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Planning commission approves project that could 'transform' South LA

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Two high-rise towers, a hotel, lots of housing (but it might not be affordable)

A controversial project that city leaders say has the power to "transform" a "blighted" pocket of South LA cleared its first big hurdle Thursday, winning approval from the planning commission in a meeting that turned rowdy.

The Reef would bring outdoor plazas, a farmers’ market, public gardens, and more than 1 million square feet of new buildings—two high-rise towers, a hotel, a grocery store, a pharmacy, restaurants, plus more than 1,000 apartments and condos—to 9.7 acres just south of the 10 freeway. The developer has planned for all of those units to be sold and rented at market rate, making them wildly out-of-reach of many of the people who actually live in the neighborhood.

So commissioners on Thursday pushed back, telling the developer to set aside 5 percent of the apartments for tenants with low incomes. Without affordable housing, "It’s giving the message, and I don’t think it was intentional … (that) ‘this is not for you,’" said commissioner Samantha Millman.

Commission president David Ambrose said he had been "very dismayed" that the developer, "didn’t invite the community to live here."

The commission is also asking the developer to pay the city $15 million, money that will be earmarked for affordable housing off-site. The project will ultimately need to be approved by the City Council, so the planning commission’s vote serves only as a recommendation.

Los Angeles has been a hotbed for development, but much of that activity has been centered in specific neighborhoods, Hollywood and Downtown in particular, and near the growing number of transit stations for rail and subway. But South LA, a neighborhood that’s overcrowded and, as Streetsblog LA has pointed out, historically disadvantaged, has largely been ignored:

Early in the 20th century, restrictive covenants imposed on the territory directly adjacent to the Reef – a box bound by Main to the west, Slauson to the south, Washington to the north, and Alameda to the east – meant that it was one of the few places in the city where African Americans were allowed to own property (at right) ...

Black flight, most notable after the civil unrest of 1965 and 1992 and the loss of industry jobs, meant that the neighborhood has since turned over and is now majority-Latino. The change in demographics seems only to have made it even easier for the city to continue to ignore residents’ needs and the deterioration of its housing stock. Even recent plans made to upgrade infrastructure in the area, like the mayor’s Great Streets plan to expand the sidewalks along Central Avenue, have happened without consultation with the very Latino residents who will be most impacted by the changes.

"It takes risk for the developer to come out and be one of the first developers in the area," said commissioner Caroline Choe.

Shops and and restaurants will be positioned along Broadway, Washington Boulevard, Hill Street, 21st Street, and Main Street. New buildings would be visible from parts of DTLA, Blue line and Expo line, and by drivers on Washington, Main and Hill streets, Broadway, and the 10.

The project would be built on two city blocks, designated in plans as the "West Block" and the "East Block," as seen below, with the "West Block" coming to fruition first:

  • The centerpiece of the West Block is The Reef, an existing 12-story building that serves as "creative habitat" for artists and entrepreneurs. Next to it, a hotel with 208 rooms, 20 stories, and a pool would rise. On this block, there’d also be an 88-foot story building with 100 apartments and an above-ground parking structure with eight levels. A public paseo called "The Exchange" would connect ground-floor retail, restaurants, and a gallery, and span the full width of the block between Hill Street and Broadway.
  • Two high-rise condo towers would rise from the East Block, one that soars to 32 stories (288 feet) and the other to 35 stories (420 feet), and together they’d hold 895 units. Shorter buildings would contain 428 apartments and 14 live-work units. This block would also have a paseo, called "The Strand," extending from Hill Street to Main Street with an upper public terrace with a cafe and outdoor seating, plus open space and landscaping.

Protestors, many of whom oppose the project because they fear it will jack up the cost of living and drive them out of the area, were ejected from Thursday’s hearing, escorted by police, for yelling and chanting, saying, for example, "Where can we go?" and "Shame on you!"