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Metro tosses out development proposal, calls for more affordable housing in Westlake

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Westlake is rapidly transforming, and to move ahead with the mostly market-rate project “would be aiding and abetting,” Metro director says

A watercolor image of pedestrians walking along a wide paseo-style street crossing toward a new development with low-rise apartments and taller structures behind them.
The proposed development would put 655 residential units and 252 hotel rooms over and around the neighborhood’s subway station.
Via Metro

Metro leaders voted today to nix a proposal to place hundreds of apartments and a hotel atop the subway station at MacArthur Park—unless the developer incorporates more affordable units.

In a unanimous vote, the agency’s planning and programming committee rejected a proposal from major Westlake property owner and plastic surgeon Dr. Walter Jayasinghe to put 655 housing units and 252 hotel rooms atop the Westlake/MacArthur Park subway station.

They said the number of affordable units pitched in the project—120 of 655 total units, or about 18 percent—is insufficient.

Because this is public land, said Metro director Ara Najarian, 120 units “are not going to cut it.” Director Jaclyn Dupont-Walker said the Westlake neighborhood was rapidly transforming, and to move ahead with the project “would be aiding and abetting.”

Metro CEO Phil Washington helped deliver a death blow but also left the door open to Jayasinghe to revise his plans.

“We will reject this unsolicited proposal, and if there is a resubmittal we will consider it,” Washington said.

Metro has struggled to develop the site. Attempts to put an 80-unit project on the property dragged out for years, only to be determined to be infeasible. Then, in late 2017, the agency received an unsolicited development proposal.

It was only this week that the name of the developer and details of his plans were made public, when an agenda for today’s planning and programming committee meeting were released.

After receiving Jayasinghe’s plan, Metro was required to put out a public call for more proposals. It received just one response—with fewer affordable units than the Walter J Company’s plan.

“120 [units] is a lot more than zero, and that’s really the comparison today,” said Wells Lawson, a senior director at Metro.

Jayasinghe has experience in the neighborhood. He’s been a longtime property owner, and, in late 2016, he garnered attention for his plans to put an upscale, mostly market-rate 41-story apartment tower and a hotel along Wilshire Boulevard in Westlake, about a block from Metro’s Westlake/MacArthur Park subway station. That project was approved by the Los Angeles City Council in 2018.

It was a stand-out project in the solidly working-class, low-income neighborhood. Fears of displacement dogged—but have not halted—the Lake on Wilshire project and were clearly top of mind for the committee today.

Director Hilda Solis told Metro staffers that the Westlake community warrants a better project.

“This individual understands that, but they also need to understand our policies and our values,” Solis said.

Jayasinghe’s plans call for putting 655 residential units and 252 hotel rooms on three properties surrounding the station—one owned by Metro that sits directly atop the station entrance, and two adjoining properties along Westlake Avenue that he already owns.

Plans also include 70,000 square feet of commercial and open space, a dedicated space for the existing vendors who sell in the plaza above the subway station, and “significant” upgrades to that plaza area, according to Metro materials.

Metro policy requires 35 percent of all units that it develops jointly with private developers be affordable to households earning 60 percent of the area median income or below (roughly $62,640 for a family of four).

Metro spokesperson Brian Haas says that the 35 percent figure is tabulated on a portfolio-wide basis—meaning it considers all the affordable units in all Metro’s joint-development projects together, not each project individually.

Haas says 34 percent of Metro’s overall portfolio is affordable now right now. That number is expected to rise to 36 percent when “all projects currently in negotiations are completed.”