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Pico-Union borders Downtown LA but avoided development boom spillover—until now

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“I’m surprised at the enormity of the project,” says one community organizer

A rendering of the intersection of Pico and Albany once the hotel project is complete.
Via Department of City Planning

The intersection of Pico Boulevard and Albany Street hums. On Monday night, the only open businesses were in a small strip mall on one corner, but families and lone commuters shuffled along the street, walking, biking, and scooting from Downtown LA on their way home, to work, to dinner.

By 2025, their view could look a lot different. Across the street from the strip mall, a low-rise commercial building is slated to give way to a glittering 37-story hotel called The Albany. Construction could begin in 2022 and be complete three years later.

The Albany would be a big deal for Pico-Union. Slated to rise on nearly the entire block bounded by Pico, Albany and 14th Streets, and the 110 freeway, it would contain 730 rooms, 20,000 square feet of restaurant space, and 63,000 square feet for meetings and banquets.

The glassy tower looks like something that would fit in on the east side of the 110, in Downtown LA, where a slew of skyscrapers are redefining the LA skyline. But on the Pico-Union side, The Albany would be a singular development.

“I’m surprised at the enormity of the project,” says Maegan Ortiz.

Ortiz is the executive director of the Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur de California, which has been headquartered about three blocks from The Albany site for decades. Located in a former center for Central American war refugees, the organization provides educational opportunities and support to residents, immigrants, and day laborers.

An aerial view of the 37-story hotel project. On the other side of the freeway is the convention center.

Ortiz says that when she took the post as director of IDEPSCA five years ago, she predicted that it would take about five years for Downtown-style, upscale development to cross the freeway. She now thinks her prediction was just right.

More people are parking on the west side of the freeway now for events at LA Live or the Convention Center, Ortiz says. Signs for property management companies “with fancy names” are appearing on apartment buildings and homes.

These “small and subtle” changes might be hard for people who aren’t in Pico-Union daily to notice, but they stand out to Ortiz.

It’s only separated from Downtown by a freeway, but Pico-Union is not an extension of Downtown, Ortiz emphasizes, and she worries, like many in neighborhoods that are suddenly receiving attention from large-scale investors, whether the arrival of the new necessarily means an erasure of those who have made their lives here.

The neighborhood’s recent history has been shaped by the arrival in the late 1970s and 1980s of Central Americans, and the bakeries and restaurants that line the main thoroughfares today reflect their established presence.

Pico-Union is also among the poorer neighborhoods in the city, with a median household income (roughly defined by the boundaries put forth by the Los Angeles Times) of around $31,000, according to 2017 Census estimates.

A number of smaller hotels and affordable housing projects are in the pipeline for the walkable neighborhood. But in terms of scale, none compare to The Albany.

The plans not be on the radar of many residents yet, but as the city readies to launch the environmental review process for the hotel, it’s bound to become a topic of discussion.

“The Pico-Union neighborhood has historically been separated from the rest of the city and under-served by private investment,” Los Angeles City Councilmember Gil Cedillo, who represents the area, said last year. He has requested that the city look into giving financial incentives to developer Sandstone Properties to bring the hotel to fruition.

The city has given similar incentives to other hotel projects, in an effort to increase the number of hotel rooms available for visitors to the convention center, which is due for a revamp and expansion.

A rendering looking east on Pico Boulevard shows the existing row of two-story storefronts and the hotel rising over the 110 freeway.

Cedillo has spoken about the benefits that The Albany could bring to the community, including “2,000 full-time equivalent construction jobs [and] 700 permanent jobs.” The Albany would also generate an estimated $11 million in annual tax revenue for the city, according to Cedillo.

It’s the potential benefits to the residents that has Craig Taubman taking a wait-and-see approach to the project. Taubman is the founder of the community center and venue the Pico-Union Project, which is hosting a public meeting for The Albany on March 19.

Taubman says when he started the non-profit Pico-Union Project about six years ago, he faced some initial community pushback. It took “two, maybe even three years,” he says, but developing PUP’s programming—which includes neighborhood tree-planting and beautification, regular distribution of fresh produce, and nutrition and art classes—around feedback from area residents has helped show Pico-Union residents that his nonprofit is interested in contributing to the community.

He wants to find out if that’s also what these developers are willing to do: win trust by offering something to the community that it wants and needs, getting those promises in writing, and then delivering on them. If they don’t deliver on their promises, developers should know there will be roadblocks from the community, “as there should be,” he says.

But the scoping meeting is a great opportunity for people in the neighborhood to meet the developers and see what they have to say—and then make their judgements.

Taubman says it’s too soon to tell whether The Albany’s developers will listen to the community, address their fears, or make a development that’s contributing positively to the neighborhood.

“But I’m willing to give it a shot,” he says.