PLANNING WATCH - Too many expensive, market-rate apartments. The derelict corner, in the western part of Los Angeles, displays the many preventable problems that plague the entire city. Behind a rickety wooden fence plastered with old advertising fliers is a slow-moving Wiseman Residential construction site. The site includes an excavated pit that stretches the entire block along Pico Boulevard, from Crescent Heights to Corning. According to Urbanize LA and the PICO Neighborhood Council, this project would eventually be a five-story building with 125 units of mostly market-rate apartments, plus ground floor retail and parking. This project dates back to January 2018 and includes 13 extremely low-income Tier 3 Transit Oriented Communities (TOC) units. This TOC tier allows the developer to avoid an expensive and time-consuming zone variances or zone changes to exceed the density restrictions of the R4-1-0 zone, as well avoid the R4 zone’s requirement of one parking space per habitable room.
By pledging to include 13 extremely low-income apartments in the project, the TOC Guidelines allow the developer to add 52 more rental units and substitute 64 required automobile parking spaces with bicycle parking.
While the developer blames Covid for the project’s delay, my guess is that it no longer pencils out. The combination of high interest and high vacancy rates make this project financially risky. To make their desired rate of profit, the prospects of finding 112 well off renters willing to pay $4000/month for a small apartment is not good.
Investor purchase of residential real estate: On the outside of this excavated pit is a LADWP utility pole in the middle of the sidewalk facing Crescent Heights. Someone nailed a “I buy houses – fast cash” to the pole, from a Seal Beach-based real estate company. Like similar companies, their business model is straight forward. They quickly make below market cash offers for houses, which they then repair for either sale or rental.
Companies like this represent a major real estate trend in the United States. They front for investors who realize that increasing economic inequality means that houses have become highly profitable assets. Declining real wages combined with rising housing costs and interest rates have priced many people out of home-ownership. As a result only about 1/3 of Angelenos are now home-owners and 2/3 are renters, with the percentage of renters increasing.
Weed-covered sidewalks: The sidewalk next to this abandoned construction site is filled with weeds, some three feet high. It looks like LA’s Bureau of Street Services, along with Wiseman Residential, the owner of the adjacent construction site, have not properly maintained this sidewalk for many years. If it is any consolation, the same can be said for nearly all of LA’s 9000 miles of decrepit sidewalks and street corners, most of which have not yet been upgraded to meet the enforceable national standards in the 2010 Americans with Disability Act.
Unhoused: Although not in this picture, there is a homeless encampment a block away from the proposed market-rate apartments. Despite repeated calls by developers, their advocates, and City Hall officials to deregulate zoning laws so private developers can build what they want, this site demonstrates the folly of this approach. This site is already zoned for apartments and also qualifies for generous TOC density bonuses. By allowing more high-priced rental units at sites like this, the price of land and rental housing goes up, not down. This is one reason why over-crowding and homelessness continues to increase in LA.
Treeless parkways: The streets next to this construction site are nearly treeless. On the other side of Pico Boulevard, tall, spindly Mexican Fan Palm trees dot the horizon. This choice is particularly disturbing for several reasons.
First, Mexican Fan Palms are an iconic tree for Los Angeles, but they don’t produce shade, something that Los Angeles desperately needs to counter warming temperatures, reduce air pollution, and encourage walking.
Second, the City of Los Angeles has not planted any trees at this corner. If weeds flourish at this construction site, then shade trees would also flourish, with only a modest amount of maintenance and watering. Furthermore, trees remain the best low-cost way to counter climate change in Los Angeles. But they need to be planted and cared for nature to then take its course.
Missing bike lanes: Even though this part of Los Angeles is flat, and these streets, especially Pico Boulevard, are wide enough for bike lanes, they are missing. More specifically, Los Angeles has 7,500 miles of streets, 600 miles of bike lanes, but only 10 miles of protected bicycle lanes. This is one reason why 26 cyclists died last year in local traffic accidents.
This neglected corner demonstrates the dreadful condition of LA’s infrastructure, a by-product of City Hall’s devotion to high-end real estate speculation. If this situation is to change, the City needs to update the General Plan’s antiquated Infrastructure Element. It was prepared in the 1960s and only addresses refuse disposal, not streets, sidewalks, urban forest, and bicycle lanes. While decent planning cannot guarantee proper care of the city’s infrastructure, it is an essential first step.
(Dick Platkin is a retired Los Angeles city planner who writes about local planning issues for CityWatchLA. He is a board member of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA). Previous Planning Watch columns are available at the CityWatchLA archives. Please send any questions to [email protected].)