The Apartment Tower Battle at Seventh and Maple
Sep 26, 2017
On its own, the 33-story tower proposed for the southwest corner of Seventh and Maple streets is not particularly remarkable.
Its neat facade features dark concrete and swaths of industrial-look windows that glass in 452 apartments. There’s a pool deck on the sixth floor and retail space on the ground level. A patterned steel screen hides several floors of the aboveground parking podium. A paseo runs along the rear of the complex, connecting Seventh Street to Santee Court.
Yet a building that would not look out of place in South Park is an unusual and pioneering force in the Fashion District on the border of Skid Row, a neighborhood that has never seen a tower of this scale.
The high-rise proposed by developers Realm Group and Urban Offerings is the first crest in a set of housing projects that could reshape the neighborhood from entirely commercial into one with a mix of uses — and a wave of fresh residents. The Fashion District Residences received the go-ahead from the City Planning Commission on Sept. 14, and now heads to the City Council. The goal is to break ground late next year, according to Realm Group Principal Darrin Olson.
Still, there is strong oppostition from those worried about affordability and widespread change in the neighborhood.
One unique factor is that the project requires a zone change to allow for housing (it is currently zoned for “light industrial” uses). This matters because of the greater scrutiny a project receives when a zone change is sought.
Then there is timing. The developers submitted their application to the Department of City Planning in September 2016, ahead of the November ballot item Measure JJJ. Voters passed the law requiring projects with significant zoning changes to include subsidized units for low-income residents and hire more local construction workers.
Though Realm and Urban Offerings beat the JJJ deadline, they still negotiated with City Planning in hopes of smoothing out the application process. They agreed to set aside 11% of the units for very-low-income individuals, and also began discussing local construction hiring.
“Today, the site is an underutilized parking lot. The real gist of the project is putting forth a residential community that helps address a massive housing shortage in L.A.,” Olson said. “We agreed with the city on the 50 affordable units, as I think it does help the public issue of the city’s affordable housing troubles.”
The inclusion of very-low-income units and local labor hiring would prove key to getting the green light from the City Planning Commission.
“I’m very appreciative of the inclusion of affordable housing, something we legally cannot require, and I think the design of the parking podium and bringing the tower down to the street level is excellent, as is the paseo,” said David Ambroz, president of the City Planning Commission, at the Sept. 14 hearing.
The zone change and scale of the project have attracted dissent from a variety of Skid Row community activists. Some lament that the tower is a luxury complex with 50 very-low-income units that will largely not go to the homeless and desperately poor in Skid Row (the “very low income” units would be available to anyone making 50% or less of the area’s median income).
Activists from the L.A. Community Action Network, a group involved with efforts to preserve affordable housing around Skid Row, said the Fashion District Residences could catalyze a flood of development that threatens the future of low-income residents, displacing them with rising rents, stricter policing and other forces.
“This sort of development hasn’t occurred yet in Skid Row, but it means big things for the future. We’re seeing an encroachment on all sides,” said Eric Ares, deputy director of finance and communications for LACAN. “Historically, across the country, transformative projects like this with expensive housing equal gentrification and ultimately displacement in the community.”
LACAN Executive Director Pete White and homeless advocate Alice Callahan of Las Familias del Pueblo filed an appeal of the Fashion District Residences, suggesting it had greater environmental impacts (including allegations of “contaminated soil”) than initially disclosed. The City Planning Commission rejected the appeal.
Attacking a project’s application is common in California, which has strict laws regarding environmental reports and how legal challenges against a development must be considered. LACAN, for one, filed a lawsuit to stop the conversion of the affordable Bristol Hotel on Eighth Street into a luxury boutique hotel in 2004. The renovation never arrived.
Developers are often hyper-aware of such threats and conduct outreach to curry community support for projects, said Tanner Blackman, a partner with lobbying firm Kindel Gagan and the former planning director for 14th District City Councilman José Huizar.
Blackman was hired by the developers of the Fashion District Residences and reached out to groups including the Downtown L.A. Neighborhood Council and Fashion District Business Improvement District, as well as a few Skid Row advocates (but not LACAN), over the course of the year. Critical letters or comments with serious concerns can sway City Planning or developers, he said.
“One negative letter on the administrative record could force a project to do lengthy, costly technical analyses beyond what the city and state CEQA guidelines require, even for the type of projects that policymakers aim to expedite, like affordable housing or transit-oriented development,” Blackman noted.
The Fashion District could see thousands of new housing units in the next decade. The Garment Lofts and Max Lofts (both renovations of old office buildings) opened in 2015 and 2016, repectively, bringing almost 200 apartments to Eighth and Santee streets. A 14-story tower with 290 apartments is planned at 755 Wall St. Developer Jade Enterprises is seeking approvals for an eight-story, 379-apartment (with 42 designated very-low-income) complex at Main and 11th streets. The $2 billion City Market would bring nearly 1,000 apartments and 200-plus hotel rooms near San Pedro and Olympic.
A number of Skid Row properties, too, have been purchased recently, including a manufacturing building at Eighth and Towne that the new owner aims to turn into 60 live/work lofts, according to a City Planning filing.
How this impacts Skid Row remains to be seen. The low-income units and residential hotels in and around the community are mostly protected from redevelopment for decades through affordable housing covenants and a law requiring developers to replace any lost affordable units, noted “General” Jeff Page, a longtime Skid Row advocate.
“Thankfully, the missions and shelters won’t go anywhere. As for other privately owned buildings, I don’t have a problem with them being turned into additional housing,” Page said. “The region needs to double its housing stock, but with more projects, we need to see commitments to creating low-income housing, as with the Fashion District tower.”
The problem is that when it comes to negotiating with a developer for including subsidized affordable units, there are no consistent rules and incentives, and therefore no consistent planning, Blackman noted.
“If the city just went to a pure inclusionary zoning framework, and said every developer has to do 20% affordable, the market can adjust,” he said. “One could get proper underwriting when it’s balanced across the board.”
That remains solely a future possibility for now. In the meantime, LACAN and other housing advocates say they’re on high alert as development continues to seep toward the edges of Skid Row.Read Publication