Can the City of LA Keep Growing If Its Water Resources Keep Declining?

The City of Los Angeles couldn’t exist without the water it imports from sources far beyond its borders.  While the ratios vary widely from year to year, on average we get about 10% of our annual supply from groundwater within the city limits.  The remaining 90% has to be imported from places hundreds of miles away.

Which means we really should pay attention to the Water Supply Alert issued by the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) on August 17.  The entire State of California, and in fact much of the Western US, is experiencing extremely dry conditions.  At this point the MWD is asking for citizens, businesses and public agencies to make voluntary reductions, but there’s a good chance that stricter measures will be needed in the not too distant future.  Through careful planning and good stewardship, the MWD has managed to build up significant reserves which might provide a buffer for the next year or two.  But we can’t be complacent.  This year the California Department of Water Resources has cut allocations from the State Water Project to just 5% of requested supplies.  It’s possible that next year the allocation could be reduced to zero.  On top of that, for the first time ever, the Bureau of Reclamation has declared a shortage on the Colorado River.  Lake Mead supplies much of the water that Southern California relies on, and storage there has been declining faster than even the most pessimistic observers predicted.  Right now the water level is lower than it’s been at any time since Hoover Dam was constructed. 

Which leaves us with the LA Aqueduct.  At the beginning of the 20th century, Los Angeles business leaders were working hard to promote the city’s growth, but they knew that the area’s water resources were limited.  In looking for solutions to this problem, they set their sights on the Owens Valley, over 200 miles away.  Using secretive and dishonest means, the City of LA managed to purchase rights to much of the water in the Owens Valley, and then began construction of the LA Aqueduct under the supervision of William Mulholland.  In LA the completion of the Aqueduct was hailed as an engineering marvel, and for a time Mulholland was celebrated as a hero.  Needless to say, the people of the Owens Valley didn’t see things quite the same way.  For them, the diversion of water resources to the Aqueduct resulted in disastrous environmental impacts, and set the stage for decades of litigation.

Mulholland Memorial Fountain from DWP Photo Collection at LA Public Library

In 1940, five years after Mulholland’s death, a fountain was built at the intersection of Los Feliz Boulevard and Riverside Drive to honor the man primarily responsible for the construction of the LA Aqueduct.  The choice to create a fountain was considered a fitting way to commemorate the role Mulholland played in securing the water that was necessary for the city’s growth.  For decades cool, crystalline plumes arched into the air and cascaded into the rippling pool below.

Today the fountain is dry and it’s surround by a chain link fence.  While a search on the net didn’t reveal any explanation, it seems likely that LADWP shut it down in response to the looming water shortage.  This is certainly a sensible step to take, but it should also raise questions about LA’s future.  Mulholland was celebrated because of his efforts to provide water that would support the city’s growth.  If the fountain is now dry, maybe this should be a cue to start asking how much LA can realistically grow in the future?

While government officials and the media routinely describe the situation as a drought, I don’t think that’s accurate.  In fact, I think it’s seriously misleading.  “Drought” is generally defined as a prolonged period of dry weather.  This implies that at some point the drought will end and things will get back to normal.  But there’s growing evidence that this is the new normal.  Both the State Water Project and the LA Aqueduct are fed by snowmelt from the Sierra Nevadas.  The Sierra snowpacks have been declining for years, and climatologists predict that they’ll continue to decline for the foreseeable future.  As for the Colorado River, California, Nevada and Arizona draw more water from this resource than it can deliver on an annual basis.  The construction of Hoover Dam masked this fact for decades, but the rapid decline of Lake Mead should be a wake-up call for all of us.  Right now it seems inevitable that water allocations to all three states will have to be reduced, but this will be a long, contentious, brutal process. 

So if all of the city’s water resources are declining, our public officials need to let go of the myth that LA can keep growing forever.  LA’s 2020 Urban Water Management Plan (UWMP) assumes that all it will take is more stormwater capture and a concerted effort to conserve.  Unfortunately, stormwater capture doesn’t really work when you’re hardly getting any rain.  And while Angelenos have shown a willingness to save water in the past, current forecasts seem to indicate that we’d have to push conservation to a whole new level.  The more you cut, the harder it is to cut further.  The UWMP’s conservation projections are extremely optimistic.  It’s hard to say whether they’re realistic.

The Mulholland Memorial was intended as a monument to the man who oversaw the construction of a massive infrastructure project that allowed the city to grow rapidly.  In the state it’s in now, it seems more like a monument to the folly of those who believed you could build a city of 4,000,000 people in an area with minimal water resources.

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.

Dismantling Times Mirror Square: Housing vs. History?

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In late November, the LA City Council’s Planning & Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee considered giving Times Mirror Square landmark status. It was an interesting hearing. The application nominating the site for Historic-Cultural Monument status was submitted by a group of people, including local preservationists Kim Cooper and Richard Schave, as well as architectural historian Alan Hess. There’s really no argument that Times Mirror Square has played a huge part in LA’s history. The debate centered around how much of it should be preserved.

As someone who grew up with newspapers, I have to remind myself that these days most people under 30 see them as a useless holdover from the past. The number of print publications has fallen dramatically over the past 20 years, and while a number of major papers continue to publish on-line, they’re struggling to reach an audience. These days a lot of Americans get their “news” from sources that don’t even claim to be news outlets. Do people under 30 have any idea how powerful and influential major newspapers were before the internet? From the early days of the 20th century the Times had a huge impact on local politics, the regional economy, and the built landscape. If the Times had never existed, LA would probably look very different than it does today.

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Los Angeles Times Building at First and Spring, designed by Gordon Kaufman

At the PLUM hearing, nobody questioned the site’s historical significance. The debate was all about the structure, or really the structures. Times Mirror Square was actually built in pieces over decades. The first segment, located at First and Spring and designed by Gordon Kaufman, was completed in 1935. In 1948 the owners extended the complex to the corner of Second and Spring, and the architect for this phase was Rowland Crawford. The final segment, built on the west side of the site in 1973, was designed by William Pereira. (And if you really want to dig into the details, you’d also have to count the plant building and the parking structure.)

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The Mirror Building at Spring and Second, designed by Rowland Crawford

For those who don’t know much about the Times’ history, here’s a quick summary. The paper was founded at the end of the 19th century and played a major role in LA’s development throughout the 20th. In its early years, editor Harrison Gray Otis made the paper successful through ardent boosterism, pushing hard for LA’s growth. The Times played a key role in advocating for the construction of the LA Aqueduct. Otis’ conservative, pro-business policies were shared by his successors, Harry Chandler and Norman Chandler. But things changed when Otis Chandler took over in 1960. The Times adopted a more independent perspective and expanded its staff, striving to become a national paper on the level of the New York Times. The change was quickly apparent. While in the past the Times had fanned the flames of bigotry, soon after Otis Chandler took over it ran a series exposing racism in the John Birch Society. When Richard Nixon lost the race for California governor, he blamed the LA TImes. Before 1960 the paper had never won a Pulitzer. Since 1960 it’s won 44.

Unfortunately, in 2000 the Times was sold to the pack of idiots at the Tribune Company. They spent over 15 years turning what had been a regional media giant into a pathetic shadow of its former self. In 2018 the paper was finally freed from the toxic grasp of the Tribune when it was purchased by billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong. Not long after purchasing the Times, Soon-Shiong announced that its offices would be relocating to El Segundo, and that Times Mirror Square would be sold to developer Onni Group.

And this is what the debate at the PLUM hearing was all about. Onni has proposed preserving the Kaufman and Crawford buildings, but getting rid of the Pereira addition in order to build two residential towers. The preservationists who nominated Times Mirror Square wanted to landmark the entire site, which would make development more difficult.

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Times Mirror Headquarters at the corner of First and Broadway, designed by William Pereira

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View of Times Mirror building along Broadway

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City Hall and the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center reflected in the facade of the Times Mirror building

Back in September, the Cultural Heritage Commission (CHC) sided with the preservationists. In spite of a report from GPA Consulting that took great pains to play down the quality of the Pereira building, the CHC voted to include it in their recommendation, saying that all of Times Mirror Square was worthy of landmark status. Interestingly, GPA also dug deep into the Pereira firm’s archives to question whether the architect designed the project himself. They seemed determined to block the nomination of that segment, which is exactly what Onni Group wanted. But it’s commonplace for the principle of an architectural firm to assign a team to complete the bulk of the work on a project. While GPA argued at the hearing that the Pereira building was not a significant example of the architect’s work, many others, including architectural historian Hess, insisted that it was.

This is the second time I’ve run across GPA in covering preservation issues, and I have to say I’m not impressed by their work. When DLJ Capital bought the 800 Traction building and decided to evict the Japanese-American artists who lived and worked there, the new owners brought in GPA to evaluate the structure’s history. While GPA found that the building deserved landmark status, their report managed to avoid any mention of the Japanese-American community that had lived in the area for decades. They also whitewashed 800 Traction’s history by omitting references to the Japanese-American artists who had lived and worked in the building for years, some going back as far as the 80s. And somehow GPA failed to note that some of these artists played a key role in creating the Downtown Arts District. Seems to me that GPA Consulting basically serves as a hired gun, dedicated to helping real estate investors push their projects forward.

History is a complicated thing. Most of us know relatively little about the city we live in. Sometimes it turns out we aren’t even really familiar with the things we think we know well. In early December I went down to Times Mirror Square to shoot some photos. I have to say the visit was an eye-opener. I bet I’ve walked by the building a thousand times, but while I was taking pictures I realized there was a lot that I’d never really seen. Walking past the main entrance on First Street I’d certainly noticed the contrast between the Kaufman and Pereira buildings, but I’d never paid any attention to the Crawford building. I’d never looked closely at the lines or the materials. I’d never read the inscriptions on the First Street facade. I’d never really thought about the way the Pereira building shapes the space.

And I’d never noticed this plaque near the corner of Spring and Second.

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Looking at it made me think about the many changes that have happened in Downtown, and reminded me that things will always keep changing. There are whole histories that have been bulldozed and buried. Thousands of stories I’ll never know. And while I believe preservation is important, we can’t save every old building, or even every beautiful building. Inevitably, the City will keep growing. It can’t remain static. So we have to weigh these things, and ask whether the changes are happening for better or for worse.

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View of Times Mirror Square from Spring

A number of people spoke at the PLUM Committee hearing, and again, the discussion was pretty all much about whether the Pereira structure should be preserved. Obviously, the developer reps and the business community argued against preserving that portion. The Committee also heard from a number of union workers who shared that view. On the other side you had preservationists arguing that the Pereira addition was an important example of the architect’s work, and an important part of the building’s history.

I agree with the preservationists. While all three architects involved with Times Mirror Square did impressive work, Pereira had the most extensive relationship with the LA area. He played a crucial role in shaping the city’s modernist period, and designed some of its most remarkable structures, including CBS Television City, Otis College of Art & Design (original campus), and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (original campus). He also made significant contributions to Los Angeles International Airport,
the University of Southern California, and Occidental College. Pereira was a major player in creating the look of mid-century LA.

As for Times Mirror Square, I completely agree with the people who say the Pereira addition has a cold, corporate feel. That doesn’t make it bad architecture. In fact, it has a striking sculptural strength, and the way it shapes the space around it is impressive. Actually, I think it’s an appropriate expression of the power and position the Times held back in the 70s. Does it fit with the older buildings? Depends on what you mean by “fit”. The contrast between the Kaufman and Pereira structures is jarring, and I’m certain that’s what Pereira wanted. And remember, we’re talking about LA architecture. In most other cities this kind of mash-up would stand out as a bizarre oddity. In this city, it’s just one of many examples of extreme stylistic conflict. Over the last hundred years, the story of LA architecture has been all about brash, experimental eclecticism.

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Pereira building in foreground and Kaufman building in background

But it was pretty clear where the PLUM Committee hearing was going. The developer didn’t want the Pereira building to be declared historic, and that was a pretty strong sign the PLUM Committee didn’t want that to happen either. They’re very accomodating. Anybody who thought replacing former Chair Jose Huizar with Marqueece Harris-Dawson might change things was living in a fool’s paradise. At this PLUM hearing the main order of business appeared to be giving real estate investors whatever they asked for, just like when Huizar was running the show.

I did think it was interesting that people kept bringing up housing as an important issue. The developer, the union folks, the PLUM Committee all kept talking about how Downtown needed housing badly, and how Onni’s proposed luxury skyscraper would help ease that need. That’s weird. When I look at web sites for residential buildings in Downtown I find that a lot of them are offering discounts for signing a lease. Some are offering up to two months free rent. You wouldn’t think they’d be offering such great deals if housing was in really short supply.

Something else that’s weird. Onni’s reps are claiming that there’s a housing shortage in Downtown, but at one of their other buildings not too far away they’re turning residential units into hotel rooms. A few years ago the developer opened Level Furnished Living at Ninth and Olive. It was approved as 303 residential units, but in 2017 local activists discovered that Level’s owners were actually offering the units as hotel rooms. At first they were doing it illegally, but City Hall was good enough to grant them a TORS conversion for 97 units. This stands for Transit Occupancy Residential Structure, and basically it means you’re turning housing into hotel rooms. And it looks like were going to see more of this. Another developer has filed an application to build a 27-story high-rise at 949 South Hope. The project description calls it a residential tower, but if you look at the requested approvals you’ll see that the developer is asking for the TORS designation up front. In other words, once the building is open it could be used as housing or hotel rooms.

This is a brilliant way to reduce vacancy rates in Downtown. Obviously Onni is really on to something. If you can’t market your units as apartments or condos, just turn them into hotel rooms. That way you’re turning a profit even if there really is no demand for housing. And the best part is, once you slap on the TORS designation, these units don’t have to be counted when calculating Downtown’s vacancy rate. If an apartment or condo is sitting empty, then it’s a vacant unit. If it’s a hotel room, it’s just an empty hotel room. It’s sheer genius. The City can reduce the Downtown vacancy rate just by calling these units something else.

Of couse, if Onni is turning residential units into hotel rooms at Level, you’ve got to ask if the need for housing in Downtown is really that severe. And at the same time, you have to ask if the PLUM Committee has any real interest in easing LA’s housing crisis. More likely they’re just helping a developer create another valuable asset for their portfolio.

After public comment, the PLUM Committee members spoke briefly, and it was pretty clear they were all on board with Onni’s agenda. They voted to recommend granting historic status to the Kaufman and Crawford buildings, but not to the Pereira building. In early December the full City Council adopted the Committee’s recommendation. Looks like Onni will get to go forward with its two residential towers. And if we find out in a few years that those residential towers have somehow turned into luxury hotels, well, that’s just the way things work in the City of LA.

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Hotel Developer Keeps Asking, and City Planning Keeps Giving

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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.

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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

 

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

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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

Harbor Gateway Community Fights Toxic Project

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Site at Vermont and Redondo where Prologis wants to build a massive distribution center.

Back in February I was at a City Planning Commission (CPC) hearing.  I’d come to talk about one of the items on the agenda, but while I was waiting for that to come up, I noticed a group of people sitting together holding signs that said “NO on 7”.  These people wanted to voice their opposition to a new distribution center that had been proposed for their community.  Logistics REIT giant Prologis was seeking permission to build a 341,000 sq. ft. warehouse with 36 truck loading positions and parking for up to 71 trailers that would operate 24/7.  Amazingly, the site they had in mind was right across the street from a residential neighborhood in the Harbor Gateway area.

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The community shows their opposition at the City Planning Commission hearing.

A long list of speakers got up to talk.  First there were the applicants and their reps, all of whom boasted about what a great project this was.  There were also a number of union members who came forward to tell the Commissioners that the distribution center would create lots of jobs.  And staff from Councilmember Joe Buscaino’s office showed up to speak in support of the project.

But the people who actually live in the community were dead set against it, talking about impacts from diesel truck exhaust, and noise from a distribution center that was going to operate 24/7.  They explained to the Commissioners that the site was just across the street from apartments and houses.  They pointed out that a healthcare facility, a convalescent home and a public park were all within a few hundred feet of the proposed distribution center.  The CPC listened to all this, and then voted to approve the project.  While Commissioners Vahid Khorsand and Veronica Padilla-Campos voted against, everyone else gave the distribution center a thumps up, and it passed easily.  The final tally was 6-2.

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Residential neighborhood directly across the street from the project site.

Even though I’d never heard of the project before that morning, it was pretty easy to see that the approval process was a joke.  The applicant wants to build a 300,000+ sq.ft. warehouse right across the street from a residential neighborhood.  The warehouse will generate hundreds of diesel truck trips every day, and will operate all night long.  This is a project that will have major impacts on the surrounding community, but instead of doing a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR), the Department of City Planning (DCP) allowed the applicant to slide it through with a much less rigorous Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND).  In other words, the DCP is saying that even though there could be negative impacts, don’t worry about it, because we can mitigate them to the point where they won’t be a problem.

HG Sm 30 Kei Ai

Kei-Ai Healthcare Center sits just across the street from the project site.

It’s a familiar game.  The City of LA plays it all the time.  The DCP lets the applicant run the environmental review process without providing any meaningful oversight.  DCP staff will offer some suggestions, the CPC will set some conditions, but the project that gets approved generally gives the developers pretty much everything they were asking for.  These days most of the Commissioners on the CPC seem to believe their job is to approve projects.  No matter what’s being proposed, the routine is pretty much the same.  They listen to testimony, ask DCP staff a few questions, spend a little time haggling over conditions, and then give it a green light.  Occasionally, as with this distribution center, one or two of the Commissioners will dissent, but almost without exception the majority gives the proposed project a thumbs-up and the developers and their reps walk out smiling.

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Gardena Convalescent Center is just over a block away from the project site.

But the people who live in the neighborhood aren’t smiling.  And they’re not taking this lying down.  I contacted one of the residents, Rosalie Preston, to ask if the community was planning to fight the project.  She sent me a copy of the appeal they’d submitted.  Preston points out that the community is already considered disadvantaged by the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) because of its proximity to the 110.  The freeway carries hundreds of diesel trucks through the area every day, causing CalEPA to rank it in the highest percentile for pollution burden.

I really hope the appeal will be granted, because the community has already spent way too much time opposing this awful project.  But if the appeal is denied and this goes to court, I’ll be laughing my head off on the day the judge hands the City of LA another embarrassing defeat.  The City has lost a number of high-profile cases related to development and planning.  This will just be one more demonstration of how badly broken the approval process is.

But let’s take look at the appeal, and see why the community has a problem with the CPC’s decision to approve the project….

An EIR, Not an MND

There’s really no question about this.  According to State law, an EIR is required if “substantial evidence in the record supports a fair argument that the project may result in significant adverse impacts.”  The Prologis Distribution Center will bring hundreds of diesel trucks in and out of this residential community, all through the day and all through the night.  Prologis argues that they can mitigate air quality and noise impacts to the point where they’re not significant.  It’s not surprising to hear developers make idiotic claims like this, but it’s depressing that the City is happy to take their word for it.  The fact that the DCP allowed Prologis to get away with an MND shows just how little they care about how new development impacts LA’s communities.

Toxic Emissions

Diesel trucks emit a range of harmful substances, and the claim that hundreds of trucks will travel through this community every day without having significant impacts on the health of the residents is absurd.  Among the components of diesel exhaust are particulate emissions.  The California Air Resources Board (ARB) regulates two classes of particulate emissions.

PM2.5: Up to 2.5 microns in size.

PM10: Up to 10 microns in size.

The ARB web site offers this information….

“The ARB is concerned about Californians’ exposures to PM2.5- and PM10-sized particles because of the potential harmful health effects that can result.  PM 2.5 and PM10 particles easily penetrate into the airways and lungs where they may produce harmful health effects such as the worsening of heart and lung diseases. The risk of these health effects is greatest in the elderly and the very young. Exposure to elevated concentrations of PM is also associated with increased hospital and doctor visits and increased numbers of premature deaths.”

The consultants who wrote the MND claim that the PM levels residents will be exposed to fall within the limits set by ARB, but the appeal calls this into question.  To predict the emissions that will be generated by a proposed project, environmental consultants use a program developed by the State known as CalEEMod.  The appellants looked at the numbers used by the authors of the MND for these estimates, and then compared them to the numbers actually given in the MND.  “When we reviewed the Project’s CalEEMod output files, we found that several of the values inputted into the model were not consistent with information disclosed in the IS/MND.”  The appellants believe that the numbers used by Prologis’ consultants represent only about half of the truck trips the project would generate.  This means the actual levels of PM pollution would be double, and the health impacts to the community much more severe than Prologis has stated.

Site Clean-Up

It’s known that former industrial uses on the site left toxic chemicals in the soil, including tetrachloroethylene (a likely carcinogen), trichloroethene (a known carcinogen), total petroleum hydrocarbons and heavy metals.  A Phase I Environmental Site Assessment was done in 2016.  It concluded that the site was rife with contaminants and recommended additional investigation.  Anybody with common sense should understand that there’s no way to talk about mitigating the impacts until all the information is available.

The appeal covers a lot of other issues, but it all boils down to the fact that Prologis isn’t being honest about the impacts that will be caused by the project.  And as usual, the Department of City Planning and the City Planning Commission are letting the developer get away with it.  There’s certainly an argument to be made regarding the jobs the project will create, and the increase in economic activity throughout the area.  But even if the CPC believes the economic benefits outweigh the health concerns, they’re still required by law to fully assess the impacts and to make every reasonable effort to protect the health of the community.  They haven’t done that.  By allowing Prologis to use an MND instead of an EIR, they’ve let the developer off the hook and let the community down.

But that’s nothing new.  Anybody who’s been following development in LA over the years knows about the cozy relationship that business interests have with City Hall, and by extension, with the DCP.  Developers and real estate investors know it’s just a matter of working the machine, and if they play the game right, pretty much anything they ask for will be approved.

City Hall is supposed to protect us.  Instead they’re selling us out.  The people opposing this project are just the latest victims of the City’s disrespect for State-mandated environmental review.  By allowing Prologis to slide through this process without properly assessing the project’s impacts, the DCP is putting residents’ health at risk.

That’s not acceptable.  Unfortunately, once again the CPC has ignored the law, and once again residents have been forced to pursue an appeal and possibly a law suit just to protect their community.  Once again the City of LA has put the interests of developers over the rights of citizens.

 

HG Rosecrans Rec Ctr from Google by Carmelita Ibarra

Rosecrans Recreation Center, directly north of the project site.   Photo by Carmelita Ibarra from Google Images.

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.

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

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Traffic heading west on Selma toward Highland.

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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.

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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.

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Crossroads of the World

 

Where Is this Bridge Going?

B6 00 1708 Wide Long 2

The old Sixth Street Bridge is gone. It was torn down early in 2016. The demolition was necessary because the concrete in the original structure was decaying. Work has begun on constructing a new Sixth Street Bridge, and right now it looks like it will be finished in 2020. (For the record, the formal project title is the Sixth Street Viaduct Replacement Project.)

Bridges are about making connections. The original structure was built in 1932, and was one of a series of bridges that spans the LA River. This ambitious infrastructure project started in the 20s and continued through the 30s, eventually allowing numerous crossings between Downtown and East LA. Here are a few photos of the old Sixth Street Bridge.

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A shot from the base of the bridge.

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A truck coming down the west side.

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A view of the bridge facing west.

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Downtown in the distance.

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A view of the San Gabriel Mountains from the old bridge.

The renderings of the new bridge are striking. It was designed by architect Michael Maltzan, but the project is a team effort, and the goal is to produce something much more than a bridge. Here’s a quote from Maltzan’s web site.

The design team including Michael Maltzan Architecture (Design Architect), HNTB (Engineer and Executive Architect), Hargreaves Associates (Landscape Architect), and AC Martin (Urban Planning) began with the fundamental understanding that the Viaduct is more than a simple replacement thoroughfare crossing the Los Angeles River. The project instead foresees a multimodal future for the City, one that accommodates cars, incorporates significant new bicycle connections. It also increases connectivity for pedestrians to access the Viaduct, not only at its endpoints, but along the entirety of the span, linking the bridge, the Los Angeles River, and future urban landscapes in a more meaningful relationship.

The project also includes a park and an arts center. You can see some images here.

Sixth Street Viaduct/PARC from LA Bureau of Engineering

Here are some shots of the project site from March 2017, when work on the new bridge was just beginning.

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For the time being, this is where Sixth St. ends.

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Lots of machinery on the project site.

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Looking across the river toward East LA.

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A shot of the riverbed when construction was just starting.

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Another angle.

And here are some shots from August 2017.

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A little more progress has been made.

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A closer view.

For the team involved with the design, this project is all about bringing things together, creating connections and offering new ways for people to experience this space. One of the chief goals is to link the Arts District with Boyle Heights and the LA River. That sounds pretty cool in the abstract, but in actual fact there are a lot of reasons to worry about the downside. I’m sure Maltzan and his team see this project as a positive thing, but that’s not surprising. They’re architects and engineers engaged in creating a spectacular new piece of infrastructure. And of course the City’s website  is all about the upside.  But really, the City’s glib promo materials don’t begin to describe what’s happening here. By itself, the new bridge may sound great, but if you look at it in the larger context of the area’s culture and economy, you start to realize that this project could have serious negative impacts.

Any large scale infrastructure project, any attempt to remake the landscape, is going to affect the surrounding communities. These impacts can be good or bad, and often it’s a mix of the two. In this case, the biggest issue is one that never gets mentioned on the City’s web site. It’s the same issue that communities all over LA are dealing with. Displacement. Downtown LA has been going through a massive construction boom, with high-end housing and high-end retail largely transforming that community into an upscale enclave. Now developers are eyeing neighborhoods on the other side of the river.

The residents of Boyle Heights are already feeling the effects of gentrification, as real estate investors looking for cheap land and big profits have been buying up parcels in the area. Evictions are already happening, and many people who live in this largely Latino community are afraid they’ll be next. You may have read about the protests that have taken place in recent years. Here are some shots from an action staged by East LA residents in September 2016.  Protesters met at the intersection of Whittier and Boyle, where the old bridge touched down on the East Side.

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“Boyle Heights Is Not for Sale.”

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Families are worried about losing their homes.

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Many people on this side of the river see gentrification as violence.

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New art galleries are seen as harbingers of displacement.

The protest movement in Boyle Heights has gotten a fair amount of media attention, partly because in some cases the protesters have used aggressive tactics in trying to shut down a new coffee house and some local galleries. They see these businesses as the first outposts of coming gentrification. There are people who have questioned the protesters’ methods, complaining that they’ve gone too far. But let me ask you this. If you were in danger of losing your home and being driven out of your neighborhood, how far do you think you’d be willing to go?

It’s no accident that communities like Boyle Heights have been targeted by real estate investors. Land is cheaper there than in Downtown, and they know that the completion of the bridge and the accompanying amenities will make the area more desirable to upscale residents. We’ve already seen something similar happen in the Arts District. A largely low-income community has been rapidly transformed by a massive influx of developer dollars, and the people who had lived there for years, in fact, the people who actually built the community, have been driven out.  A similar scenario has been unfolding in Hollywood, and with the construction of the Crenshaw/LAX line you can see the same thing happening in communities like Leimert Park.

Investment in a community can be a good thing, but not when it drives out the people who have spent their lives there. And these days it’s not a gradual evolution. City Hall works with developers to target areas for rapid growth, almost all of it geared toward affluent new residents. When the City or County lays plans for new infrastructure, like light rail or parks or, in this case, a bridge, real estate investors move in quickly.  Often these investors are well connected at City Hall and already have possible projects in mind.  In other cases they’re speculators just snapping up parcels that they know will rise in value. They don’t plan to build anything, since they know they can make a profit just by sitting on the property until new infrastructure is in place.  And Mayor Garcetti gleefully promotes the aggressive transformation of these communities, apparently without giving a thought to the real suffering that displacement is causing for thousands of Angelenos. It seems he feels he was elected just to serve the affluent.

These days I hear so much talk about making LA a “world class city”, and I’m really sick of it. Garcetti’s idea of creating a “world class city” is about pouring billions into new infrastructure so that developers can cash in by building upscale enclaves for the affluent. Personally, I don’t care what class LA is in. If we can’t help hardworking people stay in their homes, if we can’t support communities that people have invested their lives in building, then this city is a failure.

You can spend all the money you want on bridges and parks and rivers and rail lines. All that stuff is meaningless if at the same time we’re dismantling our communities, the human infrastructure that really holds this city together.

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Talking to the MTA

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I’ve spent a fair amount of time slagging the MTA, so I want to make sure I don’t overlook the things they do right. Recently I learned about the agency’s NextGen Bus Study, which is an effort to redesign the bus network with an eye toward building ridership. This is an important step. Ridership has been declining for years now, and the MTA really needs to rethink what it’s doing. I was glad to hear that they were taking a good, hard look at the bus system, and I was wondering what kind of public outreach they’d be doing.

That outreach has taken the shape of Telephone Town Halls, so far two of them, held earlier this month. It’s a virtual town hall meeting where people can join using their phone or their computer. MTA staff members were on hand, and they took questions directly from callers. At intervals they asked the audience to take quick surveys, and the results were revealed wihin minutes.

I thought it was great. While I still think public meetings in physical spaces are important, I loved the fact that I could participate while sitting in my living room. I was afraid most of the meeting would be about bureaucrats explaining spreadsheets, but my fears were unfounded. The bulk of the time was given to answering questions from participants. And it was interesting to learn from the surveys what other peoples’ priorities were.

Two of these virtual town halls isn’t nearly enough. This one was actually split between the NextGen Bus Study and a discussion of budget issues. I hope the MTA schedules more of these focussed specifically on redesigning bus service. I think the decline in ridership is in large part due to the fact that the agency has lost touch with its core ridership. They really need to find out what people want, because otherwise the declines will continue.

And along those lines, I hope the MTA plans to reach out specifically to the low-income immigrant communities that depend on busses to get around. I noticed they did provide Spanish translation at the town hall I attended. I hope they were also providing translation in other languages. Many of the people who ride the MTA don’t speak fluent English, and their voices need to be heard.

But this was certainly a step in the right direction. I’d definitely log on for another one of these.

NextGen Bus Study

 

 

We Need Trees, Not Fees

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The City has a problem. The Urban Forestry Division (UFD) has scores of trees sitting in boxes in storage that it can’t plant. Why is this? In large part it’s because when developers remove trees to build projects, they agree to replace them by purchasing new ones for the City to plant elsewhere. Unfortunately, due to budget cuts, the UFD has no staff to do the planting. And worse, when trees are stuck in boxes for long periods of time, their health declines, sometimes to the point where they’re not viable any more.

Actually, the City has an even bigger problem than this. We’re losing a huge chunk of our urban forest. Years of dry weather has already impacted the health of thousands of trees in the LA area, but now there’s a worse threat. A beetle called the shot hole borer has come to the region. It nests in trees and in the process often kills them. The die-off has already begun, and if it continues at its current pace we can expect to lose millions of trees throughout Southern California over the next several years. This isn’t just a matter of erasing pretty landscapes. As a result of this massive reduction of our urban forest, there will be impacts to our water resources, our air will be dirtier, and our cities will grow hotter than they are already.

So you’d think we’d be doing everything we can to protect the trees we’ve got. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Aside from the natural threats to our trees, development is taking a toll on the urban forest. City Hall is pushing hard to boost construction of housing and hotels, as well as office and commercial space. Which brings us back to the first point. Developers generally want to squeeze as much square footage as they can out of a project. Often they ask the City to reduce required setbacks, or even let them build right out to the property line. In many cases they also ask the City to reduce the requirements for open space. The Department of City Planning (DCP) is usually pretty generous in granting developers’ wishes, especially if it’s a housing project that includes some affordable units.

To give you an idea of how bad things have gotten, let’s talk about the City’s Protected Tree Ordinance (PTO). Some species are considered so important that we should afford them special protection. A while back the City Council approved the PTO in order to prevent their removal except under extraordinary circumstances. So how’s that working out? Not so good. In November of last year Councilmembers Paul Koretz and Mike Bonin introduced a motion to strengthen the ordinance. Here’s a quote.

”Unfortunately, trees are not being adequately protected and departments are not working well together to protect them. Trees are being cut before development permits are applied for, trees are not being protected during construction activities, and building permits are routinely issued without the Department of Building and Safety being aware of the presence of protected trees on the affected properties, all resulting in an accumulating net loss of trees, tree canopy and the accompanying ecosystem services across the City.”

This is serious. We need trees. Our water resources are increasingly stressed. LA’s air quality ranks among the worst in the nation. And temperatures in the city continue to rise. A robust urban forest would help us deal with all of those problems, but instead of enhancing our tree canopy we’re cutting it down.

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The reason I’m bringing all this up is that there’s a proposal before the City right now to allow developers to fulfill the requirement for replacing trees simply by paying a fee. For new projects that remove trees, the City would calculate the required number of replacements (usually at a ratio between 2 to 1 and 4 to 1), and then bill the developer for in-lieu fees of $2,612 per tree. This amount would cover the cost of procurement, planting and providing water for three years.

At first glance, this might look like a good deal. The UFD doesn’t have staff to plant the replacement trees it’s been receiving, and storing them for long periods of time impacts the trees’ health. There apparently has been talk of restoring some of the UDF’s funding in the City’s next budget, which could lead to the hiring of personnel to plant trees. But that’s definitely a roll of the dice, since LA is struggling with a structural deficit, and for years now its budgets have been held together with scotch tape and bubble gum. Many City departments suffered staff cuts during the recession, and they’re all lobbying to restore those positions. So without any certainty over staffing for the UFD, the in-lieu fee probably seems pretty attractive, since the cost of planting and watering is built in. The City is outsourcing a lot of work already, and it could just hire a contractor to do the job.

But really, there are a number of problems with just charging an in lieu-fee….

First, it makes it even easier for the DCP to allow developers to do away with trees. If, in theory, all the trees that are removed will be replaced at a 2 to 1 ratio or better, and if the money collected includes planting and watering, then why would they hesitate to reduce setbacks and open space? Let the developers do whatever they want! Problem solved. But in reality, we have no guarantee that this system will work as promised. Think about it. Supposedly the current system of requiring developers to replace trees was going to solve the problem. And what actually happened? We have a lot of trees sitting in City-owned storage areas. Some have been sitting in boxes so long that they’re no longer viable. And at the same time developers have been cutting down trees and putting hardscape in their place.

But the City would certainly spend the money they collect. Right? Not necessarily. You may recall that back in 2015 City Controller Ron Galperin did an audit of fees collected from developers. He found $54 million that had been sitting in City-controlled accounts for at least three years. This money had been collected, but it hadn’t been spent. Unfortunately, City Hall isn’t always great about following through.

Second, while charging the in-lieu fees may lead to a better replacement rate in the future, there’s no guarantee that the City will do anything about the trees the UFD currently has in stock. If the budget for the next fiscal year doesn’t include funds for additional staff, these trees could easily sit in storage until they die. It’s been suggested that non-profits could step in to do the planting. If that’s a possibility, why hasn’t it already happened?

Third, and most important, this is not a solution, it’s a quick fix. In order to find a solution, you have to first identify the problem, and the City hasn’t done that. It’s proposing in-lieu fees as a way of replacing trees that are cut down for development, but that’s really just one aspect of the situation.

The real problem is that we’re facing a potentially devastating loss of our urban forest.

If we fail to maintain our urban forest, our air quality will suffer, our water quality will be diminished, and LA will continue to grow hotter than it already is.

LA needs a comprehensive, holistic approach to managing our urban forest. We must do a complete inventory of the city’s tree canopy, and also an inventory of space available for planting trees. We then need to use this data to develop a unified policy based on actual science that will address all aspects of the problem. Rather than coming up with quick fixes to deal with tree loss caused by new development or sidewalk repair or insect infestation, we need an integrated approach that brings all these things together.

In other words, we need to gather the data, look at the science, and then develop an actual plan.

If we don’t do this, our urban forest will continue to decline, and we will suffer the consequences.

If you want to take a look at the proposed ordinance, here’s the link.

Tree Replacement In-Lieu Fee

If you want to contact your City Council rep about this issue, be sure to include this council file number in the subject line.

CF-16-0461

And to make sure your comments are included in the file, don’t forget to copy the City Clerk.

cityclerk@lacity.org

Finally, if you want to voice your comments in person, this issue will be considered by the Community Forest Advisory Committee (CFAC) later this week.

CFAC Meeting
Thursday, March 1, 1:00 pm
City Hall, 200 N. Spring St, Room 361
[USE MAIN ST. ENTRANCE.]

For more information, follow the link below.

CFAC Meetings

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