Last summer and fall, the Mid-City West Community Council and the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council gave big thumbs up to a hotel, apartment and retail complex proposed under Transit Oriented Communities guidelines by developer CGI Strategies, at 639 S. La Brea Ave. Tomorrow, the project is scheduled for its next big step in the city’s fast lane TOC approval process – a vote at the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee to exempt it – as a qualifying TOC project – from standard CEQA environmental reviews. (Note: TOC guidelines are specifically designed to exempt qualifying projects from much of the city’s standard review and discretionary approval process – to speed up construction of much-needed housing.)
At the meetings where the neighborhood votes were taken, support for the project was very solid, based largely on its proximity to transit, one of the best possible places for a large new development. The MCWCC board vote was 28 in favor, one opposed and one abstention, and the GWNC board vote was eight in favor, one opposed and four abstentions (GWNC also added a request that several more employee parking spots be added to the proposal). In fact, at a meeting of the GWNC Land Use Committee, a couple of weeks before the board vote, project representative Dana Sayles noted that several people at the MCWCC meeting said they wanted the building – which will be directly adjacent to the new subway stop at Wilshire and La Brea – to be even taller and denser than proposed, a sentiment not often heard at neighborhood meetings. “We thought we were in the Twilight Zone,” Sayles quipped at the LUC meeting.
Since those neighborhood meetings, however, and with the CEQA exemption vote looming at PLUM tomorrow, some opposition voices have spoken out recently. One of those increasingly vocal opponents is Barbara Gallen, who represents the project area on the MCWCC board. Gallen told the Buzz that she was the abstention vote when MCWCC voted to support the project last summer, but that she has since heard from enough area neighbors and businesses to move her into the opposition camp.
Gallen says that after talking to residents in the apartment buildings behind the project site on Detroit St., and nearby business owners on La Brea, the proposed traffic circulation plan for the development, which would direct most commercial traffic to exit the development via the alley behind the building, is “VERY problematic for residents and adjacent property/business owners.” “The circulation plan…presents a huge challenge to the wider community that uses Sixth Street in the vicinity of the La Brea intersection,” Gallen said. “A single commercial vehicle trying to make that tight turn into the alley from Sixth will back up traffic for blocks in both directions, even in non-peak times.”
“If the City wants this kind of project to be built,” Gallen contends, “they need to look at widening La Brea to provide an access and egress route that is 100% from the roadway designed to support that, especially the onslaught of commercial vehicle traffic inherent in a large hotel/multiple restaurant operations.”
And Gallen isn’t the only one concerned about the alley use. Alyssa Shah, owner of Design Mix Gallery, just to the north of the development site, told the Buzz that she would like to see the alley made one-way, with all trafflic flowing south, to prevent bottlenecks from traffic exiting at the 6th Street end of the alley.
Shah said she is also concerned about alley traffic during the project’s construction phase, during which dirt would be hauled from the excavation for about eight months. To mitigate the effects of that process, Shah said she would like to see the development construction postponed until Metro construction subsides and the old “T” at the south end of the alley can be restored, allowing alley traffic to once again exit onto La Brea Ave.
And then there’s the issue of parking on La Brea during construction. Shah said she was told by the developers that they may close the sidewalk and remove street parking on that portion of La Brea during construction, which could seriously affect her customers.
Parking after construction is completed is another major concern of residential neighbors. Because the site is immediately adjacent to both bus and rail stops, TOC rules allow significantly less parking than might be found in similar devlopments less well served by public transit. As currently proposed, the development would contain 121 residential units, 125 hotel guestrooms, and 13,037 square feet of commercial/restuarant/retail space…with 192 parking spaces for cars, 108 long-term biclycle parking spaces, and 31 short-term bicycle parking spaces. But Gallen argues that’s not enough, and that the upscale project’s customers, guests and tenants “don’t fit Metro’s identified demographic of transit-dependent in LA.” She said, “They might use the subway on occasion but not as a primary mode of transport.” And she says that while some guests, such as those arriving for special events, might use ride-share services such as Uber or Lyft, those, too, would add traffic congestion.
“I’ve lived car-free in Chicago, New York, Paris, and just last summer Seoul, Korea for seven weeks,” Gallen said, but “In fact LA is DECADES away from having anything remotely resembling those cities’ transit grid.” Also, Gallen said, “The developer acknowledged at a neighborhood meeting I hosted last fall…that they consider the surrounding streets fair game for their valets to park their overflow,” which she said will cause even more problems for local residents.
Gallen said she has communicated her constituents’ concerns to City Council Member David Ryu’s office, but that “our councilmember and staff have not responded to the community’s concerns” and “all we know is what we read in the newspaper, which has been limited thus far to a vague indication that the Councilmember would like to see “more affordable housing” included in the project.” (Currently, 14 of the project’s 121 residential units will be set aside for extremely low-income households and one unit will be designated for a moderate-income household, which meets the city’s guidelines for TOC projects.) But “even if the residential portion of the project were 100 percent “affordable,”” Gallen said, “that would not alleviate the myriad environmental impacts that the community has raised and which demand a thorough and actual environmental impact study.”
Many of the project’s local supporters have stated their beliefs (in public meetings and in less formal social media outlets) that a subway-adjacent development is exactly where the city should be putting new density limited parking, but Gallen says such reductions should not create “an oppressive burden on the surrounding community,” especially if the developer is receiving public subsidies and bonuses such as exemptions from environmental reviews.
“It’s misleading to talk about boosting the height, density and lowering the parking requirements of a transit adjacent project separate from its affordability,” Gallen contends. “If you’re building a project the lion’s share of which is affordable to transit-dependent Angelenos, then there’s something to talk about. But the patrons of a luxury hotel – luxury apartment project with multiple upscale restaurant and banquet facilities components, doesn’t fit the profile of LA transit users. Neither do people who can afford luxury priced apartment rents.” “If this project entailed principally affordable housing with a much, much smaller non-residential component that was enforceably required to contain all of its actual parking needs on site rather than valeting them on residential streets,” she continued, “we would be much closer to achieving a holistic win-win outcome.”
At this point, Gallen is simply asking that the city not exempt the project from CEQA reviews. “We want to see a thorough and actual environmental impact study performed so the community can weigh in and assure that all anticipated impacts are enforceably mitigated and/or addressed by modification to the project.” For example, she said, “One outcome—among many—that would almost certainly come to light from a responsible environmental impact study would be to roll back the curb in front of this project and create a circulation plan that routes all the project’s traffic in and out via commercial roadways, i.e., La Brea. No access to the project via Sixth St. or [the] alley.”
Given that the City Planning Department qualified the project under TOC guidelines in December, however, it does seem likely that the PLUM Committee will vote tomorrow to exempt it from CEQA review, because the law does specifically allow such exemptions for TOC-qualified projects. If you are interested in finding out how it goes, however, the meeting is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. tomorrow, Tuesday, February 11, in City Hall room 340, 200 N. Spring St. Live audio will also be available online via https://www.lacity.org/government/follow-meetings/council-committee-meetings
Update: The Buzz has received word from City Council District 4 that this item will be NOT be addressed by the PLUM Committee on Tuesday, February 11, as originally scheduled, and will instead be continued “indefinitely” while further work is done. According to a statement provided by the Council Office:
“Councilmember Ryu is following this planning case closely and believes the project should contain more affordable housing. The Councilmember is also devoting more time to scrutinizing this project as it utilizes a newer form of environmental clearance called a Sustainable Communities Project Exemption (SCPE) coupled with the project’s status as the first Transit Oriented Communities (TOC) residential and hotel combination case. Councilmember Ryu, here and in neighborhoods across Council District Four, believes we need much more affordable and moderate-income housing, which is why he has put forward legislation to incentivize an increase in affordable and moderate-income housing.”