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.

CDW Glesne

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

CDW Line

People wait in line to have their say about the NWDD.

Mama Shelter, DJs and the DCP


MS Side

Side view of Mama Shelter

[This post has been updated.  The first version implied that the DCP had deliberately failed to send me a notice for the Mama Shelter hearing.  But I was cleaning out my inbox recently, and found the e-mail, unopened.  I must have let it slip past.  So my fault, not theirs.]

Last week I went to a hearing down at City Hall. The agenda item I was concerned about was a request by a Hollywood hotel, Mama Shelter, to allow live entertainment, including DJs, on their rooftop until 2:00 am.

Let me explain why I was worried. I like to have a drink and listen to live music as much as anyone, but the Hollywood party scene has grown to the point where it’s really causing problems for the community. I don’t live close enough to the boulevard to be bothered by the noise, but over the years I’ve heard many people complain that sometimes it gets so bad they can’t sleep. There are a number of apartment buildings close to Mama Shelter, and senior housing just a couple blocks away. The other problem is that as the party scene grows, the crowds are getting increasingly rowdy. Violent crime in Hollywood has been rising for years, and the LAPD doesn’t have enough staff to keep up. Check out this recent report and you’ll see that, except for homicide, violent crime has risen in every category over the past two years.

LAPD Hollywood Area Profile, November 2017

So I had some definite concerns about Mama Shelter’s request, and on the day of the hearing I was going to let everybody in the room know I was not happy. But instead I got a nice surprise. The first person to speak was the rep for the hotel. He said they knew the community was concerned about the noise, and for the time being they were withdrawing their request for live music on the roof. He didn’t say it was completely off the table, but the hotel will try to work with the LAPD to find a compromise. I was impressed. Who knows what the eventual outcome will be, but at least these people are listening. I do hope a compromise can be reached. I should also mention that LAPD vice officers spoke at the hearing, and they gave the hotel high marks for adhering to the law. Hollywood has had numerous problems with bad operators, so it was encouraging to hear their praise for Mama Shelter.

MS Grnd Floor

The problem for Mama Shelter is that they’re dealing with increased competition from new hotels that are springing up all around it. City Hall has decided they want to turn Central Hollywood into party central, and the Department of City Planning (DCP) is approving pretty much every crazy request they get from developers. Almost every hotel project that’s been pitched for the area in recent years includes a rooftop bar/lounge. Hollywood has been a mix of residential and commercial for over a hundred years, and it’s always been a balancing act. But in recent years the City has shown increasing contempt for the people who live in the area. There are already well over 60 places you can get a drink in Central Hollywood, and the DCP keeps approving more liquor permits, showing little concern for alcohol-related harms. And they don’t seem to care about people getting a good night’s sleep either, as they continue to approve requests to offer live entertainment. Do they have any idea how much extra work they’re creating for the LAPD? I have no problem with people coming to Hollywood to have a few drinks and hear some music, but more and more it seems to be drawing party animals who just want to get wasted and cut loose. Not good for the community.

Actually, I have a few problems with the DCP. Not only have they shown a growing disregard for rational planning practices, but the agency is becoming increasingly opaque and dishonest.  The experience with the hearing for Mama Shelter is a classic example.  When a friend forwarded the hearing notice, I saw that to review the impacts of allowing music on the rooftop they’d done an addendum to Mama Shelter’s original environmental assessment. (Put simply, they’re using the hotel’s original environmental assessment and adding a new section to talk about what impact live music might have on the community.) I was thinking I’d like to take a look at the addendum, but I couldn’t find it on the net. So on Monday, November 6, I send an e-mail to the zoning administrator (ZA) asking if he can forward it. A couple days go by. No response. On Wednesday I send another e-mail. This time he writes back to say….

“In reviewing the case file, as the size and overall mode of operation will not change, a categorical exemption in lieu of the reconsideration will be prepared for the project.”

There are a couple of big problems here. In the first place, the ZA is saying that even though Mama Shelter is asking to allow live music on the rooftop until 2:00 am, the “overall mode of operation will not change”. What?! The DCP’s original determination for Mama Shelter specifically prohibited live music. Now the ZA is saying that having DJs on the roof doesn’t represent a change in the way they operate? This is ridiculous, and to my mind it shows how the DCP is willing to completely ignore reality in order to serve the interests of property owners.

But the second problem is even more serious. The hearing notice said this change of use was being assessed by an addendum to the environmental assessment. Now, less than a week before the hearing, the ZA tells me that it’s being handled with a Categorical Exemption (CE), which means that the DCP sees no significant impacts at all. Forget about that fact that they’re pretending live music on the rooftop won’t impact the neighborhood. Now the ZA is changing the content to be considered less than a week before the hearing. And what’s even more bizarre, no revised agenda was ever posted. I checked the DCP web site the day before the hearing. It still said the addendum would be discussed.

I brought all this up at the hearing, and the gentleman who presided said he would discuss it with the ZA. Since Mama Shelter had withdrawn their request for live music it didn’t seem important to take it further. But this isn’t an isolated incident. This may seem like a relatively minor case, but I’ve been following development issues for years now, and more and more the DCP has been resorting to shady maneuvers like this to slide things through.

You want some examples?

Let’s talk about the North Westlake Design District (NWDD). The DCP wants to create a zoning overlay for the area roughly bounded by Temple/Beverly, Glendale, Third, and Hoover. The 2014 draft proposal says it will “guide new development that will complement the existing character of the neighborhood, create a pedestrian friendly environment, and provide neighborhood-serving amenities.” Translation: This community is next on City Hall’s gentrification hit list. Why do I think this? The first thing on the list of permitted uses: art galleries. The list also includes bakeries, bars, restaurants and cafés. And what are the prohibited uses? This list includes pretty much any business related to cars, including sales, storage, upholstery and repair. This list also prohibits bowling alleys, public storage facilities, and recycling sites. The latest version of the NWDD has dropped this list of approved and prohibited uses, but the intent is still clear. Many of this low-income community’s existing businesses would gradually be phased out to create another upscale enclave populated mostly by white people. And who proposed this new zoning overlay? Did it come from the community? Or course not. The draft proposal says up front, “The zoning ordinance is initiated by the City of Los Angeles.” Why isn’t the DCP instead initiating an update of the Community Plan, starting with public meetings to get input from residents? Because that would thwart City Hall’s plans to turn the area over to developers for yet another round of gentrification and displacement.

Or how about this item. Earlier this year the City Planning Commission (CPC) approved the tommie, a hotel slated for a vacant parcel on Selma near Wilcox in Hollywood. This 8-story building will have bar/lounges on the ground floor and rooftop deck and will offer live entertainment. This will be a party hotel, and the developer reps at the CPC hearing said they hoped to draw the crowd from the Cahuenga club scene. I mentioned earlier that I was concerned about the DCP’s willingness to dump projects like this on an area that’s already dealing with rising violent crime over the past few years. But to really understand how little the DCP cares about the community, you should take a look at the environmental assessment. In the section entitled Surrounding Uses, it fails to mention that Selma Elementary School is less than 500 feet away. (ENV-2016-4313-MND, See page II-5) What’s worse, even though the members of the CPC were informed during public testimony that the school was there, they never mentioned it once during their deliberations. They didn’t question the assessment’s conclusion that construction of the hotel would not make a significant difference in the quality of the air these kids were breathing. Apparently diesel exhaust and particulate emissions from trucks and heavy equipment during the 23 months of construction would not impact their health. It also seems that noise from the construction site would have no impact on classroom instruction. Unbelievable.

This last example is hot off the presses. Just this month the LA Weekly reported that a high-rise apartment building in Downtown has been transformed into a hotel. During the DCP’s approval process, Onni Group’s Level Furnished Living (LFL) was described as a residential project. The City argued that the building would provide new dwelling units at a time when housing supply is tight. But when the Weekly asked Onni about the change of use, a representative responded that the DCP was in the process of finalizing a permit that would allow transient occupancy at LFL. In other words, it seems that the city agency that approved the construction of the project claiming that it would supply badly needed housing, has now decided that housing isn’t so important after all, and is willing to turn these units into hotel rooms.

Sure, the DCP’s bizarre switch in advance of the Mama Shelter hearing is a minor problem. But it’s just one more example of this agency’s dishonest and deceptive practices. When the ZA wrote to say they were going with a CE, I wrote back saying I still wanted to see a copy of the addendum. That makes three times I requested a copy. I never got it. Based on the ZA’s sudden shift to a CE, I have a feeling the addendum was never prepared. My guess is that it was just language inserted into a notice to make it look like the DCP was following the rules.

It’s clear they’re not.

MS Roof