A truck passes by the recently completed Da Vinci in Downtown, where balconies offer a stunning view of the freeway.
The folks at City Hall have known for years that building housing within 500 feet of freeways significantly increases the risk of health problems for inhabitants. Years of research have shown that people who live near freeways are at a higher risk of asthma, heart disease, stroke and lung cancer. The dangers for children are especially alarming, because long-term exposure to the high concentrations of pollutants near freeways can inhibit the development of their lungs and lead to lifelong respiratory problems.
So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when, at a recent City Planning Commission (CPC) hearing, Commissioner Dana Perlman voiced concerns about approving a residential project sited around 200 feet away from the Harbor Freeway. Specifically, Perlman didn’t like the fact that the units facing the freeway had balconies. He pointed out that living next to freeways is unhealthy, and said residents shouldn’t be encouraged to spend time out of doors where they’d be exposed to auto exhaust coming off the 110. While the developer had agreed to reduce the size of the balconies, Perlman argued for turning them into “juliet” balconies, in other words, making them strictly decorative.
Perlman’s suggestion makes perfect sense, and you’d think the other Commissioners would be in total agreement. But no. CPC President David Ambroz interrupted Perlman and asked a staffer to talk about the measures that the project included to mitigate the health impacts of living next to the freeway. Department of City Planning (DCP) staff explained that the developer was required to do a Health Risk Assessment, and it was found that the risk of siting the project 200 feet away from the 110 “didn’t reach any level, threshold that SCAQMD* recognizes”. Also, per city code requirements, the developer would be required to install high-quality air filtration systems and maintain a record of their inspection and maintenance for 5 years.
This is a classic example of how the DCP uses bureaucratic double-talk to shut down any honest discussion of a project’s negative impacts. Just because the SCAQMD doesn’t recognize a problem doesn’t mean it’s not there. Over two decades of research shows significant increased health risks for those who live near freeways. For a survey of the literature, follow this link….
USC Environmental Health Centers
City Hall knows about the health impacts. The DCP has been reminded of this issue repeatedly. And still they have the nerve to pretend that a problem doesn’t exist because the SCAQMD doesn’t see one.
Just as disturbing is the fact that they respond to Perlman’s complaint by saying the developer will install MERV 13 air filtration systems. It should’ve been obvious to everyone at the hearing that these systems will do absolutely nothing to protect someone who’s sitting outside on a balcony. And, as Perlman also pointed out, the requirement to maintain these systems for five years is completely inadequate. It’s likely these buildings will stand for decades. Basically the City is saying that they don’t care what happens to the residents after five years. Unbelievable.
During the discussion it came up that the project also included an internal courtyard, and according to Curbed (Planning Commissioner Rails Against Balconies), Ambroz offered the brilliant observation that, “It’s the same air.” Yeah, David. It’s all bad. But Ambroz’ response is typical of his pro-developer attitude. He often refuses to see a problem even when it’s staring him in the face.
The larger issue here is the City’s approach to building housing near freeways. For years scientists have been talking about the health impacts. City Hall argues that the housing crisis is so severe we can’t afford to rule these areas out. For the sake of discussion, let’s accept City Hall’s argument. So if we have to build near freeways, when we know that it puts residents at increased risk of lung disease, stroke, and cancer, shouldn’t we be making every effort to protect these people? Shouldn’t the City be working with healthcare experts to develop a strict set of guidelines to minimize the risks? LA’s planning code requires projects to include a certain amount of open space. Shouldn’t we consider waiving that requirement for freeway-adjacent housing in view of the potential health problems? Shouldn’t we ban balconies and rooftop decks when it’s clear that using them will expose inhabitants to toxic air? Shouldn’t we mandate enclosing recreational space in these projects? Shouldn’t we require inspection and maintenance of air filtration systems in perpetuity?
But Ambroz’ move to cut Perlman off in favor of a meaningless recitation by DCP staff tells you how much the City cares about these issues. For the most part, the folks who work at the DCP and serve on the City Council don’t give a damn about what happens to the people who live in these buildings. Do they care about whether these tenants live in a healthy environment? No. It’s just about greenlighting projects.
You think I’m being too harsh? Remember, our elected officials have known about this problem for over a decade. The entities that have warned about the effects of near-roadway air pollution include the University of Southern California, the California Air Resources Board, and the Environmental Protection Agency. So finally in 2012 the CPC approved the Advisory Notice Regarding Sensitive Uses Near Freeways. What does it do? Not much. It talks in vague terms about health impacts and offers some recommendations, but does not include any new requirements for developers building in these areas. And here’s the really crazy part. While the City mandates that this notice be given to all applicants for new projects within 1,000 feet of a freeway, there is no requirement that residents of these buildings be given any notice at all. Many people probably understand that living next to a freeway isn’t the best thing for their health, but I doubt most realize that prolonged exposure to that level of pollution makes it more likely they’ll develop heart disease or suffer a stroke. And how many parents know that choosing a freeway-adjacent apartment could result in lifelong damage to their children’s lungs?
If City Hall insists that we have to build near freeways, the least they could do is require that rental and purchase agreements contain a paragraph outlining the potential health risks. That way people who are thinking of renting or buying in these areas can make an informed decision. It makes no sense for the City to share this information with developers without requiring that the same information be shared with prospective inhabitants.
But our elected officials’ lack of concern for the health of LA’s citizens is nothing new. In fact, it’s completely in line with their total disregard for rational planning. Forget the endlessly recycled clichés you get from the Mayor and the City Council about building healthy communities. It’s really all about keeping the developers happy.
I respect Perlman for taking a stand on this issue. Unfortunately, it didn’t make a damn bit of difference. He voted no. The rest voted yes. The future residents at 31st and Figueroa will be able to step out on their balconies and enjoy a view that will take their breath away. In some cases, literally.
If you have a problem with developers including balconies and rooftop decks on freeway-adjacent housing, please write to Director of Planning Vince Bertoni and tell him to put a stop to it.
Here’s a suggested subject line….
“No Balconies or Rooftop Decks Near Freeways”
Here’s Bertoni’s e-mail address. And while you’re at it, might as well copy the Mayor.
Vince Bertoni, Director of Planning
Mayor Eric Garcetti
* South Coast Air Quality Management District
Traffic on the Harbor Freeway at rush hour.