Westlake Residents Speak Out Against “Design District”

CDW Audience

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.

Party Hotel Will Be Elementary School’s New Neighbor

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It’s rough for elementary schools in urban Los Angeles. In addition to the usual challenges involved in providing kids with an education, they’ve also got to deal with gangs, vandalism, and a growing homeless population which includes a number of people with mental health and substance abuse issues. I used to work as a TA at a Hollywood elementary school. Sadly, during the time I worked there the security problems got so bad that we had to restrict parents’ access to the school.

You can tell by the high fence surrounding Selma Avenue Elementary that security is an issue there. When I walked by a few days ago there were a number of homeless people camped out near the school. There were signs posted which read “POSSESSION OF WEAPONS ON SCHOOL GROUNDS IS A CRIME”. Traffic is also increasing on this formerly quiet street. So it’s clear that the kids at Selma Elementary are already dealing with a number of challenges. I can’t understand why the Department of City Planning wants to make life even harder for them.

Toward the end of January I attended a City Planning Commission hearing where Commissioners adopted the Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) for the tommie hotel at 6516 Selma, a short distance from Selma Elementary. The hotel will be built by developer Five Chairs, and operated by Two Roads Hospitality. The building will rise eight stories, with bar/lounges on the ground floor and rooftop deck, and it will offer live entertainment.

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Apartment building directly across from the project site.

Let me say right off that Two Roads is an international firm with an excellent reputation. They operate hotels in the US and overseas, the majority of which are very popular with travellers, receiving high ratings on Yelp. But the tommie hotel is a new concept for them, and very different from most of their other locations. Two Roads mostly runs resort getaways in scenic areas and classy hotels in big cities. They’re trying something different here, aiming at a younger crowd, making restaurants, bars and nightlife part of the appeal. I wanted to get a better idea of what to expect from tommie, so I went to the company’s web site to see if they had any other hotels that offered a similar experience.

I found the Phoenix in San Francisco. Like tommie, it’s geared toward a youthful crowd, and like tommie, food, drink, music and nightlife are a central part of the experience. I took a look at the comments on Yelp, and most of the guests really liked the place. Some had complaints, which I’ll get to in a minute. But everybody seemed to agree that the Phoenix was a party hotel. And everybody also seemed to agree that it often got really loud. Let me share a few of the comments with you….

My little one and I were kept awake. Whe. I called and checked the webpage, no one mentioned therw would be large hotel parties. Profanity, arguments and glass breaking occured right outside our door well past midnight.

The noise from the all night non stop party allowed us zero sleep!! [The guest goes with the night manager to talk to the rowdy neighbors.] Then a wasted (not booze or weed either) guy stumbles out of room 26 and says to me, “why did you book a room at
the Phoenix knowing it was a party hotel.”

A great hotel if you’re not at all interested in sleeping. Ever. The bar is ridiculously loud considering its size, not to mention that it’s brimming with attitude. I’m kit joking. This is the loudest hotel ever.

This hotel is only good if you are a stoner. Loud, druggie infused place. I have never seen worse and I should have read the other reviews. The guy that checked us in was stoned. NOT a family place.

There was literally a huge party of hundreds happening 20 yards from our door. The front desk seemed surprised that this was bothersome since the “loudspeaker and mics” were to be off by ten. Trust me, the party continued,

I had a terrible experience here. Apparently during the summer on Saturdays they host some kind of swap meet and show where they take over the courtyard and blast music at full volume all day. It was terrible.

The reason I was not happy with the place is because I was very tired when I arrived and needed to get some sleep. It turns out that it is a PARTY hotel. The entire courtyard is part of the bar at the hotel. It is not just a little bar, it is a big bar/club for all of the locals. If I would have known this I would have not stayed their. On the other hand, if you are looking for a place to get rowdy and party all night, this hotel is for you.

So Two Roads is trying out a new concept designed for young people who like to party. I don’t have a problem with that at all. It might be a great idea for a bustling commercial district. But in a neighborhood filled with dozens of apartment buildings? With low-income housing right next door? With dormitories for students nearby? With senior housing just over two blocks away? And with an elementary school less than 500 feet away? This is a really bad idea.

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Casa Verde in foreground, right next to the project site.

I’m sure some people will be saying, “What’s the problem? The kids are in school on weekdays and the hotel will probably host parties on weekend nights. What are you worried about?” First, the hotel will be serving alcohol throughout the day, seven days a week. I’m very concerned about people having a couple of martinis over a late lunch and then getting in their car and heading west on Selma around 3:00 pm. Second, while the hotel will most likely be scheduling any parties for the weekend, I don’t recall any conditions that would prohibit them from throwing a bash during the week. Third, I’ve got a news flash for you. Small children don’t magically vanish over the weekend. Even if they’re not in school, they’re still living in the neighborhood and they still have to deal with whatever’s going on around them, including raucous parties at chic hotels, along with whatever action spills over onto the street.

But let’s go back to the MND. For those who aren’t familiar with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), let me give you a very quick, very rough overview. Generally speaking, there are three levels of environmental review. The MND falls in between the lowest, a Negative Declaration, and the highest, an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). By choosing to do an MND, the Department of City Planning (DCP) is basically saying, “Yes, there could be impacts to the community, but it’s okay, because the developer can mitigate those impacts so they won’t be a problem.” This might sound reasonable, but lately the DCP has made a habit of using MNDs to rush approval of projects that really require an EIR. An EIR takes time and costs money, and you have to get input from the community. An MND takes less time, costs less money, and when the DCP goes this route, community input becomes an annoying formality that they try to dispense with as quickly as possible. But the worst part is, the DCP doesn’t even seem to feel that MNDs need to be complete or accurate. Often they’re downright dishonest. You want an example? The MND for the tommie contains a section entitled Surrounding Land Uses on page II-5. While the authors list a number of buildings that are close by the project site, they somehow fail to mention that there’s an elementary school just down the street. In fact, they list a number of historic structures that are within a 3,000 foot radius, but they somehow neglect to say that Selma Elementary is less than 500 feet away.

How could this be? Was it an oversight? Maybe the folks that prepared the MND, EcoTierra Consulting, are just so inept that they never noticed the elementary school. But what about the people at the DCP? Aren’t they supposed to review environmental documents to make sure they’re accurate? Yeah, they are. And they wouldn’t even have to leave their Downtown offices to check this out. All they’d have to do is get on ZIMAS, a web site maintained by the City to provide zoning and planning info, to find out what’s in the surrounding area. Here’s a screen shot to give you an idea.

zimas-selma-hotel-lg-w-project-site-resized

 

The red box is the project site, and the area highlighted in green is Selma Elementary. But how would the people at the DCP know it’s a school? It’s marked as a public facility, but that’s pretty general. Could be almost anything. For future reference, I’d like to point out to DCP staff that all they have do is click on the tab titled Planning and Zoning to see that ZIMAS clearly indicates that the site is within 500 feet of a school. In fact, in addition to Selma Elementary, the site is also home to Larchmont Charter School.

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So how about the folks on the City Planning Commission? If the MND didn’t mention the school, how could they have known about it? Well, I mentioned it, both in written comments submitted to the DCP and in my verbal comments on the day of the hearing. Did that get a reaction? Nope. While the Commissioners spent plenty of time haggling over conditions of use and mitigation measures, they didn’t refer to the school once during their deliberations. They didn’t express surprise that the MND fails to state that a school is located nearby. They didn’t even ask how far away the school is.

The Commissioners asked how Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell felt about the project, and learned that he doesn’t support or oppose it. That’s understandable. O’Farrell’s up for re-election, and he knows a lot of people are really ticked off about the fact that he’s backed some lousy projects before. On the other hand, he can’t really oppose it either, because he’s received a few thousand bucks from people involved with the project. According to the Los Angeles Ethics Commission web site, Richard Heyman of Five Chairs gave $1,400 to O’Farrell’s legal defense fund on April 4, 2016. Andrew Shayne of Hollywood International Regional Center, Five Chairs’ parent company, also gave $1,400 to O’Farrell’s legal defense fund on April 26, 2016. And Jeffrey Reinstein of Geolo Capital, which is a co-developer of this project, gave $700 to O’Farrell’s re-election campaign on March 21, 2016. So this must be a tough one for Mitch. If you ask me, he should have come out against this project a long time ago, simply based on the fact that it’s less than 500 feet from an elementary school. But maybe like the consultant who prepared the MND and the folks who reviewed it at the DCP, O’Farrell isn’t aware that the school is there. Wouldn’t surprise me. Maybe that pile of cash from the developers is blocking his view.

When I was at the hearing, I was surprised how few people showed up to speak against the project. Nobody from Casa Verde, the apartment building right next to the site that offers affordable housing. Nobody from the other apartment buildings close by. And nobody from the Los Angeles Unified School District?! That was really weird.

Then I started wondering. Did they even know about the hearing?

I called LAUSD and left a message, even though I wasn’t sure I had the right person. Then I called Larchmont Charter School, which operates a school on the Selma Elementary campus. They hadn’t heard a thing about the hotel. Next I called Hollywood Community Housing Corporation, the affordable housing developer that owns Casa Verde. The woman I spoke to said she had only just heard about the hotel.

Then I heard back from LAUSD, and after talking with them, they offered this statement.

“The Office of Environmental Health & Safety does not have record of receiving notice regarding this project at the newly proposed location.

L.A. Unified will be preparing and submitting a comment letter to the City of Los Angeles that will express our concerns with regard to this proposed project.

Specifically, L.A. Unified will be looking at potential air quality, noise, and traffic/pedestrian safety issues, as well as land use compatibility issues associated with alcohol service in close proximity to Selma Avenue Elementary School.”

I want to be clear here. The DCP is not required to send notices to stakeholders about proposed projects. The California Environmental Quality Act offers three options for informing people, and the lead agency can satisfy the requirement just by putting a notice in the newspaper, which is probably what the DCP did. But I have to say that in a case like this, where there are a number of sensitive uses nearby, one of them being an elementary school, the DCP had a moral obligation to get the word out to the community. They should have made every effort to insure that all stakeholders were involved in the environmental review process, especially the parents and staff at Selma Elementary and Larchmont Charter.

How is it possible that this MND was prepared without making sure that LAUSD had reviewed it and had the opportunity to comment? How is it possible that not one of the Commissioners expressed surprise that an LAUSD representative was not present at the CPC hearing? How is it possible that no one representing CD 13 stepped in to point out that the project site was a few hundred feet away from a school?

How come no one was looking out for these kids?

The California Environmental Quality Act says that….

“An EIR must be prepared when there is substantial evidence in the record that supports a fair argument that significant effects may occur.”

CEQA Flow Chart

There’s no question that a hotel offering bar/lounges on the ground floor and rooftop, which also offers live entertainment, and which is intended to attract both paying guests and local club-goers, is going to have substantial effects on the community. Clearly this project requires a full EIR.

So what are the next steps? Three things need to happen here….

1.
At its next hearing, the CPC needs to rescind their adoption of the MND.

2.
After rescinding the MND, all of the Commissioners should resign immediately. Their failure to show the slightest interest in the health and safety of LAUSD students is inexcusable.

3.
The DCP needs to start the process all over again with full EIR.

If you agree with me that this whole process has been unfair and dishonest, I’d like to suggest that you communicate with the following people….

Contact May Sirinopwongsagon, the DCP staff contact for this project, and tell her you can’t believe the MND doesn’t list the school among the surrounding uses.
May Sirinopwongsagon, Department of City Planning
may.sirinopwongsagon@lacity.org

Contact Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell and ask him why his office didn’t object from the start to building a project like this less than 500 feet from an elementary school.
Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, Council District 13
councilmember.ofarrell@lacity.org

Contact Mayor Eric Garcetti and tell him he needs to demand resignations from all the members of the City Planning Commission.
Mayor Eric Garcetti
mayor.garcetti@lacity.org

It would be a good idea to include the following information in the subject line.

tommie hotel, CPC-2016-270-VZC-HDCUB-SPR, ENV-2016-4313-MND

I urge you to speak up for these kids, because they need to have someone looking out for them. It doesn’t seem like anybody at City Hall gives a damn.

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Tenants Take a Stand

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There’s been a noticeable shift in City Hall’s public stance on evictions recently. A couple years ago, the Mayor and the City Council weren’t saying much, and certainly weren’t doing much, about the wave of displacement that was sweeping across LA. Ellis Act evictions had been rising steadily, thousands of tenants had been forced out of rent-stabilized apartments, and City Hall’s reaction was pretty much, “Who cares?”

But now that the issue is getting media attention and our elected officials are taking some serious heat for their inaction, the change in attitude at City Hall is noticeable. Mayor Garcetti has unveiled the Home for Renters campaign, designed to inform tenants of their rights. The Housing & Community Investment Department (HCIDLA) web site is offering booklets renters can download in English and Spanish to learn about how the law protects them. There’s also been an accompanying media blitz to get the word out. I have to wonder if City Hall’s sudden concern for LA’s renters will last beyond next year’s election, but right now you can tell the politicians are nervous.

One of the most striking examples of this turnaround can be found in the story of a group of tenants living in the apartment building at the corner of Yucca and Argyle in Hollywood. The building is home to 44 households, including singles, couples, families with children, seniors and veterans. It’s subject to LA’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO), which means that rents can only go up about 3% every year. A while ago they got word that the building was going to be sold to Champion Real Estate, a developer that had plans to build a luxury high-rise on the site. It seemed like it would just be a matter of time before the new owner started handing out eviction notices.

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But that hasn’t happened. Yet. And a large part of it has to do with the fact that the tenants decided they weren’t going to let themselves be pushed around. They connected with the LA Tenants Union (LATU), which helped them organize the Yucca Argyle Tenants Association (YATA). They spoke out. They took part in public actions. They got support from their neighborhood council. They let the world know they weren’t going without a fight.

In fact they made so much noise that the developer stepped forward with pretty unusual offer. I asked Sasha Ali, of YATA, for an update, and here’s her response.

The developer recently stated at the Hollywood United Neighborhood Council’s Planning and Land Use Management meeting that he is willing to offer affected tenants the right of return to the proposed development at their existing terms of rent. He also offered to relocate returning tenants in Hollywood during construction and subsidize their rent.

When you think about the fact that many tenants evicted under the Ellis Act have to fight to get the payments that the law requires, this is pretty impressive. It’s a sign that the media attention about displacement is having an impact. Remember, this is happening in Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s district, and O’Farrell has been getting a lot of heat about widespread evictions happening on his watch. Could he have asked Champion to make some concessions in order to cool things down? Well, O’Farrell is up for re-election next year.

There’s no way of saying for sure what will happen next. Sasha said that at this point, eviction notices have not been served, and in fact Champion hasn’t actually bought the building yet. The tenants have retained a lawyer to help them negotiate with the developer.

I’m glad that the tenants at Yucca and Argyle are demanding a fair deal, and I wish them the best. But the dynamics that have created this situation are still wreaking havoc across LA. The eviction juggernaut is being driven by the huge profits developers can reap by buying an existing building, knocking it down, and putting up something much larger. This usually works pretty smoothly, because the City Council is mostly willing to grant whatever entitlements the developer asks for. Want a zone change? Sure! Boost the floor area ratio? No problem! Reduce setbacks to zero? Hell, yeah! Developers feel pretty confident they can make a bundle on these projects because they know all they have to do is hand a wish list to someone like O’Farrell, and he’ll do everything he can to make their wishes come true.

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The City Council has no legal authority to stop Ellis Act evictions, but they need to stop incentivizing the practice. They need to stop handing developers massive profits by approving endless entitlements. If you want to talk about building higher density, fine. Let’s create community plans that will allow the City to increase density in an orderly way. Let’s revise our zoning so that developers can work within a consistent framework. (And I’m not talking about wasting time on a worthless sham like re:code LA.) And then let’s make the City Council abide by those plans, instead of making exceptions for every project that comes their way.

Hopefully things will turn out okay for the folks at Yucca and Argyle. But we need to stop the practices that create these situations in the first place. The City Council needs to stop handing out favors and start doing some planning.

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Silverlake in Crisis: Acute Boutique Hotel Shortage

Town hall meeting on proposed Junction Gateway project.

Town hall meeting on proposed Junction Gateway project.

On Wednesday night the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council (SLNC) hosted a town hall meeting where the topic was the proposed Junction Gateway project. For those of you who haven’t been following this story, developer Frost Chaddock wants to build three structures on three sites along Sunset Blvd. in Silverlake. Two of the buildings are mixed-use, including residential, restaurant and retail space. The third is a boutique hotel. Predictably, the developer is asking for a number of entitlements, among them increases height and Floor Area Ratio (FAR). And predictably, a lot of the locals are ticked off.

By my count, the town hall drew about fifty area residents. The developer was there, along with the project architect, and a very smooth land use attorney from a high-powered law firm. They kicked the meeting off with a presentation on the project, emphasizing the ways they felt it would be beneficial to the community. Then two board members from the SLNC took turns reading questions that had been submitted by audience members. I want to say in passing that the SLNC board members handled the whole thing very well. The tension in the air was palpable, but they did an excellent job of minimizing disruption and keeping things on track.

A land use attorney explains why his client's project will be a boon to the community.

A land use attorney explains why his client’s project will be a boon to the community.

I have to admit I left early since I was taking the bus to Burbank and didn’t want to get started too late. But as I listened to the questions being read, it all sounded very familiar. While the developer claimed that Junction Gateway was absolutely right for the neighborhood, the tone of the questions made it clear that there was intense opposition in the community. The land use lawyer kept saying they had met with residents and made changes based on their input. But the changes mentioned were mostly cosmetic, and it was clear that the developer intended to build the project regardless of neighborhood oppostion. For me, the funniest moment was when the developer’s land used attorney insisted that in talking to the community, “We heard over and over again that Silverlake is lacking in boutique hotels.” That was a surprise to me. I know people who live in Silverlake, and I’ve never heard any of them complain about a shortage of boutique hotels.

The audience is skeptical.

The audience is skeptical.

But to my mind, the most crucial questions that were raised shouldn’t have been addressed to the developer. They should have been addressed to Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, whose district includes Silverlake.

First, why are developers continually encouraged to build projects that violate the existing community plan for Silverlake and Echo Park?  According to the Department of City Planning web site, “the 35 Community Plans provide the specific, neighborhood-level detail, relevant policies, and implementation strategies necessary to achieve the General Plan objectives.”  When our City Council reps routinely allow developers to build beyond what the existing framework allows, they make planning meaningless.  Why do we have community plans if our elected officials are happy to toss them out for any developer with deep pockets?

Second, what about doing a meaningful assessment of all projects currently being considered for the area?  The developer’s team pointed out that Junction Gateway has been in process for years, and they argue that their assessment of cumulative impacts included everything that was happening when they started out.  Even if we accept this argument, there are a number of other projects that are coming through the pipeline and there hasn’t been any serious attempt to gauge their impacts on the community.  Infrastructure is already strained, air quality is deteriorating, and the streets are more congested than ever.  And yet O’Farrell keeps pushing new projects forward as though none of these problems existed.

The City of LA’s refusal to respect the planning process shows that our elected officials are far more interested in serving developers than in serving the citizens. Instead of creating a rational planning framework that starts with a genuine effort to engage the community, we get an avalanche of projects being dumped haphazardly on neighborhoods all over LA.

It’s no wonder the people at the meeting were ticked off. Affordable housing in Silverlake is fast becoming a distant memory, small-lot subdivisions are a plague sweeping the community, traffic keeps getting worse, the number of homeless is increasing. And still Mitch O’Farrell continues to back one project after another, blithely insisting that this onslaught of reckless overdevelopment will lead to a better and brighter future for his constituents.

Not surprisingly, a lot of people aren’t buying it. A number of those who attended the meeting belong to a group called Save Sunset Junction. If you’d like to connect with them, here’s the link.

Save Sunset Junction

TH Crwd Cls