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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West Hollywood Is Taking Action. Why Can’t LA?

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Level Furnished Living in Downtown LA

A friend just sent me an article from Wehoville. Last year the City of West Hollywood issued a ruling that Korman Communities, operator of the AKA extended-stay hotel, was breaking the law by offering units as short-term rentals. There are actually 190 units in the complex, which was originally approved by the City as residential condominiums. When the site was purchased by Korman, they announced that the units would instead be offered for extended-stays. This is key, because this use is allowed, since guests would be residing there for more than 30 days.

But after doing some research, Interim Director of Planning John Keho concluded that the 110 units in the west tower were actually being offered as hotel rooms. He found evidence on-line that AKA was promoting the building as a hotel and decided the City had to put a stop to it. Korman is appealing the decision, and there will be a hearing this week.

The reason I’m bringing this is up is that there’s a similar situation at Level Furnished Living (LFL) in Downtown LA, and City Hall has done absolutely nothing about it. The project was approved back in 2013 as 303 residential condominiums and 7 commercial condominiums. But when it actually opened, the units were being offered not as condos but for extended stays. Again, this is legal, because the guests are staying for longer than 30 days. But last year the LA Weekly reported that the units were being offered for short-term stays. In other words, they’d become hotel rooms. This is not legal.

And what has the City of LA done about it? Absolutely nothing. The owners of the building claimed they were working with the Department of City Planning (DCP) to get a transient occupancy permit. This may be true, but the DCP hasn’t approved anything yet, and the building is still operating as a hotel. In other words, while the folks at City Hall are telling us we have a housing crisis every chance they get, they’re allowing the owners of LFL to turn over 300 residential units into hotel rooms.

So what does the City have to say for itself? I was at a meeting last month where a guy from the City Attorney’s office spoke. He first told us that they just didn’t have the staff to go after illegal short-term rentals (STRs). He went on to say these cases were really difficult because the City had to send inspectors out to the site to actually see that there were guests who were staying there illegally. This was tricky, because inspectors worked during the day, and tourists were usually only in their rooms at night. So, according to him, the City’s hands were tied.

What rubbish.

How hard is it to find evidence that LFL is offering units as hotel rooms? I just went to Hotels.com and did a search. It came up right away. I punched in some dates and found I could stay there for as little as one day.

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But is that really evidence? Even if they’re posting on Hotels.com, maybe no one has ever actually booked a room as a short-term guest. So I went to Yelp! next, and found these reviews….

“My family decided to travel back to LA over Thanksgiving. Since we are a family of four with two little kids we didn’t want to inconvenience anyone by staying in their home. That being said, since we had kids we needed to also have a kitchen and ample living space for our brief stay, enter Level Furnished Living.”

“I ended up staying at Level after a nearby hotel messed up my reservations multiple times and could not host me. The staff at Level were so accommodating and wonderful! We were given an early check in time and they answered all questions we had.”

“Last weekend I traveled to LA for a fun filled weekend of football. On Saturday I watched a great game between the Texas Longhorns and USC. The next day I saw one of thenew LA teams the Chargers play my home team the Miami Dolphins. Now even though those experiences were great, I had to give kudos to the place were I stayed. Which wasLevel Furnished Living!”

People do really seem to love the place. And I should point out that some guests who posted reviews had stayed for months. But it’s clear from these postings that LFL is offering units as hotel rooms.

So why hasn’t the City taken action? Back in 2016, when short-term rentals were becoming big news, City Attorney Mike Feuer held a press conference and announced that he was going after four apartment owners who had illegally turned units into STRs. But we’re coming up on two years since that press conference, and last time I checked none of those cases had been resolved. Feuer is good at putting on a show for the media. Not so good when it comes to cracking down on wealthy developers.

And would Feuer even have to file a suit against LFL? No. The City could start by simply sending a letter to the owners saying that the City had evidence that the building is operating as a hotel, and telling them to either shape up or face the consequences. If they failed to comply, then the City could open an investigation. I don’t care how short staffed they are. This isn’t a duplex where the landlord is making some extra cash on the sly. This is a tower with over 300 units in the heart of Downtown. It was approved as residential housing. The DCP keeps approving new luxury towers in Downtown, insisting that the area needs more housing. Why isn’t it cracking down on people who are illegally taking housing off the market?

Actually, the answer is simple. City Attorney Mike Feuer, Councilmember Jose Huizar and Mayor Eric Garcetti really have no interest in providing housing for the people of LA. They also have no interest in prosecuting wealthy deveopers, no matter how many laws the developers break. They’ll give you a lot of excuses, but in reality they just don’t give a damn.

Bottom line, the City of West Hollywood is taking action. The City of Los Angeles is not.

If you want to read about city officials who actually feel it’s their responsibility to serve the public, here’s the story from Wehoville.

AKA Appeals City Decision that Its Short-Term Luxury Rentals Are Illegal

Speaking Out on the Housing Crisis

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Housing is the hottest issue in California right now. Here in LA housing costs continue to climb, the pace of evictions is quickening, and the number of homeless is increasing by leaps and bounds. The folks at City Hall talk a lot about taking action, but nothing they’ve done so far has had any significant impact. The situation just keeps getting worse.

So a group of housing advocates, homeless advocates, and renters’ rights advocates decided to stage a protest on Fairfax last Friday. They put up a line of tents along the curb to dramatize the plight of those who are currently homeless, and also the thousands more who will likely become homeless in the next few years.

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Protesters lined up on Fairfax.

The media showed up with their cameras to cover this tent city press conference. The organizers called on Mayor Garcetti and the City Council to develop a plan to create affordable housing, ensure responsible development, and expand rent control.

A number of people spoke about different aspects of the crisis. Victor García, a recent graduate of UCSB, talked about the invisible problem of student homelessness. He told the crowd about UCLA students living in their cars because they couldn’t afford student housing and apartments in Westwood were way beyond their reach. García would like to see an end to California’s Costa-Hawkins act, which the limits the expansion of rent control.

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Victor Garcia speaks about student homelessness.

Emily Martiniuk told her own story, a harrowing account of being evicted at age 59 and having nowhere to go. Contemplating suicide, she had the presence of mind to check herself into Olive View Medical Center, and eventually was able to move into a permanent supportive housing facility. She escaped long-term homelessness, but there are tens of thousands of people on the streets of LA right now who weren’t so lucky. Martiniuk has travelled the US in recent years, speaking about the importance of creating more permanent supportive housing.

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Emily Martiniuk is a vocal advocate for permanent supportive housing.

As cars drove by on Fairfax, protesters stood at the curb holding signs and chanting slogans. Just before I left I heard them shouting, “Tent city! Do something, Garcetti!” Hopefully somebody at City Hall is listening. It would be great if the Mayor and the City Council finally did decide to do something about this crisis.

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Mayor Missing in Action

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On Wednesday, February 15, eight neighborhood councils sponsored a forum for candidates in the mayoral race. Almost all of them showed up to share their views on the state of the City and to present their vision for the future. Unfortunately, incumbent Eric Garcetti couldn’t make it. Certainly the Mayor is a busy guy, and it might be understandable if he couldn’t appear in person, but his office did tell the organizers that he would be sending a representative to speak in his place. Inexplicably, Garcetti’s representative didn’t make it either. Why is this?

As everybody who lives in LA knows, we’re facing major challenges right now. Nine of the eleven candidates for mayor felt it was important to show up and speak to the community. Apparently the Mayor didn’t feel like it was worth his time.

The neighborhood councils organizing this event spent a lot of time putting it together. Citizens concerned about their communities gave up their Wednesday night to learn where the candidates stood on the issues. But the Mayor couldn’t even send a representative to outline his agenda for a second term. Spokesman Yusef Robb didn’t offer an explanation for Garcetti’s absence, stating only that he was “unavailable”. Anastasia Mann, President of the Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council, said she was told by the Mayor’s office that Garcetti didn’t need to be at the event since the other candidates weren’t doing well in the polls. Mann expressed her disappointment at the Mayor’s decision. I’m disappointed, too.

While we’ve seen improvement in LA’s economy during the last four years, Garcetti seems unable (or unwilling) to deal with a number of problems that have only grown more pronounced during his tenure. Families are struggling to cover spiralling costs for housing. Homelessness has risen dramatically. Some of LA’s communities have seen huge spikes in crime. The City’s budget is awash in red ink, even though revenue is up. And in spite of the Mayor’s insistence that the City is promoting transit-oriented development, transit ridership continues to decline.

If you ask me, it’s clear that Garcetti’s tenure as Mayor has been a disaster for Los Angeles, and maybe this explains why he didn’t show up at the forum. If he had been there, he would have had talk about why the City is in such dire straits. So it’s really not surprising that he didn’t have time to appear at this event.

On the other hand, the Mayor does have time for events where he has a chance to suck up more campaign cash. He apparently flew to Sacramento on Wednesday to meet with state officials and attend a fundraiser. It’s clear he hopes to run for higher office, probably governor or senator, and doesn’t plan on serving the full term if re-elected. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t seem terribly interested in solving LA’s problems. Running a city can suck up a lot of time, and who needs the headaches when your number one priority is funding your political career?

Garcetti’s spokesman was right. He is “unavailable”. Also disinterested and disengaged. Apparently the only thing he’s really passionate about is fulfilling his political ambitions. It shouldn’t be hard to find a candidate who cares more than the Mayor about finding solutions to the City’s problems, because the Mayor doesn’t seem to care at all.

Following Through on Earthquake Safety

Photo of building damaged in earthquake from LADBS web site.

Photo of building damaged in earthquake from LADBS web site.

For a while now I’ve been meaning to follow up on a post I did in 2014 about seismic retrofitting. Back then Mayor Garcetti proposed evaluating buildings based on how they’d weather an earthquake, and to make the information available to the public. This was to be the first step in creating a program to reinforce thousands of soft-story apartment buildings, i.e., older wood-frame structures with parking tucked under the units.

It was a great idea, but I have to admit I was skeptical about the Mayor pulling it off. Everybody agreed that it was important to upgrade these older buildings, but implementing such a program meant that landlords and tenants would have to shell out a lot of money to make it happen. I was afraid that after the initial hype faded away, the initiative would die a quiet death at the hands of some committee at City Hall.

I was wrong. Garcetti brought Lucy Jones on board, and she successfully spearheaded the effort to make this happen. The City Council adopted the ordinance in 2015. Earlier this year the Department of Building and Safety started sending letters to property owners letting them know what they have to do to comply. The program will be rolled out in phases, tackling the most risky buildings first. Landlords will be allowed to pass a portion of the cost along to tenants.

The Mayor deserves credit for making this happen, as does Lucy Jones. It wasn’t easy selling it to anxious landlords and tenants. It’ll take years for the process to be completed, but this ordinance will save lives when the next earthquake hits.

If you’d like more information, follow this link to the page at the Department of Building and Safety.

Soft-Story Retrofit Program at LADBS

Inept or Corrupt? Does It Matter?

Construction on the Wilshire Grand in Downtown LA.

Construction on the Wilshire Grand in Downtown LA.

Last week City Controller Ron Galperin published an audit detailing the City’s record on collecting and spending development impact fees. As I read the press release, it’s hard to say whether I was more shocked or angry. The upshot is that the City of LA is failing to collect tens of millions of dollars in fees from developers, and it’s not even spending the money that has been collected. Here’s the lead from the press release.

City Controller Ron Galperin issued an audit that found the City of Los Angeles is failing to exercise its power to charge citywide development impact fees, which State law says can be collected from developers to mitigate their projects’ impacts on neighborhoods and defray the costs of public facilities and infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, libraries, parks and police stations.

I have to ask, What the hell is wrong with out elected officials?! Are they so inept they don’t realize that we can and should collect this money? Or have they gotten so much campaign cash from developers that they feel compelled to let them off the hook when it comes to charging legitimate fees? Either way, these revelations are shocking. This City’s infrastructure is crumbling, we’re seeing an avalanche of new development which is putting an even greater strain on roads, water and public services, and the people at City Hall aren’t even asking for money that we need to address these problems.

The whole thing is just mind-boggling. Here’s another paragraph from the press release.

In preparing their report, auditors in Galperin’s office compared Los Angeles with other western cities. In FY 2013-14, San Francisco had $3.6 billion in permitted construction and collected $96 million in impact fees. Portland had $1.5 billion in permitted construction and collected $31 million. Meanwhile, Los Angeles had $5.3 billion in permitted construction but collected less than $5 million in impact fees. Based on these numbers, auditors said Los Angeles had the potential to collect tens of millions of dollars more in fees.

So even though the value of permitted projects in LA was greater than San Francisco and Portland put together, our local government collected less than 5% of the total fees received by those two cities. Again, I’m shaking my head in disbelief.

Recently Mayor Garcetti made a show of announcing a program to collect linkage fees from developers to fund affordable housing. But in 2011 the City hired a consultant to produce a report which showed that LA could be collecting between $37 million and $112 million annually. Why have our elected officials taken so long to act? It’s going to take at least another year for the City Council to enact this program, and during that time we’ll lose out on many more millions.

Here’s a quote from the letter that Galperin sent to the Mayor with the audit.

The City of Los Angeles’ approach to collecting and spending impact fees to date has been haphazard and most often neighborhood-specific rather than Citywide, as is customary in some other localities, and sometimes, not sensible. No central entity has been responsible for monitoring the fees. And key officials from various City departments told auditors they did not know what other departments were charging.

This City has so many pressing needs, and we’re constantly told by our elected officials that we don’t have the money to address those needs. But according to Galperin’s office, we’ve had the ability to access a major revenue stream that City Hall has almost completely ignored. It’s insane.

If you want to look at the audit, here’s the link.

Audit of Development Impact Fees

And after reading the audit, you might want to call your City Council rep and ask why we didn’t start collecting these fees years ago.

Talking About Displacement

MTA construction along Crenshaw Blvd.

MTA construction along Crenshaw Blvd.

Speaking at a recent Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum, MTA CEO Phil Washington talked about how the growth of LA’s transit network has been accompanied in some areas by gentrification and displacement. Washington is concerned about the fact that low-income residents are being pushed out of the communities they call home, and he wants the MTA to do more to address the problem.

It’s good to hear somebody at the MTA talking about this. The question is what can actually be done. Earlier this year the MTA Board agreed that when new residential units were built on the agency’s land their goal would be to set aside 35% for low-income renters or owners. That’s fine, but it’s not nearly enough. What we really need is to have the City and the County commit to changing their planning practices. Mayor Eric Garcetti and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas serve on the MTA Board. They should both support Washington and take a public stand against displacement. Then they should push for the City and the County to create policies to address the problem.

While gentrification is happening all over the city, the growth of LA’s transit system definitely seems to be a catalyst. Downtown, Koreatown, Hollywood, and Highland Park have already seen thousands of low-income residents displaced. Leimert Park and Boyle Heights seem to be next on the list as the MTA continues its rapid push to expand, bringing an influx of developer dollars to neighborhoods near rail stops. As property values skyrocket, rents go up, too, and low-income tenants who can’t afford to pay must find somewhere else to live. Tenants in rent-controlled apartments can be forced out by landlords who use the Ellis Act to convert their units to condos.

I’m really glad to hear Washington talking about displacement, and I hope others back him up on this issue. This is a conversation we need to have, and it should have started long ago.

MTA construction in North Hollywood

MTA construction in North Hollywood