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Addressing Gentrification Concerns in Elysian Valley

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Sometime this July, City Council will deliberate on changing the Q conditions for a section of Los Angeles River-adjacent properties in Elysian Valley, roughly between Blake Avenue and the river. These Q conditions are what KCET writer Jeremy Rosenberg refers to as site-specific exceptions to the blanket zoning rules of Los Angeles.

Among the changes proposed for Elysian Valley's Q conditions are reducing the maximum height of buildings from 45 feet to 30 feet, and limiting the footprint of new buildings to cover no more than 50 percent of the lot area. It would also allow live/work housing development, and incentives for affordable housing for low and very low-income households. The changes are meant to curb the tide of gentrification that many residents fear will push them out of the neighborhood that they've lived in for decades.

But will changing the Q conditions help or hinder this change?

Ever since Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the $1-billion revitalization plan for the Los Angeles River, and even a bit before then, river-adjacent properties have been attracting investor notice. In an article for KCET, Jan Lin, Professor of Sociology at Occidental College, called this "'green gentrification' where previously disinvested neighborhoods undergoing environmental restoration and enhanced livability are drawing new homebuyers and investment, threatening existing low-income residents with displacement."

A study done by local firm RAC Design Build (RAC DB) last year determined that in the past two years, half of the Elysian Valley neighborhood has already traded hands.

In response, residents of Elysian Valley have mounted efforts to add their voices to the discussion on development before it overtakes their communities without their input. The Elysian Valley Neighborhood Council began the conversation on Q Conditions. Commissioned by Clockshop and the Elysian, locally based non-profit design organization LA-Mas undertook to Frogtown Futuro report, a series of workshops aimed at educating residents and creating a report that summarized the neighborhood's needs and wants when it comes to the future of their locality.

Building too tall could make Elysian Valley look like this | Image: RAC Smart Growth for Elysian Valley
Building too tall could make Elysian Valley look like this | Image: RAC Smart Growth for Elysian Valley

What surfaced was the neighborhood's desire to maintain the status quo. According to the Frogtown Futuro report, the community wished to keep the physical character of their neighborhood. Rather than new developments that would erase the urban fabric they've grown used to, Elysian Valley would rather re-use its structures.

A wishlist was created that incorporated the working class residents' needs: increased affordable housing; integration of the small mom and pop businesses of the neighborhood into the development projects; and upgrades to the many infrastructure systems.

What residents did not want was increased density, which could be a mistake, according to Mark Vallianatos, who teaches transportation and urban policy at the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College. He says, "In most gentrifying communities, demographics change happens less by direct displacement than by lower-income residents being priced out of moving in. Some scholars call this 'exclusionary displacement.' So if residents block new housing, they prevent people like them from moving in. More affluent gentrifiers can pay more for existing housing and so will continue to arrive. Ironically, trying to raise the drawbridge ends up accelerating gentrification."

By discouraging density, residents might be inadvertently limiting housing supply, which would then drive prices up even more. These increased prices would only be available for higher income Angelenos looking to move into the neighborhood.

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Gentrification is a complex phenomenon. The first modern use of the term was by Ruth Glass in a 1964 book about London, says Vallianatos. Glass describes gentrification this way: "One by one, many of the working class quarters have been invaded by the middle class... Once this process of 'gentrification' starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed."

Though there isn't one definition of gentrification, it generally implies a process where wealthier residents move into an area, changing a neighborhood's demographics.
Despite its reputation as the villain in every urban story, gentrification isn't in itself an evil thing. "I think that gentrification has mixed impacts on neighborhoods. It also tends to have a less dramatic effect than we imagine," said Vallianantos. Research by Lance Freeman and Frank Braconi found that the rate of people moving out of gentrifying neighborhoods, versus non-gentrifying neighborhoods, is about the same. In addition, research by Ingrid Gould Ellen and Katherine M. O'Regan show that renters who are able stay show larger increases in satisfaction with their neighborhoods than renters in non-gentrifying neighborhoods. Their neighborhood now has the amenities it has historically lacked because of disinvestment.

Rendering for an Elysian Valley development
Rendering for an Elysian Valley development

Vallianatos says that rather than blocking others from coming in, residents should actually be encouraging the use of density bonuses. "Change tends to come less from pushing out of existing residents than by excluding the next generation," says Vallianatos. "Also, in the absence of new construction, gentrifiers outbid locals for existing homes."

He recommends taking advantage of the interest in the community to increase affordable housing, public housing, rent control, and new construction -- all of which would decrease displacement. They could also grant density bonuses to developers who help further the community's needs, such as affordable housing; pedestrian and bike access to the river; cleaning and infiltration of rainwater; neighborhood-serving stores; and jobs or capital geared for locals. Vallianatos also points out that residents who own property could also become developers themselves through co-ops, land trusts, or building groups.

More development doesn't necessarily mean longtime residents will be pushed out of their homes. Communities need to build consensus among themselves and present a concerted front when faced with incoming developer interest. Elysian Valley has already laid a good foundation. It is a neighborhood with a vocal local community. Already, developments such as the Elysian Valley Creative Campus are planning for features that benefit the community, such as preferential hiring of locals for jobs, favoring locally owned businesses, and creating better access to the river from their site. As part of the redevelopment of the Bimbo Bakery in their neighborhood, residents are asking for a community recreation center that will be a meeting place that fosters neighborhood connections.

It's lively (and sometimes fraught) discussions like these that will create a thriving community. One can only hope other neighborhoods on the river are as well-positioned in the face of change on the river.

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