On Tuesday, October 24, the Longwood Area Neighborhood Association hosted a special community meeting to learn more about the proposed Purple Line Transit Neighborhood Plan, which is being designed to encourage new density on several major transit corridors along and adjacent to the new Purple Line Subway Extension, which is now under construction and scheduled to open in 2023.
While the city has been conducting workshops and meetings on the Purple Line TNP since the summer of 2016, however, many neighbors are still just finding out about the proposal, and learning about what it may or may not mean for their communities. And at last Tuesday’s meeting – which ran 2 1/2 hours and was often very contentious – Senior City Planner Patricia Diefenderfer definitely had her hands full explaining the proposal to the standing-room-only crowd at LAPD’s Wilshire Community Station.
The History of Local Planning and Density
Diefenderfer opened the meeting with a history of the planning process in Los Angeles over the last 40 years or so, noting that Wilshire Blvd. in our area has long been designated a major transit corridor, and thus a target for additional residential and commercial density. This designation began, Diefenderfer said, with a citywide plan called “Concept Los Angeles” that was released in 1970. Concept Los Angeles outlined a citywide system of community “centers” of dense development, which would be linked by public transit and surrounded by “nodes” of “stepped-down” density in adjacent residential areas. Miracle Mile, along Wilshire Blvd. between Highland Ave. and the “Laurel Canyon Freeway,” was cited as one of these proposed development centers.
When city plans were adjusted again 20 years later, said Diefenderfer, this stretch of Wilshire Blvd. was called out once again in the 1996 General Plan Framework and its Housing Element, for particularly high density, with allowed Floor Area Ratios among the highest in the city. So when Metro received a grant to be used for community planning in conjunction with its Purple Line Subway Extension construction project, the Planning Department began working on newer and even longer-range plans to encourage additional growth along the new transit line. The Purple Line TNP, she said, is the city’s “Vision for 2040,” which characterizes Wilshire Blvd. as a hub for both transit and a variety of regional destinations, with “urban main streets” like La Brea Ave., Fairfax Ave. and San Vicente Blvd, providing even more services for the adjacent residential neighborhoods.
But while some areas along and adjacent to the Purple Line Corridor could be up-zoned and targeted for increased density under the new TNP, said Diefenderfer, the plan would also work in concert with the City’s General Plan and Community Plans already established for the area (as well as with any updates to those community plans which are now in the works or scheduled for coming years). Also, because some things definitely have changed since 1970, the new TNP would also mesh with the City’s new ReCode LA planning updates, and honor the new Historic Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZs), R1 Variation Zones and Design Overlay Zones that have been enacted in more recent years.
Diefenderfer was also careful to note, however, that while increased density in the study area is both necessary and the primary goal of the proposed TNP (since population is expected to rise in the area by 12.2% between 2013 and 2035), there are other goals, too.
The first, she said, is to create more walkable communities, and to reduce residents’ daily Vehicle Miles Traveled, which contribute directly to air quality, greenhouse gas emissions and residents’ health.
And the second additional goal, she said, is to promote new development that is actually sensitive to the historic context of the area’s existing neighborhoods, and which uses a “richer kind of toolkit” to preserve neighborhood character, services, and walkability.
Details of the TNP…and Where We are in the Planning Process
Diefenderfer also worked hard to point out at Tuesday’s meeting that the new Purple Line Transit Neighborhood Plan does not actually exist yet. Instead, she explained, the city is still in the research stage, which has now moved into evaluating the potential environmental impacts of various options for the plan. (Several of those options were outlined at a July, 2018 Environmental Impact Report Scoping Meeting for the TNP project, where both lower- and higher-impact variations for the plan were presented, and community input was solicited on which options should be studied in the EIR.)
What we do know at this point, however, is that areas A-J in the map below are being evaluated for various levels of increased density, as well as various kinds of new tools to guide future growth. (The A-J designations would indicate areas of greater to lesser density, with A being the densest, and J the least dense or with the least amount of change from current rules.)
The details of the density and changes now being studied for each area are:
Again, however, these could change, depending on the findings of the Environmental Impact Report, and depending on community input as the both the EIR and the TNP drafts move forward.
Also, said Diefenderfer, it’s important to note that other elements of the plan, such as building character elements, open space requirements, potential infrastructure improvements to support new density, etc. have not yet been drafted, and won’t be until after the EIR process is complete and the EIR’s recommendations are in hand. (A draft of both the EIR and the TNP itself are currently scheduled for early 2019. There will be public comment periods and opportunities as both items move toward final approval later in the year.)
Finally, Diefenderfer also noted that the city will schedule two additional TNP workshops for local residents in January, which will give people two additional opportunities to review current data and make recommendations before the first TNP draft is written.
Questions and Controversies
From the questions and comments at Tuesday’s meeting, however, it was clear that many residents are still new to the Transit Neighborhood Plan discussions, and in some cases are still catching up with the specifics of both the TNP discussion so far, and the details of the planning process as it is unfolding.
There were also a significant number of attendees who were clearly upset by the possible effects of the planned densification on adjacent neighborhoods, especially those that are currently developed with single-family or low- and medium-density housing, and those which have been identified for their historic character and value through the recent SurveyLA process (even – or especially – if they’re not currently protected by HPOZs or other official historic designations).
Most specifically, a number audience members who live on several blocks of S. Citrus Ave., which appear in the heavy-line-outlined oval in the lower right-hand corner of on this map, were particularly afraid of what the TNP would mean for their historic-but-not-specifically-protected area.
While the map does show three such oval-outlined areas, however, Diefenderfer pointed out that the map is not designating those blocks for “upzoning.” (In fact, the S. Citrus blocks are in one of the “I” areas in the chart above, which haven’t been suggested for increased density.) Instead, the map is using those ovals as examples of locations where the TNP’s “Vision” would be to create “Compatibility with Unique Residential Areas”:
“Use character and scale regulations to respect historically significant neighborhoods with a high percentage of rent-stabilized apartments. Consider additional density while assuring compatibility through regulations that require new developments to be consistent with the existing pattern of development, massing and prominent architectural features.”
The goal in these areas, Diefenderfer noted, would be to encourage new construction that does respond to the current R3-zone’s more historic context, through specific recommendations for building massing, materials and features such as windows and doors.
Moving on to other queries and objections, Beth McNamara, a Longwood-Highlands resident, said she questions the whole push for additional density in the general area, noting that she phoned two of the larger, newer developments in the neighborhood and found that both have large numbers of vacancies. She said she also researched local population growth estimates, and found numbers far lower than those the city is using. Diefenderfer responded that population projections are one thing being studied during the EIR process, and the EIR findings will be used to guide the projections used in the actual TNP when a draft is written. (She also said more data on current and future population would be provided at the January workshops.)
Hancock Park Homeowners’ Association, Est. 1948, President Cindy Chvatal-Keane asked if the city has reviewed current infrastructure problems in the area (citing recent electrical outages and water main breaks), and asked whether the city will take this into consideration or upgrade local systems before actually adding the density the TNP calls for. Diefenderfer said that infrastructure is definitely one of the things being studied in the EIR process, and the EIR’s recommendations will help guide the city’s infrastructure improvements to prepare for future development. She also said that at least some infrastructure improvements are already underway in the area, funded by increases in fees that developers pay to the city when they apply for new projects. In the future, Diefenderfer said, additional money for infrastructure improvements could be raised – if recommended – through new bond measures or other sources…but it all depends on the recommendations of the coming EIR.
Carl Fletcher, a Longwood-area resident, was one of several attendees who raised issues of affordability, noting that new buildings – which will be encouraged by the TNP – often replace older rent-stabilized units with apartments that many current residents just can’t afford. And this, he said increases current renters’ worries that they will be priced out of the neighborhood under the new plan. Diefenderfer noted that current Transit-Oriented-Communities rules, which are already in place for most of the proposed TNP area, do offer density bonuses in exchange for reserving a small number of units for Low Income, Very Low Income or Extremely Low Income tenants. But when Fletcher noted that new buildings also tend to de-value the older buildings they overshadow, Diefenderfer reminded him that “we live in an urban area,” implying that at least some of these processes can’t be avoided as the area re-develops and densifies.
As it turned out, every audience comment during the lengthy Q&A session at Tuesday’s meeting in some way opposed the idea of the TNP and the densification it could bring, or expressed anger or distrust with the TNP’s planning process. While some comments were specific to the commenters’ blocks or neighborhoods, others reflected a much larger sense of fear, weariness, defeat or anxiety when it comes to neighborhood stability and housing security.
But Diefenderfer continued to remind the attendees that while some provisions of the TNP have been suggested already, many others have not…and the Plan itself has not yet been drafted, so there are no hard and fast specifics yet to rail against. “If you walk away with nothing else from this meeting today,” she said, it should be just that – that there are no specific details yet. Also, she reminded the attendees, the plan itself, when it does come together, will be just a framework for future development, and not an approval for any specific future building projects. Each specific future building project will still have to go through an individual approval process before it can be built.
Finally, Diefenderfer reminded people that not all blocks or neighborhoods within the general “study area” (roughly San Vicente to 3rd St., and Highland to Fairfax) are being proposed for upzoning – that will happen mostly just along Wilshire, La Brea and Fairfax. Other parts of the study area, she said, may simply be given a new “toolbox” to guide future development. “The focus of the TNP is not the whole area,” she said, “it’s how to develop around the Purple Line.” But, she said, “we can create contextual rules for multi-family areas,” and that could actually help conserve neighborhood character through “character frontages,” open space requirements, specific building elements and other design elements.