Ignoring Danger, City Approves Distillery Next to School

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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

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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.

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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.

 

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

Predatory Development: Crossroads Hollywood

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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.

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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?

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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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Westlake Residents Speak Out Against “Design District”

CDW Audience

Attendees at a community forum on the North Westlake Design District.

It’s clear that the people at City Hall think they know better than we do how our communities should grow. The latest example of their arrogance is the proposed North Westlake Design District (NWDD). It’s another attempt to put money in developers’ pockets by pushing for gentrification and displacement in low-income communities. Check out the language from the notice announcing a hearing held by the Department of City Planning (DCP) back in 2014.

“The proposed Design District is being considered to guide new development that will complement the existing character of the neighborhood, create a pedestrian friendly environment, and provide neighborhood-serving amenities. The proposed zoning ordinance is initiated by the City of Los Angeles.”

Pay attention to that last sentence, because it’s the key to what’s happening here. This “design district” is not something that the community asked for. It’s something City Hall wants. Are any of the area’s residents in favor? Local activists organized a community forum in January. I was there for about an hour, and I only heard one speaker who thought this was a good idea. Everybody else who spoke while I was there was against it. Why? Well, there were a lot of reasons, but it boils down to the fact that a lot of them are worried they’re going to get kicked out of their own community.

Why are they afraid that’s going to happen?

Because that’s what’s been happening in communities all over LA for well over a decade. As real estate investment interests have moved into places like Echo Park, Highland Park, Boyle Heights and Hollywood, low-income residents have been forced out by rising rental prices. Even units protected by the Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO) aren’t safe. In 2017 landlords took 1,824 RSO units off the market using the Ellis Act. Over 23,000 RSO units have been lost since 2001. So the residents of the Westlake area, including Historic Filipinotown, have good reason to be worried.

Real estate investors are already buying up property in the area. The City Planning Commission recently approved The Lake, a huge mixed-use project that includes a hotel and a 41 story residential tower, at Wilshire and Bonnie Brae. Other projects in the works are a 54-unit building at 1246 Court and a 243-unit mixed-use complex at 1800 Beverly. As investors move in, you can bet a lot of locals will be forced out.

The impacts are already being felt in the community. One of the speakers talked about how the office building he works in was recently purchased by a new owner, and the non-profit the speaker works for has already received an eviction notice. Another speaker complained that a project containing over 200 condos at Temple and Hoover will take away what little open space the neighborhood has.

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City planning staff responds to community concerns.

There were a lot of unhappy people at the forum. Speaker after speaker came forward to talk about their concerns, and some weren’t shy about expressing their anger. Three representatives from the DCP attended, and they did their best to defend the design district. Personally I didn’t think their arguments were persuasive, but at least they showed up. The organizers of the forum invited Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell to come and hear what the community had to say, but he was a no-show. Didn’t even send a rep from his office. I guess that shows just how much he cares about the folks who live in the area.

We’ve seen this all before. The City pushes a plan that will create a “pedestrian friendly environment” and bring “neighborhood-serving amenities”. They talk about “walkable”, “vibrant” urban spaces, where people can shop, dine, drink and party. The only problem is, once the City’s done with its makeover of these areas, the people who get to enjoy them are the affluent newcomers who’ve taken the place over. Families who used to call the neighborhood home have to leave. They can’t afford to live there any more.

In response to the NWDD, a group called The Coalition to Defend Westlake has been formed. To view their Facebook page, click on the link below.

Coalition to Defend Westlake

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People wait in line to have their say about the NWDD.