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Appeal by El Mercado Owners to Halt Affordable and Supportive Housing Project at 1st and Lorena Denied

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

Today, City Council finally moved to allow the 49-unit affordable and supportive housing project planned for the Metro-owned lot by nonprofit developer A Community of Friends (ACOF) at 1st and Lorena to proceed. The final project will be split between 24 affordable units targeting low-income veterans and their families and 24 units reserved for families experiencing homelessness (including 12 for families with disabilities). The project will have on-site case managers to serve residents, offer 10,000 square feet of retail space, and host community-serving amenities, including a fitness center and childcare services that will be open to the public.

The resolution of the years-long process to get the project approved was surprisingly anticlimactic at a council meeting marked by protests over the acceptance of a donation of drones for use by SWAT and numerous appeals from supporters of the She Does campaign to see dollars from Measure HHH put to work faster so that 1,000 homeless women could be housed by August of this year.

Most of those that stood to speak on the motion to deny the appeal lodged by ACOF's would-be neighbor, El Mercado, argued in support of allowing the project to go forward.

Chief among them was Fanny Ortiz, a Boyle Heights resident and former member of the neighborhood council there, who described her family as one that might once have qualified for the kind of housing planned for the Lorena site. People like herself, who have experienced homelessness and who have family members with special needs, she argued, deserve a safe place to be as they work to get their feet back underneath them.

Her heartfelt testimony, when combined with the general public comments made regarding the vulnerability of homeless women to abuse, made a far more compelling case for the project than Silverstein Law Firm lawyer Daniel Wright managed to make against it. Representing the owners of El Mercado, Wright tried to argue that it was unjust to put housing for some of the "most needy in our community" on potentially toxic land (the site is home to a "dry hole" oil well nearly 4,6oo feet below the surface that was plugged in 1949 because it was not commercially viable).

Considering, however, that so many of El Mercado's original objections appeared to have been inspired by cynical expectations that their neighbors would be both a nuisance and a drain on police services - complaints leveled against El Mercado itself when it looked to expand its footprint (see here and here) - the concerns Wright voiced about the well-being of homeless families rang hollow.

The staff report on the appeal considered both ACOF's commitment to conducting a Phase 2 environmental study prior to breaking ground and the changes made to the design and scope of the project to limit the potential for residents to infringe upon El Mercado's operations - and found them sufficient to address the owners' concerns.

As noted in a story last week, the promised mitigation measures include seeking funding to have a third staff member onsite (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 wouldn't interfere with El Mercado's operations). Design changes included 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 remained visible to those approaching it from the west, widening the alley between the building and El Mercado, signage reminding residents they cannot park at El Mercado, and parking stickers given to residents so their cars could be easily identified. An on-site YMCA facility and childcare services meant to serve both building residents and the public would help integrate the project better into the life of the community while meeting important shared needs.

The proposed Lorena Plaza apartments would sit at the corner of 1st and Lorena, next to El Mercado. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
The proposed Lorena Plaza apartments will sit at the corner of 1st and Lorena, next to El Mercado. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
The proposed Lorena Plaza apartments would sit at the corner of 1st and Lorena, next to El Mercado. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Councilmember José Huizar's comments on the project also seemed to suggest that his own call for a Phase 2 study was not as significant a factor as it was made out to be last August, when the CEQA appeal was first granted.

In light of the impact Exide and other polluters had had on the community's health, Huizar said, a Phase 2 study was indeed important to ensure no additional harm would be imposed upon residents. But his discussions with ACOF had left him feeling reassured that the mitigation measures they proposed - including conducting the Phase 2 study before permits were pulled - would adequately safeguard the health of the community.

Instead, he continued, the main issue he had had with ACOF had always been trust. When he had first seen the project come before the Metro board several years ago, he said, it had contained a large retail component - something he saw as vital to the the burgeoning retail and pedestrian corridor. The next time the project came before the board, it not only offered less than one fifth of the retail space originally proposed, neither he nor the community had been advised of the changes ahead of time.

It was therefore not NIMBYism that was behind his rejection of the project, he reiterated. On the contrary, Boyle Heights was home to more than its fair share of affordable and supportive housing projects. This case, he insisted, hinged on a breach of trust that ran deep enough for his office to discontinue communications with ACOF for the bulk of the intervening years.

It was a lesson he hoped other developers seeking to build similar projects in his and other districts would take to heart - that trust must first be built with the community.

Of course, the problem in getting supportive housing approved is generally less a question of trust of the developer and more one of residents within communities not trusting that the people they believe will populate those developments will make good neighbors. The (non-binding) pledge several councilmembers made just last week to back the approval of at least 222 units of supportive housing in their respective districts over the next year and a half was, in part, to give themselves some cover for when such projects come across their desks.

A 49-unit project where only 24 units will serve the homeless population is but a drop in the bucket when L.A.'s homelessness problem is as vast as it is. Hopefully the denial of this appeal makes the approval of future projects that much easier.

Find all documents related to the appeal here.

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