The Strange Saga of the Cecil Hotel

A now-defunct plan for the “New Cecil” would have turned the building at 640 S. Main St., which currently operates as a mix of a budget hotel and low-income housing, into a complex with nearly 400 rooms for people just off the streets. 

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - On a Wednesday last month, a coalition of citywide business and nonprofit leaders appeared to be on the verge of turning Main Street’s Cecil Hotel into a massive permanent supportive housing facility. That evening, a county official talked up the plan to bring nearly 400 people off the streets of Skid Row and into the 1927 complex in the rapidly changing Historic Core. The Cecil’s owner was on board.

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Twenty-four hours later, the proposal was dead, killed by another coalition — this one of Downtown community leaders and residents who argued that the plan would overwhelm a neighborhood that, stakeholders point out, already has more than its fair share of low-income housing.

The New Cecil plan was being pushed by an entity called Home for Good, and the proposal’s rise and sudden, strange fall shines a light on a series of connected issues that Downtown, and indeed the rest of Los Angeles, is grappling with. It involves the effort to address chronic homelessness and the aim of nurturing growth in the Central City. The players, who in other instances have been allies, hail from the business and political arenas, as well as the nonprofit and residential sectors.

For the time being at least, the community has won out.

“At the end of the day, we heard from the community and from the stakeholders immediately adjacent to the area,” said Jerry Neuman, a Home for Good task force co-chair. “And though we may not agree with their presumptions, neither the county nor Home for Good wanted to impose a project upon a neighborhood that wasn’t prepared for it. Additionally, the requisite political support, given the realities, was not there.”

Leading the Charge

The New Cecil plan came from the County DHS and Home for Good, an initiative created in 2010 by leaders from the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the United Way of Greater L.A. They proposed turning the faded building into a permanent supportive housing complex with 384 apartments for those just off the streets, along with a suite of in-house social services. The building at 640 S. Main St., which currently operates as a mix of a budget hotel and low-income housing, would also have held 75 affordable and 75 market-rate apartments, though those would measure just 165 square feet.

Additional plans called for five new retail and restaurant spaces at street level.

Neuman, a key leader of the project who has worked for years on the effort to alleviate homelessness, said the New Cecil would ultimately save taxpayers money by giving homeless individuals the care they need and cutting down on emergency room visits and other costly expenditures.

An important ally was Herb Chase, the managing partner of Main Street Hotel Management and the owner of the Cecil. Chase saw it as an opportunity to upgrade his building — plans called for spending $10 million on the effort — and the team believed the project would go a long way toward eliminating chronic homelessness in Los Angeles.

The New Cecil team prepared a 20-page proposal filled with maps, floor plans and colorful renderings. It described the project as “a vibrant mixed-use residence serving the diverse commercial and residential needs of the Downtown community.”

Saturated Neighborhood

The proposal quietly moved forward for at least several months. In early February, however, a group of Downtowners learned about it and began raising objections. While some might charge project opponents with NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard), a chorus of local stakeholders said it was a situation of the back yard already holding numerous complexes for low-income and formerly homeless individuals.

Project opponents compiled a list of more than 3,000 available units of low-income and permanent supportive housing in the Historic Core (not all are occupied), including the Rosslyn Hotel, a 264-unit complex at 451 S. Main St. currently being renovated by SRO Housing Corp., and the New Pershing Apartments, a building at 500 S. Main St. that will hold 69 low-income residences. The recently opened Gateways Apartments at 505 S. San Pedro St. created 107 permanent supportive housing units.

Among those speaking out loudly was Tom Gilmore, the developer of the Old Bank District housing hub at Fourth and Main streets, and a former commissioner of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

“The concept of so many new supportive units in one building is questionable as a policy in and of itself, but to add them to an already stressed neighborhood is unconscionable,” Gilmore said in early February.

The chorus of growing opposition led to a meeting between project advocates and opponents on the morning of Feb. 13. The group discussed the details and the project’s impact on the community and future residents. Questions were posed and concerns voiced about the size of the effort.

The night before the meeting, Marc Trotz, director of housing for health at the County Department of Health Services,  had been touting the plan. In an interview that evening, he told Downtown News that the project had to be in Downtown rather than another location because many of the people who would benefit from the New Cecil know Downtown as home, and it would be exponentially harder to get them to relocate to an area they do not know.

Still, the plan quickly fell apart. Late in the afternoon of Feb. 13, the deal was dead.

Waiting for Next

After a year of working on the New Cecil, Chase is disappointed that it has been scrapped. He said the area needs the project to balance the thousands of market-rate units in the development pipeline. 

“For those saying, ‘Let’s move it to another city,’ that’s never going to happen,” he said.

Chase said he will re-evaluate his options. Neuman believes the Cecil will find another means of development that will offer affordable housing. He hopes it will include some residences for people who are homeless or formerly homeless.

The question of what comes next for the Cecil is also being asked by area leaders. 

Patti Berman, president of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, points out that the current Cecil has been a vital resource that provides a destination for travelers on a budget, in particular international tourists. A transformation of the building would mean fewer visitors who patronize local businesses.

Blair Besten, executive director of the Historic Downtown Los Angeles Business Improvement District, said that in the future, she hopes the owner takes the entire neighborhood into consideration. Placing more permanent supportive housing in the Cecil would have amounted to “containment,” a term for keeping homeless services in a concentrated portion of the city, she said. She also noted the proximity of building residents to Skid Row drug dealers.

Besten’s containment concern was echoed by Carol Schatz, president and CEO of the Central City Association and the Downtown Center Business Improvement District. Schatz said she supports “whatever the community wanted” and that her organizations made clear when they endorsed Home for Good that they hoped to see projects spread throughout the city and county.

With the Cecil still in the situation that prompted its owner to seek a radical change, community members are waiting to see what happens next. 

donna@downtownnews.com

Twitter: @donnadowntown

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014