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.

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