Hotel Developer Keeps Asking, and City Planning Keeps Giving

Dream 2 Construction Site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It has no on-site parking at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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I Remember When Artists Used to Live There

AE 800 Traction

800 Traction

Back in November I posted about a protest by Downtown artists facing eviction. I’d been wanting to follow-up, so earlier this month I went to a gathering at 800 Traction to check in with the folks there. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot to report. The artists who’ve been living and working in this building for years, in some cases for decades, still don’t know what the future holds for them. They’ve hired a lawyer, and negotiations with the developer are currently underway. No one had any current news about The Artists’ Loft Museum Los Angeles (ALMLA), which is a short walk away, at 454 Seaton. This is another group of creative people who have called the area home for years. They were served with eviction papers in 2017, and have been wrangling with lawyers since then.

AE ALMLA

454 Seaton

But I wanted to write a post anyway, if only to keep this situation in peoples’ minds. As gentrification continues to spread across LA, the pace of evictions is accelerating. Evictions from apartments covered by the Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO) have been increasing for years, with 1,824 units taken off the market in 2017 alone. Over 23,000 RSO units have been lost since 2001. But this only tells part of the story, since there’s no mechanism in place to track the number of tenants who are forced out of non-RSO units. It’s commonplace these days for people living in a building not covered by rent control to find that the landlord has suddenly hit them with an exorbitant increase. If they can’t pay, they have to leave, and no one has been keeping track of how often that’s happened in recent years. If you’re not covered by the RSO, you have no protection. Unfortunately, that’s the case for the artists at 800 Traction.

So many people have highlighted the irony of an Arts District that’s forcing artists out, it seems redundant to bring it up again. The folks at City Hall certainly don’t care. They’ve been actively assisting real estate investors in a massive overhaul of the area. The change in the neighborhood’s vibe is both striking and depressing. Even going back just 10 years, I can remember aging warehouse spaces filled with struggling artists who didn’t have much money, but who had still managed to create a lively community. Most of those people are gone now. And where there used to be cheap dive bars and funky little stores, now the streets are being taken over by clothing shops and chain restaurants. More and more these days the neighborhood seems like a giant outdoor shopping mall.

AE Umami

The people at City Hall keep talking about how they want to create vibrant communities, and insist that the onslaught of high-priced apartments and upscale retail is helping to achieve that goal Downtown. In reality, what they’re doing is creating enclaves for the affluent that automatically exclude anyone making less than $70,000 a year.

If these artists are eventually forced out of their homes, it’ll be one more win for the developers. And a huge loss for LA.

AE Live Work

 

Westlake Residents Speak Out Against “Design District”

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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.

Skyscrapers Keep Rising in Downtown, and So Does Crime

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There were a couple of articles in the Downtown News that caught my eye this week. The first was a piece about a 67-story residential tower that’s been proposed for a parcel near Figueroa and Seventh. Developers are falling all over themselves in the rush to build high-end high-rises in the area, and City Hall has been bending over backwards to help them along. The article also mentions a few other skyscrapers that are currently in the pipeline, as the the Downtown development juggeraut keeps rolling along. While it’s conceivable that a few affordable apartments will be tacked on to some of these projects in the course of the bargaining process, the vast majority of these new units will be far beyond the reach of the average Angeleno. Here’s the article if you want to take a look.

Brookfield to Build 64-Story Condo Tower

The other article was about the sharp increase in crime Downtown. For those of you who haven’t been following this issue, crime has increased in many of LA’s neighborhoods in recent years, and Downtown is one of the areas hardest hit. Violent crime in the LAPD’s Central Division is up 8.3% through June 3 compared with the same period in 2015. This includes a 15.7% increase in aggravated assault. Property crimes are up 14%, with a 64% rise in burglaries and thefts from vehicles.

The article acknowledges that rising crime is at least in part due to the fact that the area is seeing an influx of well-to-do residents at the same time that the homeless population continues to rise. In Downtown these days the gap between cozy affluence and desperate poverty is glaringly, disturbingly obvious. As City Hall continues to approve one gleaming skyscraper after another, and takes every opportunity to advertise the booming Downtown scene, its efforts to deal with the growing homeless population are still outrageously inadequate.

It’s not just the current crowd at City Hall that’s to blame for LA’s ongoing homeless crisis. For decades our elected officials have preferred to ignore the problem rather than take steps to address it. Fifty years ago the City’s approach was to try to herd the unsheltered population into Skid Row and keep them contained there. In recent years our elected officials tried more aggressive tactics, confiscating the belongings of people living on the streets and criminalizing homelessness. City Hall only backed off on this approach after losing a series of legal challenges to these practices. And in the meantime, homelessness continued to rise.

Last year it seems the Mayor and City Council finally realized how serious the situation was and how bad it was making them look. There’s been a lot of fanfare about the passage of both Measure H and Measure HHH, which will build permanent supportive housing (PSH) and provide services to treat those with mental health and addiction problems. Certainly this is an important first step, but it’s only a first step. It’ll take years to put the housing and services in place, and it’s hard to say how many units will actually be created. Meanwhile, the 2017 homeless count shows that the population increased from last year’s record high of 28,464 to a new record high of 34,189. A staggering 20% jump.

It’s great that H and HHH passed, but this is far too little, far too late. And still City Hall continues to approve endless luxury high-rises, luring more upscale residents to Downtown. They say they’re concerned about rising crime in the area, but adding more police and encouraging the formation of neighborhood watch groups isn’t going to solve the problem.

City Hall needs to start doing some planning. It needs to step back from the mad rush to build luxury skyscrapers, and start thinking seriously about how to reduce homelessness in Downtown. By now it should be obvious that the “Build, Baby, Build” approach isn’t working. Filling the urban core with high-rises for the rich while people wallow in abject poverty on the streets below has created an unsafe environment for residents and stretched the LAPD’s resources dangerously thin. The Mayor and the City Council need to accept the fact that this strategy is seriously flawed, and scale back further construction until they’ve found a way to create a safer, more equitable environment for EVERYONE who lives Downtown.

You can access the article on rising crime by clicking on the link below. I should point out that the link will take you to an on-line tabloid version of the Downtown News, and you’ll have to flip forward to page 10.

Is Downtown LA Getting More Dangerous?

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