Turning Housing into Hotel Rooms

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The Metropolitan on Sunset

If you needed any more proof that City Hall has no real interest in solving our housing crisis, you should have come to the September 12 hearing held by the Central Area Planning Commission. On the agenda was an appeal of a decision by the Department of City Planning (DCP) to approve a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) for transient occupancy at the Metropolitan Lofts on Sunset near Van Ness. There’s a long, complicated story behind this, but basically the owners want to be able to turn apartment units into hotel rooms. Susan Hunter, of the LA Tenants Union (LATU), filed an appeal to try and overturn the CUP. But the Commissioners sided with the owners, and gave them the go ahead to allow transient occupancy at the Metropolitan.

The September 12 session was actually continued from the August 8 hearing when the appeal was first heard. Taken together, these two hearings were a mind-numbing demonstration of the DCP’s arrogance and callousness. It has never been clearer that the DCP’s culture is geared toward serving private interests rather than the general public. Most of the Commissioners, along with DCP staff, bent over backwards to make allowances for the owners of the Metropolitan, while throwing the building’s tenants, and renters in general, under the bus.

The story of the Metropolitan is long and complicated, but to give you some background, here’s a brief recap….

The building originally started as a hotel back in the 80s. It ended up getting a reputation as a place to party, and by the 90s it was getting a lot of attention from the LAPD. After a while the owners decided they’d be better off turning it into an apartment building, and the DCP signed off on that in 2006. In their determination letter, the City Planning Commission said the conversion of the Metropolitan’s 52 units was consistent with both the General Plan and the Community Plan, and stated that the change would, “provide increased opportunities for residential living in Hollywood where it is appropriate and needed.”

Fast forward about 10 years. Hollywood has always been a hot spot for tourism, and with the advent of Short-Term Rentals (STRs), property owners can make a bundle posting units on AirBnB or any of the other popular sites that offer “home sharing”. This is especially attractive to landlords, who realize they can make a lot more money by getting rid of tenants and opening the door to tourists. The folks who own the Metropolitan were thinking they could cash in by turning the building back into a hotel, but they came up with a very creative way to do it. They didn’t just ask the City to turn the place back into a hotel, they requested a zoning overlay to make it into a Transit Occupancy Residential Structure (TORS), while maintaining the residential use. This way the owners could use the units as either apartments or hotel rooms, depending on how they feel on any given day.

Do you see a problem here? The small group of tenants who were still left at the Metropolitan sure did. You see, the owners decided they weren’t going to wait for the City’s approval. They actually allowed a company that specializes in STRs, Senstay, to start offering some units to travellers. The tenants started to see all kinds of strangers wandering up and down the halls with their luggage trailing behind. They found themselves letting in guests who didn’t have a key because there was no front desk to help visitors. They sometimes had to wait to use the laundry rooms because housekeeping staff was there ahead of them. And they started to worry about break-ins because things were getting stolen. These problems were piled on top of the problems they already had to deal with, like lighting that didn’t work, long periods when the AC was down, and elevators that were frequently out of service. And to make things even worse, they were required to pay fees for utilities, trash, and sewage through an on-line service which often added late charges for bills paid on time, in addition to a “convenience fee”.

It’s pretty clear that the Metropolitan owners don’t care about their tenants, and would like to get rid of them. Jerry Neuman, the owners’ representative at the hearing, claimed that they treated their tenants well, and that they didn’t intend evict anybody. That doesn’t jibe with the facts. All the residents I spoke to at the Metropolitan confirmed the problems listed above. And while the owners claim they’re not removing housing to make way for hotel rooms, they had allowed the number of tenants to dwindle to 15, and offered those who still remained money to leave. This sounds to me like they’re planning on turning the Metropolitan back into a hotel.

Which brings us back to Senstay. To give Commission President Jennifer Chung-Kim credit, she confronted Neuman with evidence supplied by appellant Hunter that the Metropolitan owners had been renting rooms to tourists for a while. Neuman’s response was one of the few amusing moments in an otherwise grimly depressing ordeal….

“As I understood it, that was a corporate lease. That was not…. I don’t…. and we…. our understanding…. and we have not rented our facility for temporary occupancy.”

But let’s take a look at the way Senstay presents itself on its own web site….

“Building upon Airbnb’s monetization and subsequent creation of a new asset class, we are passionate about bringing our own meld of ‘the sharing economy’ and traditional real estate investing to our clients.”

Senstay exists to facilitate STRs. That’s the business it’s in. When Commissioner Chung-Kim handed him the document, Neuman finally realized his clients were busted, and he decided not to say any more on the subject. There’s some ambiguity about whether the LA Municipal Code allows individuals to rent their homes as STRs, but it is illegal for landlords to turn multiple apartment units into STRs. So did the Commission follow up on this? Did they turn to the representative of the City Attorney’s office, who was sitting right there with them, and ask for an investigation? Did they recommend that the Housing & Community Investment Department take action against the owners for illegally offering apartments as STRs? Nope. They did nothing. They let the Metropolitan owners off the hook without any consequences whatsoever. The Commission just let it slide.

With the exception of Vice President Daphne Brogdon, it seemed like the Commission was ready to give the Metropolitan owners pretty much whatever they wanted. At the August 8 hearing, Brogdon repeatedly questioned the wisdom of allowing 52 apartments to be turned into hotel rooms in the middle of a housing crisis. She pointed out that allowing this dual use could be a precedent, leading to other landlords making the same request.

Neuman’s response? “As much as you may say that Hollywood…, that we have a housing crisis, we have an equal amount of crisis in the number of temporary occupancy units available in Hollywood.” It’s true that tourism is booming, and there is a demand for more hotel rooms throughout the city. But there are 25 hotels within a 1 mile radius of the site, and in Hollywood there are 13 more either under construction or currently making their way through the approval process. On top of all this, AirBnB alone offers hundreds of listings in the Hollywood area, without even counting those offered by platforms like VRBO, Oasis Collections, Housestay, and One Fine Stay. Oh, and let’s not forget Senstay. Honestly, I haven’t heard any stories about tourists sleeping on the street because they couldn’t find a hotel room.

But there are thousands of homeless people sleeping on LA’s streets, and Ellis Act evictions continue to climb, with over 1,000 rent-stabilized units being taken off the market annually. It’s amazing that in Neuman’s eyes the lack of hotel rooms for tourists represents a crisis equal to the lack of housing for residents.

So it was great to have Brogdon at the August 8 hearing to ask tough questions about adding the transit occupancy use. Unfortunately, that was her last day on the Commission. When the hearing continued on September 12, her seat was vacant, and no one was left to speak up for the tenants.

And speaking of the tenants, where were they during all this? None of the tenants that Hunter was representing made it to the August 8 hearing. It’s not always easy for people who work to make it to City Hall at 4:30 pm on a work day. But 4 of them showed up for the continuation in September. They came down because they wanted to speak about the habitability issues they’d experienced at the Metropolitan, and about the difficulty of living in a building that had already been partly converted to a hotel, and about their fears that the owners were planning on getting rid of them.

But they never got the chance to speak. Commission President Chung-Kim decided that since they’d already heard public comment on August 8, there was no need to hear any more. She had mentioned earlier that it was difficult to reopen public comment once it had been closed. Somehow, though, she had no problem doing exactly that back in August when she wanted to hear from the owners’ rep. Toward the close of that session, Chung-Kim wanted to get Neuman’s input on a possible compromise, and it seemed pretty simple to reopen public testimony. But in September somehow that wasn’t possible. This is actually something I’ve often seen at hearings held by the DCP’s various Commissions. They always seem more than willing to let the developers and their reps babble on endlessly, but public comment is usually strictly controlled. At the August hearing and the September continuation, Jerry Neuman had ample opportunity to talk about why his clients needed the CUP, and I’d be willing to bet he spoke more than any other individual in the room. But the tenants Hunter was representing, the people most affected by the change of use, weren’t allowed to say a single word.

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A shot of the September hearing.

I’ve been to a number of Commission hearings over the years, and I do feel like there’s definitely a bias in favor of owners and developers. But maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’ve got a chip on my shoulder. Or maybe, since the Commissioners are appointed by the Mayor, they all just share his enthusiasm for aggressive gentrification and rampant displacement. But there could be other reasons, too. It’s interesting that the owners’ rep at this hearing was Jerry Neuman of Liner LLP. In case you haven’t heard of Liner, they’re one of LA’s top lobbying firms. In fact, in the Ethics Commission’s 2nd quarter lobbying report for 2017, Liner ranked number one in terms of payments received, racking up $2,310,565. Pretty impressive. And one of Liner’s top clients is Harridge Development Group. If you take another look at the Ethics report, under the section for clients, you’ll find that Harridge is number 10 in terms of payments reported, having shelled out $118,765. But that’s actually kind of misleading. If you really want to know what kind of money Harridge is throwing around, you should take a look at the number 2 spot on the list. This is where you’ll find Crossroads Associates LLC, which is behind Crossroads Hollywood, a massive complex planned for Sunset and Highland, and even though the name is different, this is also a Harridge project. For this project the client has paid out $393,837, and the recipients were the swell folks at Liner LLP.

So what does all this have to do with the Metropolitan? If you look at the applicant for the Metropolitan’s request to the DCP, you’ll see Brad Woomer, 5825 West Sunset Boulevard, LLC. The company is just another anonymous LLC, but it turns out Woomer is the Chief Financial Officer for Harridge. So the people behind the request for transient occupancy at the Metropolitan just happen to be the same people who figure so prominently on the Ethics Commission’s lobbying report. And the firm handling the request is none other than Liner LLP, which ranked number one in terms of payments recieved in the same report. Liner is definitely well connected. Among the agencies they’ve lobbied for the Crossroads project are the City Attorney, the City Council, Building & Safety, and of course, the Department of City Planning.

But maybe this has nothing to do with how the Metropolitan hearing went. Maybe I’m just a crazy conspiracy freak with nothing better to do than pore over Ethics Commission reports and show up at grindingly dull Commission hearings. (Seriously, I think I need to get a life.) Whatever the reason, the Commissioners voted to deny the appeal and grant the CUP. The Metropolitan owners can now legally turn residential units into hotel rooms. And since this does seem to be a precedent, it opens the doors for other landlords to do exactly the same thing.

Still, the Commission had to make it look like they were taking care of the tenants. So between the August and September hearings, Neuman met with DCP staff to work out a set of conditions that were supposedly going to make everything okay. The conditions included granting the remaining tenants a 4 month extension on their lease, and the option to move to a part of the building where they would be consolidated, the idea being that this would resolve conflicts with short-term guests. The Commission acted as though they were doing everything they could to protect the tenants, but it’s really all a game, because the City rarely enforces any of these conditions. Even when violations are brought to the City’s attention, enforcement is generally so lax as to be meaningless. Agreements like these are put in place to make it look like the DCP is doing its job. Once the hearing is over, it’s just a lot of language to be stuck in a file and forgotten.

So that was it. The Commissioners denied the appeal. The Metropolitan owners got their CUP. And after it was over the tenants stood outside the hearing room, realizing that the City had thrown them under the bus. For me it was one more maddening demonstration of the City’s staggering disregard for the rights of LA’s renters. I can’t imagine how the tenants felt. The DCP seemed to be saying to them, “We just don’t give a damn about you.”

The appellant, Susan Hunter, who’s a friend of mine, was frustrated, but has refused to give up. She’s been working on trying to find legal representation for the tenants so they can get relief from the courts. This isn’t her first fight, and it won’t be her last. I have to give credit to Susan for her tenacity, and to all the others in this town who keep pushing for some kind of justice. It’s got to be tough to keep going when the deck is clearly stacked against you.

P.S.
In the post above I mentioned Jerry Neuman’s claim that the owners had no intention of evicting anybody, and that they just wanted the option to post vacant units for transient occupancy. Well, since the hearing I’ve been told by Susan Hunter that the tenants she does not represent have been told to vacate the premises. They’re supposed to be out by Christmas.

Met Side

 

Downtown Artists Fight Eviction

AE 01 Coming Soon

Artists are being forced out of the Arts District. This isn’t news. It’s been happening for years. The news is that now the artists are fighting back.

On Saturday, November 4, two groups of artists facing eviction organized a parade to bring attention to the rampant displacement that threatens their community. Earlier this year the residents at 800 Traction were told by the new owners of the building that they’d have to leave. Also this year, the people behind the Artists’ Loft Museum Los Angeles (ALMLA) were hit with a steep rent increase that seems intended to force them out. So the two groups have gotten together to let the world know that they’re not going quietly.  On Saturday, November 4 they staged a parade through Downtown.

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The parade started in Little Tokyo.

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Took a right on Alameda.

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Then the protesters headed down Alameda toward Fourth.

The parade started in Little Tokyo, cut down Alameda to Fourth, then wended its way along Seaton, Fifth and Hewitt, finally winding up at 800 Traction. It was an interesting walk. Protesters waved signs and displayed artwork. Two giant skeleton figures towered over the crowd. A few cars honked to show their support.

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A momentary pause on Alameda.

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Marching along Seaton.

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And then up Merrick.

We passed in front of the building that holds ALMLA, which is actually a brand new enterprise. Michael Parker and Alyse Emdur have lived in this space, along with other artists, for 16 years. Parker says that in just the last 6 years their rent has risen by 200%. The latest increase is beyond what they can pay, and Parker believes it was designed to force them out. So the artists at 454 Seaton decided to create ALMLA, which they hope will draw attention to their situation, and to the larger wave of displacement that’s sweeping across Los Angeles. Just before the museum’s opening, the landlord went to court to shut the event down. Fortunately he failed.

I used to hang out in this area back in the 80s and 90s. It’s depressing to see some of the changes that have taken place. While most of the buildings remain, with the onslaught of gentrification many of them now house chic boutiques and pricey restaurants. Anonymous LLCs have bought up a lot of the real estate, and investors seem bent on turning this part of Downtown into something very close to a suburban mall.

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Shop in the Arts District.

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Eat in the Arts District.

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Gentrify the Arts District.

Like I said, we ended up back at 800 Traction. A number of the artists who live in this building have been here for decades. Some were among the first wave of artists to move to the area back when it was more or less a decaying industrial ghost town. And most of the current residents at 800 Traction are part of the Japanese-American community, which is crucial to this story. This community has hung on in spite of successive waves of forced displacement going back to WWII. In the early part of the 20th century, Little Tokyo stretched far beyond its current boundaries. There were numerous Japanese-owned businesses and Japanese cultural institutions in the area between Alameda and the LA River. The first assault was the internment of Japanese-Americans after Peal Harbor. Since then City Hall has carved out one piece after another. And now these artists, after years of working within the community, are threatened with eviction.

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A performance featuring two of the Downtown elite enjoying a round of golf.

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They seemed to agree that gentrification wasn’t happening fast enough.

Hanging out with the other party guests, I felt like the room was filled with a kind of giddy energy, but there was also an undercurrent of tension. I spoke with Nancy Uyemura and Jaimee Itagaki, and they gave me the latest news about 800 Traction. The building’s new owners, DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners, had hired a property management firm, Pearson, that seemed intent on sabotaging the gathering. Pearson had called the cops before the party, apparently believing they could shut it down, but it went on as planned. They also sent security guards to keep an eye on the tenants and guests. Harrassment in situations like this is commonplace, and Pearson is doing their best to make things uncomfortable. Uyemura said that the tenants at 800 Traction were told in May that they had to leave, and they were supposed to be out by August. Recently they received an unlawful detainer notice. Their hearing date is in December.

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Protesters gathered at 800 Traction after the parade.

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I hope the security guards enjoyed the party.

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Artists sketched their take on what’s happening Downtown.

The attempt to evict the artists at 800 Traction is bad enough, but there’s another layer to this story that makes it even more disturbing. DLJ has decided to go through the process of designating the building a Historic-Cultural Landmark, which will enable them to get significant tax breaks for renovating the structure. They hired GPA Consulting to do the research for the nomination. GPA’s report talks at length about the building’s architect and Beaux Arts revival style and the food processing industry. They even mention Al’s Bar and LACE. But somehow they completely avoid any mention of the Japanese-American community that thrived in the neighborhood for decades. They also neglect to mention that the current residents have deep ties to the current Japanese-American community, and that some of them were among the first artists to move to the neighborhood back in the 80s.

In other words, GPA’s report completely whitewashes the community’s history. At the Cultural Heritage Commission (CHC) hearing where the nomination was considered, some attendees pointed this out, among them Dorothy Wong, herself a preservation consultant. Wong was baffled by the fact that the report didn’t refer to Little Tokyo once, and made no mention at all of the Japanese-American artists who had lived and worked at 800 Traction for decades. To their credit, the CHC agreed that the report was incomplete and chose to defer their decision until further work was done.

This may seem like a small victory, but it goes to the heart of what’s happening in Downtown. Ruthless investors are kicking artists and others out of the area so they can turn it into a sanitized, upscale urban destination. The Mayor and the City Council are doing everything they can to help make that happen. The people who have lived and worked in the area for much of their lives, the people who built communities and kept them going through tough times, are being told to leave. And while City Hall makes a great show of preserving historic structures, they’re destroying the communities that gave those structures life.

It’s hard to say whether the artists at 800 Traction and ALMLA will win this battle. They’re a determined group, and they seem committed to fighting til the bitter end. But LA has become increasingly hostile to artists, and the Mayor’s vision for Downtown is all about handing the area over to developers.

What have real estate investors put into this community? Money. What do they want out of it? More money.

What have the artists put into this community? Their lives. And what do they want? To continue working with and for the community, as they’ve been doing for years.

Find out more by following these links.

800 Traction

ALMLA

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Tenants Raise Alarm at Historic Schindler Apartments

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The speculative real estate binge that’s sweeping across LA right now has drawn a swarm of unscrupulous people willing to do whatever it takes to make a profit. In talking to community members over the past few years I’ve heard some hair-raising stories, but nothing that tops the reports I’ve heard from the tenants of the Sachs Apartments in Silverlake.

To give you some background, the Sachs Apartments (also known as Manola Court) were created by architect Rudolph Schindler for interior designer Herman Sachs. They’re a stunning example of Schindler’s work, a collection of buildings that step gracefully down a hillside, connected by steep stairways and terraced paths. The City of LA has recognized the importance of the site, naming it a Historic-Cultural Monument (HCM) in 2016.

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A view of the Sachs Apartments from Edgecliffe.

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Another view from Edgecliffe.

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A gate leading to a walkway between two buildings.

The Sachs Apartments were purchased by the current owners some years back. While there are three names listed on documents filed with the City, the person who has been dealing with the tenants and supervising the “restoration” is Paul Finegold. I’ve been hearing a lot about Mr. Finegold lately, and most of the comments have been pretty negative.

To start with, a number of tenants claim that Finegold has been harrassing them, and they believe he’s doing his best to get rid of them. There have been reports that he doesn’t maintain the units properly, and is slow to act when problems come up. I wanted to learn more, so last Thursday I showed up for a meeting of the Urban Design & Preservation Advisory Committee of the local neighborhood council. The only item on the agenda was the situation at the Sachs Apartments, and there was plenty to talk about. A number of tenants attended. They talked about water leaking through the ceiling, workers leaving debris on the site, and respiratory issues that may be related to dust from construction. Apparently Finegold has posted at least one unit on AirBnB, and the tenants said the guests are often out of control. One woman said she found a couple having sex right in front of her apartment.

And there’s more. According to the people at the meeting, three tenants have already been evicted by Finegold, who claimed that he, his mother, and a resident manager were moving in. But according to the current tenants, neither Finegold nor his mother nor the manager are living on the site.

Beyond all that, a lot of people are asking whether Finegold is restoring the Sachs Apartments or wrecking them. Remember, this is a Historic-Cultural Monument designed by someone who played a key role in LA’s architectural history. Having pledged to do a careful restoration of the site, Finegold is receiving substantial tax breaks under the Mills Act. But tenants say he’s made significant alterations, reconfiguring the interiors of some units and removing the bathroom from one. They also claim workers have cut down 4 mature trees and removed tiles designed by the original owner, Herman Sachs. Former tenant Judith Sheine, an authority on Schindler’s work, has expressed her concern that Finegold’s crews are doing damage to the complex.

I decided to go to the LA Department of Building & Safety (LADBS) web site to check out some of the permits that Finegold has pulled. Here are some excerpts….

“REMOVE FULL BATH ON FIRST FLOOR AND CREATE A POWDER ROOM ELSEWHERE ALSO ON FIRST FLOOR. NO CHANGE TO PLOT PLAN.”

“CONVERT A 3 UNIT APARTMENT TO A 4 UNIT APARTMENT WITH INTERIOR ALTERATIONS.”

“ADD NEW BATH; REMOVE AND REPLACE SELECTED WINDOWS; NEW ROOFING; NEW COLOR COAT EXTERIOR PLASTER”

Is it really okay to do all this with a building that’s been designated as an HCM? Was LADBS aware that this is a historic building? Obviously, any structure that’s over 80 years old is going to need some work to comply with current codes, but removing a bathroom? Converting one structure from 3 to 4 units? Remember, Finegold is getting tax breaks under the Mills Act for the work he’s doing, and that means he’s required to follow the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. Historic Resources Group, a widely respected consulting firm, helped Finegold file the Mills Act application. Do they know what’s going on at the Sachs Apartments?

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A view of the Sachs Apartments from Lucile.

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Far corner of the building on Lucile.

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Another view of the building from Lucile.

And to top it all off, now Finegold has applied to convert 5 of the units to a bed and breakfast. That may seem like a small number, but remember, we’re in the middle of a housing crisis. And based on their experiences with Finegold, some of the tenants are worried that he eventually plans to convert the whole complex to a bed and breakfast.

So, will the Department of City Planning (DCP) reward this guy by allowing the change of use? Seems likely. In spite of the fact that City Hall keeps telling us that we don’t have nearly enough housing, the DCP has shown itself to be more than willing to work with owners who want to remove rental units from the market. The DCP has heard all about the tenants’ concerns, and so has Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s office. But so far nobody from the City seems willing to stand up and ask what the hell is going on at the Sachs Apartments.

If you think somebody from the City should be asking questions, maybe you could let them know you’re concerned. Send an e-mail to DCP staffer Azeen Khanmalek, and be sure to copy Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell.

How about this for a subject line?

Investigate Possible Damage to Historic Sachs Apartments

Azeen Khanmalek, Department of City Planning
Azeen.Khanmalek@lacity.org

Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell
councilmember.ofarrell@lacity.org

Sachs 30 Luc Rising

Commemorating Japanese Internment by Evicting Little Tokyo Artists

Little Tokyo Artists

It’s been 75 years since the US Government issued an order to intern all residents of Japanese descent. DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners is going to commemorate that event in a special way.  The company will soon be evicting the tenants at 800 Traction, another reminder to the residents of Little Tokyo of just how little their lives really mean.

Of course, you hear about evictions all the time in LA, and City Hall has let us know repeatedly that renters are completely disposable when their lives are weighed against investor profits. Mayor Garcetti has used the Department of City Planning like a sharp knife in carving out his radical gentrification agenda, and tenants from Boyle Heights to the beach communities know they have a target on their back.

But still, this case stands out, because of the history involved….

You see, Little Tokyo used to cover a lot more territory than it does now. While 800 Traction is no longer considered part of the district, prior to WWII it fell well within the bounds of the Japanese community. Many Japanese residents lost their homes and businesses because of the internment. City Hall took more land away in the 50s to build Parker Center. More land, more housing, more businesses were lost when (ironically) Japanese corporations moved in during the 70s and 80s. And so over time Little Tokyo has been reduced to a shadow of what it once was.

But there’s another layer to this that makes it even more disturbing. A number of the residents at 800 Traction are Japanese-American artists who’ve been living in the community for decades. They’ve worked with local cultural institutions, creating art for the people who live in Little Tokyo. They have deep roots in the neighborhood and helped create the Downtown art scene when nobody wanted to live there. Many people have pointed out the horrible irony in the fact that real estate interests have spent a fortune on branding the area as the Arts District, all the while kicking out the artists who made the place happen.

The tenants could be forced out by the end of this month. It’s hard to say whether they have any hope of keeping their homes, but it can’t hurt to raise your voice to support them. Please write to Councilmember Jose Huizar, and ask him why he isn’t doing more to protect the artists of 800 Traction against the soulless vampires at DLJ Capital Partners.

Here’s a clear, straightforward subject line.

STOP THE EVICTIONS AT 800 TRACTION!

Councilmember Jose Huizar
councilmember.huizar@lacity.org

And don’t forget to copy Mayor Garcetti, so he understands the damage his gentrification agenda is causing.

Mayor Eric Garcetti
mayor.garcetti@lacity.org

If you want more details, here’s an excellent piece from the Rafu Shimpo.

They Say Gentrify – We Must Unify!

 

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.

HP Tents

A Breath of Fresh Exhaust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) to provide safer play areas for children

4) to increase natural light and ventilation

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

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

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

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

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Rush hour traffic on the San Diego Freeway.

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

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Balconies at the front of 2775 Cahuenga.

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Traffic on the Hollywood Freeway near 2775 Cahuenga.

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

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The Carlton is the white building on the left.

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

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A view of rush hour traffic near The Carlton.

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

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

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Traffic on the freeway north of the Da Vinci.

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

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

Try using the following subject line….

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

Here’s Garcetti’s e-mail address.

mayor.garcetti@lacity.org

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

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

Columbia Square

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

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

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The El Centro side of Columbia Square

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The front of the campus along Sunset

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

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

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The courtyard at the front of the complex

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Another shot of the courtyard

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One of the restored structures, now occupied by Neue House

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A view of the courtyard looking toward Sunset

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

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

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Stairway leading to the rear of the campus

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A space to hang out in

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

Columbia Square from the Los Angeles Conservancy

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

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

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

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The Gower side of the campus

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Landscaping and benches along Gower

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

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