PLANNING POLITICS--The Department of City Planning (DCP) never ceases to amaze me. Their absolute contempt for the law is breathtaking.
I've gotten so cynical about the Department's approval process I keep thinking there's nothing more they could do to surprise me. And then, somehow, they come up with yet another move that leaves me shaking my head in disbelief.
I was baffled when they approved a Master CUP for 24 establishments serving a full line of alcohol on a single city block in Downtown, claiming that it would have no significant impact on the surrounding area. I was stunned when they gave the green light to a new distribution center in Harbor Gateway that would have resulted in diesel trucks making hundreds of trips through a residential neighborhood every week.
But now they’ve come up with another startling move. Developer Forest City Southpark Two (rendering photo above) has applied to build a 27-story skyscraper at 949 S. Hope in Downtown. If you're familiar with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), you might be thinking that a project of this size would require an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). But the DCP says no. In fact, they're saying that there doesn't need to be any environmental assessment at all.
How can they make that claim? Well, CEQA does allow exemptions for projects that fall into certain categories. One such exemption is for in-fill development, and the DCP is arguing that because this project falls into that category, they don't need to do any environmental review. But what they've chosen to ignore is that under CEQA even in-fill development needs to meet specific criteria. State law says the DCP must determine that...
Approval of the project would not result in any significant effects relating to traffic, noise, air quality, or water quality.
The site can be adequately served by all required utilities and public services.
Think about this for a few seconds. The DCP is claiming that a 27-story skyscraper will cause no significant impacts related to traffic, noise, or air quality. They're also saying no one needs to worry about impacts to police or emergency services. This is so absurd it's laughable.
Let's take noise and air quality first. To buy the DCP's argument, you'd have to believe that between one and two years of construction involving heavy machinery and diesel trucks would cause no significant increase in noise or decrease in air quality. Construction dust caused by digging the foundation would not be noticeable. Diesel exhaust produced by thousands of truck trips would be no big deal. It's important to say here that Downtown ranks near the top of the chart in the State's Multiple Air Toxics Exposure Study IV, which measures carcinogenic risk from exposure to air pollutants. Maybe the DCP is thinking that if the air is already so bad, a little more contamination won't make any difference.
Or let's talk about traffic. I can't tell you how many hearings I've been to where City Planning Commissioners and/or DCP staff claim that in-fill projects like these are well served by transit and therefore won't cause any significant increase in congestion. They've been saying this for over 15 years. I guess they don't pay any attention to transit ridership stats, or they'd know that Metro ridership is lower than it was 30 years ago.
The numbers have been falling steadily for the past five years. And according to UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies per capita car ownership in LA has gone up substantially since 2000. Traffic in LA is worse than ever, but the DCP keeps insisting that projects like this won't have any significant impact on congestion. They have zero credibility on this issue.
How about police? Well, according to the LA Downtown News crime has risen in Downtown every year for the past five years. In 2018, the Central Division logged 7,442 Part 1 crimes, up from 6,151 in 2016. While incidents of homicide, rape, and aggravated assault saw a decline in 2018 from the levels of the previous year, crime in all these categories is up at least 50% from 2014 levels. Property crime has risen dramatically from 3,240 incidents in 2014 to 5,517 in 2018. The LAPD points to the increase in Downtown's residential population as one factor behind the rising crime rate. Which brings us to the question, how many more people would this 27-story skyscraper bring into the area?
The project description for 949 S. Hope says there would be 236 residential apartments. U.S. Census Data says that the average household size in LA is 2.81 persons. So if we multiply 236 by 2.81 we get 663 new residents. Now let's add in the five other major projects that are being planned within 1,500 feet of 949 S. Hope. These will be bringing a total of 2,490 new residential units to the same area, and if we use the same figure provided by the Census to calculate total occupancy, we end up with 6,996. That means if all these projects get approved, they'll be bringing over 7,500 new residents to Downtown, where the LAPD is already struggling to keep crime down.
Some people would say that the additional tax revenue from these projects would make it possible to hire more officers. Actually, that doesn't seem likely. The LAPD has money to hire more officers right now, but for years they've been having difficulty finding qualified applicants. This is a problem that law enforcement agencies are having nationwide. Currently the LAPD is shifting additional officers to high crime areas to keep things under control, but that's not sustainable long term.
Of course, the City will claim that this project is providing badly needed housing for Downtown, but actually, there’s no reason to believe that this project will provide any housing at all. One of the things the developer is asking for is that the project be permitted to function as a Transient Occupancy Residential Structure (TORS), which means the units could be used as residences or hotel rooms. In other words, it's hard to say what this building will actually be when it's completed. And this isn’t the first time a developer has sought a TORS conversion Downtown.
A few years back developer Onni Group built a residential high-rise at the corner of Ninth and Olive. In 2017 housing activists and labor groups alerted the DCP to the fact that Onni was illegally offering the units for stays as short as one night. Did the City respond by cracking down on Onni? Of course not. Earlier this year they rewarded Onni by handing them a TORS that makes it legal for them to offer 97 of the units for stays as short as a single night. So while City Hall and the Chamber of Commerce keep telling us how hot the Downtown residential market is, in reality, developers are hedging their bets. If the market were so hot, they wouldn't be asking the City to let them turn housing into hotel rooms.
The June 2018 hearing notice for 949 S. Hope says the building will contain 236 residential apartments, but just a few lines below that it lists the request for a TORS designation. In other words, the DCP can't even say whether this will be a residential tower or a high-rise hotel. But whatever it is, they want you to believe that the construction and operation of this 27-story skyscraper will have no significant impacts to the surrounding community. Unfortunately, this is typical of the DCP's approach these days.
City Hall has been trying to revitalize Downtown for decades. Over the past 20 years significant progress has been made, but it's becoming increasingly clear that any gains are in jeopardy of being lost. Under Mayor Garcetti's leadership the Department of City Planning has abandoned planning in favor of a reckless "build, baby, build" approach. Instead of making a serious effort to assess the very real problems Downtown is facing and plan accordingly, the DCP just charges ahead, approving whatever comes through the pipeline. Garcetti claims he wants Downtown to prosper but look at what's happened to the area since he became Mayor. The homeless population has grown dramatically, crime has surged, congestion is worse than ever, and transit ridership continues to fall.
It almost seems pointless to complain that the DCP won't require an environmental assessment for 949 S. Hope, because even when they do require an EIR the result is usually a waste of time. The consultants who write it generally just massage the data to make it look like the project is a winner, and the City Planning Commission never raises any serious questions about the report's validity. This approach is dangerous, and not just for Downtown but for the entire City.
Los Angeles is facing serious challenges related to housing/homelessness, water resources, air quality, transit, and the urban forest. The whole point of the California Environmental Quality Act is to identify problems up front and find realistic ways to deal with them. This takes time, and it can be a difficult process, but in the end it's much more likely to produce positive outcomes for the community and the city.
You don't solve problems by pretending they don't exist.
(Casey Maddren is President of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA), a community group advocating for better planning, and a CityWatch contributor..) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.