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City Council to Revisit Appeal Against 1st and Lorena Housing Project, Assess Changes Proposed by Developer

Rendering for the 49-unit housing project proposed for 1st and Lorena. Source: A Community of Friends

Next Tuesday, the City Council will again revisit the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) appeal lodged against non-profit developer A Community of Friends (ACOF) regarding the joint development housing project slated for the lot at 1st and Lorena in Boyle Heights.

The project has hit a number of obstacles over the last five years thanks to a series of objections raised by stakeholders, Councilmember José Huizar, and, most notably, the project's would-be neighbor, El Mercado.

Early on, objections included more commonly-heard concerns about whether it would serve Boyle Heights' own homeless population, whether there would be adequate on-site services to ensure the homeless would get the care they needed, whether it would be too great a concentration of homeless residents next to one of the community's most important cultural commercial centers, and whether Metro was rescinding on a promise to put a park there instead of housing.

The councilmember's own early objections to the project were in regard to significant changes having been made without his having been notified. After Metro put in a power substation, the original plans calling for 43 housing units and 26,000 square feet of ground-floor retail were modified to support more residential units (53) but only 5,000 square feet of retail. The project, Huizar said at the time, should complement El Mercado and contribute to the economic development of the area. The loss of 21,000 square feet of retail would defeat that objective.

ACOF subsequently embarked on a lengthy community engagement process in which it worked hard to both address concerns raised by residents and earn their support.

Yet their refined proposal - a 49-unit building (24 affordable units targeting low-income veterans and their families and 24 reserved for families experiencing homelessness, including 12 for families with disabilities), on-site supportive services, 10,000 square feet of retail space, and community-serving spaces - would be again thwarted last August.

Source: A Community of Friends.
Source: A Community of Friends.
Source: A Community of Friends.

Although the city planning department had approved the environmental analysis for the project in 2016, the owners of El Mercado launched a CEQA appeal. Huizar backed their objections, claiming the developer had failed to do a Phase 2 environmental study to examine potentially toxic soil at the site. The Planning and Land Use Management Committee followed Huizar's lead and granted the appeal, ignoring the argument that such a study could be done closer to the groundbreaking on the project.

It was a disappointing setback and a somewhat surprising one, given both the work ACOF had done to get community buy-in and Huizar's championing of efforts to see the homeless housed. As the L.A. Times' editorial board asked at the time, if it was so difficult to get supportive housing built in the district of the very councilmember helping lead the charge on homelessness, how would the city ever move forward on the thousands of units needed to begin to address the larger problem?

Perhaps it was the realization of the contradictions inherent in his position or perhaps it was ACOF's willingness to again address the concerns Huizar and the owners of El Mercado had raised, but in a February 27 editorial on the homelessness crisis, the Times noted that Huizar had called the paper to say he had changed his position on the project and would be urging the City Council to approve it as soon as possible.

Just a few days earlier, on February 22, 2018, ACOF had submitted a letter to Huizar pledging its commitment to a number of project design features and mitigation measures answering the (often startlingly cynical) objections to the project.

Some of these measures include seeking funding to have a third staff member on-site (in addition to the two case managers already slated to offer round-the-clock supportive services to tenants), installing security cameras and adding on-site security personnel, and having tenants sign agreements acknowledging the restaurant hours and operations at El Mercado (implying they won't interfere with El Mercado's operations).

Design changes include the removal of all windows and openings facing El Mercado, the use of thicker walls and insulation to reduce sound on the side facing El Mercado, setting back the building from 1st Street to ensure El Mercado remains visible to those approaching it from the west, widening the alley between the building and El Mercado, signage telling residents they cannot park at El Mercado, and parking stickers given to residents so their cars can be easily identified.

The commercial space will include community-serving uses, including a YMCA and an early learning center/childcare space, and the potential for El Mercado to lease up to 5,000 square feet at the site for neighborhood-serving retail at a reduced rate.

In their report, city staff also state that, in addition to the above measures, ACOF has agreed to conduct the Phase 2 environmental study of the site and work with the state's Oil and Gas regulatory agency to ensure that the long-abandoned oil well located there has neither contaminated the soil nor will not pose a future threat. After addressing each of the remaining CEQA complaints at length, the report then declares that the changes proposed by ACOF adequately mitigate any potential environmental problems and recommends that both El Mercado's appeal be denied and that the mitigated environmental analysis be adopted, allowing the project to move forward again.  [See the full staff report here.]

Unsurprisingly, El Mercado's representatives have sent Huizar a lengthy and cynical response. In it, they complain that the proposed mitigation measures were inadequate and that a full environmental review was still needed. They also argue that ACOF misrepresented El Mercado's positions (e.g. shooting down the idea that El Mercado would be interested in renting space from ACOF). And they continue to paint the homeless population the project will serve as a threat to El Mercado's patrons and the surrounding community, as well as a potential drain on police services. [See that letter here.]

Both ACOF and Meridian Consultants maintain that the population ACOF will serve poses no such threat to the community.

The proposed changes and the staff's findings regarding the project were supposed to go before the City Council today, but apparently had not given the representatives of El Mercado sufficient notice. The items were consequently tabled and will be heard before the council next Tuesday at 10 a.m. A note on the item suggests that El Mercado's representatives are threatening litigation should the project move forward. It's not surprising, given how the Silverstein Law Firm has used CEQA in the past. But considering that El Mercado itself was once seen by some as a troublesome neighbor and some of the very same objections it is raising now were lodged against its own expansion years ago, one would hope that, in the light of such a significant housing shortage for needy families, that threat might be reconsidered.

Find next Tuesday's council agenda here. Find all related documents to the project here.

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