In March 2015, prominent landowner and developer Equity Residential announced plans to build a 33-story tower at the northeast corner of Fourth and Hill streets. Equity staff have spent more than a year pursuing permits and approvals, as well as reaching out to community groups such as the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council. The goal is to break ground on the building known as The Beacon this year, with construction slated to last two years.

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     Although Equity has been preparing the site just south of the La Cita bar for some time, a group of prominent Downtown stakeholders has come together to oppose the project. They say The Beacon is too tall for the area and would dwarf buildings on nearby Broadway, and that its modern glass design is incongruous with the historic nature of the neighborhood. They also point to Equity’s proposed nine levels of above-ground parking, which they claim goes against area design standards.

The Beacon Tower

A key battle point concerns the parking in the project. One opponent says a nine-level parking podium is unprecedented in Downtown. An Equity official counters that nearby subway tunnels make it impossible to place more parking below street level. 

     “Nobody who I am aware of has approved a nine-story podium,” said David Gray, a longtime Downtown architect and developer whose projects include The Grayson, a recently transformed six-story building at 353 S. Broadway. “It would be very easy for them to put it underground.”

     Gray is joined in opposition by a group of people who have extensive experience in Downtown, including creating housing and nightlife. Also speaking out against The Beacon are Yuval Bar-Zemer of Linear City, a development firm that has created hundreds of units in the Arts District, Cedd Moses, whose 213 Hospitality owns about a dozen Downtown bars and restaurants, and Harry Chandler, of the family that for decades owned the Los Angeles Times.

     Equity Residential Vice President of Development Dustin Smith staunchly defended the project. He said the developer has been working closely with the Department of City Planning, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and other agencies to make sure that The Beacon meets all standards, including for design. He noted that DLANC, an advisory group that lacks formal power but whose support developers generally try to secure, voted to support The Beacon in April 2015. He said Equity is not seeking any special amendments or variances.

    “The design complements the unique location, adjacent to both Bunker Hill and the Broadway Historic District, atop a major subway station and next door to one of Downtown’s premiere attractions, Grand Central Market,” Smith said in an email.

Parking Concerns

     Equity is one of the most active developers and property owners in Downtown, with eight projects and more than 1,600 apartment in its local portfolio. Its holdings include the Financial District’s Pegasus Apartments and Milano Lofts, Chinatown’s Jia Apartments, and the Sakura Crossing and Hikari apartments, both in Little Tokyo.

     It acquired the nearly one-acre site at 340 S. Hill St. in the summer of 2014. Plans for the project being designed by TCA Architects call for a 33-story tower with 428 studio to two-bedroom rental units. Twenty-two of the residences would be set aside for “very low-income” housing. Equity officials would did not disclose the budget for the project.

     One of the big opposition points concerns parking. Equity wants to create 10 levels of parking with 433 spaces for vehicles and 475 bicycle spots. While the lower parking levels would front the street, on floors five through eight the parking would be behind apartments. Two levels of parking would be underground.

    Moses argued that the building does not fit with the style and size of the historic neighborhood, charging that it is too big and dense compared to its neighbors. He also said that the building would push up against the alley between Hill Street and Broadway that services Grand Central Market and other businesses, making it narrower and harder to transport goods there (Grand Central Market representatives did not return calls for comment).

     “It’s just too big and would have a negative impact on the businesses around it,” Moses said. “I’m pro-development. We want new projects and welcome new tenants, but not when it negatively impacts the neighborhood.”

     Bar-Zemer echoed Moses, saying that design of The Beacon lacks setbacks, meaning that it stretches out to the ends of its lot, butting up against the much smaller La Cita and the sidewalk. If Equity would place more parking below grade and widen the sidewalks, Bar-Zemer said, a welcome pedestrian design would be possible.

     The Beacon is across the street from the Pershing Square Metro stop, and subway infrastructure prevents the developer from creating extensive underground parking, Smith said. He noted that, as part of the project, Equity will make improvements to the Metro station, including creating a new glass cover above the entrance.

     “We are literally building on top of and around the existing Metro subway portals, so there are some practical constraints about the project’s design,” Smith said.

     That’s little solace to the opponents, who say that despite having a nearby personal or business interest — Gray and Chandler will have residences in The Grayson, while Moses plans to open a bar there — their stance is driven by community concerns. The Beacon, they main, just doesn’t fit the area.

‘Ongoing Conversation’

     Equity and those protesting the project have met at least two times in the last six months. Chandler said they have sought a compromise focused on more subterranean parking, but that Equity has offered only minor cosmetic changes. Smith said that Equity has reached out to the community and is listening to concerns. He called the discussions “an ongoing conversation.”

     “We’ve met with any and all neighboring property owners multiple times since back when we were initially buying the property to just a few weeks ago,” Smith said. “The interactions have been friendly and productive.”

     Chandler said the points of contention have not been resolved, sparking the decision to go public. Opponents of the project have sent letters to the City Planning department and the office of 14th District City Councilman José Huizar. Chandler said the group is considering both a petition campaign and hiring an attorney to pursue a legal avenue to stop or alter the project.

     Smith said that all forms and paperwork have been submitted to the city, and the project is awaiting entitlements so that construction can begin in the next six months. Gray said the opponents hope to get the City Planning department to hold a public review of the tower, or go back over the plans.

     Rick Coca, a spokesman for Huizar, said his office has heard the concerns about the project and is monitoring the planning process closely.

     Smith said that Equity Residential plans to start construction as soon as the tower gets final approval.

    nicholas@downtownnews.com