The Lorenzo Project in South L.A. Is Controversial, But Is it T.O.D.?

Doesn't look transit oriented from here.
Doesn't look transit oriented from here. Both pictures via Curbed

Last week, at a packed meeting of the City of Los Angeles Planning Commission, the Commission punted on a proposed $250-million residential development known as the Lorenzo.  The developer, Geoffery Palmer of Palmer Construction, is known for his other Italian-themed apartment developments Medici, Visconti, Orsini and Piero.

He’s also known for successfully challenging a local law that required him to put a certain amount of low-income housing into his developments.

Lorenzo would add nine-hundred residential units and thousands of parking spaces adjacent to the a station for the Expo Line in South L.A. just a stop away from both USC on one side and the Los Angeles Convention Center on the other.

The developer and his allies in organized labor claim (note: It’s been pointed out to me that Palmer doesn’t use union workers.  I was referring to the people he turned out at the Planning Commission.  Apparently, those workers were just given the day off from work on one of his other projects.)  the project is a win for the community and construction industry.  Opponents say it’s an attempt to gentrify South L.A. and deprive the community of needed medical resources.  The land is zoned for medical developments, requiring the planning commission to change the zoning before the project could be approved.

For the local community, the issue of giving up medical space for a residential development their neighbors would be priced out of is a sore one.  And not one they’re planning on taking lying down.

“This is a community that is historically under-resourced when it comes to medical services. If the City were to deprive a predominantly low-income African-American and Latina community of another health care resource, it could open them up to a civil rights claim,” Serena Lin, Staff Attorney for Public Counsel.  Public Counsel represents the UNIDAD coalition along with a dedicated legal team including Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Chatten-Brown and Carstens, and Natural Resources Defense Council.

Given the heat of the debate, and the location of the proposed project, it’s time for Streetsblog to weigh in and decide whether the Lorenzo project even qualifies as a “Transit Oriented Development.”

In the past, we’ve examined the W development at Hollywood and Vine and the Westlake/McArthur Park Project by evaluating the development on these standards: does the design take advantage of the transit node, does it create an attractive and safe pedestrian network, how are the bike amenities, does it create a mix of housing options and uses, and is there a restriction of automobile parking?  We’re going to answer these questions based on information in other news sources and the environmental documents.

Does the Design Take Advantage of the Transit Node

We have a project that is located literally across the street from a light rail station so it would be hard to design a project so badly that it doesn’t take advantage of the station.  Indeed, as we’ll see later, the developers are counting on the node to handle a lot of the local trips as they plan to reduce parking and don’t plan on any road improvements for the project.

Does it Create an Attractive and Safe Pedestrian Network

This looks slightly better...
This looks slightly better...

The development team behind the Lorenzo Project  will happily tell anyone that asks that the proposal is pedestrian oriented.  While the Tuscan-style residential area does have a pleasant looking courtyard.  A truly transit-oriented development is also pedestrian-oriented because one of the goals of the project is reduced car ownership.

We don’t know enough about the project to say whether it will, or won’t, be transit oriented, but at this point it doesn’t look good.  At last week’s hearing, Planning Commissioner Michael Woo referred to similar developments by Palmer as “fortresses.”  Providing physical barriers between the community and the development is the opposite of pedestrian, or transit oriented development.

How are the bike amenities?

According to the EIR for the project, there is bicycle parking planned for the project.  However, there is no mention of what fprm or where the parking will be located.  Let’s give Lorenzo an “incomplete” for this category.

Does it Create a Mix of Housing Options and Uses

This category could be the trickiest.  Yes, there is a plan for retail space.  Yes, there is an affordable housing component.  However, based on the history of Palmer’s other developments, there is plenty of room for question.

First, the affordable housing question.  The Lorenzo Project pledges to make 5 percent of their units affordable housing, but community members say that isn’t enough.

“Transit-Oriented Development is critical, but it must be done responsibly – not on the backs of low-income people and people of color in South LA.  We need to develop and enforce TOD policies that ensure more affordable housing is built and maintained along transit corridors.  Smart planning means building up a transit system where the City’s core transit ridership, including the transit-dependent, have greater access to transit.  It means including people in the planning process, not displacing them from their homes.” Serena Lin, Staff Attorney for Public Counsel.

Complicating the issue for affordable housing advocates is Palmer’s history.  The Downtown News explains:

Palmer, one of Downtown’s biggest developers, two years ago sued the city to avoid having to set aside units for low-income tenants in his proposed Piero II apartment complex in City West. He won the case in December 2007, and the city appealed the ruling — a risky move, experts have said, because while the original decision applied only to Palmer’s case, an appellate court ruling would set a precedent not just in Los Angeles, but throughout the state.

The second issue is with the retail component.  In the past, Palmer’s Italian-style developments have all had a retail component, but they’ve had trouble filling the spaces.  With signs that the Great Recession is beginning to level off, it could be that we’re about to see a retail boom and restaurants and shops could come to their developments, including a future Lorenzo Project.

To attempt to assuage the concerns of residents concerned about the loss of medical properties, Palmer Construction says they will provide a unit for a community health center rent-free for the next two decades.

Is There a Restriction of Automobile Parking

For this category, it seems that the Palmer team is doing the best it can.  The group is claiming a ten percent reduction from the City of Los Angeles’ ludicrously high two spaces per unit minimum because of the nearby rail line.  They further reduce the parking by another couple of spaces because of their yet-to-be-unveiled bike parking plans.

In short, there’s a lot we don’t know about the project as of yet, and what we do know is tainted by the state of some of the other projects the developer has already completed.  At this point, the “fortress” design and questionable affordable housing component are the biggest barriers to this project being a truly Transit Oriented Development.

  • Chris L

    Is it just beyond this guy to do a development that isn’t so completely butt-ugly?

  • what’s a bike “amenity”?!?!?!

  • Jeff Jacobberger

    At the Planning Commission hearing, it sounded like a fairly substantial amount of bike parking would be covered and secured, accessed via a paseo or alley from the street. (It wasn’t my agenda item, so I wasn’t paying much attention.) I got the sense from the Planning Commission’s comments that they and the Planning Department’s Urban Design Studio might welcome constructive input on how to maximize the effectiveness of the bike parking. The fact that they are paying attention at all seems a vast improvement over previous projects. They discussed that the area set aside for bikes might include some sort of self-repair facility and/or that the retail component would actively seek a bike shop as a tenant (seems unlikely unless rent is highly subsidized).

    Lower-income people tend to drive used cars and bicycles, and many low-income people wear used clothes. We do not demand that auto dealers or bicycle manufacturers provide a certain percentage of their product to low-income people, or that clothing manufacturers set aside a certain percentage of their product for low-income people. It is unclear why we demand that housing developers provide subsidized housing–which standard economic theory tells us depresses the production of housing and increases the price of the remaining units–which exacerbates the housing shortage and housing affordability issue. To my knowledge, this project is not demolishing any units subject to the RSO or displacing tenants.

  • Spokker

    Off-topic, but is there anyone in the Streetsblog/livable streets/hippy crowd that goes after car alarms? I think they are a blight on society.

  • Deed restricted affordable units make sense to a degree. The main obstacle to increasing the supply of housing in LA is low density, suburban style zoning, not forcing developers to set aside a few units for people of modest means, who are more likely to actually use the transit this development is supposed to be oriented towards.

    Housing is different from other goods because it’s so damn hard for so many people to afford and it’s usually the biggest thing people spend money on around here. So let the market take a bit of this kind of government intervention, IMHO.

  • @ Spokker,

    Amen. I f*****g hate car alarms. You should see a movie called “Noise” if you haven’t already.

  • Rich Alossi

    Curbed says the tower is shelved, so it’s just the regular Palmer-style apartment complex, right?

    I have a long history of critiquing Palmer’s architectural and street-facing design choices, but I’m almost always supportive of his right to build what he wants and where he wants it. I can imagine this project would only help the neighborhood by bringing in more customers for area businesses. I seriously doubt South LA is in any danger of becoming “gentrified” anytime soon.

    In fact, most of Palmer’s developments are full of USC students. There’s a huge lack of quality student housing near USC as it is, and most of those students seeking quality housing have to drive in from outside the neighborhood, thus clogging the freeways and streets. This project allows a good number of students to live closer to school without owning a car, or going car-lite.

    I just wish Palmer would be more proactive than reactive. You attract more flies with honey than vinegar. Still, his design choices really do appeal to a certain set of the population. Even though I cringe when I have family members or friends that comment about all the nice Italian-style apartments around Downtown, his buildings are leased up. That says something.

  • Yuri

    I don’t understand the controversy here. The site may be zoned for a medical facility but there isn’t one there and to my knowledge no plans for one. One less surface parking lot and more residential units in downtown is a good thing.

  • plebispower

    Those familiar with Palmer’s other developments (mentioned at the top) would recognize Woo’s apt description as “fortresses.” These developments give nothing back to the neighborhood: no retail, no eyes on the street, and, most plainly, little aesthetic merit. These developments provide livable units accessible to a relatively small strata of our broader community, but very little else.
    Los Angeles not only deserves more ambitious developments and designs that would activate the street and establish a template for surrounding development, but it desperately needs them.
    Ours is a city that’s been too willing to give away significant concessions for little in return. The very least that can be asked of transit-proximate developments is that they move the TOD ball forward. If we’re handicapping a development like this one and coming up mixed, we’re not asking enough of the developer. And what sticks in my craw is that this developer – any developer – willing to push back so hard against community benefit as he did in the 2007 case is not a net-positive contributor to the built environment of Los Angeles.
    Heavens knows we’ve had more than our share of net-negative builders. To the extent that we can use existing laws and zoning to leverage the best possible project, we should – and shame on our electeds if they don’t demand it in our stead.

  • Ninjakungfubeats

    Who are the stakeholders in this project?
     

  • Elarios

     do you know who are the stakeholders in this project?

  • Chris Meola

    The project looks amazing… http://www.lorenzoUSC.com

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