‘Casitas Lofts’ Development Project Making Waves on the LA River

DEEGAN ON LA-Raw sewage has entered the calculus at the site of a New York developer’s dream of high-end housing, restaurants and retail called “Casitas Lofts,”  a project he hopes to situate along a stretch of the Los Angeles River near Atwater Village and Glassell Park.

(Photo of rendering above) Many locals expected the parcel would be turned into parkland instead of a 419-unit housing and retail complex spread over 5.7 acres of land adjacent to the River. 

Instead of free and open spaces to enjoy the resurgent River, the Casitas Lofts project would bring population density, a mass of concrete buildings, and thousands of daily vehicle trips in and out of the area. 

Tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks will cloak the neighborhood with contaminated airborne particles instead of the fresh air that a green space park would generate. 

An Environmental Impact Report that may address some of these concerns will be released, although the Department of City Planning was unable to confirm a release date to CityWatch by press time. 

What has been calendared and announced is a Casitas Development Community Workshop that will help educate the community on the project. “Community” in this case includes the Glassell Park Neighborhood Council, the Glassell Park Improvement Association, the Atwater Village Neighborhood Council, the Friends of the Los Angeles River and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Who are they up against? 

  • Councilmember Gil Cedillo (CD1), who has told opponents of the project that the massive housing and retail project “would be better than seeing a sewage treatment center built on that property.” 
  • Michael Affeldt the Director of LARiverWorks at the Office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who would not comment on how his organization that was created to help oversee revitalization of the river by the city sees a massive housing complex fitting into the Mayor’s river revitalization slogan of “Our River, Our Future.”
  • Pan Am Equities, a New York developer that corporately aspires to “ensuring the most desirable lifestyle for its residents”. 

Community pushback has been steady and has become increasingly vocal. The upcoming workshop and Environmental Impact Report could be inflection points for the developer and community to find a compromise. 

Doing something about the concrete canal called the Los Angeles River has been a dream of a variety of stakeholders for decades. What happens with this parcel may set a template for future riverside developments, which is why a diverse cross section of stakeholders is weighing in. 

Opponents of the large development plan are up against a powerful one-two punch: fist number one (Cedillo) says watch out, if you don’t like it I'll give you a sewer plant instead, while fist number two (the developer) offers a slightly flexible “make me,” when a spokesperson recently told the LA Times that “reducing the size of the proposed project is, at this point, not in our plan” -- a nuanced statement that left some room for adjustment. 

The community sounds ready for the fight. 

“The Friends of the Los Angeles River opposes this project as is,” says Michael Atkins, its Communications and Impact Manager. “The project as proposed is inappropriate for this site. The best outcome would be to have the site be part of future river restoration.” 

“Having community support is critical. Locals stay in place AND at neighborhood councils and community groups longer than city officials hold their seats,” he added. 

Another opponent, Karen Barnett, who is the Central Atwater Rep and Chair of the River Committee at the Atwater Village Neighborhood Council, drills down to the existing legalities of the Community Plan and community impacts, saying, “The City passed an ordinance in 2009 which clarifies the stakes along the river. The City had plans for this space to be a contiguous park, open space along the river. 

“They’re asking for major changes which don’t necessarily fit in with river revitalization and restoration. They want to change the Community Plan, which the City had plans for the space to be a contiguous park, not to accommodate a developer’s housing and business project of this scale and size.” 

Moving from legal and structural impacts (the Community Plan and ordinances), Barnett talks about how the Casitas Lofts housing and retail development will impact her community: “Impacts on Atwater Village are super high. There is no direct path to project, so in the little piece of Atwater Village they will be highly impacted by retail and 419 apartments. Southern Atwater Village would bear all of the traffic in and out. The neighborhood could be full of traffic and tailpipe emissions. Most likely people would be taking cut-through routes through the neighborhood because of the lack of connectivity and traffic from Fletcher Drive.” 

While definitely disrupting the community, any disruption of residents from the site will not be one of the developer’s problems -- no residents are being displaced; in fact, the developer will be required to remediate what had been the site of an electronics manufacturing business that may have left toxicity behind. 

What will also be disrupted are what the Natural Resources Defense Council calls “longstanding river restoration efforts and negatively impact nearby communities” that include Glassell Park and Atwater Village. 

Adding to the local community push back to the project is Helen Schpak, a stakeholder member of the Glassell Park Neighborhood Council’s Planning and Land Use Committee (PLUC) who offers that, while the NC board has “not yet formally opposed the project, we have held three large community meetings through our PLUC to hear presentations from the developers and their representatives. The neighborhood council is inching toward a position and, in the meantime, agreed to co-sponsor the upcoming workshop, and will be discussing a letter from PLUC that asks that the developer not be given access to public property for an emergency road easement.” 

Schpak notes that “the Glassell Park Improvement Association has opposed the development and has been vocal about it in their newsletter and is supporting this workshop.” 

A serious matter, being taken seriously by the affected communities, is the impact of this huge project on those surrounding communities and other stakeholders with an interest in what’s best for the river’s revitalization. 

What is now being considered foolish and reductive is the credibility of Gil Cedillo and his sewer treatment plant comment. “That doesn’t sound serious, it would be a short sighted vision for the river and the current city, state and federal investment in it,” says Atwater’s Barnett. Reflecting the need for a big, expansive and inspirational vision, a statement from the Friends of the Los Angeles River urges that “community advocates envision something more ambitious than a municipal waste facility.”


(Tim Deegan is a civic activist whose DEEGAN ON LA weekly column about city planning, new urbanism, the environment, and the homeless appear in CityWatch. Tim can be reached at timdeegan2015@gmail.com.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.