Help Koreatown Hang On to Liberty Park

LP 01 Across Med

Los Angeles is notoriously behind the curve when it comes to providing public parks for its citizens. In rating 100 US cities on their park systems, The Trust for Public Land put LA at number 74. And while the city as a whole is lacking in public space for recreation, there are some neighborhoods where the need is especially acute.

Like Koreatown. This dense urban community has plenty of asphalt and concrete, but not much green space. So it’s disturbing news when a proposed project threatens to take away one of the few parks available to residents.

Liberty Park was completed in 1967 as part of Beneficial Plaza on Wilshire Blvd.. Designed by Peter Walker, its graceful curves and striking contrasts make it a unique experience. Walker was just starting his career in the 60s, but has since been become an internationally recognized landscape architect.

LP 10 Walk Pers

A view of the park facing away from Wilshire.

LP 12 Sm Tree

The park provides much needed green space in Koreatown.

 

LP 14 Reader

Liberty Park provides a quiet space in the middle of a busy urban area.

LP 20 Steps Const

The park sits at the foot of the former Beneficial Plaza.

But even more important than the park’s design is the place it holds in the community. In an area where parks are scarce, this is one of the few places where people can escape to relax on the grass or read in the shade of a tree. It’s also been a gathering place for the community, whether to celebrate Earth Day or to rally behind the South Korean team during World Cup Soccer.

LP 50 Lawn Shadow

A tall grove of trees provides much-needed shade.

LP 52 Trees Steps Pers

Looking through the trees toward the building that now houses Radio Korea.

LP 56 Trees Beer

The park’s design offers some interesting contrasts.

LP 58 Trees Bldg

Looking up from beneath the trees.

The proposed project is a mixed-use complex rising 30+ stories, and if approved in its current version it would reduce Liberty Park to nothing more than a few scraps of green space. It’s frustrating that the City of LA only required the developers to prepare a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) for this new complex, allowing them to get away with a relatively low level of environmental review. It’s even more frustrating that the MND concludes that this project will have no impact on historic resources. This is ridiculous. Beneficial Plaza as a whole holds in important place in the area’s history, and there’s nothing else like Liberty Park in all of LA.

LP 60 Bush Row Orange

A view of the park facing Serrano.

LP 62 Side Run

A view of the park from the Oxford side.

But it’s not too late to preserve this beautiful and unique public resource. A group called Save Liberty Park has been working hard to raise awareness, and hopefully they can get City Hall to change course on this. They need your help. Here’s the link if you want to get involved.

Save Liberty Park

LP 90 Red Car

A Breath of Fresh Exhaust

Breath 01

The balconies at the Da Vinci offer a view of the Hollywood Freeway.

A while ago I wrote a post about a project going up in my neighborhood. The site was less than 200 feet from the Hollywood Freeway, and the developer was capping it with rooftop decks. In light of the extensive research showing elevated health risks for people living near freeways, this seemed absolutely insane. But after a few phone calls and e-mails I confirmed that both the Department of City Planning (DCP) and the Department of Building & Safety (DBS) had signed off on it. And while I don’t have much respect for the the folks at City Hall these days, this seemed like a new low. I felt like they’d really crossed a line.

I was so wrong. The City crossed that line a long time ago. Turns out they’ve been routinely approving new residential projects near freeways that include rooftop decks and/or balconies. In spite of years of research that has shown strong links between exposure to freeway traffic and increased health risks, especially for children, the DCP and the DBS have okayed a number of projects near freeways that offer these amenities.

For over 20 years, USC has been gathering data on health impacts related to living near freeways. By the early years of the last decade, they were warning that residents in these areas faced significantly higher risk of asmtha, heart attacks and lung cancer, and that children were at risk of suffering permanent lung damage. In 2005 the California Air Resources Board published a handbook that specifically warned against residential construction within 500 feet of freeways. The City of LA, however, argues that the need for new housing outweighs the health risks.

But even if you buy that argument, how can you justify approving amenities that put people in direct contact with some of the most toxic air in the nation? Balconies and rooftop decks are not necessary. And in fact, when they’re placed on residential structures less than 500 feet from a freeway, this clearly fits the definition of a hazardous building as outlined by the LA Municipal Code:

Whenever a building or structure, used or intended to be used for dwelling purposes, because of dilapidation, decay, damage or faulty construction or arrangement, or otherwise, is insanitary or unfit for human habitation or is in a condition that is likely to cause sickness or disease, when so determined by the health officer, or is likely to work injury to the health, safety or general welfare of those living within.  [Emphasis mine.]

So allowing these features creates buildings that the City’s own Municipal Code defines as hazardous. Does that stop the City from approving them? Of course not.

The City does require that new buildings provide a certain amount of open space, and certainly developers will tell you that rooftop decks and balconies are one way of fulfilling that requirement in dense urban areas. But let’s look at a couple of the objectives listed for open space in the City’s General Plan….

2) to provide safer play areas for children

4) to increase natural light and ventilation

Can anybody argue that a balcony placed a couple hundred feet from a dense concentration of nitrogen oxide, CO2 and particulate emissions fulfills these objectives?

Sure, there are a number of apartment buildings near freeways with balconies and/or rooftop decks that were constructed long before the health risks became clear. But City Hall has known about the dangers since at least 2005. Let’s take a look at some of the residential projects they’ve approved over the last ten years or so….

Here’s Patio del Cielo at 4410 Sepulveda in Sherman Oaks. You could translate “cielo” as either “sky” or “heaven”, but obviously the implication is you’ll be living somewhere far removed from the hustle and bustle of the city. Not too far removed from the San Diego Freeway, though, which is just about 200 feet away.

Breath 10

Traffic lining up for the freeway in front of Patio del Cielo.

Breath 12

Rush hour traffic on the San Diego Freeway.

The balconies/decks that adorn these homes along 2775 Cahuenga are between 100 and 300 feet from the traffic on the Hollywood Freeway. And since this housing complex is right on Cahuenga Blvd., from June through September residents can enjoy the spectacle of thousands of cars inching their way past during Hollywood Bowl season.

Breath 20

Balconies at the front of 2775 Cahuenga.

Breath 22

Traffic on the Hollywood Freeway near 2775 Cahuenga.

The Carlton, at 5845 Carlton Way, has both balconies and rooftop decks. I bet you get a stunning view of the Hollywood Freeway from the roof. It’s just about 200 feet away.

Breath 30

The Carlton is the white building on the left.

Breath 32

A view of the rooftop from the rear of The Carlton.

Breath 34

A view of rush hour traffic near The Carlton.

But first prize for really bad planning goes to the Da Vinci, at 909 W. Temple. Developer Geoff Palmer has made a fortune building massive residential complexes near freeways, but this may be his masterpiece. The Da Vinci sits right where the Hollywood and the Harbor Freeways meet. And just like every other Palmer apartment block I’ve seen Downtown, the developer has made sure that residents can get their fill of diesel fumes and particulate emissions simply by stepping out onto their private balcony.

Breath 40

Would you say those balconies are 100 feet away from the freeway?

Breath 45

Traffic on the freeway north of the Da Vinci.

You could argue that a number of Palmer’s buildings went up before the adverse impacts of living near freeways were fully known. But City Hall approved the Da Vinci years after our elected officials had learned about the dangers. Again, they’ll tell you that we can’t afford not to build near freeways. But giving people balconies so they can get a face full of auto exhaust? How do you justify that?

I’ve suggested before that people write to the Mayor if they feel this needs to stop. Obviously, it hasn’t had much impact. But I’d like to suggest something a little different this time. How about writing to the Mayor and copying your congressional rep? Maybe if City Hall heard from someone at the federal level they’d think twice before approving hazardous amenities on apartments next to freeways.

Try using the following subject line….

Why Does the City of LA Keep Putting Residents’ Health at Risk?

Here’s Garcetti’s e-mail address.

mayor.garcetti@lacity.org

And if you don’t know who represents you in Congress, use the link below to find out.

http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/

Columbia Square

CS 01 Front 1

There are a number of different Hollywoods. It can be a noun or an adjective, a brand or a concept, a nostalgic fantasy or a nasty slur. But there’s also a physical place called Hollywood, and it’s been through a lot of changes over the years. About a century ago it became the center of the film industry, and what started out as a sleepy suburb grew rapidly. Its fortunes rose and fell as the studios left, radio and TV moved in, radio and TV moved on, and the internet conquered the world. For decades people have been asking how to bring media back to the Hollywood area to revitalize the local economy.

Columbia Square has played a key role in putting Hollywood, the place, back on the media map. Opening to great fanfare last year, the project brings together residential, office and commercial space to create a media campus. The owners were spectacularly successful in landing major industry tenants long before the project was completed. Columbia Square was widely hailed as a major step forward in Hollywood’s revitalization.

CS 07 EC Side

The El Centro side of Columbia Square

CS 08 Sidewalk

The front of the campus along Sunset

I have to say I’m pretty impressed myself. I was skeptical about how this modern media campus would come out, and I was pleasantly surprised. This was a complex project, and roused a certain amount of controversy when it was first proposed. But the developer did an admirable job, not just engaging the community, but actually responding to residents’ concerns. And here’s it’s probably a good idea to give some background….

Columbia Square, located on Sunset between El Centro and Gower, was first built in the late 30s by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Creating a major, state-of-the-art radio/recording studio in the area was seen as a boost, not just for Hollywood the place, but also Hollywood the brand. New York had dominated the national radio market since the beginning, but this was a sign that LA was trying to change that. The look of the building was an integral part of getting that message across. CBS chose modernist William Lescaze to design the project, and the building was one more landmark in LA’s long engagement with progressive architecture.

CS 10 Paley

The courtyard at the front of the complex

CS 12 Ctyrd Tree 1

Another shot of the courtyard

CS 16 Ctyrd NH People

One of the restored structures, now occupied by Neue House

CS 18 Ctyrd Out

A view of the courtyard looking toward Sunset

As TV took over in the 40s and 50s, a number of popular shows originated from Columbia Square, but it was radio that kept hanging on through the years. Broadcasts continued to emanate from the studios until 2007, when the last tenant left. Then the building went dark, and for a while no one was sure what would happen to it. The property changed hands a few times, and different ideas were thrown around. In 2009 the City released an EIR for a project that included a 40-story tower. If you’ve been following development in Hollywood for any length of time, you can probably imagine how that went over.

But then a new developer took charge, and things changed dramatically. When Kilroy Realty Group acquired the property in 2012, they took the time to listen to the community and made some changes, crucially lowering the height of the tower to 22 stories. This is pretty amazing when you consider that the City had actually approved 28. They also decided to rethink the layout of the campus, allowing for more open space to engage the public. And they agreed to work with local preservationists to restore the historic Lescaze structures.

CS 22 Stairs

Stairway leading to the rear of the campus

CS 24 Ctyrd Chairs 2

A space to hang out in

The end result is a jewel. I’ve actually gone to Columbia Square a few times since it opened, just to walk around and take pictures. (And because the weather was different each time, the light in the photos keeps changing. Sorry if it’s a little jarring.) I think it’s important to mention the people involved in making this happen. The firm of House & Robertson designed the campus and the new buildings. In restoring the original structures they worked with Historic Resources Group. And the landscapes were created by Rios Clementi Hale Studios. The Los Angeles Conservancy was so impressed with the finished product that they gave the developer their 2017 Preservation Award. It’s worth reading the Conservancy’s description of the project to get an idea of how much time, money, and work went into the restoration process.

Columbia Square from the Los Angeles Conservancy

I’m so knocked out by the new complex, and by the way Kilroy approached the project, that I hate to voice any reservations. While I was writing this post I kept asking myself whether I wanted to make any critical comments, because in some respects the revitalized ColumbiaSquare is a model of what redevelopment should be. But there are a couple of things I think it’s important to note….

First, while the residential tower is beautiful, the prices are way beyond what the average person living in Hollywood could afford. And the addition of a couple hundred high-end apartments is just another step in the ongoing gentrification of the area. Even as I write this, more low-income tenants are being pushed out of their homes.

Second, while the City has tried to portray this, and other projects like it, as transit-oriented development, it’s highly unlikely that the people who live at Columbia Square will be taking transit on a regular basis. The City has been pushing this line for years, and the results have been disastrous. Transit ridership in LA is lower now than it was back in the 80s, and continues to decline. City Hall’s continued insistence that building high-profile, high-end megaprojects is going to get people on busses and trains just shows how clueless our elected officials are.

CS 40 Gower Side 1

The Gower side of the campus

CS 44 Gower Side Benches

Landscaping and benches along Gower

But let’s end on a positive note. I want to congratulate Kilroy, and all the others involved, in coming up with a project that has so much to recommend it. This is an unusual instance where a major developer respected the local context, and more important, the local community. The new Columbia Square is a beautiful piece of design, and it’s brought some major media players to the area, along with hundreds of jobs. Over all, it’s an important step forward for Hollywood the brand, the concept, the industry, and the place.

CS 50 Vert

LA’s Latest Innovation: Freeway-Adjacent Rooftop Decks

RD Ovrcast

You just never know what the City of LA will come up with next….

There was an empty lot in my neighborhood that had been sitting vacant for years.  After a developer pitched a hotel for the site and got turned down, a new project came along consisting of 18 3-story condos.  It seemed like a good fit, the Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council (HHWNC) looked it over and gave it a thumbs up, and construction started last year.

Everything seemed okay until last November when I noticed what looked like a railing going up around the perimeter of the roof.  Were they adding rooftop decks?  That wasn’t mentioned in the hearing notice for the project or the environmental assessment, and it wasn’t part of the project approved by the HHWNC.  Not long after the railing went up, it became clear that the construction crew had added staircases leading to the roof, and soon they were building stairwell coverings.

Why was I concerned?  Well, here in Hollywood people like to give parties.  Nothing wrong with parties in general, but sometimes they get pretty noisy, and sometimes they go on really late.  It’s already an issue in the neighborhood, and building 18 individual rooftop decks seemed like it was just increasing the chances of someone throwing an all-night open-air bash.

So initially my concern was selfish.  I was worried about the noise this project might create, and I was wondering why the rooftop decks hadn’t been included in the package that was presented to the community and approved by the Department of City Planning (DCP).  I called up my City Council office, and talked to a very nice guy who said he’d look into it.  Over the next two months I sent three e-mails to this Council Office staffer asking for an update.  Never got an answer.

But during that time it occurred to me that there might be another problem with this project, a much more serious issue than raucous late night parties….

You see, these condos are going up right next to the Hollywood Freeway.  I’d say at the farthest point the structure is about 150 feet from the freeway and at the nearest point about 50.   I started wondering if building so close to a major traffic corridor wouldn’t pose health risks for the future occupants, so I got on the net to do some research.

RD Fwy

The space between the project site and the freeway.

Probably everybody reading this already knows what I found out.  There’s a large body of research showing a higher incidence of respiratory problems among people who live near freeways.  The risk is especially high for children and seniors.  In fact, young people can suffer lifelong damage since ongoing exposure to pollutants from auto exhaust may affect the development of their lungs.  This problem has gotten a lot of media attention recently, but the information has been out there for years.  USC has been studying the effects of air pollution on children since the 90s.  Here’s an article published by USC News back in 2004.

USC Study Links Smoggy Air to Lung Damage in Children, September 2004

Not long after, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) published their Air Quality and Land Use Handbook, warning cities about the risks of building housing near freeways.  Here’s the number one item on the handbook’s list of recommendations.

“Avoid siting new sensitive land uses within 500 feet of a freeway, urban roads with 100,000 vehicles/day, or rural roads with 50,000 vehicles/day.”

So the information has been out there for more than a decade, and the City Council is well aware of the health impacts to people living close to freeways.  They’ve talked about ways to deal with the risks, but very little has happened in the way of concrete action.  In fact, in recent years the Council has approved thousands of residential units in close proximity to freeways.  They argue that LA’s housing shortage is so dire we can’t afford to prohibit construction in these areas even if there are health risks.  Even though I don’t buy that argument, I know that many people would agree.

But rooftop decks?!  Are they crazy?!

After reading up on the potential health risks, the idea of adding rooftop decks to these condos seemed so absolutely insane I thought it was worth making a few phone calls.  I rang up the woman at the DCP who prepared the initial study for the project.  I explained that the rooftop decks hadn’t been included in the project description or the renderings that were shown to the HHWNC, and that the height had increased by 30%.  She said that the project complied with existing zoning and that the Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) had the final authority over what was permitted.  I asked how the DCP could allow this since noise impacts from rooftop decks weren’t considered in the environmental assessment.  She replied that the DCP had considered operational impacts from the project and had approved the assessment.  Finally, I pointed out that the rooftop decks posed significant potential health risks to the future tenants.  Her response was that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) did not require the DCP to consider impacts to those who would live on the site in the future.

I was angry, but not really surprised.  I’ve realized over the last few years that the folks at the DCP really don’t care about how proposed projects will affect the lives of the people who live in this city.  It’s all about keeping the developers happy.

RD Traffic EDITED

Traffic on the Hollywood Freeway near the project site.

Who knows why I even went on to contact LADBS.  I guess I must get some kind of sick kick out of banging my head against a wall.  Anyway, here’s their response.

 

The roof top decks and the overall building height of 44.9 feet is allowed by right, therefore LADBS does have the ability to approve the project as proposed.  The Zoning Variance reviewed by City Planning only addressed a parking requirement.  City Planning has approved the plans for the current project.

LADBS’ authority to approve projects is based on Building Code requirements.  The Building Code does not have any restrictions for a rooftop deck near a freeway.

 

So according to LADBS, they did everything by the book.  They don’t see a problem.

But there is a problem here.  It’s bad enough that a developer is allowed to present one project to the community and then build something substantially different.  But it’s even worse when a developer is allowed to create a clear health risk for the people who will live in the finished building.

I tried arguing with the bureaucrats who approve these projects and got nowhere.  Maybe it’s time to take it to the higher-ups.  If you feel there’s a problem here that needs to be addressed, I hope you’ll feel strongly enough about it to write an e-mail to the three people listed below.  And please use the following subject line….

Freeway-Adjacent Rooftop Decks at 2111 Cahuenga

Eric Garcetti, Mayor

mayor.garcetti@lacity.org

Vince Bertoni, Director of City Planning

vince.bertoni@lacity.org

Frank M. Bush, LADBS General Manager

frank.bush@lacity.org

RD Tight

 

 

Tenants Kicked Out as Landlords Cash In

lp-01-notice

Ellis Act evictions are so common in LA these days that I’ve gotten used to hearing reports of landlords kicking their tenants out. It happens all the time. As speculative development continues to push property values higher, property owners are eager to cash in. Over 20,000 units have been removed from the rental market through the Ellis Act since 2000. And in addition to the thousands of tenants who’ve been kicked out under Ellis, it’s likely that thousands more have lost their apartments because they were bamboozled by unscrupulous landlords using cash-for-keys scams.

In the course of writing this blog I’ve met a number of people who’ve either already been evicted or are facing eviction. So when I went to meet a group of tenants who live in a small building on Las Palmas it seemed like a familiar scenario. The owner plans to demolish the existing structure in order to build a 7-story mixed-use project, and so the people currently living there have got to go. The breadwinners in these families are working hard to make ends meet, and odds are they’re getting by on paychecks that add up to well below LA’s median income. While I’m sure they’re worried about getting evicted, one thing that encouraged me is that they seemed much more angry than scared. They’re not going to take this lying down.

lp-02-tenants-int

Some of the tenants facing eviction.

The tenants are paying much less than the area’s median rent, but they’re also getting next to nothing in terms of repairs and maintenance. I could see walking into the building that the owner wasn’t taking care of it properly. The tenants told me a number of stories about problems with their units that the landlord was either slow to fix or didn’t fix at all. My guess is that he’s been sitting on the property, waiting for the right deal to come along, and didn’t see any point in spending money on upkeep. I should mention that he has laid out some cash to fix up a few of the units, just not the ones that are occupied by the current tenants. You may be asking, why would he do that? The answer is simple. He’s posting the refurbished units on the net as short-term rentals. This is a pretty common practice. Landlords are doing it all over the city, and it’s more or less legal unless the tenants were evicted under the Ellis Act. So when we talk about a shortage of apartments in LA, we have to remember that there are probably thousands of units that are actually being used as unofficial hotel rooms.

lp-03-mtg-sylvie-cu-2

Council District 13 Candidate Sylvie Shain.

My friend Sylvie Shain came by to talk with the tenants. Sylvie is running for the CD 13 council seat, in large part because of her concern over LA’s affordable housing crisis. She knows first-hand what it’s like to be evicted, having been forced out of her apartment by owners who planned to turn the building into a boutique hotel. Sylvie spent over an hour with the tenants, giving them info on what protections they had under the law and helping them figure out their next steps.

Several days later I went to a neighborhood council meeting on the proposed project. The purpose of the meeting was to talk about the impacts of the new structure, not the eviction of the current tenants, but it’s hard to separate the two. The owner has said that he will reserve seven units in the new building to replace the seven units that are currently occupied in the old building, and that he will offer them to the current tenants at the price they’re now paying. This may sound like a good deal, but there are a few problems with it. First, the owner hasn’t actually signed an agreement, which means he’s under no obligation to honor these terms. Second, while the owner is offering to replace seven units, there are actually fifteen units in the existing building that are covered by the rent stabilization ordinance (RSO). His deal would mean the loss of eight more RSO units. This may not sound like a lot by itself, but thousands of RSO units have been taken off the market in recent years, which is one of the reasons affordable housing is so scarce these days. Third, the owner knows that the new structure will probably take a couple of years to complete. If the current tenants get forced out, there’s a good chance they won’t find anything they can afford in LA. It’s entirely possible that by the time the proposed project is completed, none of them will still be living in the area, and he won’t have to offer them anything.

lp-04-nc-mtg

Neighborhood Council meeting on the proposed project.

Then there’s the way the Department of City Planning (DCP) is trying to push this project through. They’re trying to approve it with a categorical exemption, which means they’re arguing that because it’s in-fill development and conforms to the current zoning, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) doesn’t require an environmental assessment. And to make that argument, they cite CEQA Guidelines, Section 15332. But CEQA requires that the project meet a number of conditions in order to grant the exemption, including the following….

Approval of the project would not result in any significant effects relating to traffic, noise, air quality, or water quality.

Traffic is already getting to be a problem on Las Palmas. Formerly a quiet residential street with one lane going each direction, in recent years it’s become a short cut for drivers looking to avoid congestion on Highland during rush hour. And traffic on Las Palmas is going to get a lot worse, because in addition to this project there are two others about the same size that are currently under construction, one just to the north and one just to the south of the existing building. But wait, there’s more. At the corner of Las Palmas and Franklin work recently began on a complex that wil contain over 100 units. In other words, if this project is approved, the neighborhood will gain about 300 units, which will definitely have a significant impact on traffic.*

lp-05-las-palmas-traffic

Traffic northbound on Las Palmas at rush hour.

What’s more, the proposed project is about 500 feet away from the facility that houses both the Canyon Pre-School and the Las Palmas Sr. Center. Children and seniors are known to be sensitive receptors, and to say that there will be no significant impacts to air quality or noise levels during construction is ridiculous. The kids and seniors at this small facility already suffered an onslaught of construction dust and noise when work on the project at Las Palmas and Franklin began last year. But the DCP apparently just doesn’t give a damn, and so they’re trying to rush this project through with no environmental review whatsoever.

After the neighborhood council meeting, I contacted the DCP hearing officer to find out what the timetable was for the project’s approval. It’s tentatively scheduled to go before the City Planning Commission on April 13, though it could get pushed back. Meanwhile, the tenants wait and wonder whether they’ll have to find a new place to live, in a city where rents are spiralling higher every year.

*
Some housing advocates may be cheered by this news, but don’t get too excited. The vast majority of these units will be well beyond the reach of those making the area’s median income, $34,807 a year. [Source: LA Times, Measuring income along L.A.’s Metro stations by Kyle Kim and Sandra Poindexter, March 4, 2016]

lp-06-1840-highland-billboard

View of construction site from Highland.

Party Hotel Will Be Elementary School’s New Neighbor

sh-selma-elem-1

It’s rough for elementary schools in urban Los Angeles. In addition to the usual challenges involved in providing kids with an education, they’ve also got to deal with gangs, vandalism, and a growing homeless population which includes a number of people with mental health and substance abuse issues. I used to work as a TA at a Hollywood elementary school. Sadly, during the time I worked there the security problems got so bad that we had to restrict parents’ access to the school.

You can tell by the high fence surrounding Selma Avenue Elementary that security is an issue there. When I walked by a few days ago there were a number of homeless people camped out near the school. There were signs posted which read “POSSESSION OF WEAPONS ON SCHOOL GROUNDS IS A CRIME”. Traffic is also increasing on this formerly quiet street. So it’s clear that the kids at Selma Elementary are already dealing with a number of challenges. I can’t understand why the Department of City Planning wants to make life even harder for them.

Toward the end of January I attended a City Planning Commission hearing where Commissioners adopted the Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) for the tommie hotel at 6516 Selma, a short distance from Selma Elementary. The hotel will be built by developer Five Chairs, and operated by Two Roads Hospitality. The building will rise eight stories, with bar/lounges on the ground floor and rooftop deck, and it will offer live entertainment.

sh-selma-apts

Apartment building directly across from the project site.

Let me say right off that Two Roads is an international firm with an excellent reputation. They operate hotels in the US and overseas, the majority of which are very popular with travellers, receiving high ratings on Yelp. But the tommie hotel is a new concept for them, and very different from most of their other locations. Two Roads mostly runs resort getaways in scenic areas and classy hotels in big cities. They’re trying something different here, aiming at a younger crowd, making restaurants, bars and nightlife part of the appeal. I wanted to get a better idea of what to expect from tommie, so I went to the company’s web site to see if they had any other hotels that offered a similar experience.

I found the Phoenix in San Francisco. Like tommie, it’s geared toward a youthful crowd, and like tommie, food, drink, music and nightlife are a central part of the experience. I took a look at the comments on Yelp, and most of the guests really liked the place. Some had complaints, which I’ll get to in a minute. But everybody seemed to agree that the Phoenix was a party hotel. And everybody also seemed to agree that it often got really loud. Let me share a few of the comments with you….

My little one and I were kept awake. Whe. I called and checked the webpage, no one mentioned therw would be large hotel parties. Profanity, arguments and glass breaking occured right outside our door well past midnight.

The noise from the all night non stop party allowed us zero sleep!! [The guest goes with the night manager to talk to the rowdy neighbors.] Then a wasted (not booze or weed either) guy stumbles out of room 26 and says to me, “why did you book a room at
the Phoenix knowing it was a party hotel.”

A great hotel if you’re not at all interested in sleeping. Ever. The bar is ridiculously loud considering its size, not to mention that it’s brimming with attitude. I’m kit joking. This is the loudest hotel ever.

This hotel is only good if you are a stoner. Loud, druggie infused place. I have never seen worse and I should have read the other reviews. The guy that checked us in was stoned. NOT a family place.

There was literally a huge party of hundreds happening 20 yards from our door. The front desk seemed surprised that this was bothersome since the “loudspeaker and mics” were to be off by ten. Trust me, the party continued,

I had a terrible experience here. Apparently during the summer on Saturdays they host some kind of swap meet and show where they take over the courtyard and blast music at full volume all day. It was terrible.

The reason I was not happy with the place is because I was very tired when I arrived and needed to get some sleep. It turns out that it is a PARTY hotel. The entire courtyard is part of the bar at the hotel. It is not just a little bar, it is a big bar/club for all of the locals. If I would have known this I would have not stayed their. On the other hand, if you are looking for a place to get rowdy and party all night, this hotel is for you.

So Two Roads is trying out a new concept designed for young people who like to party. I don’t have a problem with that at all. It might be a great idea for a bustling commercial district. But in a neighborhood filled with dozens of apartment buildings? With low-income housing right next door? With dormitories for students nearby? With senior housing just over two blocks away? And with an elementary school less than 500 feet away? This is a really bad idea.

sh-selma-cv

Casa Verde in foreground, right next to the project site.

I’m sure some people will be saying, “What’s the problem? The kids are in school on weekdays and the hotel will probably host parties on weekend nights. What are you worried about?” First, the hotel will be serving alcohol throughout the day, seven days a week. I’m very concerned about people having a couple of martinis over a late lunch and then getting in their car and heading west on Selma around 3:00 pm. Second, while the hotel will most likely be scheduling any parties for the weekend, I don’t recall any conditions that would prohibit them from throwing a bash during the week. Third, I’ve got a news flash for you. Small children don’t magically vanish over the weekend. Even if they’re not in school, they’re still living in the neighborhood and they still have to deal with whatever’s going on around them, including raucous parties at chic hotels, along with whatever action spills over onto the street.

But let’s go back to the MND. For those who aren’t familiar with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), let me give you a very quick, very rough overview. Generally speaking, there are three levels of environmental review. The MND falls in between the lowest, a Negative Declaration, and the highest, an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). By choosing to do an MND, the Department of City Planning (DCP) is basically saying, “Yes, there could be impacts to the community, but it’s okay, because the developer can mitigate those impacts so they won’t be a problem.” This might sound reasonable, but lately the DCP has made a habit of using MNDs to rush approval of projects that really require an EIR. An EIR takes time and costs money, and you have to get input from the community. An MND takes less time, costs less money, and when the DCP goes this route, community input becomes an annoying formality that they try to dispense with as quickly as possible. But the worst part is, the DCP doesn’t even seem to feel that MNDs need to be complete or accurate. Often they’re downright dishonest. You want an example? The MND for the tommie contains a section entitled Surrounding Land Uses on page II-5. While the authors list a number of buildings that are close by the project site, they somehow fail to mention that there’s an elementary school just down the street. In fact, they list a number of historic structures that are within a 3,000 foot radius, but they somehow neglect to say that Selma Elementary is less than 500 feet away.

How could this be? Was it an oversight? Maybe the folks that prepared the MND, EcoTierra Consulting, are just so inept that they never noticed the elementary school. But what about the people at the DCP? Aren’t they supposed to review environmental documents to make sure they’re accurate? Yeah, they are. And they wouldn’t even have to leave their Downtown offices to check this out. All they’d have to do is get on ZIMAS, a web site maintained by the City to provide zoning and planning info, to find out what’s in the surrounding area. Here’s a screen shot to give you an idea.

zimas-selma-hotel-lg-w-project-site-resized

 

The red box is the project site, and the area highlighted in green is Selma Elementary. But how would the people at the DCP know it’s a school? It’s marked as a public facility, but that’s pretty general. Could be almost anything. For future reference, I’d like to point out to DCP staff that all they have do is click on the tab titled Planning and Zoning to see that ZIMAS clearly indicates that the site is within 500 feet of a school. In fact, in addition to Selma Elementary, the site is also home to Larchmont Charter School.

zimas-selma-hotel-school-zone-w-outline

 

So how about the folks on the City Planning Commission? If the MND didn’t mention the school, how could they have known about it? Well, I mentioned it, both in written comments submitted to the DCP and in my verbal comments on the day of the hearing. Did that get a reaction? Nope. While the Commissioners spent plenty of time haggling over conditions of use and mitigation measures, they didn’t refer to the school once during their deliberations. They didn’t express surprise that the MND fails to state that a school is located nearby. They didn’t even ask how far away the school is.

The Commissioners asked how Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell felt about the project, and learned that he doesn’t support or oppose it. That’s understandable. O’Farrell’s up for re-election, and he knows a lot of people are really ticked off about the fact that he’s backed some lousy projects before. On the other hand, he can’t really oppose it either, because he’s received a few thousand bucks from people involved with the project. According to the Los Angeles Ethics Commission web site, Richard Heyman of Five Chairs gave $1,400 to O’Farrell’s legal defense fund on April 4, 2016. Andrew Shayne of Hollywood International Regional Center, Five Chairs’ parent company, also gave $1,400 to O’Farrell’s legal defense fund on April 26, 2016. And Jeffrey Reinstein of Geolo Capital, which is a co-developer of this project, gave $700 to O’Farrell’s re-election campaign on March 21, 2016. So this must be a tough one for Mitch. If you ask me, he should have come out against this project a long time ago, simply based on the fact that it’s less than 500 feet from an elementary school. But maybe like the consultant who prepared the MND and the folks who reviewed it at the DCP, O’Farrell isn’t aware that the school is there. Wouldn’t surprise me. Maybe that pile of cash from the developers is blocking his view.

When I was at the hearing, I was surprised how few people showed up to speak against the project. Nobody from Casa Verde, the apartment building right next to the site that offers affordable housing. Nobody from the other apartment buildings close by. And nobody from the Los Angeles Unified School District?! That was really weird.

Then I started wondering. Did they even know about the hearing?

I called LAUSD and left a message, even though I wasn’t sure I had the right person. Then I called Larchmont Charter School, which operates a school on the Selma Elementary campus. They hadn’t heard a thing about the hotel. Next I called Hollywood Community Housing Corporation, the affordable housing developer that owns Casa Verde. The woman I spoke to said she had only just heard about the hotel.

Then I heard back from LAUSD, and after talking with them, they offered this statement.

“The Office of Environmental Health & Safety does not have record of receiving notice regarding this project at the newly proposed location.

L.A. Unified will be preparing and submitting a comment letter to the City of Los Angeles that will express our concerns with regard to this proposed project.

Specifically, L.A. Unified will be looking at potential air quality, noise, and traffic/pedestrian safety issues, as well as land use compatibility issues associated with alcohol service in close proximity to Selma Avenue Elementary School.”

I want to be clear here. The DCP is not required to send notices to stakeholders about proposed projects. The California Environmental Quality Act offers three options for informing people, and the lead agency can satisfy the requirement just by putting a notice in the newspaper, which is probably what the DCP did. But I have to say that in a case like this, where there are a number of sensitive uses nearby, one of them being an elementary school, the DCP had a moral obligation to get the word out to the community. They should have made every effort to insure that all stakeholders were involved in the environmental review process, especially the parents and staff at Selma Elementary and Larchmont Charter.

How is it possible that this MND was prepared without making sure that LAUSD had reviewed it and had the opportunity to comment? How is it possible that not one of the Commissioners expressed surprise that an LAUSD representative was not present at the CPC hearing? How is it possible that no one representing CD 13 stepped in to point out that the project site was a few hundred feet away from a school?

How come no one was looking out for these kids?

The California Environmental Quality Act says that….

“An EIR must be prepared when there is substantial evidence in the record that supports a fair argument that significant effects may occur.”

CEQA Flow Chart

There’s no question that a hotel offering bar/lounges on the ground floor and rooftop, which also offers live entertainment, and which is intended to attract both paying guests and local club-goers, is going to have substantial effects on the community. Clearly this project requires a full EIR.

So what are the next steps? Three things need to happen here….

1.
At its next hearing, the CPC needs to rescind their adoption of the MND.

2.
After rescinding the MND, all of the Commissioners should resign immediately. Their failure to show the slightest interest in the health and safety of LAUSD students is inexcusable.

3.
The DCP needs to start the process all over again with full EIR.

If you agree with me that this whole process has been unfair and dishonest, I’d like to suggest that you communicate with the following people….

Contact May Sirinopwongsagon, the DCP staff contact for this project, and tell her you can’t believe the MND doesn’t list the school among the surrounding uses.
May Sirinopwongsagon, Department of City Planning
may.sirinopwongsagon@lacity.org

Contact Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell and ask him why his office didn’t object from the start to building a project like this less than 500 feet from an elementary school.
Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, Council District 13
councilmember.ofarrell@lacity.org

Contact Mayor Eric Garcetti and tell him he needs to demand resignations from all the members of the City Planning Commission.
Mayor Eric Garcetti
mayor.garcetti@lacity.org

It would be a good idea to include the following information in the subject line.

tommie hotel, CPC-2016-270-VZC-HDCUB-SPR, ENV-2016-4313-MND

I urge you to speak up for these kids, because they need to have someone looking out for them. It doesn’t seem like anybody at City Hall gives a damn.

sh-selma-elem-2

Waiting for Help, While Demolition Draws Nearer

Squatters have taken over a house in Valley Village.

Squatters have taken over a house in Valley Village.

Six months ago I’d never heard of The Hermitage. Because I follow development issues, I’d been copied on a few e-mails that described an urban farm in Valley Village that was threatened by a proposed residential project. But there are so many communities getting hammered by reckless development, I didn’t pay much attention. Until November, when I finally decided to check it out.

First, let me show you a few photos of what The Hermitage used to look like.

A garden in front of The Hermitage.

A garden in front of The Hermitage.

Chickens roaming freely.

Chickens roaming freely.

Open space inside The Hermitage.

Open space inside The Hermitage.

A cat checking out the garden.

A cat checking out the garden.

Ducks by the pool.

Ducks by the pool.

Another one of the residents of The Hermitage.

Another one of the residents of The Hermitage.

As you can see, it used to be a lovely place, a small collection of rustic buildings that served as a home to chickens, ducks, dogs, cats and bees. A unique urban farm in the middle of the San Fernando Valley. Now let me show you what it looked like when I visited.

This is what the garden out front looks like now.

This is what the garden out front looks like now.

A car left sitting on the property by squatters.

A car left sitting on the property by squatters.

A view of the open space within The Hermitage.

A view of the open space within The Hermitage.

Quite a change. You’re probably asking, “What happened?” Well, a lot of things. The story is so complicated, so twisted, and so disturbing on so many levels, I’m not sure if I can tell it properly. But this story needs to be told, so I’ll do my best.

Let’s start with the former manager, who still resides on the property, though she’s facing eviction. Because of her current situation (which will become clear as you read on), she was nervous about having her name appear in print, so I’ll call her the caretaker. The caretaker has been living at The Hermitage for over 20 years, and has truly taken care of the place. In addition to renting and maintaining the units, she also planted gardens, cared for the animals, and invited groups from the surrounding community to come and learn about nature.

But last year the caretaker’s lawyer informed her that developer Urban Blox was planning to buy the property. She was surprised, since she had an agreement with the owners that gave her the option to purchase The Hermitage if they ever decided to sell.

And this is where it starts getting complicated. Urban Blox did sign an agreement to purchase the property, but it’s not clear whether the owners, two elderly women, signed or not. While their signatures appear to be on a contract for the sale of the property, both women stated in subsequent depositions that they had no recollection of signing the agreement. It may be that a relative arranged the deal without their permission. In October 2014, the grandson of one of the owner’s showed up at the caretaker’s door to deliver a letter stating that she was no longer the manager. But in spite of his claim to be acting on the owners’ authority, their signatures were nowhere to be found on the letter. And in the same depositions referenced above, the owners say they never retained the grandson to represent them.

The caretaker made numerous attempts to contact the owners, without success. After months of uncertainty, having heard nothing from the owners and fearing that they were ready to sell to Urban Blox, the caretaker sued them to enforce her right to buy The Hermitage. In fall of this year, the LLC set up by Urban Blox to develop the property filed a suit against the owners, then amended the complaint to include the caretaker, then dropped the owners from the suit. Both cases are still pending

But that’s just one part of the story. By summer of this year, all the former residents of The Hermitage were gone. And while the legal power plays were unfolding, squatters began moving in to one of the vacant buildings on the property. The first one arrived in early summer, and by September a number of others had moved in. Since the squatters’ arrival, the caretaker reports numerous acts of theft and vandalism. Tools have been stolen from her workshop. Trees have been cut down and plants have been ripped out of the ground. She doesn’t feel safe when she’s at home, but she’s also afraid to leave, for fear of what might happen when she’s gone. And she’s kept a detailed log recounting numerous incidents.

But it’s not just the caretaker who’s been affected. Neighbors started getting nervous when they noticed strange chemical smells emanating from the house occupied by the squatters, and they were more than nervous when they saw visitors coming and going at all hours of the night. And there’s more. One of the squatters has been seen by neighbors walking down the sidewalk with a rifle in hand. This has also been documented in photographs. Since the squatters showed up the neighborhood has seen a rise in burglaries and car break-ins.

I talked to a couple of people who live in the community. The first woman I asked about the squatters told me she was frightened for the caretaker and frightened for the neighborhood. She also asked me to withhold her name for fear of reprisals. She did share her suspicions about the squatters running a drug lab, and told me that one of them had been shot recently. She didn’t feel safe, and wondered why the police weren’t doing more to protect residents. The second woman I spoke to was more angry than frightened, and she didn’t mind giving her name. Fiona Manning confirmed what the first neighbor had reported, and added a few more details. She has seen the squatters sitting out in the open drinking and smoking dope. She’s heard gunshots at night. She recounted an incident where a neighbor asked the squatters to turn down their music, and they responded with threats. Fiona also described an encounter she had with one of the squatters. As she was walking down the street, a young man reeking of pot started following her, and calling out, “I know you, I know you. Are you a friend of my grandmother’s?”

I had a brief exchange with one of the squatters on my first visit to The Hermitage. I don’t claim to be a substance abuse expert, but having lived in Hollywood for 20 years, I’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing meth addicts. This glassy-eyed, jacked-up, paranoid kid seemed to show all the signs.

What makes this even weirder is that the caretaker and her neighbors have called the North Hollywood Division of the LAPD on numerous occasions, and while the police have come by about a dozen times, they’ve taken no action to rein in the squatters. The caretaker and Fiona both report that they’ve been told by officers not to call any more. Apparently the North Hollywood Division has decided the problems have arisen from a landlord/tenant dispute, but that doesn’t begin to explain the numerous issues involved. Whatever’s happening with the property itself, the fact that the neighbors have seen one of the squatters carrying a gun, have heard gunshots, and reported burglaries and car break-ins seems to indicate there’s a little more going on than a tiff between a landlord and a tenant. I was surprised to hear about the North Hollywood Division’s apparent reluctance to take action. The few times I’ve called the LAPD they’ve usually been quick to respond and ready to help. I can’t understand why they haven’t tried harder to address this situation, especially since it seems that some of the squatters are on probation.

Once it became clear that the police weren’t going to take action, Fiona and others tried calling Councilmember Paul Krekorian’s office. Though there were numerous conversations with one of his staffers, and promises of help, nothing ever materialized. Actually, this doesn’t surprise me at all. I’ve been in touch with a number of people who live in Krekorian’s district who’ve reported the same thing. His staffers are friendly, they’re always willing to listen, but the conversations never produce any results. A number of Krekorian’s constituents seem to feel that time spent talking to his staff is time wasted. You’d think that a councilmember might be moved to take action if constituents complained they were living in fear because of a group of squatters. Apparently Krekorian doesn’t think it’s a problem.

After receiving no help from Krekorian, the caretaker tried getting in touch with State Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian, but nothing came of that. In desperation, she tried contacting every member of the State Assembly. Only Patty López’ office responded. Fiona says, “She was a godsend.” While the neighborhood’s own elected representatives apparently didn’t feel the situation warranted taking action, Patty López organized a meeting with members of the community. About 15 people showed up, and they had plenty to say. While López declined to get involved in problems related to the squatters, she was concerned enough about the project proposed by Urban Blox that she wrote a letter to Nazarian’s office. In it, she lists a number issues raised by the community, including vacating a public street for the developer’s benefit, the loss of green space, the loss of parking and impacts to wildlife.

The City Council's PLUM Committee has approved turning over the west end of Weddington to the developer.

The City Council has approved turning over the west end of Weddington to the developer.

In fact, throughout the approval process people have expressed serious doubts about the project. When it came before the Area Planning Commission, Vice-President Lydia Drew Mather said she wished the Council Office and the Developer had worked more with the community to address potential problems, and added that she felt the project was moving forward too fast. Commissioner Rebecca Beatty voiced concern about the fact that the project would get rid of rent-controlled units. Even City Councilmember José Huizar, Chair of the Planning & Land Use Management Committee, questioned the wisdom of greenlighting a project when the developer’s right to the property was being debated in court.

A rendering of the bland, generic units that Urban Blox wants to build.

A rendering of the bland, generic units that Urban Blox wants to build.

But did that stop the City Council from approving Urban Blox’ plan? Of course not. The Council gave it a thumbs up. They’re apparently okay with bulldozing rent-controlled units, vacating a public street, cutting down trees and displacing wildlife. This is what City Hall does. Our elected officials are happy to hand the developers an entitlement worth millions of dollars so they can get rid of a unique community resource and replace it with high-priced housing.

There’s one more detail I want to add just to throw a little more light on how projects get approved in LA. When a developer comes to the City with a proposed project, California law requires the Department of City Planning to prepare an Initial Study to assess what impacts the project might have. The Initial Study is used to determine what level of environmental review is required. In this case the Initial Study was signed by Planning Assistant Courtney Shum. Does it surprise you to learn that before taking the position at City Planning, Ms. Shum worked as a registered lobbyist for Max Development, LLC (DBA three6ixty), a firm that has received tens of thousands of dollars from its client Urban Blox?

If it was just a matter of the caretaker finding a new place, maybe she could walk away from this mess. But The Hermitage is also home to chickens, ducks, dogs, cats and bees. She is responsible for all of them. So she stays close to her small house and cares for the animals, reluctant to leave for fear of what might happen while she’s gone. And she still hopes that somehow she can hang on to her home.

———-

If you see a problem with a City Planning Assistant being involved with a project that benefits a client of her former employer’s, you might want to drop a line to Planning Director Vince Bertoni. Here’s his e-mail address.

vince.bertoni@lacity.org

Don’t forget to include the case number in the subject line.

ENV-2015-2618-MND

And you could also copy your own Councilmember on the e-mail, just to let them know you’re fed up with the way City Hall does business.

A view of Weddington from The Hermitage before the trouble started.

A view of Weddington from The Hermitage before the trouble started.