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Renee Weitzer has been down this road before. She first started working to negotiate the fate of the lot at the southeast corner of Ogden Drive and 3rd Street in 1989 when she was working for Los Angeles City Council President John Ferraro, representative of the 4th District, and the owners of Park La Brea wanted to develop two shopping centers. Now, after two decades of debate between real estate developers and residents, the local community has voiced opposition to plans to build new apartments at the site, which is currently occupied by a Ross Dress for Less store.
Last week, the Mid-City West Community Council voted to recommend against Casden Properties’ plans to build a 13-story, 300-unit apartment complex at the site.
“There were about 75 people at the meeting, basically all of them opposed to the project,” said Weitzer who now serves as chief of land use planning for City Councilmember Tom LaBonge, 4th District. “It would be easy for our office to say we just oppose the project, but we’re going to wait and see what comes out of the environmental report. That’s where we are now, nowhere really.”
Twice in the past, Casden Properties has proposed new plans for the site, and twice the community has objected, with LaBonge opposing one, and the other was put on hold.
For the current project, some of the concern has to do with Hancock Park Elementary School and its already burgeoning enrollment. Teresa Feldman, a teacher at Hancock Park Elementary and member of the Mid-City West Council, explained her opposition to the project.
“I consider the impact on the schools most serious,” Feldman said. “We already need more classroom space for kindergarten at Hancock Park. And now that Beverly Hills is no longer accepting new permit students from Los Angeles, we’re anticipating a big run next fall of students returning from Beverly Hills schools. If they build these apartments, the only way to mitigate an immediate crisis of enrollment at the school would be to redraw the district boundaries, and communities who have invested in the school and planned to stay in the neighborhood would be moved out.”
A good deal of the controversy around the plan stems from a compromise struck in 1993 that allowed for 1,600 residential units on four parcels of land in the neighborhood, which included building the Park La Brea Villas and the Palazzo development. A number of other community amenities were also part of the agreement, like tennis courts and a day-care center at Park La Brea; and a trolley down Fairfax Avenue, connecting the Original Farmers Market with Wilshire Boulevard.
Since that agreement, however, the properties have passed between a number of different developers, and communal amenities like tennis courts never came to fruition. The agreement itself expired in 2008, but zoning “Q Conditions” for the property remained, which require any development at the property where Ross currently stands to include 216 senior congregant living facility units, 43 of those for low-income residents.
Casden now maintains, however, that market rent congregant living is not viable, and has proposed an alternative development that would include 75 low-income units for seniors, and an additional 75 senior units for rent at market value.
“We make no bones about the fact that we’re asking for a zone change,” said Jennifer Anderson, a community development associate for Casden. “Since 1993 the market has dropped out for senior congregant care. There are a bunch of providers of congregant care market units in the area, most of which retail for between $4,000 and $6,000 per month. We tried to sell this site to congregant care providers and no one wanted it. It makes sense to talk about what’s needed today, and that’s affordable housing for seniors. Every affordable senior housing provider I’ve found has a waiting list of over one hundred people. We are almost doubling the amount of affordable senior housing from what’s required in this development, but we’re only able to finance that because of the market component.”
Jeff Jacobberger, chair of the Mid-City West Community Council, said that that many people in the community do not see why Casden should not have to comply with existing zoning laws.
“There is a sentiment that the neighborhood has seen enough development already,” Jacobberger said. “My view is that if we allow developers to build development like Casden or predecessor properties have, we have to hold them to the parts of the deal that are supposed to provide community benefits. This new proposal is an effort on their part to avoid that part of the deal that allowed them to build the Palazzo.”
Anderson, however, maintains that the Palazzo at Park La Brea, which Casden developed but no longer owns, was developed according to existing zoning laws.
“Nothing in a development agreement requires a property owner to build anything,” Anderson said. “Once you build something, then you have certain obligations, but the Palazzo was not built as part of the development agreement.”
With the community council determined to hold Casden to current zoning laws, and Casden convinced that those laws no longer reflect the needs to the developers or the community, it seems the Ross store may remain in place for a while to come.
“The development agreement was a really good idea,” Feldman said. “When you imagine what you want your neighborhood to look like, that’s it. I wouldn’t vote for anything beyond what they could do by right, unless it involved some more community amenities.”
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