GWNC Land Use Committee Grapples with Density Bonus Approval Process

850 South La Brea, a 5-story mixed use building is being appealed by Sycamore Square neighbors
850 South La Brea, a 5-story mixed use building approved for a Density Bonus, is being appealed by Sycamore Square neighbors

Recent changes in state laws and Los Angeles City ordinances have made it much easier for developers to increase the number of housing units in a project. As part of the effort to address the much discussed need for affordable housing, these new rules reduce parking requirements and permit city planners to approve Density Bonuses without any public hearings if developers agree to designate some portion of the units as affordable housing.

850 South La Brea would tower over all the other buildings in the block.
850 South La Brea would tower over all the other buildings in the block.

One such project that’s taking advantage of these new rules is a five story mixed use building with apartment over retail being proposed at 850 S La Brea in Sycamore Square. Residents of the neighborhood were surprised to find that a project that is nearly double the size of allowable buildings in the neighborhood was being approved by the City with no opportunity for consultation with the neighborhood.

The development by right is allowed to have a Floor Area Ratio of 1.5, limiting its residential area to roughly 14,000 square feet. The Density Bonus increase in FAR to 3.0 “doubles” the number of allowed units from about 20 to about 40. Without the bonus, the development would be limited to two residential stories (containing a total of 20 units), over one story of retail, instead of the currently approved 40 units in four stories of residential space over one story of retail.

At the meeting of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council Land Use Committee (GWNC LUC) last week, neighbors from Sycamore Square Neighborhood Association (SSNA) spoke against the project which they contend is grossly out of scale with neighborhood and would tower over the neighborhoods existing historic mixed use blend of apartment, duplexes and single family homes.  According to SurveyLA, 84% of the structures in the neighborhood qualify as contributing structures for a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ) the neighborhood is working to secure. Neighbors also contend the reduction in the parking requirement of . 5 space per bedroom would exacerbate parking in an already over-parked neighborhood currently experiencing a development boom and construction of the Purple Line Metro stop at La Brea Avenue and Wilshire Blvd.

One property owner, Dan Kegel, pointed to the architectural and environmental impact of the proposed project noting how the Wilshire La Brea development was modified to present a residential face to the residential street but no such effort was made in this building. He also said that a five story building would reflect lots of heat and the street would likely be repaved in asphalt instead of concrete that would match the historic material and reflect less heat. Kegel said he was not opposed to development but hoped for a building that would be sized more compatibly and designed more appropriately that would not steal the neighborhood’s scarce street parking, though he did not oppose the reduced parking requirement.

Charla Gardner, a Sycamore Square Neighborhood Association board member and homeowner, asked the GWNC LUC to recommend the GWNC Board to take a position of opposition for the record. She pointed out that, according to the LUC’s minutes of the last meeting, the developer inaccurately told the LUC they had reached out to the neighbors. When they did finally meet with the developer and expressed their substantial concerns about the project, including the building’s height and traffic, exits and entrances, etc. they asked him to come back with revisions but learned that two days later application was approved.

“A project of this size should not be rubber stamped without the input of the neighborhood and the neighborhood council,” said Gardner. “We are inundated with development and have a lot of affordable housing. Projects should not be getting density bonuses without addressing any community concerns. This doesn’t make any sense. We want development, but we want it to work with our neighborhood.”

Five other residents also spoke at the meeting including resident, Myrna Dwyer who owns an apartment building in the neighborhood. Dwyer said she was very surprised by the speed the city approved the project and that the developer and architect made virtually no attempt to address design issues resulting in a very unattractive, generic building that is too big for its location.

Adjacent neighbors, Ed and Christine Costumbrado, who live in a duplex behind the project said they didn’t know about the project until it was approved and then quickly filed an appeal. Custombrado said the building is very intrusive and having 32 windows looking down on his backyard would have a negative affect on his property value.

Resident and SSNA Board president Conrad Starr also urged the LUC to vote to recommend the GWNC oppose the project and that the SSNA would do whatever they can to support the neighbors who have filed appeals.

Resident Steve Senigram who also opposed the project said the neighborhood wasn’t opposed to development, but opposed this developer for his lack interest in working with the community. He said the neighborhood has worked successfully with numerous developers citing Bevmo at the Wilshire La Brea project and the proposed microbrewery at the Firestone building as examples.

Resident Stanley Genser echoed same comments adding that he was particularly concerned this new building would add to the current parking crisis likely to worsen when the Mansfield Avenue mixed use project is completed adding even more people who will need to park on the street.

“We supported these projects, but this developer made no effort to meet with us and it’s a horrendous building,” said Gensler.

To add insult to injury, it seems most residents were under the impression they would be able to work with the developer to improve the project based on comments made by the developer that no hearings or decisions on the project were imminent when the project was finally presented to the Sycamore Square Neighborhood Association and the Land Use Committee of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council after several invitations had been ignored.

As it turned out, the presentation to the groups was made just a week before the city approved the project at which time the neighborhood association reported that it had voted to oppose the project. The LUC chose not to take any action since no hearing date was scheduled not understanding that none was required. Once residents learned last week the project had already been approved and the appeal period already half expired, they mobilized to file an appeal and presented their arguments to the LUC at the April meeting asking for support and a motion to recommend the GWNC board oppose the project.

LUC committee member Rory Cunningham said he felt the developer had misrepresented the project when it was presented at the March meeting of the LUC noting that “someone had to know there would never be a hearing.”

In response, Eli Halavi, representing the developer, said he didn’t know when the approval would be coming and was not trying to deceive the committee. Halavi said the building would provide additional parking on two subterranean parking levels below the building and that every unit has parking on the site. He said the height of the building is permitted since there is no height limit and the Density Bonus from 30 to 40 units allows them to increase the height in exchange for setting aside 11 percent or 4 units for very low income households.  The project is currently approved with a Density Bonus and a 20 percent reduction is outdoor space. There are 40 apartment units with 56 bedrooms and 47 residential parking spaces and 13 commercial parking spaces for the retail stores proposed on the first floor of the building.

“We are taking into consideration the things we can implement,” said Halavi. “We will consider the facade and look to see if there is a way to step [the building] back on the residential end.”

The LUC voted 7 in favor, 0 opposed, 0 abstentions to recommend the GWNC Board oppose the project and support the appeal of the Sycamore Square neighbors.

Appeals are limited to only adjacent owners who must pay a fee to file. This week the Buzz learned the neighbor’s appeal was granted and a full public hearing is scheduled for May 11, 2017 before the Planning Commission in the Public Works Board Room, Room 350 at Los Angeles City Hall.

Given that no public hearing is required on Density Bonus projects, it is not surprising that some developers don’t present their projects to the community or delay in presenting them.

“The Density Bonus process cuts neighbors out of the picture, while making huge and often detrimental changes to their properties and neighborhoods,” said Liz Fuller, a property owner adjacent to the proposed project and co-publisher of this website who filed an appeal against the project along with several of her neighbors.

As a result, the GWNC Land Use  Committee has decided to recommend votes of opposition to any projects that fail to appear before the committee so the opposition or failure to gain support of the neighborhood is part of the Planning record.

In other actions the LUC voted to recommend the GWNC Board oppose the application for 950 South Saint Andrews Place to legalize one unit until the applicant returns to the the LUC with a corrected application showing correct number of units and their stated commitment to offer the unit for moderate income household.  The motioned passed on a vote of  7 in favor, 0 opposed, 0 abstentions.

The LUC also voted to 7 in favor, 0 opposed, 0 abstentions to recommend the GWNC Board oppose a small lot subdivision proposed at 836 N McCadden Place until the LUC can hear from the SOHO neighbors. The committee expressed support for elements of the project and would like to see the building designed to better fit into the neighborhood.

The committee also voted 7 in favor, 0 opposed, 0 abstentions to recommend opposing 500 South Manhattan, a 5 story 32 unit apartment building citing the unarticulated first floor that was not considered pedestrian friendly.  The project would replace a 4 unit building with 32 units with 28 parking spaces.

Small Lot Subdivision proposed at 836 N McCadden Place
Small Lot Subdivision proposed at 836 N McCadden Place
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About Patricia Lombard

Patricia Lombard is the co-editor and publisher of the Larchmont Buzz. Patty lives with her family in Fremont Place. She has been active in neighborhood issues since moving here in 1989. Her pictorial history, "Larchmont" for Arcadia Press is available at Chevalier's Books.

0 thoughts on “GWNC Land Use Committee Grapples with Density Bonus Approval Process

  1. Excellent and detailed article about an appalling and frustrating situation. Thank you for keeping us informed!

  2. FYI, the case description for the approval states:

    DEMOLITION OF EXISTING COMMERCIAL RETAIL CENTER AND NEW CONSTRUCTION OF A MIXED USED BUILDING CONSISTING OF 40 RESIDENTIAL UNITS OVER APPROXIMATELY 4,000 SF OF RETAIL SPACE ON THE GROUND FLOOR.

    PURSUANT TO: 12.22.A.25, A DENSITY BONUS FOR A 5 STORY, 40 UNIT, AND MIXED-USED APARTMENT PROJECT. RESIDENTIAL UNITS ARE BUILT IN 4 FLOORS OVER APPROXIMATELY 4,000 SF OF COMMERCIAL SPACE ON THE GROUND FLOOR. TWO LEVELS OF SUB GARAGE INCLUDED AND TWO ON-MENU INCENTIVES FOR FAR INCREASE TO 3:1 AND 20% OPEN SPACE REDUCTION.

    HOUSING DATA: 30 BASE UNITS, 36 MARKET RATE, 4 VERY LOW INCOME (11% SET ASIDE), AND 33.33% DENSITY BONUS REQUESTED.

    This is a C2-1 site which allows R-4 uses.. It looks per ZIMAS (the City’s zoning site) that the site is 12,376.6 SF. which allows 30 by-right units (31 if the project was filed after 1/1/17 and utilizes the density bonus). With a 35% density bonus allowance which was allowed by the State and implemented by the City, and per the allowance to round up from the base density, the project is allowed to build 41 units assuming the site area is as noted above. There may be some particular reasons that the total in this case is 40 but in general it looks like this project is adding up the incentives that the State and City have provided to build, in this case, 11% of the base unit allowance in return for 4 very low income affordable housing units.

    This parcel is also, per zoning, defined as Height District 1, which allows by-right unlimited height and 1.5:1.0 zoning. However, the density bonus provisions (Section 12.22 A.25) provide for a density incentive of 3:0:1.0 if the parcel is in a commercial district in Height District 1 and fronts a major highway (La Brea), and the project utilizes a 35% density bonus (which it does), and at least half the project is within 1,500′ of a major transit stop (which it is).

    The project is also eligible for a second incentive; in this case the developer has chosen to reduce the pen space by 20%.

    In these cases, where the project incorporates the affordable housing density bonus and is adjacent or within close walking distance of a transit stop the project is also eligible for a reduction in parking per separate State legislation down to .5/bedroom. Because the adjoining property to the rear is zoned R2-1, the transitional height requirements which force vertical step backs do not apply.

    Because the project is requesting an “on-menu” incentive (3:0:1.) FAR, the project, the project requires an application that is subject to review of the Planning Director. The Director pretty much has to approve the project unless:

    (ii) The Incentive will have a Specific Adverse Impact upon public health and safety or the physical environment or on any real property that is listed in the California Register of Historical Resources and for which there is no feasible method to satisfactorily mitigate or avoid the Specific Adverse Impact without rendering the development unaffordable to Very Low, Low and Moderate Income households. Inconsistency with the zoning ordinance or general plan land use designation shall not constitute a specific, adverse impact upon the public health or safety.

    In these types of cases the Director, and or the body to which an appeal is sent, the City Planning Commission, are under pretty tough constraints that typically boil down to 1) approve the project’s number of units though 2) not necessarily its massing and bulk.

    These development standards, at this point, have more or less been on been on the books for nine years. There have been tweaks, mainly to provide additional incentives when projects are next to transit stations; for instance the parking reductions are more recent.

    The case was filed on November 30th of 2016, five months ago.

    Design impact, and the opportunity for quality of design vision, and context sensitive massing and bulk, are the hoped for outcomes of the Director’s review process and any potential appeals to the City Planning Commission.

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