door when you board a bus.

C19 NoHo Groundworks Sign

Groundworks is North Hollywood is only open for take-out.

C19 Hlwd Hlwd Wilcox Signal Sign

You’re not even supposed to push the button to get a walk signal.

One of the strangest changes for me is the disappearance of rush hour traffic. Ordinarily during rush hour in Hollywood, Cahuenga northbound is jammed, often to the point where traffic is backed up several blocks. For the past few weeks, Cahuenga has been wide open, even at peak commute times.

C19 Hlwd Cahuenga Rush Hour Empty

Rush hour traffic on Cahuenga is no longer a problem.

But cars haven’t disappeared completely. In fact, given the stay-at-home order, I’m kind of surprised at how many cars are on the road. Here’s a shot of Highland north of Hollywood.

C19 Hlwd Highland Traffic

Even during a pandemic, there are still plenty of cars on the road.

And speaking of Hollywood and Highland, that’s one spot that’s been completely transformed by the outbreak. Ordinarily the sidewalk on the northwest corner of that intersection is crowded with people. Even at two in the morning you’d find a collection of vendors, partiers, rappers, cops and costumed characters parading around. Here’s what it looked like yesterday in the middle of the day.

C19 Hlwd Hlwd Highland Deserted

The corner of Hollywood and Highland is nearly deserted.

When will we get back to normal? Impossible to say. And you have to ask what “normal” is going to look like. Even when the stay-at-home order is lifted, life is not going to snap back to the way it used to be. As I mentioned before, LA’s budget was a mess even before the pandemic. With the global economy tanking, you can bet that LA will get hit hard. I wish I could end on a positive note, but there’s not much reason for optimism in LA these days. The city was in bad straits before the virus hit. Our elected officials have shown a frightening inability to address LA’s problems even when the economy was supposedly going strong.

Right now this city’s future looks pretty bleak.

C19 Hlwd Homeless on Hlwd Blvd

Plagues

Dntn Skyline w Fwy 200314

The last couple of weeks have been pretty intense. The coronavirus is spreading in the US and a national emergency has now been declared. At the same time stock markets, in the US and around the world, have been plunging, with fears of another recession on the minds of many.

LA County declared a state of emergency earlier this month, and as concern has grown over the spread of the virus, local and State officials have been weighing their options, trying to figure out how to respond rationally without creating a panic. Last week the Los Angeles Unified School District decided to close all schools. LA City Hall and LA County Courts are either postponing hearings or trying to find alternatives that don’t involve bringing lots of people together in a single room.

And in addition to all that, on Monday it was announced that former LA City Councilmember Mitch Englander was being charged by the Justice Department with obstructing a corruption investigation. The Feds have accused Englander of witness tampering and making false statements. While Englander stepped down from the City Council a while ago, this case could well have implications for people currently serving at City Hall.

So it’s been a wild couple of weeks. I have to say I feel kind of overwhelmed and confused. Of course the immediate concern is the coronavirus. I’ve been checking the LA County Department of Health web site every day. On Sunday they had identified 53 cases within the County, and officials were telling us to avoid non-essential travel and to stay away from public gatherings. Today the number is 144, and theatres, bars and gyms have been ordered to close. Restaurants can stay open, but only for take-out orders. As the news gets worse, you can feel a general sense of anxiety in the air.

On Saturday I was out of the house for most of the afternoon, and I’m realizing now that’s the last time I’ll be roaming around the city for a while. At that point it sounded like going out was okay, as long as you didn’t hug anybody and kept washing your hands. And I have to say I was curious to see what was happening on the streets. Remembering the photos I’d seen in February of deserted boulevards and public squares in Wuhan and Beijing, I was wondering if we’d gotten to that point in LA.

Hlwd Blvd People

That wasn’t the case on Saturday. People were still out and about. I went to the market to pick up a couple of things. The place was packed, and a number of items seemed to be sold out, but most of the shelves still held plenty of goods.

Hlwd TJ Refrig

Next I went to a coffee house on Cahuenga. There were about half a dozen people inside, which seemed more or less normal, but when I asked the woman at the counter how business was, she said “Super dead.” Also, when I asked for a mug, she said they were only using disposable cups. I assume that was to avoid transmitting germs.

Hlwd Groundworks

Based on the latest updates, it does look like life in LA was be pretty different for at least the next couple of weeks, but I imagine we’ll pull through. Humanity has dealt with contagious diseases in the past, and I feel confident we’ll eventually put this one behind us. But there’s another kind of plague that’s been afflicting LA for a while, and unfortunately it looks like it will be with us for a long time to come.

I’m talking about corruption.

Corruption is a disease that’s been with us since the beginning of time. It’s always present in one form or another, but in some cases it turns both chronic and acute. For the last several years in LA we’ve been experiencing a major outbreak among our elected officials, and I doubt we’ll see a cure any time soon. Citizens have been saying for years that members of the City Council are infected, but for the most part the Council is in denial. Local media has published a number of stories that seem to confirm that the disease is running rampant at City Hall, but the few efforts that have been made to rein it in don’t appear to have taken hold.

The Englander story is just the latest episode in a long and tawdry saga. The former Councilmember is accused of having accepted tens of thousands of dollars in cash and gifts from a businessperson in exchange for facilitating connections with a developer. You might think that since Englander no longer serves on the Council that the problem has already been taken care of. No such luck. Englander’s seat on the Council has been filled by a former aide, John Lee. Lee apparently accompanied Englander on the trip to Vegas where much of the money changed hands. He claims he wasn’t aware of anything illegal taking place, but the Feds’ indictment refers to a “City Staffer B” who sounds very much like Lee. Apparently both Englander and City Staffer B sent checks to the businessperson to reimburse them for part of the cost of the trip. Unfortunately, both checks were backdated to August 4 in an apparent attempt to make it look like they were sent before the FBI started asking questions. If this is true, then Lee is also guilty of falsifying documents.

Then there’s Arman Gabay, co-founder of the Charles Company, which filed an application years ago to build a large project in South LA. Initially the project received strong support from Councilmember Herb Wesson, who helped the developer win millions of dollars in federal loans. Coincidentally, Gabay, his family members and associates, had contributed thousands of dollars to campaign and officeholder accounts associated with Wesson. But last year the developer was charged by the Department of Justice with having bribed a County official. The trial is still pending, but the project is dead. At some point after Gabay was hit with the bribery charge, Wesson decided he could no longer lend his support. Interestingly, a recent filing by the US Attorney in the Gabay case says that wiretaps captured conversations between the developer and public officials about permitting problems and government financing for a proposed project. According to the filing, Gabay was told he could resolve the problems if he made a $10,000 campaign contribution. Sadly, the filing does not disclose the name of the official who received the contribution. We can only guess.

And let’s not forget Councilmember Jose Huizar. In 2018 the FBI raided Huizar’s home and office, and apparently among the things they were searching for were records related to the Councilmember’s fundraising efforts. Would Huizar take money from developers in exchange for project approvals? The FBI won’t discuss specifics, but the LA Times reported that a campaign committee with ties to the Councilmember received $50,000 from Onni Group just two months before a key vote on a property where the developer planned to build.  No charges have yet been filed against Huizar, but the Feds aren’t the only thing on his mind. He’s also being sued by two former staffers. Among other things, the suits allege that the Councilmember was guilty of sexual misconduct, that he retaliated against those who voiced criticisms, and that he required staff members to engage in fundraising efforts during office hours.

There’s plenty more dirt to dish on the City Council, but you get the point. And actually, I could forgive a lot of things if our elected officials were just doing a decent job of running the City. But LA is falling apart. We’re in serious trouble. It’s not just that the development process has been completely poisoned by a pay-to-play culture. The way City Hall does business is inherently opaque and dishonest. A classic example is last year’s budget process. When the budget was passed in mid-2019, elected officials were patting themselves on the back and claiming that the City would see a surplus of $30 million to $70 million annually over the next four years. What a shock when six months later we were told that the City was now facing annual deficits of $200 million to $400 million over the next four years. What happened? Apparently when the City Council passed the budget they neglected to mention that they were negotiating contracts with city employees that would blow a huge hole in the City’s finances. They decided not to inform citizens about the cost of the contracts until it was done deal. Everything was done behind closed doors. Once again the public was shut out.

Our elected officials talk about addressing homelessness, but the number of people on the streets continues to rise. Renters are getting thrown out of their apartments because they can’t pay high housing costs. Streets and sidewalks are crumbling, and even with record revenues City Hall can’t find the money to maintain them properly. The urban forest, crucial to replenishing groundwater and keeping the air clean, continues to decline due to years of neglect. The Mayor blathers on about getting people out of cars and onto transit, but DASH ridership has fallen from 25 million trips in 2014 to 19 million trips in 2019. (I won’t mention Metro’s depressing ridership stats. They’re a County operation.)

And with another recession just around the corner, it looks like things will only get worse. If the Mayor and the City Council couldn’t put this house in order when times were good, what’s going to happen when the bottom falls out of the economy? The culture of corruption that pervades City Hall has fostered a secretive and opaque decision-making process where deals are cut behind closed doors and the public is kept in the dark.

This is the real plague that’s taking LA down. We’ll survive the coronavirus. It’s City Hall that’s going to kill us.

Dntn Distant 2

Hotel Developer Keeps Asking, and City Planning Keeps Giving

Dream 2 Construction Site

Construction site in the foreground, and Dream Hotel in the background.

If you need any more proof that City Hall is ready to give developers whatever they ask for, there’s a block in the heart of Hollywood you should take a good look at. Hollywood International Regional Center (HIRC), a developer that specializes in hotels funded with EB 5 money, has spent years remaking the stretch of Selma between Cahuenga and Wilcox, and they’re not done yet. Richard Heyman, HIRC Managing Partner, filed his first application for this site about ten years ago, and since then he and his associates have come back asking for numerous changes to their project/s. A review of the associated documents seems to show that the Department of City Planning (DCP) has been more than willing to accommodate the developers’ requests. Construction has been going on almost continuously since 2014, and it looks like it’ll be going on a while longer.

Because tourism is thriving these days, there’s a push to build party hotels in Hollywood. HIRC has already finished one and has a few more in the works. In addition to the completed Dream hotel, there are two other HIRC projects under construction, and the City Planning Commission (CPC) just approved a fourth one. All four of these projects are within a one block radius of Selma and Wilcox. Actually, it almost seems like these four hotels could be considered one big project. But more on that later….

HIRC’s latest effort was on the agenda at the CPC hearing on July 12. This is an eight-story hotel to be built at the corner of Selma and Wilcox. Of course, since this hotel is being built in Hollywood, it has to have a rooftop deck with a pool and a bar/lounge, and even though it wasn’t mentioned in the hearing notice, live entertainment is also part of the package. Given the fact that Hollywood is already jammed with bars, and that crime is rising by double digits, and that area residents are complaining about noise from the party scene, you might ask if we really need another party hotel in Hollywood.

But the folks at the DCP don’t seem bothered by the problems Hollywood residents are facing. They apparently weren’t bothered by the fact that this project was already under construction. Yeah, that’s right. The developer had already started to build this hotel, even though it hadn’t yet been approved. How did that happen? It’s complicated. First we have to ask what the project actually is, and there’s no simple answer. Many Hollywood residents feel HIRC has not been honest about what they’re doing, and that the DCP has been too willing to look the other way. The closer you examine it, the more it appears that this new hotel at Selma and Wilcox is actually part of a complex that’s been in the works for years. But to tell this story, we have to go back to the previous decade….

Heyman’s first hotel on Selma was the Dream 1, which was approved back in 2008. According to the original determination letter, the hotel was going to have a total of 120 rooms, and the project would consist of about 73, 814 square feet with two levels of parking. But then the recession hit, and the project got delayed. In 2011 it was back on again, but this time with a few changes. Now it was going to have 136 guest rooms, but the size held about steady at 73,607 square feet. And while the project was originally required to have 107 parking spaces, now the number was reduced to 90.

So far this doesn’t seem like a big deal. A few more rooms, a little less square footage, and 17 less parking spaces. Who cares? But keep your eye on the parking, because it’s about to disappear.

A Zoning Administrator’s letter dated April 2014 shows further changes. “There will be 182 hotel rooms, 77 on-site parking spaces, 14 off-site parking spaces….” And now, while the height is the same, they’ve added another floor, meaning it’s now a ten story hotel with 79,376 square feet of floor area. Obviously the folks at HIRC are prone to changing their minds, and the folks at the DCP are ready to accommodate them.

But you’re probably saying, “What do you mean the parking disappeared? It’s still there. The ZA approved 77 on-site spaces and 14 off-site spaces. They’ve still got plenty of parking.” And that’s the great thing about misdirection. You were busy looking at the ZA’s letter, instead of keeping your eye on the hotel. Next time you’re in Hollywood, take a stroll down Selma past the Dream.

It has no on-site parking at all.

If you didn’t catch on to that trick, don’t worry. The people at the DCP don’t seem to have noticed either. Strangely enough, the Department of Building & Safety (DBS) granted a permit for the change, and apparently the DCP signed off on it, even though they hadn’t approved the change. I tried asking the folks at the DCP how they approved the permit even though they hadn’t approved the project revision. In response they sent a document that had no relation to the question.

Of course eliminating the on-site parking is completely illegal. But there’s another problem. You see, parking isn’t counted in calculating a project’s square footage. This means that the conversion of that space to other uses has boosted the hotel’s square footage significantly. You might think that the DCP would be upset over a developer unilaterally adding several thousand square feet to a project, but you’d be wrong. They’ve taken no action to enforce the terms of the Department’s determination letter.

Some people speculate that maybe HIRC has friends at City Hall. The developer seems to get pretty much everything they ask for. But they’ve made a lot of enemies in Hollywood. The developer’s aggressive push to build party hotels has angered a lot of folks in the community, and these days people are watching their moves much more closely.

In 2015 HIRC applied to build another, more modest project, next to the Dream 1. This was going to be a one-story restaurant, with 6,000 square-feet of retail space, and three levels of underground parking. Who could object to that? But then people who live in the neighborhood took a look at the application and saw that the name of the LLC that HIRC was using for this project was “6421 Selma Wilcox Hotel”. Seemed like an odd choice of names for a project that was supposed to be just a restaurant with some retail. It also seemed odd that a developer who specialized in building hotels was asking City Planning to approve something so much smaller. The DCP, of course, ignored the community’s concerns and signed off on the project.

It was no surprise to area residents when HIRC came back in 2016, now asking the DCP to approve an eight-story hotel on the same site. Again, since the legal entity being used to build the original project was “6421 Selma Wilcox Hotel”, it’s hard to believe that this was an unexpected evolution of HIRC’s plans. And the fact that the papers for this LLC were filed with the State of California in October 2014, well before HIRC applied to build the restaurant/retail project makes it appear that their goal was to build the hotel all along.

And if you spend a little time surfing the web, you’ll find documents indicating that not only was this project conceived as a hotel from the beginning, it was always intended to be the second phase of a complex that began with Dream 1. If you take a look at the web site for Space Global, a firm HIRC partnered with in raising EB 5 money from Chinese investors, the project is repeatedly referred to as Dream 2. In fact, information for investors posted on-line specifically refers to it as an extension of Dream 1, saying construction is expected to begin by the end of 2014. The text not only mentions Tao Restaurant & Lounge, but another restaurant, Beauty & Essex, which is on the far side of the project site. The web site features renderings of the completed project showing both hotels stretched across the length of the block, with Tao sandwiched in the middle.

This seems to be pretty strong evidence that back in 2014, around the time the DCP gave its final approvals for Dream 1, that HIRC already saw the two hotels, the restaurant and the renovated bar as one project. Now, ordinarily if you were going to build a hotel complex with just under 300 rooms, multiple locations selling alcohol, and live entertainment, it would seem reasonable to assume that it could have significant impacts on the neighborhood. HIRC could have revised their original application to reflect the project they apparently intended to build, but that might have meant submitting to a higher level of environmental review. Instead, in 2015 HIRC submitted an application for the property at Selma and Wilcox, directly adjacent to Dream 1, saying they just wanted to build a restaurant, some retail, and three levels of parking. Then in 2016, with the restaurant taking shape and heavy machinery digging a huge hole right next door, they came back and filed the application for the eight-story hotel that their promotional materials refer to as Dream 2.

So let’s get back to the July hearing held by the City Planning Commission (CPC) where they considered the Dream 2. It was actually more entertaining than most CPC hearings. Developer Grant King gave a stirring speech, hypnotizing the crowd with an account of his dramatic effort to rescue Dream 1 in 2012. “I took the last $75,000 I had in the world and bought a one-way ticket to China….” The union workers who attended to protest the failure of King and his partners to hire union labor may not have been moved by his story. I guess it never occurred to the intrepid developer that these union workers had probably never had anything near $75,000 in their bank account. I don’t doubt the Commissioners were enthralled by King’s story, but a number of them had serious reservations about the project. Commissioner Renee Dake-Wilson had some especially harsh words. While she emphasized that she didn’t believe the developer was engaged in “piecemealing” (seeking approvals in pieces, rather than all at once), she stated forcefully that she thought the original restaurant/retail project was “a sham in order to get this hotel going.”

But the last Commissioner to comment was President David Ambroz, who offered a ringing defense of the project. Responding to criticism of the developer’s first structure on Selma, he said, “I think the Dream is a well run hotel.” In response to another Commissioner’s suggestion that the rooftop bar/lounge be restricted just to hotel guests, Ambroz said, “I like going to these rooftops. I would not be in agreement with prohibiting public access.” The Commission President was apparently not impressed with Hollywood when he first arrived years ago, but he feels it’s come a long way because of projects like this. “The renaissance that has occurred there is a testament not just to Grant and his company, but others as well.” Ambroz was definitely sold on the project, and he seemed to be doing his best to sell it to everyone else.

However, there were concerns about parking, and that discussion was really interesting. The project would require a certain amount of off-site parking, and the Commissioners weren’t certain where that would end up. You see, parking is at a premium in Hollywood, and some of the Commissioners wanted to know where the developer would find those off-site spaces within the required 750 feet. Fortunately, HIRC’s rep stepped forward to explain that the developers had two other hotels under construction nearby, and he was certain that one of them could handle the overload. Which is actually really odd, because the CPC approved both those projects and they’re strongly opposed to providing excess parking. There’s also the bizarre idea of creating a covenant to provide parking at a building that doesn’t exist yet. And lastly, if the developer has already made plans to provide additional parking for the Dream 2 at one of these other locations, it makes it sound like these projects were conceived together. That really these hotels, all proposed by the same developer, all within a one block radius of Wilcox and Selma, all approved within the last ten years, should be seen as one project.

In the end, the CPC approved the Dream 2 by a 6-2 vote, with Commissioners Vahid Khorsand and Dana Perlman voting no. We’ll see what actually happens with the parking down the road. But I doubt Grant King is worried. For all the talk during the hearing about how enforcement is key, the Dream 1 was built with none of the required on-site parking, and the City hasn’t taken any action at all. Even if the off-site parking for the Dream 2 never materializes, King knows that the City of LA won’t do a damn thing about it.

Ignoring Danger, City Approves Distillery Next to School

Dist 05 HD

It’s been clear for a while that the Department of City Planning (DCP) doesn’t care much about how new development impacts communities, but a recent project approval shows a new level of reckless disregard for the safety of the people who live in LA.

Last year a company called Hollywood Distillery filed an application asking the City to allow the sale of alcohol for on-site and off-site consumption in conjunction with the operation of a craft distillery.  The distillery is located at 5975 Santa Monica Blvd., at the corner of Santa Monica and Gordon.  The site is zoned for commercial manufacturing, which you might think would include the manufacturing of spirits, and it might seem perfectly reasonable to allow Hollywood Distillery to sell their wares at the place they were being produced.

When I first heard the project was being appealed, I was puzzled.  Lots of places brew alcoholic beverages and have tasting rooms on site.  It seemed totally natural.  I couldn’t see a problem.

But there is a problem.  A serious one.

Distilleries are a special case.  They shouldn’t be considered alongside other typical manufacturing uses. Why?  Because sometimes things explode at distilleries.  Check out the following news articles.  They’re all reporting on incidents that happened in the US within the last year.

Worker Injured in Explosion at Whiskey Distillery, January 2018

 

Vodka Distillery Explosion Sends Three to Hospital, November 2017

 

New Jersey Distillery Owner Injured in Explosion, December 2017

 

So you say, okay, a distillery might be dangerous.  But if the site is zoned for commercial manufacturing, it’s in an industrial area away from crowds of people.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case here.  This distillery is right next to a primary school.

Dist 01 HPC

Hollywood Primary Center serves pre-school through third grade students.  It’s located directly behind the distillery.  The only thing that separates the two is a wall about eight feet high.  And while the stories listed above involve a relatively small number of people who were injured or killed, accidents at distilleries can get much worse.  Check out this article from the National Fire Protection Association.  The article specifically mentions the danger of putting a distillery in an area where there could be a risk to the public.

Small Scale, High Proof

 

Dist 10 HD Bldg

The building that houses Hollywood Distillery at Santa Monica and Gordon.

Dist 15 HD Playground EDITED

The school playground appears to lie about 50 feet from the distillery.

So the Central Area Planning Commission heard the appeal on July 24, and of course they denied it.  The distillery got the green light.  The Commissioners specified that the Department of Building & Safety (DBS) and the LA Fire Department (LAFD) had to review the site before permits were issued, but that’s not good enough.  Property owners violate conditions of approval all the time in LA, and there’s rarely any meaningful enforcement.  And even if everything is in order when City personnel inspect the property, there’s no guarantee things will still be in order six months down the road.  Assuming DBS and LAFD allow this to go forward, we basically have to trust the owners to follow the rules.  I’m sure they have no intention of allowing an explosion, but I’m also sure the owners of the distilleries in Pennsylvania, Texas, and New Jersey had the same intentions.

If you don’t think the City should allow distilleries next to schools, please contact Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s Planning Director, Craig Bullock.  Here’s a possible subject line:

No Distilleries Next to Schools!

Craig Bullock, CD 13 Planning Director

craig.bullock@lacity.org

And please copy the City of LA’s Director of Planning, Vince Bertoni.

Vince Bertoni, Director of Planning

vince.bertoni@lacity.org

Dist 20 Playground

Predatory Development: Crossroads Hollywood

CH Sunset Project Site EDIT

New development is necessary. In order for a city to grow, in order for its economy to stay healthy, it’s important to have new construction to bring investment to communities and adapt to the city’s changing needs. But new development isn’t always a good thing. New projects bring new impacts, and the larger the project the more important it is to consider carefully how it will affect the surrounding community. Most large projects are a mixed bag. Pro-business groups will inevitably argue that they bring tax revenue and jobs, and both of these are important. But large projects can also have serious negative impacts, and we need to weigh those, too. Often it’s a matter of trying to figure out if the good will outweigh the bad, and in many cases it’s hard to say for sure.

On the other hand, in some cases it’s pretty easy to make the call. Crossroads Hollywood is a clear example of predatory development. While the backers of the project tout its benefits in terms of tax revenue, jobs and economic activity, they completely ignore the downside. And the downside is considerable.

First, let’s take a look at what this whole thing entails.

Crossroads Hollywood includes about 1,381,000 square feet of floor area, consisting of 950 residential units (of which 105 are for Very Low Income Households), 308 hotel rooms, and approximately 190,000 square feet of commercial space. The project does include the preservation and rehabilitation of the historic Crossroads of the World mall and the Hollywood Reporter building. All other buildings on the project site would be demolished, including 84 Rent Stabilized apartments. The developers are also asking for a Master Conditional Use Permit to allow the sale of a full line of alcoholic beverages at a total of 22 establishments, and another Master CUP to allow eight uses with public dancing and live entertainment.

I’ve gotta say, it’s pretty ambitious. The investors behind Crossroads, Harridge Development Group, are thinking big. They’re also thinking only of themselves and the massive profits they’ll reap from this project. They don’t really give a damn about the community. If approved, Crossroads Hollywood will be devastating for the environment, devastating for housing, and devastating to the health and well-being of the Hollywood community.

Let’s take a look at the project’s environmental impacts….

These days any developer is going to tell you their project is good for the planet. They learned long ago they need to play that angle to sell it to the public. But Harridge’s claims about Crossroads being environmentally friendly are mostly just hype.

The State of California has designated Crossroads Hollywood an Environmental Leadership Development Project. (ELDP). In order to qualify, the developer has to show that it won’t result in any net additional emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs). But a project on the scale of Crossroads represents a huge increase in square footage, so it’s to be expected that there will be a huge increase in energy use. The report by the California Air Resources Board (ARB) estimates the Crossroads project will produce 9,440 MTCO2e (Metric Tons of Carbon Dioxide Equivalent) during demolition and construction, and then 14,294 MTCO2e during the first year of operation, though they say that number will decline each year over the life of the project. This is a huge increase in emissions. So how can the State say it achieves a net reduction?

Simple. The developer buys carbon credits. Like many other states, California has an exchange where businesses that aren’t producing their maximum allowed CO2 emissions can sell what they don’t produce as “credits”. Other businesses that want to offset their own emissions can buy the credits to satisfy regulators. So while Crossroads Hollywood will be putting tens of thousands of tons of additional GHGs into the atmosphere, the State says that buying credits actually makes the project carbon neutral. There are people who have reservations about the carbon credit system, but it’s become widely accepted as a tool for reducing global warming, so let’s go along with the idea that this does represent a net reduction in CO2 emissions.

The problem is that this project isn’t just producing massive amounts of CO2. It’s also spewing out tons of ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter. This is bad news for the people who live in the area. The South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) has evaluated cancer risk from air pollution in its Multiple Air Toxics Exposure Study IV (MATES IV). You can see by the map below that Hollywood is near the top of the scale.

Crossroads Air Quality MATES IV from EIR

But it gets worse. After going through pages of boiler plate language about localized significance thresholds and standard methodologies, the Crossroads Environmental Impact Report (EIR) gets around to analyzing impacts during the construction phase of the project. After listing nearby sensitive uses, including Selma Elementary School/Larchmont Charter School (same campus), Hollywood High, and Blessed Sacrament School, and acknowledging that young people are at higher risk of chronic lung disease from air pollution, the EIR claims, “…, localized construction emissions resulting from the Project would result in a less-than-significant air quality impact.”

Give me a break. Four years of construction, including demolition and excavation, thousands of diesel truck trips and extensive use of heavy machinery will have “less-than-significant” impacts on the kids at these schools? And it’s also important to point out there have been projects under construction on Selma for years now, many of them within three blocks of Selma Elementary. These kids have been inhaling construction dust and diesel fumes since 2015, and the folks behind Crossroads want to keep that going til 2021. But don’t worry. It won’t harm the students a bit.

So let’s talk about transportation. I will give the authors of the EIR credit. Usually traffic assessments for projects like these are ridiculously dishonest. In this case, the EIR acknowledges that traffic is already bad in the area, and that the project will make it worse. Here are a few shots of what it looks like at rush hour.

CH High Red

Northbound traffic on Highland, the western boundary of the project.

CH Selma

Traffic heading west on Selma toward Highland.

CH Traffic LP EDITED

Traffic heading north on Las Palmas toward Selma.

The EIR does analyze existing weekday rush hour conditions as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The problem here is, Hollywood is a special case. In addition to really awful congestion at rush hour, you can also have heavy traffic at night and on weekends because of the constant parade of concerts, movie premieres, food fairs and other miscellaneous events. There are multiple happenings in Hollywood every month, many of them involving street closures. And don’t even ask what it’s like during the Hollywood Bowl season.

I wouldn’t expect the authors of the EIR to include all this, because they’re not required to. But they should at least talk about additional traffic generated by the eight live entertainment venues that are included in the project. Crossroads Hollywood isn’t just meant to be a place where people live and work. It’s intended to be a destination. While I’m sure some of the spaces offering entertainment will be fairly small, it seems likely that at least one of them will be a dance club offering live DJs. And I wouldn’t be surprised if popular singers and bands start showing up on a regular basis. Which means that a community already overwhelmed with events that draw tons of cars and disrupt transit will have to bear an even heavier load once Crossroads is up and running.

CH Apt 1

Apartment building to be demolished if the project is approved.

And what about the impacts that eight places featuring live entertainment will have on the LAPD’s workload? Not to mention the 22 establishments selling alcohol. Incredibly, the EIR doesn’t even discuss these things in the section dealing with police protection. They conclude again that project impacts will be “less-than-significant”. Obviously the authors of the EIR haven’t seen the research indicating that high alcohol outlet density has been linked to higher rates of violent crime.  Back in 2014, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck wrote to the Department of City Planning (DCP) pointing out that the “oversaturation” of alcohol outlets in Hollywood was contributing to increased crime, including robbery, shootings, rape, and assault. The DCP obviously paid no attention, because they’ve gone on granting liquor permits, and violent crime in Hollywood has risen every year since then. LAPD stats for Hollywood as of April 21 show violent crime has gone up 28.9% over the same period last year. The LAPD is understaffed, and doing their best to cope with a difficult situation. Too bad the DCP has no interest in helping them out. Apparently the folks at City Planning have no concern for the safety of Hollywood residents, or for the people who visit the area. And it looks like Harridge shares their total indifference.

This same indifference extends to the project’s noise impacts. Remember, the developer is asking permits for live entertainment in 8 venues. It seems like at least some of these will be outdoors. Check out this table from the EIR that lists the spaces where they plan to have amplified sound.

CH Outdoor Uses

It’s hard to say how much overlap there will be, since they don’t distinguish between those spaces intended for live performances and and those that will just have recorded sounds. But it’s pretty clear that there’s going to be a lot of music, and a lot of it will be outdoors. The EIR acknowledges that there could be significant impacts from noise, but don’t worry, they have a plan to take care of that. What’s their plan? They’re going to build a 12-foot wall on the project’s eastern boundary, between Crossroads of the World and Blessed Sacrament Church. And according to the EIR, that fixes everything.

This is so ludicrous it’s hard to believe they expect people to buy it. A single 12-foot wall is going to addres any concerns about noise. Live outdoor performances have been a problem for years in Hollywood. Area residents can tolerate a lot, and nobody gets bent out of shape if someone puts on a show during the day. But in recent years more and more club owners have been pushing the limits at night. There have been a lot of complaints about DJs ripping it up on rooftop bars in the small hours. The EIR’s claim that amplified music will only be heard in the immediate vicinity is bull. People who live in the hills have told me they can hear late night noise from down on the boulevard, and they’re not happy about it.

But Crossroads Hollywood wasn’t meant to benefit the community. It was meant to benefit the investors who are hoping to reap huge profits. This project will put more cars on the road and more poison in the air. It will create more crime than the LAPD can handle and more headaches for residents trying to get a good night’s sleep. And what do we get in return? Yeah, there’s the tax revenue, but the City is already seeing record revenues and still can’t balance its budget. More housing? Yeah, the vast majority of it priced way beyond the reach of most people who live in Hollywood. When we put the 105 Very Low Income units gained against the 84 Rent Stabilized units lost, we see a net increase of 21 units that will be accessible to the low income families that really need housing. The gain of 21 units will quickly be erased by the project’s gentrifying impact. If Crossroads is built, you can expect to see a lot of other investors buying up apartments and kicking people out. And will the project create jobs? Sure, mostly low-paying jobs in bars, restaurants, and hotels. Most of the people who will work there could never afford to live there.

This is predatory development. A project designed by investors for investors. The reason the EIR doesn’t see any serious problems for the community is because the needs of the community were never considered in any meaningful way.

It’s just about money.

Next week the City will be holding a hearing on Crossroads Hollywood. If you want to show up and speak your mind, here’s the info.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018, 9:00 am

Los Angeles City Hall
200 North Spring St., Room 350

ENTER ON MAIN STREET.

CH Crossroads of the World

Crossroads of the World

 

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