More 'Bait and Switch' in a Mid-City Neighborhood

Coming Soon

James Brasuell at Curbed Los Angeles (the development and real estate review site) has posted new renderings of the Midtown Crossing retail project (where Pico and San Vicente boulevards meet) showing expansion of the project's proposed signage.

(Back in August, Mars Melnicoff reported in the the LA Weekly how the Lowe's "big box" store at the site has already disrupted the adjoining residential neighborhood.)

Neighborhood bashing, mammoth signage, and developer arrogance . . . Midtown Crossing is turning out to be a case study of all that's toxic in the city's development process.

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Residents south of Venice Boulevard had been assured that redevelopment of a former Sears site would not have negative effects on their small neighborhood. But those assurances weren't backed by an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), which identifies environmental losses in detail and imposes specific measures to reduce them. Instead, the city council adopted a Mitigated Negative Declaration, a much looser document that acknowledges environmental impacts but regards them as easily resolved or too minor to address.

Set free from EIR constraints, the developers of Midtown Crossing put up a high-walled Lowe's store (some 20 feet taller than recommended by Planning Department staff) and applied for permission to clad other buildings in the project with advertising.

The developers of Midtown Crossing had agreed to a maximum size of 100 square feet for signs that identify stores on the site, in part to dampen neighborhood opposition to the project. The developers even circulated renderings that showed signage that generally met the agreed-on standards. But that was then.

Yesterday, the Community Redevelopment Agency -- which has a financial stake in Midtown Crossing -- considered "minor modifications" to the agreement to allow two of these signs to grow to 240 square feet and three more to balloon to 560, 840, and 900 square feet each.

The bigger signs are in addition to ten others at Midtown Crossing. That's because the site is part of a Sign District which, if grandfathered under proposed code revisions, would allow the developers to put up billboards unconnected to the center's retail businesses.

Increasingly, lighted, full-motion advertising represents a revenue stream essential to a developer's bottom line. The ground lease to a retailer is almost a "loss leader." The fast, easy money is in renting wall space for as big a sign as the advertiser can get.

The developers are getting what they wanted in the usual way. They adroitly manipulated public opinion at the neighborhood level, where "bait and switch" left residents unprepared for shocking changes in building placement, design, and signage. The developers skillfully used the city's politicized development approval process, avoiding Planning Department recommendations and collecting millions of dollars in redevelopment agency financing. When angry residents complained, the developers stonewalled and later joined city officials in a baffling round of finger-pointing during which no one took responsibility for anything and everyone took cover behind the Mitigated Negative Declaration's finding of no significant environmental impacts.

It's a familiar story of cozy relationships between developers and city council members. But the story of Midtown Crossing also shows how abandonment of environmental protections under the EIR process will play out in other neighborhoods. Because the residents in the Midtown Crossing neighborhood didn't -- or couldn't -- challenge the project under the EIR the process, they've probably lost what little leverage they might have had.

Recent changes in state law will have the effect of stripping other neighborhoods of their limited ability to tone down -- or stop -- big development projects that eat away at the quality of their life.

Neighborhood residents in Los Angeles can look at the bright lights of Midtown Crossing and the see their future written in bold, 12-foot high LED letters.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page was adapted from one by flickr user Laurie Avocado. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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