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Out of Flux: Failing Boyle Heights Amid River Revitalization

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It's no doubt that river revitalization is high on every politician's list of advocacies. Based on the overwhelming support the ambitious $1 billion project that would rework 11-miles of the Los Angeles River received, "going river" is a no-brainer for anyone looking for a platform, but in this tsunami of enthusiasm for concrete removal and eco-system restoration, Los Angeles may be giving short shrift to some communities.

While men and women in suits pose behind gilded shovels on the foreground of the Sixth Street bridge a few Boyle Heights residents hung back, wondering what the next few months would bring.

Some like Jason Gallegos of the Boyle Heights Planning and Land Use committee emphasized the simple need to keep the Boyle Heights neighborhood informed. "We want the city and developers to keep us updated. We just need to know what's going to happen. How are they re-routing traffic, details like that," he says, implying that such a basic requirement wasn't being fulfilled consistently.

Others like Shmuel Gonzales were more outspoken. "Why are the amenities all on the Arts District side?" The Boyle Heights resident, tour guide and writer says the $1 million soccer field to be built below the bridge on the Boyle Heights side feels like a palliate designed to appease the locals. On the other bank, an amphitheater would be built that would gather the community together through arts programming.

"More than likely what you heard at the groundbreaking was just the collective frustration from folks that have felt it was just a continuation of the way development has been done in the Boyle Heights area," says Mynor Godoy, Planning and Land Use chair for the Boyle Heights neighborhood council.

Boyle Heights residents see the Sixth Street Bridge replacement project as a coil of complex issues taken physical form. The neighborhood has accepted there is a need to demolish the historic bridge, but it wonders why so much is invested on this infrastructure, but yet so many of Boyle Heights' needs seem to be continually overlooked.

"Boyle Heights residents never get any respect. We always get shitted on," says Carlos Montes, president of the neighborhood council. Montes says that though the neighborhood was informed of the Sixth Street Bridge project, not all projects were similarly conscientious. According to Montes, trash pick-up schedules and parking regulations change without proper notice and police brutality was an ongoing problem.

Montes relates that right now they're working to change parking duration back to a two-hour window instead of one-hour on 1st and Cesar Chavez. "They changed it and didn't tell anybody." Montes says the change has hurt small businesses nearby. The neighborhood was also vocal against car impounding, a policy that allowed police officers to confiscate vehicles for a month, if they stop an unlicensed driver.

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Mariachi Plaza with the Boyle Apartments in the background | Photo: Malcolm K., Creative Commons License

The latest infraction comes courtesy of Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro). "It's a real attack on Mariachi Plaza," says Godoy. Metro had planned to develop a $49-million development on 1st and Boyle streets. Six of the eight stories will be dedicated to parking with two floors of medical offices, restaurants, shops, and a gym. Despite grand plans, Metro neglected to inform the community. "If you wanted to promote rail riding. Why are you building six-story parking lot?" asked Godoy of Metro.

Though the community successfully got the agency to start over again with the concept, it soon found another threat looming. It turns out the southwest corner of the contested 1st and Boyle project would be breaking ground March 15--and there was nothing the neighborhood could do about it.

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The Santa Cecilia Apartments, are a four-story mixed use development with affordable housing and retail uses. Because the city's planning department already approved the entitlements from 2009, Metro was not technically obligated to engage with the community. Despite checking all the regulatory requirements, here was Boyle Heights left out of the question of its community's future. "If this was happening in mid-city or further west, there would court cases, people would be going back and triple checking to make sure they had done their due diligence," says Godoy.

Residents say Metro's developer, McCormack Baron Salazar held only three meetings about the project since 2009. Businesses who are right on the vicinity didn't even know about the project. A letter by Un Solo Sol Kitchen owner Carlos Ortez, stated he wasn't informed about the project in 2008 or 2009.

Artist rendering of the Santa Cecilia Apartments from the Metro Planning and Programming memo
Artist rendering of the Santa Cecilia Apartments from the Metro Planning and Programming memo

1st street is on a steep grade, offering pedestrians a beautiful view of the downtown skyline. Godoy asks, why not put an amphitheater similar to the one planned for Sixth Street bridge's Art District side? "It's already a heavy slope. You already have downtown LA as background. Why not put an amphitheater there? Is it because working families don't care about the arts? Is it because we wouldn't want free public space?"

It's nothing against development, says Godoy, it just has to suit the needs of the community. In fact, the community is working with two other affordable housing mixed-used developments on Metro owned land.

Boyle Heights needs to be considered, rather than stereotyped and solutions prescribed out of hand. Its residents--like everyone who lives in Los Angeles--deserve a clean and healthy environment with access to fresh food and verdant space. Yet, they do not have that.

Every day, residents fight off pollution from its industrial neighbors, it has few options when it comes to groceries, and even its "parks" are mostly cemeteries.

"It easy to classify our neighborhood as gang-ridden and troubled, but folks in Boyle Heights aren't low income because they don't work hard," says Godoy, "We do everything to survive and keep our neighborhood alive."

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