Controversial Reef Project Approved via Consent Calendar; Residents Denied Opportunity to Engage Councilmembers
Putting on Your “Big Boy Pants” v. Putting Together a Good Project
“Let me take a minute to applaud Mr. Price for this incredible project,” First District Councilmember Gil Cedillo said as the Planning and Land-Use Management Committee (PLUM) began deliberations on the fate of the billion-dollar luxury residential and hotel project planned for 1933 S. Broadway in Historic South Central on Tuesday, November 1. “Because this is what real progressive change looks like!” [PLUM audio, agenda can be found here.]
As boos erupted from some in the crowd, Cedillo took aim at the residents who had stepped forward to testify about their fears of being displaced, “This is real! This is not a demand, or a slogan, or a chant,” he said dismissively.
“We can complain about” the fact that “this project doesn’t…cure cancer,” he continued sarcastically, but “five percent affordable [housing] where nothing exists? We’re told [this] is somehow a bad thing. I don’t see it that way.”
By his calculations, he said, The Reef’s $15 million contribution to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund (AHTF) would allow the city to extend affordability covenants on as many as 500 existing units at-risk of being converted to market-rate housing. Together with the City Planning Commission’s recommendation that there be approximately 26 on-site affordable units, he argued, that “represented a 37 percent affordability on this project” and made Ninth District Councilmember Curren Price someone who, “in [his] brilliance, in [his] leadership, in [his] genius,” had managed to “put on his big boy pants.”
This “vision of shared prosperity, not shared poverty” that Price had cobbled together, Cedillo concluded, had established a model process by which a developer and the community could work together to ensure “the rising tide will lift all boats.”
It was a shameful soliloquy of ignorance from a member of a committee tasked with making at least a minimum effort to assess the extent to which the benefits of a proposed project outweighed its potential harms.
It was also unsurprising.
On paper, The Reef sounds like a livability wet dream. The project proposes to transform two surface parking lots near the convergence of two rail lines into 1,444 units (549 of which would be for rent, including 21 live-work lofts), a 208-room hotel, ground floor restaurants activating the sidewalks, a grocery store, pharmacy, gallery, and fitness center in a community that has so few, a public bike hub (with showers) and improvements to the DASH service, an open plaza with gardens and outdoor performance spaces, and micro-enterprise spaces reserved for small businesses and entrepreneurs from the community. In a town where the housing crunch is so dire that the mayor has prioritized seeing 100,000 units permitted by 2021 and regularly sends out press releases tracking his progress on that front – what’s not to love?
Add to all this a Development Agreement (DA) and community benefits package featuring $15 million in contributions to the AHTF, 5 percent on-site affordable units, $3 million to fund health, safety, education, job training, and recreational programming in the community, street trees, a community garden, a local hire agreement, as well as (added in at the PLUM hearing) a community relations ombudsman, quarterly reporting on hiring and procurement to ensure accountability, and the promise the project won’t be flipped without permission from the city and payment of all community benefits first.
Then consider that few developers have been willing to take a chance on investing in South Los Angeles. And that even the now-defunct Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) once thought that the best South L.A. might hope for on those lots was a big box store and a surface parking lot, according to Reef attorney (and, conveniently, co-chair of the effort to revise the city’s outdated zoning code) Edgar Khalatian of Mayer Brown LLP.
If you knew only these things, you, too, might conclude that the councilmember and The Reef had taken a uniquely community-oriented approach to development.
A deeper probe into the way these agreements came together and the extent to which area residents are actually likely to benefit from these concessions, however, elicits a somewhat different set of conclusions.
The thoroughly cynical way in which both the developers and Price leveraged community benefits to play divisive racial and socio-economic politics, downplayed the magnitude, complexity, and urgency of the housing crisis in Historic South Central, and oversold the extent to which city’s affordable housing tools can actually address the needs of those most likely to be impacted by this project is profoundly troubling.
More troubling still is the precedent that such a project sets.
A massive luxury development catering to a well-heeled clientele doesn’t constitute a “win” for housing when it is situated on the edge of a neighborhood that is both one of the poorest in the city and the most overcrowded in the entire country. Nor it is a win when the developer’s “generosity” is not only an overt bid to avoid having onsite affordable housing but it also leaves a community bitter, divided, and more vulnerable than it was before. It is most certainly not a win when the entire reason such a massive project is viable is because of the extent to which decades of disinvestment and disenfranchisement of the community have depressed land values and stripped the community of political power. And it is absolutely not a win when such a project promises to not only change the character and composition of a historically marginalized community forever, but opens the door for other projects to do the same in similarly distressed communities in the name of revitalization.
With a City Council vote on the project hurriedly scheduled for today (Tuesday) (possibly to exempt the project from any conditions proposition JJJ might impose), it is imperative that the councilmembers fully understand what a vote in favor for this project means for the community and why.
With the City Council moving the project to the consent calendar this afternoon [and later approving it, when Paul Koretz arrived]* residents were essentially denied one last opportunity to engage elected officials on what a vote in favor of this project means for the community and why.