Will Private Greed or Public Need Prevail When City Hall Reviews This Luxury High-Rise Apartment Building?

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-In cities like Los Angeles, where private greed, not human need and adopted plans, control the real estate development process, we are no longer surprised when new luxury apartment towers spring up next to homeless encampments.

Likewise, we are no longer surprised when aging public services and infrastructure cannot adequately serve these new buildings and their well-heeled residents.  

This is the new normal in Los Angeles, such as Ira Smedra’s proposed luxury high-rise apartment building. (See photo above: rendering of proposed 8000 W. 3rdluxury high-rise. Note that gridlocked 3rdStreet is depicted as almost car-free.)Sandwiched in between The Grove and the Hancock Park Elementary School, this apartment building would be 275 feet high, or about 100 feet above the high-rise residential towers at the nearby and gated Park La Brea housing complex. The project will also have 1400 parking places, all at grade or above ground. Furthermore, it would be located about a mile north of the future Purple Line Subway, ensuring that its tenants and their guests will not abandon their cars for mass transit. 

This new normal also means that decision makers rarely consider the visual and carbon pollution created by these speculative real estate projects. When these projects clash with the character and scale of surrounding neighborhoods, on good days it might warrant a sentence in environmental reports. As for the climate impacts of enormous buildings like this, City Council-adopted Statements of Overriding Considerations quickly archive these annoying findings into file boxes and obscure web sites.  

While this new normal applies to neighborhoods throughout the Los Angeles, let me zero in on the Greater Fairfax/Miracle Mile area, where the project pictured above is located. Like the rest of Los Angeles, unmet public needs have overwhelmed this area. 

  • Homeless individuals and encampments are widespread, often in the shadow of shopping centers, new market-rate apartments, and McMansions. 
  • Local streets and intersections are choked by gridlocked/Level F traffic congestion. 
  • Local schools, such as Hancock Park Elementary, are over-enrolled. 
  • Sidewalks are buckled, often lifted by tree roots. At corners, there are still many missing ADA curb cuts, despite multiple court orders. 
  • Parkways are a hodge-podge of different tree species, treeless gaps, and diseased or incorrectly pruned trees. 
  • Bootlegged signs, billboards, overhead utility wires, and restaurant seating encroaching on public sidewalks blight trendy commercial corridors, like Third Street and Melrose Avenue. 
  • Local streets are routinely closed to traffic as DWP and Bureau of Sanitation construction crews undertake emergency repairs or long-deferred maintenance projects on underground pipes. 
  • McMansions are decimating residential neighborhoods unprotected by this area’s five Historical Preservation Overlay Zones. 
  • Electrical brown outs and black outs have become so common that they, too, are the new normal. 

While much of the above results from accumulated negligence, other failings stem from deliberate planning decisions. The late LA Director of Planning, Calvin Hamilton, who lived in this area, called this out over 25 years ago at an American Institute of Architects design charrette. He then pointed out that the City Council’s planning approvals for multiple regional centers a mile north of Wilshire Boulevard would permanently harm the entire neighborhood. He referred to the Beverly Center, Beverly Connection, and Cedars-Sinai Hospital, but The Grove, approved after his correct prophecy, fits the same mold. Ditto for the proposed K-Mart site project. 

In combination, the bad decisions Mr. Hamilton had in mind have resulted in gridlock on local streets and intersections. As for mass transit, such as the Purple Line Extension and most Express busses, they are sensibly located on Wilshire Boulevard. This is where high-rise, high-density developments are planned, not a mile to the north. As a result, the new regional centers, like Cedar-Sinai and The Grove, are auto-centric. Their employees, shoppers and/or patients mostly drive.  

Even when the new subway opens in 2023, projects like the proposed Smedra high-rise will also be auto-centric because there is no subway planning for first-mile, last mile facilities. METRO only builds subways, and the City of Los Angeles only up-zones nearby neighborhoods. No one is rolling out subway-serving Park ‘n ride, Kiss ‘n ride, bike lanes, bicycle parking, directional signs, and such pedestrian upgrades as street furniture, landscaping, lighting, and intersection redesign. 

Into this toxic stew of ignored public need are many examples of private greed. They largely take the form of speculative real estate projects catering to upper income tenants, sometimes with a few token affordable units thrown in to qualify for extra height building, mass, and density. CityWatchhas already covered some of these projects, especially the controversial and litigated Caruso luxury high-rise tower proposed near the Beverly Center.  

The most recent example of such an over-sized project is the 275-foot high-rise tower proposed by developer Ira Smedra for the K-Mart site opposite The Grove. In addition to ground floor retail, this project will include 381 market rate apartments. Its entry-level prices for a one-bedroom unit are expected to start at about $2,500. 

Because this site’s access to the north is blocked by The Grove, and to the south by Park LaBrea, all cars and trucks will arrive and leave via Third Street, a totally congested east-west thoroughfare, and by a narrow local street, Colgate, wedged in between Park LaBrea and the Hancock Park Elementary School. Its haul route for excavated dirt will be a narrow service alley behind the K-mart site and next to the elementary school. 

Because of this project’s height, high-priced units, multi-storied parking podium, and location next to an elementary school, it has unleashed enormous controversy, a prelude of much more to come. 

Smedra CriticsThe critics, largely neighbors and parents and teachers from the Hancock Park Elementary School, have raised many points, including the following: 

  • Surrounding streets, like Fairfax and Third, are already heavily gridlocked, and a project of this type and size will make this awful situation much worse. 
  • The local area needs affordable housing for the homeless and those displaced by gentrification. These new market rate apartments will make their situation worse, not better. 
  • The Hancock Park elementary school is already over-capacity, and the imoverished LAUSD has no plans or resources to expand it or other nearby schools. As a result, students living west of Fairfax will be forced to attend other strapped schools, and they must therefore be bussed or driven by parents. 
  • The site is too far from the future subway, and the developer has no plans to offer shuttle busses, priority parking for carpools, or free transit passes for tenants. 
  • The traffic and noise of this project will overwhelm the school. 
  • Increased gridlock creates a safety issue because it will be harder for the LAFD, located a half mile to the east, to access the school and the Beverly Fairfax neighborhood, for fires and medical emergencies. 

Smedra SupportersThe supporters of the Smedra project, typically YIMBY types, are busy resurrecting old claims for similar real estate projects. According to them, market magic will somehow create affordable housing elsewhere. They also contend that future tenants and their guests will ditch their nice cars, instead switching to busses and subways. 

Let me explain why I find these and related arguments -- posted on NextDoor and the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association Facebook site -- so unconvincing. 

  • ClaimWhen you increase the number of rental units, the overall price of housing declines because of supply and demand. Reply:If this were the case, Manhattan would be filled with affordable housing because it has experienced continued construction of expensive market housing over many decades. But, we don’t have to look that far to debunk this chestnut. The Palazzo apartments are only a block to the east of the Smedra project. Despite continuous for-rent signs since these projects opened over 15 years ago, its one-bedroom units are now priced between $2,738 to $7,005 per month, plus parking charges. Endless vacancies have never lowered its prices, or anything else in the entire Greater Fairfax area. In fact, this neighborhood’s lack of affordable housing is why the corner of Beverly and Fairfax, a block west of the Kmart site, was selected for a homeless rally in 2017. (Photo below) 
  • ClaimLA has no other way to supply affordable housing other than requiring it in projects like this. Reply:LA does not have any mandatory affordable housing requirements, and the developer of this project, Ira Smedra, stated at public meetings that he has no intention to include any affordable housing in his project. At best, the City of Los Angeles may require him to pay a linkage fee to fund future affordable housing units in other neighborhoods.

Furthermore, even in other Beverly Fairfax projects where developers have promised to build affordable units in exchange for density bonuses, the City never field-checks their pledged units. Without a public master list of affordable units, without any easy way for landlords to confirm that prospective tenants are qualified low income renters, and without any on-site inspections, reporter John Schwada’s own investigation concluded that many promised affordable units do not exist. Based on his field research, he learned that landlords are charging market rents for the phantom affordable units that allowed them to avoid zoning limitations on height, parking, and density. 

  • Claim:  Opponents of this project are NIMBYS. Reply:  NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) is an invective coined by real estate developers to smear critics of their projects. It is based on an old debater’s trick. Try to discredit the messenger when you can’t the message. In this case, Smedra’s critics have already presented strong arguments that are hard to rebut, such as the area’s need for affordable not luxury housing, the need to locate high density housing near mass transit, the need to place major traffic generators where there is unused street capacity, and the need to follow adopted planning policies. For example, the Wilshire Community Plan, which applies to this site, states, “Policy 1-3.1  Promote architectural compatibility and landscaping for new MultipleFamilyresidentialdevelopmenttoprotectthecharacter and scale of existing residential” 
  • Claim:  Opponents are rich people living in mansions crying crocodile tears over the project’s high rents. Reply:  It is true that the nearby Beverly Grove neighborhood has over 200 McMansions, but their occupants have not opposed the Smedra project. But the local neighborhood association, the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association, has strongly opposed mansionization. Furthermore, it sides with the Hancock Park elementary school parents’ and teachers’ criticisms of this project. And, this public school draws from the entire neighborhood, and there is not a shred of evidence that its teachers and parents are millionaires. But, if the project’s fans are in search of millionaires, they need not look any further than the LA Times’ many stories about the project’s developer, Ira Smedra. 
  • Claim:It laughable that parents are upset that this residential project will force their kids to go to other schools. Reply:  If these parents could afford private schools with busses or personal nannies who drove their kids to school, we could possibly understand a snide YIMBY comment like this. But these are working parents who have no choice but to drop off and pick up their kids. This public school cannot afford a shuttle service, and the parents cannot afford drivers to drop off and pick-up their kids. 

Where do we go from here? The City needs to carefully review this proposal, which will soon confront two legal barriers: 

First, the developer is simply wrong when he claims this site’s zoning allows him to build whatever he wants, including a by-right 275 feet tall high-rise building. According to ZIMAS, this site is zoned C2-1VL.  While C2 districts are allowed an unlimited number of stories, the 1VL suffix limits this structure’s height to 45 feet, not 275 feet. To reach 275 feet, the developer would need to legally change the height district. This requires a City Council ordinance and invokes the California Environmental Quality Act, perhaps even an EIR. Alternately, Mr. Smedra could apply for several different density bonuses, but this path requires him to include discretionary affordable housing in the project, which subjects the project to potential appeals. 

Second, because this project has more than 50 residential units and more than 50,000 square feet of commercial uses; it will trigger Site Plan Review. This means the project is not, as claimed, by-right, but it is discretionary. It also requires the applicant to prove three things (i.e., findings) to City Hall decision makers: 

  • “That the project is in substantial conformance with the purposes, intent and provisions of the General Plan, applicable community plan, and any applicable specific plan. 
  • That the project consists of an arrangement of buildings and structures (including height, bulk and setbacks), off-street parking facilities, loading areas, lighting, landscaping, trash collection, and other such pertinent improvements, that is or will be compatible with existing and future development on adjacent properties and neighboring properties. 
  • That any residential project provides recreational and service amenities to improve habitability for its residents and minimize impacts on neighboring properties.” 

Based on what we know about this project, it critics will surely identify many adopted Wilshire Community Plan policies that clash with this proposal. They will also have little problem demonstrating that this project is incompatible with nearby properties, and that it does not provide recreational and service amenities (e.g., a public school) that minimize its impacts on a neighboring property. 

Considering that the area’s Councilperson, David Ryu, has already announced his criticisms of this project, you will be hearing much more when the developer tries to pull building permits for a 275 feet tall high-rise apartment building.

 

(Dick Platkin is a former LA city planner who reports on local planning controversies for CityWatchLA.  He welcomes questions and comments at rhplatkin@gmail.com.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.