The Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan: Livable Streets Dream or Affordable Housing Nightmare?

Wildflowers in bloom at the cornfields. Note the proximity of industrial development. Photo: Creek Freak

Can a community plan claim to be progressive without a strong affordable housing component?

That questions has been at the heart of a debate about the Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan (CASP) that promises to transform 660 acres located in the communities of Lincoln Heights, Cypress Park and Chinatown from mixed-use, mostly industrial, to a more residential area with industrial areas designed to attract green and other LEED certified (environmentally clean) businesses.  Back in March of 2009, Joe Linton described many of the benefits of the plan, including a decoupling or parking from rental or purchase fees of new apartments.

But what makes the plan so impressive to Livable Streets advocates makes it a nightmare for affordable housing ones.  Because the plan offers increased density and reduced parking requirements without requiring an affordable housing tradeoff, advocates are concerned that the end result of the CASP will be to force out existing residents by turning the area into one for those earning a higher income.

“The critical question about the Cornfields Arroyo Seco Specific Plan is this: Will the plan lead to luxury housing and market rate shops unaffordable to local residents? Or will it lead to a community where everyone can live?” asks Serena Lin, a staff attorney with Public Counsel. “Right now the plan prioritizes luxury housing developers over local residents, and we call on Councilman Ed Reyes to amend it.”

If CASP had a provision that offered extra density bonuses or reduced parking standards if a developer agrees to build a small percentage of affordable units, the Plan could be a real tool in our City’s toolkit argues Public Counsel. Instead of fighting with community groups, the city could proactively plan for communities where all residents, including people struggling with poverty, can afford to live. Instead, the Plan offers developers incentives to build market rate housing, without any provision for affordable housing. In an area with a median income of less than $25,000 per year, much of the current community would get priced out of a community where they.

“There’s been a lot of pressure to change the zoning for the plan are over the years,” explains Claire Bowen, the project manager with the Department of City Planning (Planning) for the project.

Bowen points to recent affordable housing developments that have already gone into the area, many of whom are getting exclusions from the existing zoning code.  This leads to “spot zoning” and haphazard mixed use planning that benefits few people.  Instead of pushing people out of the area, Bowen argues that the community will be improved to make life better for the people already living in the area.

But she also readily concedes that the CASP is about bringing in new people and new businesses into the area.

“This is an area we’re trying to attract people to,” Bowen supplies. “Cities that are successful in attracting new clean or green light industrial uses, they’re attracted to areas that have these types of amenities versus single zoned areas.”

At a public meeting held on Saturday, residents and community leaders expressed concern about bringing in too many new people without providing an affordable way to maintain housing for current residents and expanded affordable housing for their families.  Representatives from the East Los Angeles Community Corporation, Los Angeles Taxi Workers Alliance, Homeboy Industries and the Southeast Asian Community Alliance (SEACA) all voiced concern at the lack of affordable housing guarantees in the plan.  All in all, between 80-100 people attended the meeting, most of those who spoke were there to raise concerns about CASP’s impact on existing community residents.

“We fought hard to build the vibrant community that we have here,” claims Sissy Trinh, with SEACA.  “Now the city is setting in motion a plan that risks destroying that in order to build luxury housing. All the while, the luxury housing that was built in the last few years sits empty while our families struggle to find affordable housing.”

SEACA has created a website outlining the pros and cons of the CASP from their point of view and offers ways the city could improve upon the existing plan.  SEACA notes there are many benefits to the plan as it exists including better streets, better bicycle infrastructure and the potential to bring more jobs, more affordable housing and more transit options to the area.  For each of their cons, City Planning has some sort of answer, although in many cases the answer wouldn’t be satisfactory to those pushing to protect the community.

For example, SEACA argues that while CASP would double the residents living in the area, there are no plans to improve the infrastructure to help move all of the new residents and deal with new traffic.  City Planning points to the impressive bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure planned for the area and the existing transit infrastructure.  The CASP area includes two Gold Line Stations, is adjacent to another one and if you add up all of the bus stops made in a given day, it averages roughly 1,000 stops per day.

But is that a realistic transportation plan when so many of the “market rate” units that will be encouraged will be filled by people with the means to own or lease automobiles?  If the city’s plan were to attract more affordable housing, then there would likely be a lower physical impact on road infrastructure as there would be less cars.  But the plan is to attract more middle-class, or “market rate” housing.   Will these new residents be as wiling to forego their cars?

To answer that question, Bowen and Planning point to the reduced car parking requirements in the CASP.  It’s undeniable that limiting the amount of space for personal vehicle storage is a proven way to reduce congestion and vehicle miles traveled while encouraging a more healthy lifestyle.  Bowen herself argues that there is way too much car parking in Los Angeles.  “We waste so much space holding space just waiting for a car to show up.”

But for those hoping to see an affordable housing plan to protect their community, the decreased parking requirements are questionable. Less parking reduces the cost of building housing, but it can’t guarantee affordability.  The “Palmer Lawsuit” earlier this year threw out many local ordinances requiring affordable housing set-asides.  As currently proposed, the parking and density bonuses that make the CASP a progressive plan are being given to developers without any sort of affordable housing tradeoff.  Lacking the ability to mandate that some units are affordable, these tradeoffs are seen as key to increasing affordable housing without the ability to require it.
Which leaves us back where we started.  Nobody is arguing that the CASP plan is completely bad and needs to be thrown out, just that it needs further fixes to better protect the community.  But will those fixes scare off developers who are interested in providing market rate housing that would then be the lure to bring in “green” businesses?  Can you have a progressive community plan for a less affluent area that doesn’t push affordable housing to protect the existing community?

Special thanks to Allison Mannos who reported on this weekend’s community meeting.

  • Mumia Abu Ghumwall

    Alta Lofts and projects like it are crippled by mandated (or haggled) below market rate housing. What the city is doing with this plan, is focusing on using its dollars to create value for property owners. Where else is the city going to raise money to pay for our structural deficits? This type of urban investment can pay for itself many times over. Rents may rise – but in the substandard existing stock in this community? I don’t see it happening. New housing and retail will go at market rate, as it should. The existing housing stock is a disaster, and will likely remain affordable to those in poverty until the 5 freeway is ripped down or collapses.

  • Adding affordable housing within a complex with luxury condos is just plain stupid.  The vast majority of folks do not want to pay market rate just to have a low-income neighbor pay much, much less.  We do need areas with more affordable housing, but this can happen organically by proper zoning.. putting housing in less desirable areas that won’t attract the more affluent buyer.

  • Rocket Jet Pack Booster Fuzz

    True Freedom,

    I think you are wrong about this. There are many fine examples from around the world that show that you can make subsidized housing for the poor blend well with upper income market rate housing. It isn’t always a fantasy land of happiness, but it can work and demonstrates the power of our democratic ideals and the better parts of our human nature.

    There is a famous project in Holland that does just this, the Borneo Sporenburg in Amsterdam.

    http://www.pbs.org/e2/design.html

  • Taking a broad view, it would be amazing and transformational if the zoning and transportation rules for this project replaced the existing residential zoning all throughout the city of Los Angeles. We could have mixed use, including corner stores in residential neighborhoods. We would focus on density near transit. We wouldn’t require two parking spaces per residential unit.

    There are two ways to improve affordability in the area. Require or incentivize affordable units. And/or increase market rent units here and throughout the city so costs reduce with an increased supply of units. If the projections in the EIR are correct, the project would result in
    an almost 6 fold population densification in the area by 2035, which is great.

    For the lowest income residents, adding more market rate units still wouldn’t help them since housing in the city is very high cost to start. It would be nice to have some affordable units in the project. But don’t block new dense developments or reforms to parking rules. Ultimately the addition of a landmark project like this will help existing residents (if existing affordable units are preserved) since mixed income neighborhoods usually have better amenities, greater political sway, etc.

  • Herbie Huff

    Damien,

    With regards to granting developers parking requirement reductions in exchange for affordable housing, you write, ” these tradeoffs are seen as key to increasing affordable housing without the ability to require it.”

    I would disagree with this statement. I think ANY parking reduction will increase the supply of affordable housing, and that in Los Angeles we can’t see the forest for the trees; we’ve focused on keeping the trade-off, and it has slowed efforts to reduce ALL car parking requirements. We saw this happen with both AB 710 and the bicycle parking ordinance, both of which proposed reductions in car parking requirements in various forms. I was pretty disappointed by the policy compromises that Green LA, LACBC, and other advocates made in response to Public Counsel during the debates on both of these laws. Essentially, these groups have blocked car parking reduction laws because they wanted them to contain a clause about affordable housing.

    I think a major observation that’s been missing from the conversation about parking reductions and affordable housing is the fact that the vast majority of affordable housing is provided by 100% affordable projects. This means that the promise of reduced parking as an an incentive for a market-rate developer hasn’t accomplished much. On the other hand, reducing parking requirements makes it much easier to build more units in 100% affordable projects, and makes more 100% affordable project possible. 

    On balance, the evidence indicates that a policy that reduces parking requirements will create more affordable housing. In that light, I find myself confused by Public Counsel’s frequent objections to parking requirement reductions. I know that they crafted the parking reduction to encourage market-rate developers to provide affordable units, and that it is near and dear to their heart, but it seems to me that preserving that trade-off isn’t worth putting a blanket parking reform effort at risk.

    Here’s a key paper on the evidence – written with regards to AB 710, but applies to all car parking reductions. I hope this paper circulates more widely.

    http://infill-builders.org/pdfs/AB-710-WhitePaper.pdf

    I would welcome others’ thoughts on the subject.

  • Allison

    I think the biggest problem, as I have attended the last few meetings, is that while your points are true, Herbie and Mark, nothing in the plan INCENTIVIZES affordable housing specifically. The main takeaway is that the private developers will also enjoy the lowered costs of removing parking requirements, yet have more resources they can collect and commit to building housing here, and therefore be more competitive for securing development than affordable developers…So yes, parking definitely needs to be reduced, but there needs to be some kind of mandate or policy in the plan that does more than passively say, “hey, affordable developers, it’d be NICE if you came…” as that may not clear the hurdles they will have upon approaching developing in the neighborhood without the playing field tilted in their favor.

  • Herbie Huff

    I’m not very well-versed in affordable housing, except as it relates to parking and the memo I linked below. Allison, is there another way the Plan could incentivize affordable housing *without* tying it to parking? 

    As it stands now, it does seem to me that having parking and density bonuses invites affordable housing developers to come build. It’s much easier to build and sell affordable housing with these bonuses. That said, I’m interested in hearing more about other mandates or policies (or subsidy mechanisms? etc?) we could use to ensure more affordable housing both near the Cornfield and everywhere.

    I continue to question the claim that “the decreased parking requirements are questionable.” Decreased parking requirements inherently make development cheaper, and thus more easily made affordable. Is it our goal to make development more difficult? Because that will drive up the cost of all housing. 

    I frankly feel it was sloppy reporting for Damien to imply that reducing the parking requirements threatens affordable housing. The reality is quite the opposite. It is true that in the past, lawmakers in CA have used the promise of reduced parking as one incentive to provide affordable housing. But, for the reasons I outlined below (i.e. most affordable housing is built by 100% affordable housing developers), it does Not follow that granting reduced parking to everyone will result in less affordable housing getting built. Some people clearly perceive that that is the case, but the research and evidence in Los Angeles does not indicate that.

  • Herbie Huff

    I just realized the obvious. What if the plan provides density bonuses, taller building allowances, setback reductions, and parking reductions exclusively for affordable housing developers? Then the Plan would really be saying, “We want affordable housing here, and as such we’re going to make it way easier to build here if you’re an affordable housing developer.”

    At the same time, the Plan can have progressive parking reductions and higher densities for the market rate developers, because these are just plain good policies.

    What about that idea?

  • BC

    I was following the article up to this sentence about 2/3s of the way down, which I don’t understand.
    “If the plan was to attract more affordable housing, then there would be a
    lower tax on road infrastrcuture, but what about middle class
    developments?

  • Thanks BC.  I changed the sentence.  I hope it is clearer now.

  • Yes – this is exactly the sort of thing that’s been discussed… give some sort of “extra” density bonus for development that includes some affordable housing (better on-site, but could even be paying into some sort of housing trust fund.) Right now, the draft plan gives developers huge amounts of additional development rights (which translate to greater MONEY) – while not requiring any affordability. The solution is to tie that giveaway to some support of affordability.

  • I tend to agree with you, wise Herbie! Reducing parking increases affordability – through market forces: reduced costs, and supply/demand. Affordable housing advocates tend to see reduced parking requirements undermining density bonus incentives, which work by trading reduced parking for affordable set-asides. 

    So… which force is stronger? market vs set-asides? It’s not 100% clear to me… but I, in the long-run-big-picture, think that reducing parking is better – for affordability and for good urbanism for all. Density bonus is good – results in affordable units, so we shouldn’t undermine it thoughtlessly – but I think it’s kinda weak (it’s in place and affordable housing is rare.) What’s tricky is that, with the Palmer decision, the effective tools for creating affordable housing are shrinking… so housing advocates are more protective of the density bonus… and are skeptical that any developer cost savings (from relaxing parking) will be passed along to renters/buyers.

    I personally would favor the parking reductions anyway, but I see both sides of the issue… and parking reform plus other affordability provisions would be even better than just reducing parking.

  • Eric B

    The plan as is doesn’t allow for overdevelopment–it’s a large increase over the status quo mostly because the existing industrial zoning is so outdated.  It’s pretty much exactly what many of us urbanists would want for our own neighborhoods.  To the extent that the new units are expensive, it demonstrates market demand for even more urbanist development in other parts of the city.

    Philosophically, I have a hard time with the argument that we should intentionally mandate bad urban form (e.g. parking) in order to then waive the requirements in exchange for certain benefits.  I’m much more comfortable planning the city we actually want, then figuring out appropriate strategies to meet affordable housing objectives.  (For example, we could use CDBG money to build housing rather than as a giveaway to a certain large architecture firm moving downtown.)  As Herbie points out, most affordable housing units actually produced are by dedicated nonprofit affordable housing developers–the incentives don’t really help them as much as a simple, straightforward (by-right) planning process.The plan includes large swaths of land designated “urban innovation” (who knew that was a type of zone?) which is for light industrial/research-type uses.  The zone allows for a maximum of 15% residential to allow for creative live-work setups.  This 15% cap is probably the best candidate to be raised as an affordable housing incentive.  The other option is to increase height, which could be raised by 1-2 stories without negatively impacting urban design.

    Parking requirements were a convenient way to incentivize affordable housing, but it was never a matter of good policy.  Affordable housing advocates that fight parking reform are cutting off their nose to spite their face.  The long term strategy has to be fixing the housing market to provide a full spectrum of supply for all income brackets.  Parking reform one piece of that broader restructuring.

  • Shashi Hanuman, Public Counsel

    Public Counsel is weighing in here to explain our position on preserving land use incentives for affordable housing, and how it relates to CASP.

    Some commenters have suggested that land use incentives are unnecessary because the majority of affordable housing built in LA is built by 100% affordable developers (with subsidy). While important, the reality is that the City has never been able to provide enough subsidy to affordable developers to meet the needs. And, keep in mind that subsidies are drying up at the local, state, and federal level. This makes land use incentives like the density bonus policy even more crucial to increasing and preserving affordable housing — how else can we create a livable city for everyone?

    Our proposal would set one standard zoning density, and then offer an increased density to developers who seek and agree to provide affordable housing. It sets clear zoning guidelines for all and provides certainty – not spot zoning or extortion.

    We agree that reducing parking can be an important smart growth tool. It can also be equitable if combined with a proposal like ours. Let’s not kid ourselves, though. If parking reductions and upzones are not made in concert with an affordable housing strategy, affordable housing for lower-income people will not actually get built. No matter how much we would all like it, no matter how often it is repeated, no “trickle down” policies based in removing barriers to market-rate development are going to make a luxury condo affordable to a family making $25,000 per year (median income in the CASP area), or even $50,000 per year, even with reduced parking. But a comprehensive upzone strategy, combined with affordable housing incentives, could help that family and help achieve environmental goals.

    Just look at the example of downtown Los Angeles. The City’s Adaptive Reuse Ordinance reduced parking requirements, many thousands of units were built, but the units produced were for those making over $90,000 per year. In the CASP area, if the plan passes as drafted, just like what happened in downtown, market rate developers will simply compete with affordable developers to acquire limited land, and sell or rent what is developed at the highest prices the market will bear. Without long-term planning for existing residents, the Plan simply becomes another prescription for designing luxury housing around transit.

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