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Being ‘Smart’ about ‘Smart Growth’

John McPherson, Director of Special Projects & Events, LASC

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A Massive Development Planned in West LA Got Chopped, Forcing the Developer and Neighborhood Groups to Swallow the Compromise. And That’s Good for LA.

The area around the Pico-Sepulveda intersection in West LA is a danger-zone for anyone in hopes of making good time across town. A literal stone’s throw from the ever-congested 405 (recent improvements notwithstanding – more lanes will just mean more cars. Sorry!), this freeway alternate also boasts narrow streets and low-density storefronts, making it a perfect storm for traffic nightmares. It is into this fray that developer Alan Casden proposed dropping a massive development onto a site currently occupied by a cement plant.

BIG AND BAD?

The project scope was ambitious. The proposal, approved by the City Planning Commission and backed by former mayor Antonio Villaragosa, boasted all the buzzwords: Mixed Use! Transit-Oriented! Affordable Senior Housing! GreenBuilding! Density! There was something for everyone in here, but project advocates ran into a diverse group of opponents, including the Sierra Club, Council Members Paul Koretz and Bill Rosendahl, City Attorney Carmen Trutanich and others.  As Metro Expo Line supporter Ken Alpern put it, “This is NOT transit-oriented development, mixed-use development, affordable housing or any other initiative performed at its best—it is merely another profit-oriented, adversely-impacting Westside over development that will hurt the entire area and create a precedent for more over development.” Perceived dealings between a well-connected developer and his political beneficiary stirred age-old tensions: “That’s what I really resent, instead of our city doing this in a thoughtful way, that a developer can buy a chunk of land and take advantage of this new philosophy.” explained resident Barbara Broide.

As a result of negotiations with a coalition of 17 neighborhood councils, the project underwent a massive overhaul and downsize. Gone are the Target and Trader Joe’s (a massive reduction in retail space, from a proposed 160,000 ft2 down to a no more than 15,000), along with 10 total stories and 43 residential units. The plan to utilize public land for part of the project closest to the proposed Metro site were also scrapped, leaving them for the city to use as a support hub for the new rail.  Gone are the bike storage, showers, and offers to build out the future Metro Station.

LOOKING FORWARD

Some “Smart Growth” advocates I spoke with are of two minds on the outcome of this project – assuming that the latest, approved proposal is the outcome. On the one hand, Alan Casden and his ilk have garnered little trust over the years when it comes to being good stewards of creating a more sustainable, livable cityscape.  The West LA project had its problems, including a potentially dangerous proximity to the fume-laden 405 (without proper HVAC equipment) for residents, and a seemingly underhanded manipulation of zoning and use of MTA land. The choice of Target as an anchor retail store also gave the opposition ammunition, as Angelenos seem unable to comprehend how anyone could shop at Target (or anywhere) without a car. The city’s traffic analysis seemed to support the claim – and estimated 10,000 car trips a day would be added to the area, affecting at least 18 intersections.  And the shear size of the thing, plopped down in a hotbed of voracious neighborhood activism obsessed with traffic issues seemed characteristically tone-deaf to, or disdainful of, garnering community buy-in for such a large project.

However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this very proposal – with all its blemishes – is a departure from business-as-usual in LA. That developers propose larger projects than they need – anticipating concessions to neighborhood groups – is no new strategy. But the project features that were offered – even if only to quell opposition or get mayoral support – were real:

  • A mix of market rate residences, combined with affordable senior housing and a mixed-use layout with retail anchoring the residential towers.
  • A LEED Silver design for green building advocates.
  • Transit-oriented location and amenities, including bike racks and storage for residents, public restrooms and showers to encourage biking, and Metro passes for residents uncoupled from parking.

Cynics will decry this as “TOD-Washing”, but we should embrace the recognition by major developers that transit revolutions are going to be the key driver (no pun intended) in revealing LA’s next iteration.

We should also applaud for the neighborhood groups who have advocated for transit improvements, accepted the change of their neighborhoods, and came to the table as partners instead of roadblocks.  As community leader Jay Handel explains, “We firmly believed…that we needed to come in with a plan. You just can’t come in and say NO”.  Neighbors in this case recognized that development will happen, and that they could be constructive stakeholders in determining how their neighborhoods will change.

It’s too early to say if developers in the future will make good-faith efforts to engage the community and rally around the features of projects like those on stage here, rather than view them as concessions. History says don’t get your hopes up, but we can applaud the ambition to build dense, mixed use development near transit hubs as the future of transforming LA. The age-old tensions between developers and residents will rage on, but any precedent for compromise should make us feel good about where the city is headed – hopefully by bike, bus or rail.

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The content of the EcoAngeleno blog reflects the opinions and ideas of each writer and does not necessarily reflect an official LASC viewpoint or stance. LASC is a non-profit 501 (c) (3) tax-exempt organization. As such, LASC cannot engage in political election campaigning. Thus, EcoAngeleno content may not make any direct or implied statement endorsing or opposing any political party or candidate for office.  We encourage you to offer comments in the spirit of conversation. Please be polite and respectful of everyone- even if you do not agree with their beliefs or viewpoints. We encourage respectful conversation but we will remove comments that are abusive or malicious or comments that are spam and commercial/self-promoting solicitations. 

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