At its May meeting last week, the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council’s Land Use Committee discussed three main issues – an application for a new 22-unit Transit Oriented Communities development at 505-509 N. St. Andrews Pl., the conversion and multi-story expansion of an older apartment building at 410 N. Rossmore Ave. to a completely remodeled building with 87 new apartment and co-living units, and a discussion of how the committee’s membership and size should change after the recent GWNC board elections, and how it can best accommodate an increasing list of new and old members and stakeholders interested in joining the committee. Also, in addition to its main discussions, committee chair Philip Farha noted that a date and time have been chosen for the upcoming committee-sponsored Town Hall meeting about Transit Oriented Communities development: Wednesday, June 23, 6:00 p.m.
505-509 N. St. Andrews Pl.
This project, which proposes a new 22-unit apartment building to be built under the city’s Transit Oriented Communities program, with two designated affordable units, was first presented to the committee last month. At that meeting, comments about the project were mostly favorable, but there was a lengthy discussion about parking and traffic concerns (although the building is at the corner of St. Andrews and Maplewood, the building’s main entrance will – as per city regulations – open onto St. Andrews instead of Maplewood, which is the wider of the two streets), along with two more specific requests from the committee: to soften the building’s proposed bright white color, and to replace the proposed balcony materials with something less transparent (both to help hide items residents tend to store on balconies, and to provide greater privacy for residents who like to sit on their balconies).
This month, owner Vladimir Beron and architect Dovid Feld presented new renderings for the project, this time using shades of gray on the St. Andrews side of the building, and more opaque balcony coverings.
In the dicussion that followed, several board members praised the applicants for fully addressing the committee’s two most specific requests regarding color and balcony materials. Others, however, also brought up the lingering parking and traffic concerns. But when one committee member asked if the developers had considered adding more than the minimum number of vehicle parking spaces to the project, Feld replied that because the TOC program is specifically designed to discourage automobile use, and to encourage use of nearby public transit, thoughts on building more parking are changing. “Now it’s not a right, it’s a privilege,” he said.
In the end, the committee voted by a margin of 7 votes in favor and 2 opposed to recommend that the GWNC board support the application.
410 N. Rossmore
This is the third time this project, which will transform an existing 5-story apartment building, containing a mixture of single and one-bedroom units, into a new 9-story, 87-unit structure, has been presented to the Land Use Committee. The remodeled building, proposed by the building’s current owners, Domos Co-Living, will feature 54 single and one-bedroom apartments, along with 33 new “co-living” units, in which 4-5 individually-rented bedrooms are arranged around a common kitchen and living room area.
In reviewing plans for the building, which have not changed since the most recent renderings were released late last year, architect Lorcan O’Herlihy explained that although the building does not have any official historic designations, the developers used the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s guidelines for historic renovations, and many efforts were made to honor the existing original structure — both by retaining the verticality of its characteristic Art Deco massing in the new stories that will be added to the top of the building, and by stepping back the new parts of the building from the original facade. The stepped-back sections, O’Herlihy said, will have the added benefit of creating several new decks and amenity spaces for residents, which the current building lacks.
Next, Domos representative Richard Loring reported that 40 of the 56 residents living in the building when Domos purchased it last year have accepted buyouts of their leases, with the average value of each settlement around $64,000 (contrasted with an average of $21,000 for such agreements across our City Council District 4 area). This includes, Loring said, an average of about $52,000 in cash, and the rest in the form of free rent from the time each resident signed their agreement, with some tenants so far receiving as many as eight or nine months of free rent since they made their deals.
Among the remaining 16 tenants, Loring said, about half are now actively negotiating agreements to return to new units in the building after construction is completed. Those residents, he said, would pay the same as their current rent for their new units, plus a 5% increase in the first year of their return, and another 5% increase the year after that (as allowed by city rent-control laws for renovated apartments). In addition, said Loring, the new units will be the same size or larger than the old ones, and will have air conditioning, dishwashers, sprinklers, other fire safety improvements, ADA acess, and more…creating, he said, “major bang for their buck.”
In the comments that followed the initial presentation, however, several issues that have characterized previous discussions of the project again took center stage, including the dissatisfaction of several long-time tenants of the building, the desirability and characterizations of “co-living,” and whether the coming re-configuration is really more about affordable living options for residents or profits for the developers. Previous concerns about traffic and parking were raised again, too.
First, regarding tenant issues, two long-time residents of the building, Cinzia Zanetti and Joy Wingard, expressed their dissatisfaction with the options being offered by Domos, noting that while the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance requires that tenants must be given the option to return to their original units after a major renovation, both of their units will be completely replaced in the proposed new layout of the building, taking away a specific remedy that the law requires. In response, Loring explained that with new sheerwalls, stairwells, elevators and more, it will be impossible to preserve the building’s original interior layout in the remodel, but he said Domos can guarantee that every returnee is offered a similar-sized unit. And “What harm is there if it’s not the same unit, if the new one is bigger and has more amenities?” he asked.
Next, on the topic of co-living in general, several stakeholders objected to adding this type of housing to the well-established neighborhood, but the Domos representatives presented the concept as a new way to create “attainable” housing for people who are willing to consider new kinds of lifestyles. According to Domos representative Daniel Alexander, 33 (or 38%) of the remodeled building’s units will be co-living units, with 4-5 residents each. The arrangement, he said, won’t be all that different from other kinds of apartment living, in which 30-35% of all apartment dwellers have roommates. People who choose co-living options, Alexander said, are just roommates making an economic choice, so “Don’t villanize people making a choice for economic living.” Also, he noted, 4-5 people is the average household size in the United States, and these units will be right in line with that figure.
A number of speakers, however, both committee members and stakeholders, claimed that the project does seem to be more about profits that lifestyle options. For example, they pointed out that the co-living units, which the representatives said will rent for $1,800-$1,850 per bedroom (some of which will be as small as 109 square feet), will be extremely lucrative for the developers. Right now, according to figures provided by Alexander, if all units in the current building were occupied, Domos would be collecting about $113,000 per month in rent, at current rent levels. But after the remodel, based on Domos’ estimates of rents about $1,850 for each room in the co-living units, they will potentially collect more than $305,000 per month just from those 33 units, with even more money (likely around $2,000/per unit) coming in from the new building’s 54 more traditional apartments.
This discussion prompted Zanetti’s charge that the developers are not as interested in new kinds of “attainable” housing as they are in “making the maximum amount of money possible”…while Wingard noted that “attainable” housing is not at all the same thing as “affordable” housing.
Meanwhile, Susan Levin, a stakeholder who lives near another new co-living building at the intersection of Norton and Elmwood, said that property has become “the nightmare of the neighborhood,” with too few parking spots, lots of parking congestion on neighborhood streets, many loud parties, and drug problems that result in ambulance calls at least once a week, with one overdose even taking place in the intersection outside the building.
Another resident who lives near the Norton/Elmwood building agreed with Levin about the local parking problems, and Steve Williams, who said he lives near a co-living building in Venice, reported that that building’s few parking spots have been repurposed as yoga and dance studios, and a film screening room, so the building now has no parking at all, and city officials don’t respond to complaints about it.
Finally, in committee discussions after public comment, two of the three architects on the committee – Dick Herman and Susan O’Connell, offered differeing perceptions of the project and how it does or doesn’t honor the historic character of the older parts of the building. Herman said he does think the new design is historically sensitive, as the developers intended, and that while he is definitely concerned about the tenants’ displacement issues, he doesn’t “know how anyone would find fault with the design.” But O’Connell disagreed, saying the design “looks like a modern building dropped on top of an old building,” with no attempt to harmonize the two.
In the end, however, most of the committee members seemed even more concerned about the co-living arrangements, and the removal of the old tenants and their currently very affordable units, and agreed with Zanetti, who had earlier characterized the proposal as a “mega concrete sardine container for humans.” Committee member Rory Cunningham said the proposal provides “nothing that gives back to the neighborhood” in the form of parking, trees, or helping people get into new housing…and the committee voted, with 6 in favor and 4 opposed, to recommend that the GWNC board oppose the project as currently presented.
The Land Use committee’s third and final discussion of the night, about how the committee should be reconstituted following the GWNC’s recent elections, ventured into the kind of rules territory that has bogged down the full GWNC board recently. But this discussion, about the ideal size and constitution of the committee, which current members will/won’t continue on the committee, and how new members should be selected, managed to be lengthy without the rancor that has characterized the full board’s recent debates.
In his introduction to the discussion, committee chair Philip Farha (who was recently approved by the board to continue in that role), said that he thinks 11 members is an ideal size for the group, with more being “unwieldy” and fewer members leaving some key areas unrepresented. Farha noted that committee membership currently stands at 10, so he suggested replacing current member Jen DeVore (who is now too busy with her new duties as board Secretary) with Daniel Trainer (DeVore’s alternate on the board for the seat representing Hancock Park), and then adding new committe member Daniela Prowizor-Locaio, who’s from a neighborhood – Brookside – not currently represented on the Land Use committee…which would bring membership to Farha’s target of 11.
At the same time, though, Farha noted that there are other applicants for seats on the committee, and opened the discussion to consideration of how to best balance committee membership for both institutional knowledge and “new blood” for fresh ideas…while also providing fair representation from as many geographic neighborhoods as possible, without over-representation from any one part of the GWNC area. Farha said he would like to find an “equitable” solution to the questions, worked out voluntarily in the discussion, without resorting to a strict application of rules.
As others joined the discussion, some current members offered to resign if needed, but others urged the veterans’ continued involvement while also making way for some additional candidates who have expressed interest. One of these candidates, specifically mentioned by several committee members, was Jane Usher – a Windsor Square resident, land use attorney, and former president of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission – who, said committee member Karen Gilman, “has talent we don’t [currently] have [on the committeee].”
In the end, the committee decided suggest to the board that it at least temporarily increase its membership to 13, and voted unanimously to recommend that nine current members (Madison Baker, Patti Carroll, Rory Cunningham, Philip Farha, Karen Gilman, John Gresham, Dick Herman, Susan O’Connell, and Cathy Roberts) remain on the committee, and that the committee also add four new members (Daniel Trainer, Daniela Prowizer Locaio, Jane Usher, and Bindhu Varghese), for a total of 13. Farha noted that the board may have to vote to make an exception to the current Board Rules to allow this many members, but he said that discussion can be had at the next board meeting.
The next regular meeting of the GWNC board is scheduled for Wednesday, June 9, at 6:30 p.m., via Zoom…and the next meeting of the GWNC Land Use Committee will be held on Tuesday, June 22, at 6:30 p.m., also via Zoom.