Mayor Breaks Ground on Westlake/MacArthur Park Development…But Is It TOD?

On Monday, Mayor Villaraigosa and a host of government and private officials celebrated the ground breaking of Phase I of the "Transit Oriented Development" Project located one block from the Westlake/MacArthur Park Development.  While The Source has been promoting the project, Soap Box has been scorning it leading me to another exciting round of "Is it TAD or TOD?"

Veteran readers of Streetsblog may remember TAD, the evil twin brother of TOD.  While TOD, i.e. Transit Oriented Development, is a Smart Growth tool that allows for redevelopment of a community in a clean manner, TAD, i.e. Transit Adjacent Development, looks like TOD at first glance but does everything wrong.  Instead of promoting a community redevelopment, it promotes gentrification and does little to encourage use of the transit facilities that are right under its nose.

In the past, we’ve examined whether the W development at Hollywood and Vine is TAD or TOD by evaluating the development on these standards: does the design take advantage of the transit node, does it create an attractive and safe pedestrian network, how are the bike amenities, does it create a mix of housing options and uses, and is their a restriction of automobile parking?

Screen_shot_2010_04_14_at_9.17.30_AM.pngThe yellow is the parcel for the new development.  The big M is the rail station.  Photo: Fred Camino/Google

Does the Design Take Advantage of the Transit Node:

Technically, Transit Oriented Development is supposed to be within a quarter-mile of the transit node to which it is Oriented.  While it certainly would be preferable to have the station be located on the same block as the rail station, its certainly within a quarter mile of the station.  I also can’t help but notice that the development is nearly surrounded by Metro bus stations.  Too bad none of the public relations pieces for the new development mention the bus stops.

Is the Development Going to Be Pedestrian Friendly?

The early news on this development is good, as industry website Construction Photos notes:

New public infrastructure such as sidewalks, curbs and gutters, street
trees and underground utilities will all be documented. MacArthur Park
Apartments is meant to serve as a catalyst to spur development within
the local Community Redevelopment Agency adopted Project Area. MacArthur
Park Apartments will have a positive economic impact on the neighborhood
in the short and long term.

Now it’s been noted extensively at Soap Box, just because something is promised in the early phases doesn’t mean that it’s going to actually be on the ground later.  That being said, the devil will be in the details and we’ll have to wait until the construction is done to really take in what the pedestrian amenities are.

Bike Amenities

As near as both I can tell; there’s no bike parking planned in the development.

Does It Create a Mix of Housing and Development Opportunities

The good news is that there are 90 affordable housing units putting it miles ahead of the W and there are plans for retail on the ground level.  A level of skepticism should be involved on the promises of on-street development can be excused because some of the developers are the same ones that were involved with the Hollywood and Western TOD, which currently has a fifty percent vacancy rate a full five years after the development opened.  h/t Soap Box

Restricted Automobile Parking

As with most "TOD" projects in Los Angeles, this is where the project stumbles.  The development promises three levels of subterranean parking, and 100 commuter spaces in addition to the parking for the retail and residential development.  That’s a lot of parking!

To make matters worse, the parking construction is subsidized by Metro, through a "Call for Projects" grant to the City of Los Angeles.

The good news is that the developer is paying Metro $1.4 million to lease the property and a small percentage of the money from the parking charges.  In addition, renters will receive a monthly Metro pass when they pay their rent.

While it certainly appears to be a big step up from the W development, the parking issue still remains a loadstone around this project’s neck.

The Verdict

While there is a lot to be excited about with this proposal, there are some troubling aspects as well such as the de-emphasis of the bus, the lack of bike parking in an area which (anecdotally, because the city doesn’t do bike counts) has a large number of cyclists and the levels of car-parking make it difficult to to declare it an example of Transit Oriented Development.  Perhaps the free transit passes will help make the residents transit users, but we’ll have to wait until people are moving in to make that distinction.

  • Is this “TOD”? Yep, it’s a terrible outlay and design. Terrifically ostentatious disaster. Tragic orgy of dinero.

    I can’t wait to smell the urine soaked corners where “bike parking” will be installed.

    Is it possible for Stephen Box to write a blistering critique prior to construction? If so, I would love to read it.

  • a nonymous

    I find the emphasis on subsidized “affordable” housing to be irksome. Why should TOD be a form of welfare. If one of the problems with transit in Los Angeles is that it is poorly funded because in the minds of many it only serves to move the poor around then why fill it with more poor people. If you want a transit oriented development to be financially viable so that there is more of it then the best policy is to not pack it with the impoverished and with all the social problems that they bring.

  • a nonymous,

    This project is taking place on public land. Private developers are being allowed to make a profit, while the public coffers dish out the cash.

    If there is no “affordable” component to this, I think it speaks very poorly for our society. Helping those of lesser means is a noble cause, and integrating socio-economic groups is as well.

    “TOD” isn’t about being “viable” the way you buying a parcel, building on it, and then selling it is. These are huge public works/public housing projects, and from the start we the people are footing the bill. I’d rather know that all income brackets will have fare crack at living the good life around a train station, rather than just the moneyed elite of L.A.

    Further, parking requirements jack up the cost of these projects significantly – eliminating the possibility of offering lower priced units without heavy government subsidy. Your opponent is not the poor man or woman and their family!

  • I live in MacArthur Park and would like to see more from this development.

    MacArthur Park is a food desert which relates it to Elena Schor’s piece today. I hope the city will help bring better food choices and supermarkets to the area. The produce at Food 4 Less is less than desirable and the only restaurants are fast food chains or a deli. Hardly food that will help alleviatet the high obesity and diabetes rates in the area.

    While I support affordable housing, MacArthur Park is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. Will the affordabe housing help raise people out of poverty or will it just concentrate poverty? Isn’t concentrated poverty the main factor for crime in South LA?

    This is also a lawless neighborhood. Will this development bring consistent enforcement of the law or will they just allow the sidwalks to be overtaken by street vendors? If so, then build a space for the vendors into the development so they can open up the sidewalks to pedestrians. How will this prevent public urination, homelessness, gangs and gambling in the park?

    MacArthur park has a high concentration of immigrants. It should include an educational component to help transition immigrants into the greater society. What about offering ESL and Spanish literacy programs in part of that developed space?

    Lastly, most immigrants do not have cars. Above all, this development should include top notch bike infrastructure and secure bike parking. Most people rely on bikes to get to work in this area.

    I hope this project will work vigorously to move people out of poverty and improve the neighborhood.

  • Pedestrian friendliness should mean a couple things. 1) The development is close to things (like what Walk Score measures). 2) Upgrades to the sidewalk and/or traffic calming. This project succeeds at the first and may or may not succeed at the second.

    With regard to the parking critiques, I’d like to hear somebody’s opinion of exactly how many car parking spaces should be built (i.e. if you think it’s a number greater than zero) for each type of unit and 1,000 square feet of retail. What I’m getting at is if you’re going to propose capping the amount of parking, how exactly do you define “excessive”? Also, it’s worth remembering that it makes a big difference whether or not the parking is included in the cost of the housing (sell it separately!) and whether or not the commuters and retail customers have to pay (make them pay!).

    Maybe instead of a pass/fail TOD or TAD designation, we need a 100 point scale and a letter grade based on a certain number of points for each issue. It seems like there are a lot of shades of gray.

  • I live in MacArthur Park as well, so I’m watching this development right in my ‘hood.

    Two thoughts, both related to poverty. First, Damien notes that the city included 90 units of affordable housing. I agree with Josef; this is good. However, there is no way to count how many units of affordable housing were NOT built because of the 3 levels of subterranean parking and the 100 spaces of park-n-ride parking. Subterranean parking spaces cost about $40,000 a pop. You can imagine how expensive it is to excavate an enormous hole in the ground, pour concrete, and build parking, before you can even build one housing unit. All that expense will raise the cost of all the units, including the “affordable” ones, and it will make it so that some units just don’t pencil out. Overall, the developer will build fewer units because of this extra cost. The cumulative effect, both at this specific development and all around LA, is to drive up the cost of housing.

    Instead of paying for subterranean parking underneath apartments like this directly, we pay for parking by paying higher rents. Myself included. There is a 2-story parking lot underneath my apartment building. My rent on a 2-bedroom unit would drop from 1350 to about 1050 if the 2 spaces weren’t automatically included. As a car-lite bicyclist who almost never uses my space, this angers me.

    The second point I want to make also concerns poverty. Poverty and transit riding. Nonymous writes that “in the minds of many” transit only serves the poor. Nonymous, this isn’t a phenomena of the mind. It is a fact. Transit is primarily a social service for the poor. The majority of transit riders are poor. Commuter rail is the only transit service that doesn’t primarily carry poor folks.

    Putting these two points together, (1) transit riders are poor and (2) parking is expensive and parking-rich housing is for the rich, we can see that this TOD utterly neglects the community around it. MacArthur Park is a working class, transit-dependent community. We ride buses (and rail sometimes) because we have to. We don’t need parking spaces. We especially don’t need them for car-owning (read: wealthy) people from other neighborhoods who want to park at MacArthur Park station and ride the train downtown.

    We need housing we can afford, reliable bus service, and we need walking and biking to be viable, safe options. All the parking in this TOD both guarantees that residents will drive and also guarantees that the housing will cost more than the transit-dependent poor can afford. This TOD fails.

    I feel kind of upset that I caught wind of this too late to do anything to change it.

  • Remember what Jane Jacobs said about the necessity of a mixture of building ages?

    (For example) “Time makes the high building costs of one generation the bargains of a following generation.” (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 189)

    This is an element of affordable housing we can’t afford to forget. New construction tends to be expensive and older buildings tend to be cheap, but today’s new and expensive buildings are tomorrow’s cheap and affordable buildings. An interesting, economically diverse place will have some of both.

    We should be as concerned with what the housing will cost fifty years from now as we are with what it will cost today, because if we set the standard that all housing has to be cheap now, we could limit the supply of new housing and risk preventing this generational succession of buildings from playing itself out.

    Just something to think about.

  • @Chewie. Hmm. I suspect that philosophically we’re coming from the same place. I suspect that we both want equitable cities where people of various incomes can live and prosper.

    We agree that we should build housing now. We agree that as this housing ages, it will become more affordable.

    Still, that does not change the fact that the cost of this housing is unnecessarily high because of the 3-story underground parking lot. The cost is high now, and even when the building ages and living there gets cheaper, it will be more expensive than it would have been without parking.

    To me, the passage of time is one of the saddest things about these parking lots. They are PERMANENT. Even if we move beyond the car and people don’t need those 3 stories of the building any more, we’ve sealed our mistake in brick and mortar. Residents of that building will pay for parking throughout the 30-year financing term at least, and probably longer. They will pay for this parking whether they use it or not, and whether they need it or not.

    I don’t think anyone is saying all housing should be required to be cheap. And that’s not on the table, not in Los Angeles or any other city. The reality is quite the opposite. Our parking requirements BLOCK the cheapest housing from being built.

    Ask Habitat for Humanity why it is so difficult to build affordable housing in the U.S. Because affordable housing with the amount of parking that most cities require simply does not pencil out.

    Los Angeles requires developers to build housing for cars, aka parking lots. These parking lots may become cheaper to occupy over time, but they will always be parking lots. That could be 3 stories (or more!) of housing, for posterity, but instead it will forever be parking.

    Parking is an affordable housing issue and minimum parking requirements are a disrespect to dense, working-class, historic neighborhoods like MacArthur Park.

    So… now I’ll get off my soapbox and say that I’m hoping we can agree that housing people is more important than housing cars?

  • It doesn’t change the main points you’ve made here, but Fred Camino’s map just shows one phase of the project. The yellow rectangle corresponds to only phase 1 (which I think might be a “C” cut off at the top of the rendering you’ve shown.) Phase A and B actually abut the existing station entrance – they’re not in the yellow rectangle on the map.

    Also, the Metro station entrance isn’t where the M is – but across the street from the park (it’s a good-sized concrete plaza – on the east side of Alvarado midway between Wilshire and 7th.)

    I expect that the project will have some flaws (likely required – to comply with L.A. City’s suburban-style planning regulations) but I think that the developer McCormac Baron Salazar has a fairly good record. They build affordable housing around transit stations – including some at the Hollywood/Western Red Line Station. I think it will be more like Wilshire/Vermont than like W (Hollywood/Vine.) Not perfection – but definitely mixed use, ground floor retail with including a good chunk of affordable housing above it.

    I am going to agree with Herbie on the parking. I am curious how much parking they’re actually building… but I’ll bet that it’s excessive – and drives up the price of the units.

    Another minor parking note: on the rendering, sadly, it looks like Langer’s surface parking lot is preserved (northeast corner of 7th and Westlake. I love Langer’s but it’s too bad that it looks like they’re probably not bought in to the TOD across the street… seems like it would make more sense to develop that corner surface parking lot, activate that space… but maybe that can be a later phase.

  • Chewie, part of the reason new buildings are expensive is that they’re built to luxury standards. Buildings constructed to project standards are fairly cheap, and if the government isn’t fussy about apartment sizes, it can profitably rent them out to people for $200-300 a month. The reason it’s not done, besides the negative associations Americans have with public housing, is that developable land in central cities is so scarce that once the developer gets a building permit, it makes sense to build for rich people and maximize profits. The governments don’t care enough about social benefits to fight this, and are usually in cahoots with the developers anyway.

  • @ Herbie

    I agree that minimum off street parking requirements are bad and that parking drives up the cost of housing if, but only if, it is included in the cost of that housing instead of sold/rented separately. Therefore, I want to eliminate the minimums to give developers the freedom to build with little to no parking if they so choose and sell/rent parking separately when it is built, so it doesn’t create an affordability problem or encourage people to drive as much as free parking does. That’s not the same thing as supporting a maximum parking requirement, which I think would require an argument about exactly how much parking is excessive even if it is sold separately.

    @ Alon

    So are you saying we need the government to be a developer sometimes? Or just regulate the way buildings are constructed harder? How do you sever the developer – local campaign contribution connection to make that happen?

  • @Chewie – Yes – decoupling housing from parking would be a really important first step toward limiting excessive parking quantities built into these types of projects.

  • BIkeHair

    An added discussion to the benefit of affordable housing in TODs, is that research shows auto-use increases with income in areas with transit access. If people don’t have to use it, and given ample free parking spaces, the chances increase they won’t. Even if its right under their nose. I have made this point to Council staff adverse to affordable housing ordinances. In the advent that poor and working class people are displaced from transit areas (not that this is necessarily happening here), ridership may actually decline and VMT increase. A perverse outcome of a policy aimed at the very opposite.

    If I was serious about affordable housing AND sustainability in the City, I would inquire if the transportation models are including assumptions on household income, and insist that projects that post reduction in VMT in their EIRs pony up on the project’s VMT assumption related to their housing costs. Also, developers complain that parking reductions hurt their ability to finance their project, because the banks are weary if the project lacks key amenities. Though, it just seams to me a lack of will to market the units to the appropriate audiences that would stand to gain from the cost reduction related to the lack of parking. Their should be housing studies/market research available that show such units would be marketable over a certain price range.

  • I have lived adjacent to the park (west of it) since 1987 so I have witnessed the changes (and lack of changes) that have occurred over the years.

    It was circa 1992 that I attended a meeting promoting the first attempt to build something on these parcels. In the years after Metro had multiple developers try and fall flat.

    My thought is the inital phase is out of the way (the busienss districts stretches along 6th, 7th and Alvarado) and I question whether the retail component will attract all that much foot traffic plus whether the rental of the store space would be too pricey for the sort of shops the area supports.

    That it has taken this many years to get anything going speaks to how marginal the proposal is. I question whether the other parts of the project ever get built.

  • Chewie: in high-priced markets abroad, governments frequently act as developers, even in highly capitalistic countries. Hong Kong, Monaco, and Singapore all have large quantities of public and subsidized housing. They have twin markets for housing – one unregulated and market-driven, marketed mostly to high-income people and expats, and one government-run, marketed to ordinary citizens paying rent on a sliding scale. This on the one hand prevents mass homelessness and on the other hand cuts developers’ ability to rent-seek.

    The details depend on the country – for example, in Singapore public housing is more prevalent than in the other two cities. If I’m not mistaken, Singapore public housing is profitable to the government, since unlike the private market, it’s built on the cheap, often with too few amenities (for example, the elevators only stop on every other floor). Hong Kong and Monaco rely more on subsidies; in Monaco the government has enough revenue to build subsidized housing to the same standards as the private market.

    By the way, on the subject of parking: Monaco has ample parking in every building, either overground or underground in order to minimize footprint. Unlike in America’s Garage Mahal buildings, the exterior of overground parking floors looks the same as normal floors, so the buildings are aesthetically pleasing to look at. But Hong Kong and Singapore have parking only in the luxury market, and also levy high car taxes to avoid choking on gas fumes; while Monaco has nearly universal car ownership, Singapore has 15 vehicles per 1,000 people (the same rate as Manhattan) and Hong Kong has 7.5.

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Nice car advertisement at the billboard. Photo: Erik Oginski/Flickr One of my favorite transportation rhetorical devices has always been the relationship between Transit Oriented Development, or TOD, and its evil brother, Transit Adjacent Development, TAD.  TAD breaks all the rules that make TOD work, but because they can look similar they often get confused.  Unfortunately, […]