DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - The portion of Downtown between the Los Angeles State Historic Park and the Los Angeles River is a somewhat bleak, tree-less patchwork of industrial zones, junkyards and public housing.
It’s also the target of an expansive plan to bring housing, shops and a host of other improvements. If successful, proponents say, it would transform the area into a thriving neighborhood with ample affordable housing.
On Dec. 13, the city Planning Commission unanimously approved the Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan, a set of zoning regulations that by 2035 is estimated to create enough housing to support more than 26,000 additional residents. The 660-acre project area includes the triangular section of Downtown bounded by the park, the river and, to the south, College Street. It extends northeast into Lincoln Heights.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for us to change how this area will grow for the next 20 years,” said City Councilman Ed Reyes, whose First District includes the area.
The project was spurred in part by the city’s recognition that the Metro Gold Line, which opened in 2004, was spurring development along portions of the route in neighborhoods such as Highland Park and near its Chinatown station. Such growth hasn’t come to the Specific Plan area, however, partly because much of it is zoned for heavy manufacturing and industrial uses that are increasingly obsolete.
“The land use stagnated because we were stuck in a 1940s mindset,” Reyes said. “We were stuck in the place where the area behaved as if we still had rail spurs, we still had the type of activity that depended on railroad technology.”
Today, a developer could propose a housing project in the area east of the L.A. State Historic Park, or “Cornfield,” but it would require a litany of hearings and a slew of zoning exceptions. There would be no guarantee of approval. If the Specific Plan is passed by the City Council, it would clearly establish what developers could build, officials said.
The Specific Plan establishes four new “zones” with varying land-use regulations including a range of residential density limits. Aside from the Greenway Zone, which generally runs along the river, the other zones would allow commercial, residential and/or light-industrial developments.
During the past two years, as city planners have developed the regulations, affordable housing advocates have watched warily. They worried that an effort to jumpstart market-rate residential projects would leave behind the low-income communities now in the area.
The portion of the plan area west of the river includes the 449-unit William Mead Homes, a public housing project at 1300 N. Main St. run by the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles. The median income throughout the project area is $25,000 for a four-person household, said Remy De La Paz, staff attorney with Public Counsel, which represented community members pushing for more affordable housing provisions.
Public Counsel pushed the Planning Department to include a provision that requires housing developers to include affordable units in exchange for extra density. Those incentives are considered “rather generous,” said City Planner Claire Bowin.
For example, said Bowin, for every square foot of an extremely low-income unit set aside for someone earning 35% or less of the area median household income (approximately $60,000), a project would be granted an extra 18 square feet for market-rate units. The bonus varies with the level of affordability, so a low-income residence set aside for someone earning 60% of the AMI would trigger a 10-square-foot bonus on the market-rate side.
As a strategy to encourage development sooner than later, those bonuses will be reduced by half five years after the plan is adopted, Bowin said.
The affordable housing provisions, which were first recommended by city Planning staff at the Dec. 13 hearing, prompted Public Counsel and other housing advocates to support the project.
“We hope that the plan in total really is a meaningful transit-oriented development plan,” De La Paz said. “This a transit rich area that we want to be vibrant and sustainable with amenities like open space, affordable housing and community opportunities, but not at the expense of the existing community that lives there.”
Reyes, who is termed out next year, said the plan could be a model for other parts of Los Angeles, especially blighted neighborhoods still governed by an antiquated zoning code.
“If the city could embrace this process then we could enliven and stimulate new economies throughout the city,” Reyes said. “Instead of being reactive, this is being proactive.”
The proposal will go to the Council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee, which Reyes chairs, and after that to the full council. The hearings have not yet been scheduled.
Contact Ryan Vaillancourt at firstname.lastname@example.org.