Second Time is Not a Charm: Community Still Vociferously Opposed to Plans for Lorena Plaza in Boyle Heights

The proposed Lorena Plaza apartments would sit at the corner of 1st and Lorena, next to el Mercado de Los Angeles. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
The proposed Lorena Plaza apartments would sit at the corner of 1st and Lorena, next to el Mercado de Los Angeles and across the street from the Everbrown, er, Evergreen Cemetery. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

What had ever happened to the plans to turn the space on the corner of Lorena and 1st St. into a fitness parklet?

Many of those gathered this past Wednesday evening at the second informational meeting regarding the plans for the site were still feeling burned by the promise they believed Metro had reneged on to put a park there.

At another meeting on the subject back in December of 2012, Metro had essentially told the community it had chosen a mixed-use development project because it was working toward enhancing transit quality and was not in the business of building parks. Last week’s informational meeting on the plans for the site had only reaffirmed that the park plans were out of the question.

Still, it wasn’t a dream people were willing to give up on just yet.

A mini fitness park would have been a wonderful addition to the jogging path that runs around the (not so) Evergreen cemetery across the street, lamented Rita Govea Rodriguez, a long-time Boyle Heights community stakeholder. Citing other examples of well-used fitness zones from around the city, she said it was something that her community would really have benefited from.

We were discussing the progress of A Community of Friends’ (ACOF) plans to build a four-story building containing 49 affordable housing units — half of which would be reserved for people with special needs (e.g. the homeless or mentally ill) — and approximately 7000 sq. ft. of retail space at the Lorena site.

The $23.1 million project cleared its last hurdle last March, when the Metro Board voted 10 – 1 to begin negotiations with ACOF regarding the development.

Jose Huizar, Councilmember for the 14th District and (now a former) Metro Board member, was the lone dissenting vote at the time. He was concerned that the drastic reduction in retail and parking space from the original 2006 proposal would heavily curtail the boost in economic activity the project was expected to have generated in the surrounding areas.

The proposed Lorena Plaza development. Source: ACOF.org
The proposed Lorena Plaza development. Source: ACOF.org

The community members present at the informational meeting on the project held at YouthBuild Boyle Heights this past Wednesday had an entirely different set of concerns on their mind. And, they weren’t shy about loudly telling ACOF CEO Dora Leong Gallo again and again, “You’re not welcome here.”

The most common concern was that the project would not benefit Boyle Height residents.

While the stakeholders gathered acknowledged the area has many needs — affordable housing and resources for those with special needs being chief among them — they did not buy the claim that Boyle Heights residents would actually have access to the housing units.

When Gallo tried to reassure the community members that they would be kept well-informed about the progress of the development so they could be the first to apply for housing, she was roundly shouted down.

Nadine Diaz, an M.S.W. and a Recruitment Coordinator with USC’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, said she lived practically next door to the Lorena parcel and ACOF had failed to inform her and other stakeholders about the informational meeting.

How could they be expected to trust that the process would be more transparent going forward?

Regardless of the answer, Diaz and the other neighbors (who also hadn’t been informed about the meeting) weren’t particularly inclined to put their trust in either Metro or ACOF anyways.

ACOF, Diaz charged, hadn’t done basic asset or deficit mapping in the area and seemed to know little about the community. And, as someone who works with those suffering from mental health issues herself, Diaz said she was concerned that the apparent lack of plans to have on-site qualified care-givers and resources to ensure the residents’ medical needs were properly addressed could bring harm to both those residents and the surrounding community.

Gallo, looking slightly flummoxed at the disruptive turn the discussion had taken, repeatedly attempted to both calm and reassure the crowd, saying, “I think there’s a misperception about who is going to be in this building…or [about] what supportive housing is…”

It was a plea that fell on largely deaf ears.

One young woman said she had seen ACOF’s housing facility in San Diego firsthand and was not impressed by the deterioration of the conditions of the surrounding area or the heavy presence of homeless people loitering around the site. She did not want that for her neighborhood, especially if the housing was not even going to serve people in the community.

When Gallo tried to tell her that they only built that San Diego property — they did not operate it, the crowd became more agitated. Gallo seemed to be confirming their fears that ACOF might wash their hands of the structure once it was built.

The operators would then be free, warned a stakeholder, to turn it into a drug rehab facility or promote some other use which was not in harmony with the surrounding neighborhood.

That would not happen, countered Gallo.

The discussion swung back to who would benefit from the housing.

Resident Fanny Ortiz stood up to say that, as the mother of a special needs daughter and as someone who had once been homeless herself, she welcomed the project.

“Who do you work for?” demanded property-owner and resident Teresa Marquez.

When she admitted she worked for Metro and was a volunteer with ELACC (the East L.A. Community Corporation), an organization that has converted a number of properties in the area into affordable housing and is seen by many as not having the interests of the community at heart, the crowd went ballistic.

“Sit down!” the crowd yelled at her.

Gallo implored the crowd to let the woman speak.

Other audience members accused the woman of being with the enemy and told her that, if Metro was paying her salary, they had heard all they needed to hear from her.

The woman forged ahead, saying she felt that such a project was necessary for people in the community like herself and her daughter.

“But [the housing] will not be for you!” argued a young woman, reiterating her belief that the housing would go to people from outside the community.

An exasperated Gallo pleaded for respectful dialogue and tried to again reassure the crowd that ACOF would take care to look for those in need on the streets of Boyle Heights while also working with local organizations to ensure they targeted the right people.

“Be careful who you work with!” warned Sofia Quinones.

Launching into a passionate and, at times, tearful speech mixing Spanish and English, the woman spoke of how she felt the community had been burned by organizations like ELACC in the past.

Citing the renovation of the Boyle Hotel (once home to the Mariachi community) and the empty promises made to those that once lived there, Quinones proclaimed, I hate them, the bastards! They treated us like dogs!…I was here when they threw out the the Mariachis… They cut off their water, their electricity… They always treat Mexicans this way!

They want to get rid of the people of Boyle Heights. Then the high rents will come!… The writing’s on the wall…

Turning back to Gallo, she said, “Be careful who you work with. You’re going to work with organizations that have hurt us…I’m asking you again, sister. Leave.”

16 out 39 cars parked along Lorena were for sale yesterday. The informal "car dealership" has been a longstanding complaint of residents in an area where street parking can be scarce. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
16 out of 39 cars parked along Lorena were for sale yesterday. The informal “car dealership” has been a long-standing complaint of residents in an area where street parking can be scarce. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Besides gentrification, a number of people feared over-crowding.

The presence of El Mercado de Los Angeles — an important cultural space, restaurant, and marketplace — means parking in the area is already scarce.

That situation is made worse by the person (or people) running an informal car dealership on the nearby side streets. The vehicles up for sale tend to be clustered around El Mercado because of the heavy foot traffic going in and out of the area. Several speakers noted that it is even worse on the weekends (which means it is truly untenable; I personally counted 16 out of the 39 parked cars on Lorena as being for sale Thursday afternoon).

Such a large housing structure, added Diana Tarango, a third-generation Boyle Heights resident, would also be joining several others going up in the neighborhood (including an ELACC-owned structure on the other side of the cemetery). The neighborhood was becoming overwhelmed with these large housing projects, most of which did not seem geared at serving the immediate community.

Addressing Gallo directly, she asked if Gallo would like to see that happening in her neighborhood.

Finally, a young man stood up and pleaded for calm.

Citing environmental concerns, he said that the ecosystem was being asked to sustain too much activity. He also spoke of his fears for the safety of the mentally ill residents, saying that they might either walk in front of the train by accident or get taken advantage of by less scrupulous people in the neighborhood.

After again pleading for more measured dialogue from the spirited crowd, he returned to the point many had made throughout the night, namely, that ACOF should work to prioritize the needs of the people in the community before serving the needs of those from outside it.

“That young man…is my son,” Govea told me as we watched Gallo and other staff gather some of the folding chairs ACOF had borrowed for the event when the meeting finally came to a close a little after 8 p.m.

Many in the crowd, animated by having gotten their point across and having found like-minded neighbors, continued the conversation outside..

Discussing the young man’s plea for civility, they wondered if it really mattered. The debate over the future of the site at 1st and Lorena had been going on for years, and they were frustrated by the likelihood that their input — civil or otherwise — would have little impact on the final outcome.

Hoping for the best, they declared they would take to social media. It didn’t mean they would win the battle, they understood, but it did mean they would not go down quietly.

For more information on the planned development, please see ACOF’s plans here.

13 thoughts on Second Time is Not a Charm: Community Still Vociferously Opposed to Plans for Lorena Plaza in Boyle Heights

  1. Mixed-use brings twice as much tax revenue per unit than traditional suburban development, but it also brings more crime, litter, traffic, pollution, and so on. When a community has to pay all of those costs but has to share the financial benefits (i.e., the tax revenue) with the rest of the city, what do you expect will happen–that the community will do what’s best for the community, or that the community will do what’s best for the rest of the city?

    This is why there’s so much community opposition to mixed-use even when the overall result is positive.

  2. Good point. It is just a shame that the mixed-use couldn’t be more targeted. LA is so big and each neighborhood can almost stand alone, the idea of bringing in people from across the city to a community and culture (depending on the area) they are totally unfamiliar with while not addressing the exact same needs that are over-abundant in the very community where you are placing your development just doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. I think finding a way to balance both in a way that made the community feel like they weren’t being used as a repository would go a long way to making these projects more acceptable to people…

  3. The goals of metro’s joint development program for any specific site are to:

    “1. Promote and enhance transit ridership.
    2. Enhance and protect the transportation corridor and its environs.
    3. Enhance the land use and economic development goals of surrounding communities and conform to local and regional development plans.
    4. Generate value to LACMTA based on a fair market return on public investment” (Joint Development Policies and Procedures. October 2009).

    So unless the local community plan had identified that site as open space, there’s no way Metro is going to choose a park proposal right near a rail station. The purpose of the entire program is to intensity land use to increase ridership.

    It’s always depressing to read about the paranoia and hostility to outsiders of people who go to these kinds of hearings.

    One thing they are right about is that over past decades, residents of wealthier, whiter areas have been more successful in using the system to keep commercial, multi-family housing, industry and other denser land uses out, so that places like Boyle Heights have more than their ‘share.’ Opposing affordable housing isn’t a solution; it’s reducing barriers in other neighborhoods. We also need to deal with the fact that having 35 community plans makes it hard to pursue citywide goals and encourages inequitable outcomes.

  4. True, the spot had little hope of becoming a park, but the community seems clear that Metro promised them it could have been one. That sort of they-said we-said is something I have heard a lot with regard to Metro, but it is hard to know what was actually said.

    And you’re right, the exchanges between the community members present and ACOF were not at all pleasant to watch. I sat on what I had seen for a day to try to figure out what it meant, and I think I still hadn’t quite sorted it out by the time I wrote the piece. Usually, in writing something like this, my intention is to help offer instructive bits on how to engage a community more successfully. I don’t think I quite managed to do that here. But I had an exchange with a housing advocate after the fact, and what I told him (on LASB’s FB page) was the following…

    “Many of the activists present were some of the
    same ones you see at every meeting. Many of them were also present at
    the meeting the week before, making the exact same cases. And some of
    them delight in the grandstanding of it, rather than offering
    substance…[However,] I think this
    is very different than a NIMBY situation in a better-off neighborhood.
    These are people asking for some guarantee that their own myriad needs
    be addressed. Some of the past (re)developments have not instilled
    confidence, neither has the city’s unwillingness to deal with things
    like the informal “car dealership” that clogs the side streets at that
    site. It makes a community feel that if this development should not go
    well, they will be stuck with it. … The city, outside agencies, and outside
    non-profits historically have a very bad track record working with
    marginalized communities like BH or South LA. That is why there is such
    intense and aggressive pushback when issues like this come up. People
    expect not to be heard and they expect to be screwed over. So they come,
    ready to go to war. Knowing this, an org. that plans to put a permanent
    project up in such a neighborhood needs to take that resentment
    seriously (not the claims of the squeakiest wheels, necessarily, but
    definitely the resentments) and find new ways to engage the future
    neighbors. My sense from the meeting was very little had been invested
    in doing outreach, door knocking, identification and engagement of
    potential future residents of the site (or at least the development of
    concrete plans for how that would happen), or anything else that would
    have reassured the community that ACOF was coming in as a partner and
    friend. They still wouldn’t win everybody over in doing so, but calling
    this meeting “outreach” is ridiculous — they essentially got exactly what
    they paid for. If you want to be a neighbor and you want the future
    residents of the site to be accepted into the community (which is
    incredibly important given the needs of the population to be served),
    then take a non-traditional approach to community engagement from the
    outset and put in the time doing the legwork to inform and win over
    residents that can serve as allies. Don’t let the squeakiest wheels
    dictate the conversation, as happened here…. The fact that [some housing advocates might dismiss the naysayers as annoying NIMBYs] is disheartening — it makes me
    think that [those advocates] have a long way to go in understanding how
    to engage communities or that the complaints themselves are not what
    matter as much as what lies behind them.”

    If that makes sense… that was the takeaway from the meeting for me. That outreach for housing developments needs to take an intense on-the-ground approach from the get-go. It doesn’t mean the project will ever be a great fit for BH, but if they can engage the actual neighbors and be able to provide them with specific answers from the outset about how future residents will be identified (and cared for) or what measures can be taken to assist locally-owned businesses in having access to the retail spaces and so forth, it would at least show the community they were taking the idea of being good neighbors seriously. There was one point at which Gallo actually mumbled something about driving around BH and looking for people on the streets that they could put into the new apts. (I think she was exasperated at this point) which made me think that they really hadn’t either anticipated community concerns or thought ahead that far. And the housing advocate’s (the one I had the above exchange with) suggestion that construction is the best advertising (meaning local residents will likely be the ones to know about the site and apply to live there) did not reassure me that they take outreach seriously.

    It will be interesting to see how this project unfolds…

  5. +1. We have reached the point where many residents of low-income communities *don’t* want projects that improve their neighborhoods, because they correctly perceive that those improvements make their n’hoods more attractive to gentrification.

    And it’s a direct connection from the impossibility of building in wealthy areas to the displacement in low income areas. When people with some money are priced out of the Westside, Silver Lake, Echo Park, etc., they move to places like Boyle Heights, and low income residents get priced out even further.

  6. A community can prevent gentrification by investing in itself. Keep the roads and sidewalks in good shape, get rid of graffiti, make sure the landscaping is taken care of, stuff like that. This will keep property values up and make it more costly for developers to come in and make big, sweeping changes.

    So if a community gentrifies, it’s really the community’s own fault for neglecting itself and thereby making itself more attractive to big developers.

    And is there any evidence of gentrification being detrimental to low income residents?

  7. Gentrification is not about developers coming in & making big changes. Gentrification is about hundreds of small time landlords raising rents, and hundreds of single-family owners selling, to people with more money moving in. The big developers, who have tens of millions at stake in each project, don’t take the risk in being the first ones in; they follow. Take a look at Williamsburg, for example. The big developers that are there now followed the gentrifiers, not the other way around.

    Gentrification is detrimental to low-income residents in the context of the current urban zoning/permitting regime, which makes it very difficult to build new housing. If supply cannot increase, prices will rise and low income residents (who need the city the most) will be forced to move further away. This is why you see pop urbanist trend pieces about “the suburbanization of poverty”.

  8. I’m increasingly thinking that Metro’s strategy of building rail and hoping that neighborhoods then “densify” in response is backwards. They should either only build rail where the current density is there to support it (probably subway, no matter the cost) or require a neighborhood to rezone for high-density before the station locations are awarded.

  9. this article is garbage. way to lift up the voices of those who think people with special needs are humans pieces of S***.

  10. That was not the position of anyone in the community and that was not a position related here. If you read it, you’ll see that people were very concerned that those in their own community with special needs be able to have access to the housing opportunities and that those with those needs be supported with caseworkers and other professionals on site. That’s very different from saying “we hate people with special needs.” There was only one person who kept asking why ACOF wanted to bring “psycho people” into the area and he was not from Boyle Heights. And he was immediately and rightly told by Gallo that that was an inappropriate and inaccurate way to refer to and think about people with mental health issues.

  11. That’s an interesting thought. Although my takeaway, from this event, at least, was that if they were just better at doing neighborhood engagement and really presenting themselves as partners — looking for ways to help residents/entrepreneurs take advantage of the opportunities additional retail space would offer, working with residents to help them work with the city on current concerns (like the car “dealership”), having a clear strategy for identification of future residents, and possibly working with the community on acceptable designs for the housing that reflected the character of the neighborhood, they might find they had a better chance of building some alliances with residents. They need to do actual door-knocking outreach. If you want to move into a place, you have to present yourself as a partner. That means you’ve got to knock on some doors. And I don’t think that happens very often, unfortunately….

  12. Here is actual footage of what really happened at the community meeting in Boyle Heights. For the record, the Boyle Height stakeholders who live, reside and own businesses in the surrounding 500 ft. radius were never notified by any local, state and federal governmental department.

    It is obvious a “Back Room Deal” occurred between the ACOF, the MTA Board Members, specifically Mark Ridley Thomas, Gloria Molina, and Dora Gallo-Leung, the CEO of ACOF is the situation at hand. For the record, Dora Gallo Leung worked as former Chief of Staff to Mark Ridley-Thomas for several years.

    There are needs in the Boyle Heights community that need to be addressed and taken care first. Second, the land is zoned for transportation purposes only, hence federal land. No one in the entire community was informed and notified and that is a Civil Rights violation.

    A Community of Friends is not welcome in Boyle Heights. They are considered ” A Community of Enemies.”

    Part 1 Dora Leung, CEO–A Community of Friends

    Part 2–A Community of Friends

    Part 3—A Community of Friends

    Part 4—A Community of Friends

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