You just never know what the City of LA will come up with next….
There was an empty lot in my neighborhood that had been sitting vacant for years. After a developer pitched a hotel for the site and got turned down, a new project came along consisting of 18 3-story condos. It seemed like a good fit, the Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council (HHWNC) looked it over and gave it a thumbs up, and construction started last year.
Everything seemed okay until last November when I noticed what looked like a railing going up around the perimeter of the roof. Were they adding rooftop decks? That wasn’t mentioned in the hearing notice for the project or the environmental assessment, and it wasn’t part of the project approved by the HHWNC. Not long after the railing went up, it became clear that the construction crew had added staircases leading to the roof, and soon they were building stairwell coverings.
Why was I concerned? Well, here in Hollywood people like to give parties. Nothing wrong with parties in general, but sometimes they get pretty noisy, and sometimes they go on really late. It’s already an issue in the neighborhood, and building 18 individual rooftop decks seemed like it was just increasing the chances of someone throwing an all-night open-air bash.
So initially my concern was selfish. I was worried about the noise this project might create, and I was wondering why the rooftop decks hadn’t been included in the package that was presented to the community and approved by the Department of City Planning (DCP). I called up my City Council office, and talked to a very nice guy who said he’d look into it. Over the next two months I sent three e-mails to this Council Office staffer asking for an update. Never got an answer.
But during that time it occurred to me that there might be another problem with this project, a much more serious issue than raucous late night parties….
You see, these condos are going up right next to the Hollywood Freeway. I’d say at the farthest point the structure is about 150 feet from the freeway and at the nearest point about 50. I started wondering if building so close to a major traffic corridor wouldn’t pose health risks for the future occupants, so I got on the net to do some research.
Probably everybody reading this already knows what I found out. There’s a large body of research showing a higher incidence of respiratory problems among people who live near freeways. The risk is especially high for children and seniors. In fact, young people can suffer lifelong damage since ongoing exposure to pollutants from auto exhaust may affect the development of their lungs. This problem has gotten a lot of media attention recently, but the information has been out there for years. USC has been studying the effects of air pollution on children since the 90s. Here’s an article published by USC News back in 2004.
Not long after, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) published their Air Quality and Land Use Handbook, warning cities about the risks of building housing near freeways. Here’s the number one item on the handbook’s list of recommendations.
“Avoid siting new sensitive land uses within 500 feet of a freeway, urban roads with 100,000 vehicles/day, or rural roads with 50,000 vehicles/day.”
So the information has been out there for more than a decade, and the City Council is well aware of the health impacts to people living close to freeways. They’ve talked about ways to deal with the risks, but very little has happened in the way of concrete action. In fact, in recent years the Council has approved thousands of residential units in close proximity to freeways. They argue that LA’s housing shortage is so dire we can’t afford to prohibit construction in these areas even if there are health risks. Even though I don’t buy that argument, I know that many people would agree.
But rooftop decks?! Are they crazy?!
After reading up on the potential health risks, the idea of adding rooftop decks to these condos seemed so absolutely insane I thought it was worth making a few phone calls. I rang up the woman at the DCP who prepared the initial study for the project. I explained that the rooftop decks hadn’t been included in the project description or the renderings that were shown to the HHWNC, and that the height had increased by 30%. She said that the project complied with existing zoning and that the Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) had the final authority over what was permitted. I asked how the DCP could allow this since noise impacts from rooftop decks weren’t considered in the environmental assessment. She replied that the DCP had considered operational impacts from the project and had approved the assessment. Finally, I pointed out that the rooftop decks posed significant potential health risks to the future tenants. Her response was that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) did not require the DCP to consider impacts to those who would live on the site in the future.
I was angry, but not really surprised. I’ve realized over the last few years that the folks at the DCP really don’t care about how proposed projects will affect the lives of the people who live in this city. It’s all about keeping the developers happy.
Who knows why I even went on to contact LADBS. I guess I must get some kind of sick kick out of banging my head against a wall. Anyway, here’s their response.
The roof top decks and the overall building height of 44.9 feet is allowed by right, therefore LADBS does have the ability to approve the project as proposed. The Zoning Variance reviewed by City Planning only addressed a parking requirement. City Planning has approved the plans for the current project.
LADBS’ authority to approve projects is based on Building Code requirements. The Building Code does not have any restrictions for a rooftop deck near a freeway.
So according to LADBS, they did everything by the book. They don’t see a problem.
But there is a problem here. It’s bad enough that a developer is allowed to present one project to the community and then build something substantially different. But it’s even worse when a developer is allowed to create a clear health risk for the people who will live in the finished building.
I tried arguing with the bureaucrats who approve these projects and got nowhere. Maybe it’s time to take it to the higher-ups. If you feel there’s a problem here that needs to be addressed, I hope you’ll feel strongly enough about it to write an e-mail to the three people listed below. And please use the following subject line….
Freeway-Adjacent Rooftop Decks at 2111 Cahuenga
Eric Garcetti, Mayor
Vince Bertoni, Director of City Planning
Frank M. Bush, LADBS General Manager