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Metro Committee Approves Developers for Mariachi Plaza and Cesar Chavez/Fickett Sites; Board to Vote Jan. 25

ELACC’s proposal for Mariachi Plaza includes includes 60 units of affordable housing, 6,340 square feet of retail and dining spaces, a Mariachi Cultural Center, 54 on-site parking spaces (11 of which are intended to help serve local businesses along 1st Street), 84 bicycle spaces, and a 6,000 square foot park and community garden on the southeast corner of Bailey and Pennsylvania to be operated by CALÓ YouthBuild. Source: Metro

On Wednesday, Metro's Planning and Programming Committee approved an 18-month Exclusive Negotiation Agreement (ENA) with the East L.A. Community Corporation (ELACC) and Abode Communities in support of their proposals for mixed-use projects on Metro-owned lots at Mariachi Plaza (above) and Cesar Chavez/Fickett (below).

Together, the two projects will bring 120 units of affordable housing for those earning between 30 and 50 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI), approximately 12,000 square feet of public park space and gardens, a grocery store (at Cesar Chavez/Fickett), a Mariachi Cultural Center (at Mariachi Plaza), retail spaces meant to be accessible to local and community-serving businesses, and community meeting rooms. [For more of a breakdown on the projects, see our coverage here.]

Abode communities proposes affordable housing, a grocery store, and a public park grocerySource: Metro/Abode
Abode Communities' proposal for the Metro-owned lots at Cesar Chavez/Fickett includes 60 units of affordable housing, 25,000 sq ft of retail/grocery space, a 6,000 sq ft public park, 82 parking spaces, and 95 bike spaces. [See the procurement summary here] Source: Metro/Abode
Abode communities proposes affordable housing, a grocery store, and a public park grocerySource: Metro/Abode

The final approval of the ENAs, expected to take place at the Metro Board meeting at 9 a.m. on January 25, marks the beginning of the end of Metro’s three-year effort to make amends for the firestorm it touched off at the end of 2014, when it attempted to sneak a proposal for a parking garage, medical offices, retail, and a fitness center past the community (below).

While livability advocates had fumed over the idea of an 8-story garage at a rail station, Boyle Heights residents and mariachis expressed anger over how efficiently their community and all trappings of its culture had been erased from the very place meant to celebrate both.

Why, they wondered, did Metro's vision for the future of the community seem to hinge on the removal of the families, dancers, skateboarders, mariachis, vendors, artwork, artists, and organizations that regularly lent neighbors a helping hand? And where exactly had that grassy knoll and all the picnicking white people come from?

When Metro finally held a forum to hear what the community had to say about the controversial proposal in early 2015, residents did not mince their words, asking, in essence, "Who was this project really for?"

Recognize this place? Me, neither. It was the proposal for the "Plaza del Mariachi." (Source: Metro)
The 2014 proposal for the makeover of the "Plaza del Mariachi" was scrapped after the residents demanded the project serve the existing community, not an imagined one. (See the stories about that moment here, here, and here.)
Recognize this place? Me, neither. It was Primestor's proposal for the "Plaza del Mariachi." (Source: Metro)

Wednesday's brief hearing on the proposals from ELACC and Abode made clear just how far Metro had come in its effort to listen to communities.

For one, the proposed projects are far more community-serving.

Residents that had worked with Metro to create development guidelines for the sites had repeatedly stressed the importance of making any available housing units as affordable as possible. While it is getting harder to find funding that can accommodate those working steadily but informally (like vendors, who might earn between 10 and 20 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI), and mariachis), both projects offer units for those earning between 30 and 50 percent AMI. Notably, the "Lucha Reyes" proposal for Mariachi Plaza sets aside 30 units for those at 30 percent AMI and will offer 26 studios, a configuration that will keep rents low and seems intended to help mitigate the ongoing displacement of mariachis from around the plaza.

Source: Metro
A view of some of the retail spaces that will edge the plaza and the housing that will rise behind it. Source: Metro
Source: Metro

For another, the projects have the potential to aid residents in retaining ownership of the sites.

The creation of a Mariachi Cultural Center where residents can take music classes and enjoy summer programming means that, even as the area continues to grow and change, the mariachis will always have a physical, social, and cultural presence on the plaza.

Similarly, the plans to have CALÓ YouthBuild not only manage the garden but use it as a laboratory where students can earn apprenticeship certificates tied to green technologies carves out space for the first group that tends to be chased out of the public space: at-risk youth of color. Youth have long complained about being run off the plaza by law enforcement as it is. Sheriffs regularly parked at (or on, as often happened at 1st/Soto) the plaza to let youth know they were being watched, something the youth found frustrating, given how few safe public places were available to them, especially after dark.

This project not only gives the youth a safe place to be, it elevates their status to that of caretakers of an important community space and cultural and environmental innovators.

The layout of the project at Cesar Chavez/Fickett. The park is at bottom left. The grocery store will be found in the east set of buildings. Source: Metro
The layout of the project at Cesar Chavez/Fickett. The park is at bottom left. The grocery store will be found on the Fickett side of the project. Source: Metro
The layout of the project at Cesar Chavez/Fickett. The park is at bottom left. The grocery store will be found in the east set of buildings. Source: Metro

Many of those speaking up in favor of the project Wednesday touched on how important it was that Metro had shifted gears and listened to the community three years ago. But they also wanted Metro to understand the agency would have to deepen its relationship with the community for the project to be truly successful.

Metro would need to work harder to be transparent with and a partner to the community. Jason Gallegos of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council noted that the council had only heard about Metro's intention to approve the ENAs via email blast while organizer Rose Miranda chastised the agency for not having translation services available at the hearing.

Metro would also be expected to work with local businesses, as Un Solo Sol owner Carlos Ortez suggested, to ensure that the projects strengthened their ability to retain a foothold in the area instead of undermining it.

And street vendors - the most vocal contingent of speakers - asked that Metro work with them to make both the projects and transit hubs more welcoming to the vendors who were the backbone of the Boyle Heights community. Citing concerns over how the pilot project at MacArthur Park was going and the way that it left vendors not participating in the project more vulnerable to harassment, they asked that Metro be cognizant both of how much vendors struggled to stay afloat and how much they contributed to street life.

One of the complaints that went unanswered was lodged by a homeowner concerned about the lack of parking incorporated into the project. It was a question that had come up many times during the development of the guidelines for the sites. Facilitators had explained that the high cost of parking spaces - as much as $40,000 per space for underground parking - would result in higher construction costs, making the apartments and retail spaces less affordable. So, it was in the best interest of the project to have a minimum of parking.

The other question that remained - although largely unspoken - was whether the units would be occupied by Boyle Heights residents. Fair housing rules require that the application process be open to all - not just those in Boyle Heights. But as the community continues to be squeezed by gentrification and rents continue to rise on already overcrowded and/or makeshift poor quality housing, many current residents are in the market for stable, affordable, quality units where they don't have to fear approaching landlords about necessary repairs or worry about landlords jacking up the rent by $800. But the overwhelming demand for affordable housing and the difficulty so many have in making the minimum required income, limiting the number of people in their family that will live in a unit, and/or getting proper documentation of their histories can work against them. The lack of any real resolution to these issues is one of the key reasons residents continue to have concerns about who Metro projects are meant to serve.

Site of proposed project for Mariachi Plaza - housing in red, at left, and a park to the right. Source: Metro
Site of proposed project for Mariachi Plaza - housing in red, at left, and a park to the right. Source: Metro
Site of proposed project for Mariachi Plaza - housing in red, at left, and a park to the right. Source: Metro

In calling for a vote, County Supervisor Metro Boardmember Hilda Solis took a moment to commend the more robust process Metro had undertaken and the more appropriate set of proposals it had generated. She then acknowledged the challenges the vendors had voiced, apologized in Spanish for the lack of translation services, and thanked the community for coming out in support of moving the projects forward.

The ENAs were approved by the committee and will go before the full Board for a vote on January 25 at 9 a.m. Once approved by the Board, the developers will immediately begin a last round of community engagement to gather feedback that will help shape the final form of the plans. Those finalized proposals will go before the Board for approval in mid-2019.

See our previous coverage of Metro’s interactions with the community around the fate of Metro-owned lots here:

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