City and Residents Debate Fate of Lot at 1st and Boyle

The lot at 1st and Boyle. to the right (across Boyle), an affordable housing project is being built. At a lot adjacent to Mariachi Plaza (where image was taken from) development will like come in the form of commercial space. (Google maps)
The lot at 1st and Boyle. Behind the green fencing to the right, an affordable housing project is being built. At a lot adjacent to Mariachi Plaza (where image was taken from) development will like come in the form of commercial space. (Google maps)

“Dots are not a very democratic way to do things.”

If there was a message Boyle Heights residents wanted to send to the city regarding their community outreach process last night, that seemed to be it.

They were referring to the colored stickers planners often ask residents to use to signal their planning priorities. In this case, residents were asked to choose between land-use options for the CRA-owned vacant lot at 1st and Boyle that sits across the street from Mariachi Plaza. Did they want to see an open space/plaza-type project, mixed-use development (commercial space on the ground floor, residential or office spaces on the upper floors), or town home-style live-work spaces?

The residents’ answers seemed to be, in no particular order, “none of the above,” “this is a scam,” “don’t we need to know who this housing would be for before we vote on it?” “we need more parking,” and “why didn’t you come to us for suggestions before coming up with these plans?”

Being asked to put dots next to a particular poster board, argued several people, was akin to asking the community to rubber stamp the city’s suggestions to make it look like genuine dialogue had taken place. And they weren’t going to stand for it.

Planners tried explaining that the proposed projects seen on the poster boards were only suggested land uses, not an effort to designate specific businesses or structures for the site.

Coming in with flexible suggestions for land uses — to the city — made perfect sense. For one, even if residents hated the proposals, visuals gave them something to respond to — a common ground for discussion to begin around land uses.

Second, as Rocio Hernandez, Boyle Heights Area Director for Jose Huizar, told the crowd, the city is aware that the community has no interest in hearing promises that would not be kept. The land-use suggestions planners were offering were ones they felt the CRA would be likely to approve as well as ones that would help the city fetch a fair price for the land. As the city itself does not own the land, it can’t just use the land as it sees fit.

Third, the city has a very limited time frame in which to get a project for the site off the ground.

After the CRA was dissolved in 2012, the question then became what to do with its many remaining assets. But it was not until the very end of 2014 that the city was able to enter into option agreements with the CRA on ten of those parcels of land. The option agreements are structured to allow the city to sell the properties to third-party developers at fair-market value without impact to the state’s General Fund. The rest of the CRA-owned assets were put up for sale last summer.

Josh Rohmer of the City Administrative Office told meeting attendees that the city was not comfortable with allowing the lot at 1st and Boyle to be sold to the highest bidder. Instead, he said, they were hoping to put together a Request for Proposals (RFP) with a set of preferences and requirements that reflected the values of the community. The catch was that process needed to be well underway by 2017.

If the city could prove that they were moving forward on a project, it was possible, Rohmer said, that they could get an extension of a year to finish the planning process. But it would still mean that planning had to start sooner rather than later.

Aldo Medina, who, on behalf of the East L.A. Community Corporation, has provided technical assistance to the small businesses along the 1st Street corridor for a few years now, asked if it would be possible to open up the lot for parking while the fate of the lot was being decided. If construction was as far off as two years, he said, access to the lot could still be helpful to local businesses in the meanwhile.

His request was met with applause from the crowd.

Parking is a major concern in the area. For reasons that make no sense to anyone, on a street that is jam-packed with restaurants and other businesses people tend to frequent on their lunch hours (tailors, trophy shops, etc.), parking is restricted on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from noon to 3 p.m. for street sweeping. While the city and Metro clearly both assumed that visitors would use the Gold Line to get to the areas around Mariachi Plaza, that hasn’t panned out. That station actually sees some of the fewest boardings in the entire rail network. And folks coming to the area’s restaurants are often from around the Southland (Downey, Pomona, etc.), and couldn’t easily get to the community via transit, even if they wanted to. Or they are coming for a big purchase order of trophies and can’t carry them onto the train by themselves.

So, while parking across the street from a transit station might seem like a waste to some, business owners in the community still see it as key to their survival.

“How can we develop ourselves if you keep bringing in more businesses but no parking?” asked Carlos Ortez, owner of Un Solo Sol.

There was no answer with regard to whether the lot could be opened for parking; the planners said they would have to check with the CRA.

Nor was it clear what the next step with regard to the lot would be. A follow-up meeting is planned for February 16 at 7 p.m., but there seemed to be less clarity about what residents might see at the site, not more. As people swarmed the planners standing at the poster boards, they reiterated their interest in seeing affordable housing, a place for children to play, a quiet place for the elderly, a laundromat (to replace the one that had been on that lot previously), retail spaces that accommodated the kinds of very small businesses seen in low-income communities, and, of course, parking.

For me, one of the most striking things about last night’s meeting was its complete independence from any discussions that have been (or are about to be) had regarding the future of the lot across the street (Mariachi Plaza), the lot on Cesar Chavez and Fickett (previously slated to be a grocery store), and the affordable housing projects going up all along the corridor, including one on the opposite corner of 1st and Boyle. The reasons for this are likely more logistical than anything. Metro owns all of the aforementioned lots. The city does not own the lot at 1st and Boyle, has a deadline which must be met, and has an entirely different process that must be followed.

Proposed developments at Metro-owned lots in Boyle Heights. Most are affordable housing projects. Source: Metro
Proposed developments at Metro-owned lots in Boyle Heights. Most are affordable housing projects. Source: Metro

Logistics aside, it still seems like a lost opportunity to step back and look at the community as a larger whole. Change happens so quickly in Boyle Heights and usually with very little input from the community. This is one of those rare instances where the city and the residents could stop to take a breath together and look at the bigger picture. Given the community’s very warranted concerns about gentrification, there seems no better moment to ask how projects in such close proximity could complement each other so as to foster development and encourage job growth while limiting displacement and safeguarding community well-being.

The next meeting for the lot at 1st and Boyle will be held February 16 at 7 p.m. at Councilmember Jose Huizar’s Field Office. Meetings to discuss the fate of Mariachi Plaza and the lot at Cesar Chavez and Fickett have yet to be scheduled, but are expected to take place this spring. If you’d like to be reminded of how the process around Mariachi Plaza and Metro’s others has unfolded, be our guest, here.

 

  • jennix

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but businesses that depend on automobile parking don’t really belong in dense residential neighborhoods. Too many good projects get sunk by over-zealous, car-centric parking regulations. Parking isn’t how we should plan to use land in cities.

    The reason neighborhoods get gentrified in the first place isn’t new housing being built now, it’s new housing that did NOT get built 10 years ago. If Boyle Heights wants to survive as it is, it’ll do so by allowing new projects now to increase density around transit hubs and keep rents low by keeping the supply high.

  • ubrayj02

    Any meeting that asks me to do post-it note planning is going to get 100% of my most childish piss-in-the-well comments on post-its as well as post-it note art all over their expensive printed maps.

    I’d use the sticker dots to make rude symbols or smiley faces and ask the planners WTF they are expecting us to do with stickers; do they think we are children? Ask them to express their plans for retirement by placing stickers on the map. It’s a total shit show and a symbolic lesson in why the practice of planning in the U.S. engenders so much suspicion and hate from those not in the profession.

    Here take this survey:

    1.) I support Metro’s project because:
    (a) everyone at Metro is great
    (b) everything Metro does is amazing
    (c) all of the above

    Thank you for taking our survey!

    Distrust in civic institutions doesn’t need to reach the fever point it already is at. People want some old-fashioned deal making, get-to-know-us, politics. This “show up and fulfill the legal requirements” bullshit just makes everyone pissed off.

  • ubrayj02

    As for Metro ridership at that station – have you walked around the area? It is a horror show of crap sidewalks, miserable street design (even with those bike lanes), no shade, and no public bathrooms (seriously?!).

  • sahra

    Livable streets folks are really zealous about eliminating parking and have lots of ideas about how doing so will impact human behavior. And I get that — i understand the theory behind it. But, not to put too fine a point on it, in practice, in lower-income communities, you’re often looking at a very different set of constraints than you are in a wealthier community where folks just prefer not to associate with the rabble on transit or see density in their neighborhood. Families on the margins in lower-income neighborhoods often live on unstable incomes in overcrowded apartments with extended family. They may have one car the family shares because they work off-peak hours and can’t use transit to get back and forth to work. Or they work multiple jobs. Or they are juggling long/off-peak commutes with family obligations. So car usage is very different and often a vital part of their survival as a family, even though this is a neighborhood with some of the lowest car ownership and the greatest transit dependence. We can put all the housing around the Gold Line stations we want, but until it connects people to where (and when) they need to go better, they aren’t likely to use it. If they have to get to the westside, the train is not a great way to get there. And as far as the complaints the business owners made — until we have better transit connections, their customers will continue to drive in from around the county. In some ways, it’s almost a chicken and egg issue… we won’t have better transit til we have greater and more centralized density. But we can’t really have more livable centralized density unless we have better transit infrastructure. We’re moving toward both, but it’s a slow process, and in the meantime, the lower-income folks are the ones that are impacted most greatly by those shifts. And probably will continue to be so until a greater effort is made to understand and incorporate into policy insights about how and why lower-income folks make the transportation choices they do.

  • I’d be interested to know how it would work financially to build and operate a parking lot there. Who would be willing to do that and how would that be paid for? If you sell that land to a developer the most profitable use probably wouldn’t be a parking lot, so the land would sell for less if it were sold on condition that it be a parking lot which involves an opportunity cost for the City (reduced capacity to fund public services).

  • sahra

    I agree… I personally don’t think it should be turned into parking, either. I understand what the residents and community need and how folks move around the area, but even with all that, a parking lot seems to be the least useful way to make use of the space (although the idea of using it as one in the interim is a good one). That said, however, that’s why building a parking structure at the plaza was the least controversial part of what Metro was looking to do when Primestor first floated its plans for the plaza a year ago… I think what the city needs to do is change the street sweeping schedule first and foremost. Then follow up to see what the needs are once that has been adjusted. I have a feeling it would mitigate a lot of concerns, and then discussion around the fate of the lot would be easier.

  • Alex Brideau III

    The article indicates the CRA was dissolved in 2012, but also mentions the CRA several more times in the present tense as though it still exists. Can some clarity be added here? If the CRA was dissolved, the agency/entity that handles its affairs these days should be cited by name, not just called “CRA”, as that’s rather confusing. :-S

  • sahra

    sorry… i myself find it a little confusing. The CRA was dissolved but, as noted, it still has all of these assets it must divest itself of. And, as far as I know, it hasn’t changed its name, unless you are referring to “CRA/LA” which I understand is the “designated local authority” of the state agency. http://www.crala.org/internet-site/index.cfm The agency was only referred to as the CRA by planners during the meeting and in conversations had afterwards, so that’s the terminology I used. Apologies for any confusion.

  • BC23

    There are definitely pros and cons of the “sticker” system. If done well, facilitators should help educate and inform community members about potential options, and then give them time for alternatives to be raised, discussed (ideally in smaller groups), and added before “voting”. Stickers are just one way to do it, but arguably more equitable than if just verbal comments are allowed. The latter can easily become dominated by the most outspoken attendees. Some people also don’t feel comfortable speaking in front of large groups, may not have strong english-language skills, and/or be worried about raising or voting for options that the majority of attendees do not support.

  • Justin Runia

    Or more distressingly, the cycle of communities fighting density and increased public amenities because it would encourage the wrong kind of people to move there…

  • Slexie

    So the people are asking for a place to park and they are getting ignored. The transit passengers from the Gold Line have not materialized and the people have been clear about what they want. Yet leaders and reporters have their own agendas, that’s clear and sad.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Might there be something called the “CRA successor agency”? I seem to recall hearing that term.

  • calwatch

    Legally, all redevelopment agencies are successor agencies, which are not controlled by the city’s council or delegate body but by an oversight board consisting of the city, the county, representatives from special districts in the area, and the school district serving that area. This has been the case since Jerry Brown and the state legislature terminated redevelopment agencies for their abuse of funds in the 90’s and 2000’s.

  • calwatch

    The stickers are useful in allocating finite resources. If you limit the number of stickers you hand out per attendee, it helps reinforce that people have to make priorities and that money isn’t infinite.

  • calwatch

    The other thing is that these mariachis, wedding dress businesses, etc. draw from a regional area, and places like Cudahy, Bell, Downey, Montebello, Huntington Park, etc. are more auto oriented. The business owners have the correct fear that they’ll just move to unincorporated East LA or Huntington Park, or even worse help strengthen the nascent service center of Downtown Santa Ana in the Latino community, much as how Temple City’s Bridal Row became the dominant area for Asian bridal related shops.

  • sahra

    very true…

  • Alex Brideau III

    I’m guessing the planners mis-spoke and the “CRA/LA” successor agency is what they meant. The rebranding (or lack thereof) was so muddled during the wind-down of the agency that to this day it’s still unclear. (The agency no longer exists but an entity with an almost identical name and branding handles their affairs and still refers to itself as the defunct agency.)

    Perhaps putting “CRA” in quotes with a parenthetical explanation noting the issue/confusion would be helpful, especially for readers less familiar with the CA shutdown of redevelopment agencies. :-)

  • sahra

    indeed… i spent several hours reading through old CRA docs the other day to try to figure out exactly where things stood and who controlled what. But even the planners themselves said the rules kept changing on them as the CRA disentangled itself from everything. And a lot of the folks there were former CRA employees or still linked to the successor CRA. Sadly, they weren’t helpful in making that clarification, either. I think the larger takeaway is that the state is forcing the local agencies to sell off the properties. Most have gone up for private sale (which in and of itself is its own story, considering how many of the 40+ properties were purchased or the original intentions behind their purchase), but the city was able to work out this option agreement on 10 sites, with the option to buy them itself. But it is the state that still appears to be setting the deadlines and whose General Fund would be impacted by the sale of the properties. But it will probably be the local entity (at least, at first) which judges the viability of an projects submitted on these properties. Which is all stuff I am guessing you probably know better than I. But I lay it out here for anyone else (or for correction by you, if need be!).

  • jk2001

    I suspect it’s more because it doesn’t go downtown into the Pershing Square area where there are a lot of buslines and trains that go westward. The trip is: Gold -> Red -> ??? going west or south. If the Redline transfer wasn’t necessary, it would be more useful.

  • jk2001

    I have tried to park there to go to White Memorial. There are so few spaces on the street. It’s already pretty high-density there. There’s a problem in these old communities because many homes lack off-street parking. The streets are also narrower, so some have parking only along one side. Generally, the parking there is so bad that I do take transit. I’ve also walked there. Mainly, though, I avoid the area.

    Also, I think transit use is limited because the route the gold line takes sucks. Noted above.

  • jk2001

    If they are a regional attraction, they need to be treated that way. That may mean adding parking so that people stay and make a day of it, and patronize the other businesses, which should try to hire locally.

    It also means pumping up the “Mexicanness” of the street. That might irritate some folks, but… look at El Mercadito. The tables are jammed, and the parking is packed. It works.

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