Op/Ed: Saving Wyvernwood is the Environmental Choice

(One of the ongoing stories in our Boyle Heights/East Los Angeles coverage has been the debate over whether or not to proceed with the redevelopment of Wyvernwood Garden Apartments. Jesús Hermosillo has a master’s degree in urban planning and contributes regularly to Boyle Heights Beat. Streetsblog has not taken a position on the project and welcomes an op/ed by the Fifteen Group or any proponents of the project. – DN)

To save or not to save Wyvernwood Garden Apartments, and build something else in its place, is the question more and more people are grappling with as city officials prepare to decide on the proposed Boyle Heights Mixed Use Community Project.   Anti-redevelopment arguments center on preserving a cultural landmark, and averting another mass displacement reminiscent of Chavez Ravine. No matter which side of the debate you fall on, there is no doubt a new Wyvernwood will change Boyle Heights forever. The consequences of the $2.2 billion real-estate venture—one of the largest ever proposed in the United States—could spell an ecological catastrophe for Boyle Heights.

Google earth image via ##http://www.latimes.com/business/la-011108-fi-boyle-g,0,2495985.graphic##Los Angeles Times##

Despite its billing as an exemplar of New Urbanism—an urban-design movement promoting compact, mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods as a green alternative to automobile-reliant development—one of the proposal’s central features is undoing the historic garden community’s pedestrian-oriented design to make way for vastly expanded car facilities.

Fifteen Group, the Miami-based company that owns Wyvernwood, proposes to replace the seventy acre “Garden City” campus containing hundreds of orange-colored buildings, 1,187 homes and over 6,000 residents, with something similar to an Eastside version of Playa Vista,. The proposed development contains  4,400 condominiums and rentals; 325,000 square feet of stores, restaurants and offices, recreational facilities for residents including swimming pools and spas; and parking for 9,048 cars.

Although total parking spaces proposed is over five times more than 1,799 spaces currently on site, the number ultimately built could be higher if Fifteen Group fails to obtain an exemption from city minimum parking rules requiring 10,903 to 11,003 spaces for a project this dense.  Fifteen group justifies the project as creating “a healthier place to live and work.” At the same time, the developer wants to continue subsidizing automobile ownership after describing Wyvernwood’s current provision of 1.5 parking spaces per home as “inadequate,” corresponding to “a time when there were fewer automobiles” than today.

Actually, the average number of vehicles owned per Los Angeles household is 1.4—and only 1.1 among renters.

Moreover, listed as a selling point for the project is its proximity to several freeways, the same ones largely responsible for Boyle Heights’s unusually high rates of asthma and other illnesses caused by air pollution.  To “improve circulation” within the new complex, Fifteen Group wants to triple the miles of car-accessible roads cutting through the project area, spurning the tree-lined footpaths that are a hallmark of this park-like community.

The developer contends that adding thousands of cars to Boyle Heights streets won’t add to environmental-health woes because new residents are likely to be lured away from their cars by seventeen bus lines serving Wyvernwood’s “immediate surroundings.”  But only six of these lines are easy to get to on foot, and only three of these have peak hour headways of fifteen minutes or less.  Catching most of the other buses, or the Gold Line over a mile away, requires a brave, long trek past treacherous freeway overpasses or industrial zones.

Nonetheless, the tendency for renters and low-income people of color to walk, bike or use transit—by necessity more than choice—holds true among present-day Wyvernwood residents:  42% already commute to work by some means other than driving, and another 11% carpool. There is no telling if an upscale New Wyvernwood’s population of mostly condo owners would do the same, but we know that higher income commuters generally drive alone.

While the Fifteen Group offers  ten acres of publicly available open space in a redeveloped Wyvernwood, ten acres is a fraction of what was once widely enjoyed in the un-gated community.   Indeed, longtime tenants often complain about the curtailment of their own use of the grassy grounds—variably estimated at 36 to 50 acres—after Fifteen Group bought the property in 1998.

The megaproject would not only create the most densely populated census tract in Los Angeles, with about 94,000 people per square mile—even with its conservatively projected 2.3 occupants per unit. It would also bring the first set of high rises since the iconic 14-story Sears tower nearby was completed in 1927 to the area of Los Angeles east of the L.A. River.  Three buildings would stand at 24 stories, another three at 18, and several more could reach 7 stories.

Given Fifteen Group’s request that the New Wyvernwood be designated a supergraphics special district, Boyle Heights residents may also see one day bright digital billboards atop the new skyscrapers illuminating the night sky.

Finally, as the Los Angeles Conservancy points out, any value in the proposed construction’s “green design” would be undermined by the demolition of 256 buildings that could otherwise be renovated, a cost-effective solution to problems created by years of deferred maintenance.  Renovation and reuse are increasingly recognized as more ecologically sustainable than razing and rebuilding.  The community’s common depiction as a slum notwithstanding, Los Angeles Housing Department inspectors have found the apartment buildings to be structurally sound, if in need of upgrades.

Wyvernwood’s preservation would also prevent the loss of nearly 1,200 dwellings from the shrinking stock of rent-stabilized housing, the city’s most important supply of affordable rentals.

With such un-New Urbanist truths inherent in the proposal, it was puzzling last year to hear that it had received an award from the Congress for the New Urbanism, a DC-based architectural group advocating New Urbanist principles including pedestrianism, mass transit, historic preservation and diversity.

Providing insight into the decision is planning scholar Mike Davis’s article, “Gentrifying Disaster,” describing the group’s collaboration in African Americans’ exclusion from Gulf Coast communities rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.  Contrary to its charter’s democratic spirit, writes Davis, the CNU’s practice of judging proposals without asking key questions—such as who or what might be replaced, and for whose benefit—puts it in the role of granting “legitimacy and publicity” to some “evil” projects.

“New Urbanism” has become a potent buzzword, however, rallying unquestioning supporters for just about any development at its mere mention.  And in Davis’s words: “Smart developers accordingly have been quick to put New Urbanist halos over their otherwise rampant land grabs and neighborhood demolitions.”

A last reason yet to be skeptical about the environmental claims related to redeveloping Wyvernwood—not to mention promises that nobody will be displaced, and that needy local residents will be given affordable housing and thousands of jobs—is Fifteen Group’s track record.  The 21-year-old company has no experience in real-estate development, but has made money as a sort of middleman for builders, carrying out devastating evictions and unpopular demolitions to clear properties before selling them off to actual developers.

  • P. Scones

    YES! I couldn’t agree more. Everything about this project seems foul. Yes, we need real solutions to the housing needs/demands of Los Angeles’ growing/changing demographics. But projects that displace and create negative environmental impacts on poor communities is NOT the answer.

  • ubrayj02

    How hard would it be to raise enough money to have the tenants buy the place themselves or have some collectively run agency buy it?

    Do the rents cover the costs of running and maintaining the place?

  • Anonymous

    Sounds like more mall-ification of LA. I can already envision the traffic creeping along rows of Starbucks, Quiznos, and obnoxious digital billboards serving a new (whiter) clientele. This must be stopped.

  • James Caine

    This project is completely out of character with the Boyle Heights community. It is not intended for Boyle Heights residents. LA needs a variety of housing that serves all income levels. We should not be replacing affordable housing with more upscale condos.

  • Allison

    Great article, Jesús! I think this is similar to what has been going on with Cornfields Plan (CASP) work that SEACA is doing in Chinatown which would have been “environmentally sound” but originally for the affluent, rather than low-income Asian and Latino residents who like you mentioned, already use transit and bike at higher rates, thereby increasing GHGs.

    As an environmental movement, we need to talk more about protecting these opportunities truly for all and for the poor.

  • anon

    I heard there’s a plan to consolidate all the local liquor permits into the Wyvernwood project, so that the new condo residents will be able to drink with their dinner, or probably have some bars on the ground floor. This taking away of liquor licenses will cause a lot of the small stores to shut down, because it’s going to take away one of the more profitable products they sell.

    There’s this perception that poor people drink too much, but studies show that it’s really the wealthy who drink the most, by a considerable margin. The reason why there is any support for opposing liquor in poor communities is because there are large populations of non-drinkers; in the affluent communities, around 90% of adults drink, so there’s no opposition. So, while the media is quick to present ugly liquor stores as the scourge of the poor, keeping them in poverty, the reality is that liquor stores sell alcohol to a numerical minority of drinkers within the local population, and face opposition from non-drinkers.

    There’s a similar lie going on about new urbanism – that it’s about walkable communities. Look at the new urbanist apartments that went up near Chinatown and downtown. They look very Italian, and have apartments on top, and stores on the ground level. But the stores look like fortresses, and you can’t really see into them very well. Most seem to be vacant. It’s obvious that their goal wasn’t to create retail accessible to the community. Quite the opposite – they made the retail spaces virtually unusable, so they would remain empty and discourage people from walking by the building.

    In exchange for a building that pretends to be new urbanist, the city will allow the developer to build upward.

  • anon

    It would be really hard because many of the people have section 8 housing vouchers.

  • Chuy90023

    Not true! As management have said when they’re asked, “Wyvernwood is a non-Section 8 community.”

  • there are some interesting points in this article, and I don;t have a strong opinion about Wyvernwood, but the real ecological crisis in LA isn’t adding more housing in dense areas; it is the nimby politics that oppose any changes to a built environment and transportation system that’s practically designed to destroy the planet. In a low income areas like this, less people drive so the problem isn’t as acute, but the rhetoric is still discouraging. The writer Rebecca Solnit described gentrification as ” just the fin above water. Below is the rest of the shark: a new American economy in which most of us will be poorer, a few will be far richer…” Focusing energy on stopping people different from you from moving into your neighborhood is a time-tested but still reactionary way to respond to inequality.

    Ironically, slow growth politics in LA started with some useful ideas and campaigns: saving the santa monica mountains from large scale cutting and development and organizing tenants in the city of Santa Monica into an effective coalition. These brights starts degraded into older, affluent homeowners fighting any changes that threaten “the premise that the whole metropolitan area must be amenable to single family houses, each with rapid automobile access to every other part of the city.” (in the words of historian robert fishman); and on restrictions on infill development such that most growth takes place in the worst possible location- far from jobs or walkable areas. We’re still suffering from the stale undertow of the slow growth movement- it manifests in suburban constituencies as auto-addiciton and in some urban areas as an unhealthy obsession with who might move into the neighborhood, but it no longer provides a viable organizing principle for LA as a place with shifting demographics, big investments in transit, repeated housing bubbles.

    Let’s start thinking creatively about what comes next

  • ubrayj02

    I don’t think the Orsini and its ilk are New Urbanist is any sense of the term. They are new and they are built in an urban setting, but those buildings are monstrosities that emits psychic gas on the ground floor that smells like terror and fear.

    The design of some paper fantasy development is all well and good – and so I understand the award by the CNU. The context around the issue makes this development way less enticing.

  • Orgoth

    Racist fuck.

  • Is it the Orsini this person was talking about? I thought that complex and its relatives all had parking on the ground floor.

    Although I suppose if it were just empty retail, that would also explain the look. But it would be very weird for a developer to intentionally build part of a building that is meant to remain unused, even by cars.

  • Thank you for the clarification – I’ve seen a lot of discussion on Streetsblog about Wyvernwood, but nothing that I had seen earlier mentioned anything about what the proposed development was like. I can see why there are a huge number of concerns here.

    However, like Mark Vallianatos, I think that there should be some thought as to how Boyle Heights (and every central part of the city) can start accommodating more residents. If we don’t build more here, then they’ll build it in Palmdale or Victorville instead, and destroy more of the Mojave desert, and cause more dozen-mile car commutes. The question is just how to do so without destroying the existing community (perhaps do the construction in phases, starting with apartments that are granted by right to the people who currently live in Wyvernwood, and only afterwards moving on to destroy the old buildings to add even more housing?) and without making the neighborhood more car-dependent. (Keeping the pedestrian greenways sounds good, but perhaps with some more tall buildings incorporated as well.)

  • ubrayj02

    The ground floor “retail” was mandated by the city.

  • Maria Suarez

    Bueno Jesus Creo Que Tus Comentarios Están Sujetos A Cambios Al Buen Entendedor Pocas Palabras Tu lo que Quieres Enseñar Como Muchos es Teoría no Practica Si Tu Vivieras Aquí o creo que ya viviste o no? Tal vez mo viviste Lo Que Nosotros Estamos Viviendo 1 solo Baño Para 6 personas Y Adolescentes te invito un Diia solamente y te Aseguro Que Con ese Dia Cambias tu Ideología

  • Jesus Hermosillo

    NBC reported yesterday that the latest studies show Wyvernwood’s zip code (90023) to be among the top ten most polluted in California….. http://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/Los-Angeles-Made-Top-Ten-for-Most-Polluted-Zip-Codes-in-State-EPA-204330801.html

  • Elbatmanuel

    Wvynerwood is a safe haven for gangs, tag bangers and drug dealers. Don’t believe me walk through it, you’ll see the gang graffiti everywhere, especially the floors. These protest aren’t about community, it’s about not losing your cheap rent. If you care about the community then where we’re your protests and marches over the last 30 years when the gangs, taggers and drug dealers moved in? Home owners in the area support redevelopment, only the renters oppose it.

  • fight corrupt owners

    WYVERNWOOD APARTMENTS DIRTY TRICKS EVICTS MEXICAN TENANTS

    Boyle Heights, CA July 9, 2013: Wyvernwood wants to convert their apartments into condos and they’re not taking no for an answer. Wyvernwood has a long history of evicting those that stand in their way according to Leonardo Lopez of El Comite De La Esperanza, the tenant’s union. Some estimates are over 300 illegal evictions have been committed under the auspices of these current kings. “We found our 3-day notices in the trash and we were almost wrongfully evicted four times.” Flyers go out that are not on company letterhead and unsigned. It’s full of promises that residents will get 18K to move, & to maintain the family environment here. “Yes, you also get a free pony too,” states Zaybastian, a long time tenant that has filed several discrimination charges against them. They are very slick PR people and two separate attorneys agree, “Such documents are legally meaningless.” If Wyvernwood is serious about these promises, they need to sign their contracts with authorized corporate representatives and hand one to each & every tenant. But there’s no way they’re going to do that, it’s just more smoke and mirrors. “In my opinion-” states Zaybastian “the tenants won’t get anything, they’re just going to pick us off 1 by 1.” Wyvernwood is known for hiring fake residents to come to rallies and political meetings. They want to create the bogus impression that residents support the project when internal numbers says they don’t. There was a vote submitted to Council Member Jose Huizar that was beyond the total population of actual residents. Simply there was way more votes for the project then there were tenants. How is that possible? When Wyvernwood says they ‘have spirit’ they mean it literally and the ghosts and the dead are clearly on their side.

    “There is constant intimidation by 3-armed guards with bulletproof vest, police type cruisers, nightsticks and a bad attitude. They are an effective force used to keep the non-English speaking residents in check,” adds Zaybastian. Looking more like border patrol agents than the “courtesy patrol” they claim to be. “ We are not allowed to unload our laundry/groceries as they are ready to pounce demanding that “–we leave or be towed.” If they REALLY were a ‘Courtesy Patrol’ they’d HELP us get our groceries inside. To make you even more miserable, they lose your bank money orders, slap you with late fees, circumvent rent control laws, issue fake 3 day notices, make insane claims of “smuggling in roaches and playing tubas” and having an “invisible Rotweiller dog.” Ironically, Zaybastian has 2 doctors’ letters that permit him to own a comfort dog due to his disability–yet he still has no service animal. Instead, he was forced to surrender him or see his “family evicted.” 41% of the tenants here are allowed to have pets-it’s very clear the treatment of tenants is inconsistent. Just as we can’t unload our laundry in the parking lot but their friends can make auto repairs and drink beers. They harass you if you use your wheelchair and are constantly insisting they “inspect his wheelchair ramp”, thereby, instituting their own version of a “no-fly-zone” like our military does when they want to limit your movement. For him it’s become a ‘no-roll zone’, effectively instituting a ban on his access. He is forced to use his cane though its usefulness is limited. Worse, his 11- yr old son that is required to use hip to toe braces is also denied the use of the ramp. They want to make you as miserable as possible so you don’t ‘self deport’ but rather ‘self evict’ and then they don‘t owe you the $18,000. Yet, there’s plenty of rats, roaches, trash and sewage problems.

    The family has not had a safe stove/heating system since it’s been red tagged by the Gas Co on Feb. 14, 2013. On June 12, 2013 it was tagged again and the family was so intimidated by Wyvernwood’s dirty tricks that they believed this certainly spelled their eviction. In the two years here the family has NEVER had heat. “Again, adding to the ‘Wyvernwood Misery Index’” Remembers Zaybastian “They retaliate EVERY time Code Enforcement or the Department of Health sites them for a violation, which is now over a dozen.” Mario from Wyvernwood Apartments says, “Who is the judge going to believe? Another free loading tenant that doesn’t pay his rent or a nice apartment manager like me?” HUD is investigating. HUD generally doesn’t get involved–we fear a slap on their wrist in their future. LA Housing Authority told us “you deserve whatever you get because you live there.” Housing Rights Council talked a lot but abandoned us in the end. Many people believe these are fraudulent agencies set up to give the appearance of help being available but actually won’t lift a finger. “Trust me no one will get any money, no one will have a rent controlled apartment, there will be no brown people living here, they will tear down the playgrounds, parks and destroy the family environment. This is not the beginning of the “New Wyvernwood” but the end of a decent place to raise your kids if you leave these owners in place,” finishes Zaybastian. Call the new Mayor Gil Garcetti or email him and tell him enough is enough. Tell him to reject the project and order an investigation. 213-473-7013 councilmember.ofarrell@lacity.org

  • fight corrupt owners

    we do not need high rises-it keeps folks apart–I am all for redevelopment but NOT BY THESE PEOPLE! Need the right people for the right job NOT FPI Management.

  • fight wyvernwood

    We support an improved 2 story, park based community, where neighbors are able to know one another-their argument can’t

    possibly be that they have to build shiny high-rise buildings because rats and roaches are afraid of heights? It’s clear

    that there must be a new construction plan, one which caters to a strong Mexican community where the buildings are only 2

    story high and foster the spirit of community. Building dead, callous, soulless, 20 story buildings will not serve the

    community, it will create separation and distance. So simply by having these plans proves that the 15 group does not

    understand how important family and culture values are to our neighborhood. At every turn the 15 Group shows they do not

    know what they are doing and worse that they do not care–Yes, let’s rebuild Wyvernwood and make it OUR own image and let’s

    do it without the untrustworthy 15 Group.

    http://laworstapartments.weebly.com/

  • fight wyvernwood

    They want to say ‘so many repairs need to be made that’s why we want to renovate’ –uh, who let it get this way in the 1st

    place? Wasn’t that you? Didn’t you do that so YOU could make this very argument? And have everyone so sick of living this

    way we will all be clamoring for change? Their whole divide and conquer strategy, again. Well not us folks; you want to

    renovate? We are on YOUR side–You want it to stay the same? We are on your side, too! Hmm, here’s an idea; let’s do both,

    let us renovate AND get rid of the Wyvernwood owners–let us make the changes, just not with the incompetent & the

    untrustworthy 15 group.

  • fight wyvernwood

    Let’s find a land developer we can trust and we’ll keep the 2 story, down home feel–we don’t need silver high-rise gilded

    cages that make them money and keep us away from one another. Breaking apart the community–divide and conquer right? We

    like knowing our neighbors even when we don’t like them or agree with them. We don’t want to live in a world full of shiny

    glossy hi-rise strangers. We need more communities like Wyvernwood, not less. Let’s us NOT confuse the owners with the

    property. If the property needs work maybe it’s time for new owners NOT a new property. Isn’t the property like a gun?

    Properties don’t kill, the owners do and make no mistake about these owners are killing us.

  • fight wyvernwood

    This is all in an attempt to win the tenants over: let them have parties, let them play music, let them drink beer in the

    parking lot! Let them eat cake! Yes, the same lot we can not use my wheelchair in, the same lot we can not load and unload

    my laundry/groceries. Win the middle people over and get rid of those ‘trouble makers’. Then once they do win you over,

    they will get rid of you. Some say they have gotten rid of over 300 such “trouble makers” thru Illegal evictions. The

    promises Wyvenrwood is making is ONLY enforceable by lawsuit. If they break their agreement with The Mexicans, The Mexicans

    will sue? No, they wont. Wyvernwood sure as heck knows that. You think there will be apartment/homes starting in 90K? How

    funny–we bet you a million dollars this project will run into ‘progressive cost over runs’ and the price will go from

    110k, 150k, 250k, till all of us brown people will be priced out of the new white market. Yes, we know then you’ll sue,

    Right? You won’t even file complaints with the Department of Health or Code Enforcement. According to one attorney there

    have only been 4 complaints filed in the entire history of Wyvernwood and 3 of them were mine. Yeah, you’ll sue? The 15

    group KNOWS there’s no way you will. SO they are having a good laugh at our expense.

  • fight wyvernwood

    RENOVATE WYVERNWOOD BUT GET RID OF CORRUPT OWNERS FIRST

    Boyle Heights, CA July 24, 2012; Even if you think you need medical treatment you don’t want just anyone doing surgery.

    With that logic applied the ‘15 Group’ are quacks that shouldn’t have the license to practice real estate development.

    We are all for renovating this place, we are totally against Wyvernwood, FPI Management and the “15 Group” doing it. You

    can’t trust them. We would no more go to them to renovate this place then we would go to a shoe salesmen to have our dental

    work done. “It IS a question of trust and ethics, NOT simply a matter of is it a good idea,” states Zaybastian, a long time

    resident. “Sure a good idea done by incredibly corrupt and incompetent people. That’s what’s been missing from the

    argument. Wyvernwood strategy is to harass those giving them a hard time and letting everyone else slide.” He Adds. In

    other words being a brown nose to the brown people–and once they get approved-they’ll get rid of you. They won‘t need you

    anymore. “We noticed a huge change in the policy for allowing dogs-now anyone can own one. OH–except me,” states

    Zaybastian “Since I need an assistance/comfort dog due to my disability and have 2 doctor’s letters saying so. If we get

    one I’m told my family gets evicted.” So Wyvernwood rules exist ONLY to be punitive to those they wish to lash out against.

    Nice. Seems like trustworthy folks doesn’t it? And of course the residents of Wyvernwood fall for it–“well they don’t do

    that to me.” Of course not, they are kissing your &*^%.; and we’re being good little puppets.

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