A cheerful yellow Crispy Cuban trolley marked the entrance to RAC Design Build (RAC DB), one of the twenty-six stops at this year's Frogtown Artwalk. Inside the design studio, a crush of people meandered, perusing Sonia Romero's art prints and Knotwork L.A.'s wood works. At the back, facing the Los Angeles River, the studio became a stage, hosting the music of I See Hawks in L.A. and Jessica Fichot.
Amid the buzz of activity, lying almost forgotten, was a provocative set of large-scale graphics, one of which asked plaintively: Is this Frogtown's last artwalk?
Near it, another graphic titled Frogtown Property Activity shows just how much of the close-knit neighborhood has been purchased over the last 24 months.
"In the last 24 months, almost half of Frogtown have traded," says architect and RAC DB principal Rick Cortez, "Though physically the neighborhood has not changed, it's actually has, there is a completely new owner pool."
In the wake of a looming billion-dollar investment on the Los Angeles River, developers are looking to win big on river-adjacent communities. The increased interest has worried the community, and over the last year a loose group of residents and business owners in Frogtown, also known as Elysian Valley, has been trying to change the regulations that govern its land use in a bid to keep development in their neighborhood healthy. Since 2012, the Elysian Valley neighborhood council has been tackling the issue of how to approach these pending developments in the community. After months of independent work, plus five or six community meetings, Elysian Valley seems to have agreed on a solution.
"Property is really quantified and valued by amount of square feet put out to market," says Cortez, "If you can deliver more rentable square feet, the easier it is to make money." Such reasoning is why property owners usually look for ways to build as much as they can on a piece of land. One of the most important numbers a property owner looks to is its Floor Area Ratio (FAR).
FAR is simply a ratio that dictates how much one can build on one's property. For example, owners of a 10,000 square-foot piece of land with a 1 FAR can build up to 10,000 square feet. If that FAR were to increase to 3, then the building size can be up to 30,000 square feet. The lower the FAR, the smaller the building. It's a concept that makes many eyes glaze over, but is nevertheless crucial to understanding movements in property development.
Most properties in Frogtown are allowed a 1.5 FAR and up to three stories. That's already too much, finds Frogtown neighbors. Should developers build as much as they possibly can with Frogtown's 1.5 FAR, it would result in buildings that would dwarf the current low-profile homes and converted warehouse spaces in the neighborhood. It would dominate the riverside neighborhood and quite possibly result in a more intimidating atmosphere.
As if that weren't enough, savvy developers can also take advantage of an affordable housing bonus. If developments set aside part of their project for affordable housing, the city would allow them to build up to 2 FAR, which could reach up to an equivalent of five stories. Developers would also be eligible for cheap funding set aside by federal policy specifically to build homes for the less fortunate.
Developers need only keep the affordable housing rates for 30 years. "That affordable housing won't stay affordable for long," predicts Kevin Mulcahy, Managing Principal and architect at RAC DB. "It'll revert back to fair market prices in 30 years." Los Angeles has the dubious distinction of being the third most expensive housing market in the country; those market prices may be too much for the regular Angeleno to afford.
All these signs -- increased property activity, generous building regulations, readily available bonuses -- create a formula for neighborhood degradation. Already, the neighborhood has seen a 21 percent increase on the median price of a house in Elysian Valley, but more than half of the households are renters. The once-quiet Frogtown is turning to a hotbed of property speculation, which could easily lead to longtime residents being pushed out of their homes by property owners who would increase their rents based on market prices.
In an effort to curb such a possibility RAC DB, along with the Elysian Valley neighborhood council, has been prompting the city to change its Q conditions (or Qualified Conditions), which are additional regulations overlaid on a property, meant to ensure lower building heights or open space requirements.
Frogtown wants its FAR lowered to 0.75. That figure represents an amount of development that won't overwhelm the neighborhood. Combined with an affordable housing bonus, it would still yield projects of "survivable density, preserving both the existing character of the community along with the broader goal of a sensitively revitalized, soft and inviting edge to the L.A. River," writes Mulcahy.
Damian Robledo of RAC DB is a board member of Elysian Valley Arts Collective, which puts on the annual Frogtown Artwalk. He says, "This is the largest, best attended art walk in nine years, but it's a reality that the warehouses these artists call home may not be here next year. They'll be priced out. Buildings would be bought, torn down, and condos or apartments built in its place. I really doubt there will be room for artists to live and work."
Out of the twenty-six spots on this year's artwalk, five are adaptive reuse projects that remake warehouse spaces into studios for artists. "These buildings are part of the character of Frogtown. It's why we throw artwalks. It's a scary proposition to think it could become history within a year."
Elysian Valley's requested changes have been slower than the community would like. A presentation was made at Councilman Mitch O'Farrell's office with the promise that changes would be made in a "handful of weeks, three months on the outside," says Cortez.
A year has passed and changes have yet to be made.
To his credit, O'Farrell did introduce a motion last February, requesting to "update the Elysian Valley 'Q' Qualifying Conditions to implement the goals of the Silver Lake-Echo Park-Elysian Valley Community Plan" and, further, "to allow live/work units, incentives for adaptive reuse and affordable housing, as well as the prohibition of certain lot ties and uses that are not compatible with the Los Angeles River recreation zone." Familiar with the planning issues of the area since his time as a staff member helping now mayor Eric Garcetti with river issues in the Ad Hoc River Committee, O'Farrell expresses support for the idea of revisiting the Q Conditions, what the exact changes would be however would still be up to a public process. "I have 7,000 other stakeholders in my district. I'm willing to consider this proposal along with the others."
One of the biggest challenges to get this moving forward is finding funding for a dedicated city planner to work on the project. "The city has lost 5,000 employees," said O'Farrell. While going through the budget process, the council was able to identify additional funds to hire a planner dedicated to work on these changes. According to O'Farrell, the staffer will be coming on board in a few months.
From there, the goal is hold a community meeting before the end of the year, then public hearings in the winter of 2015. When agreed upon, the proposed changes to the Q conditions will go before the City Planning Commission, then Planning and Land Use Committee, and then finally for City Council, for approval. O'Farrell changes could be made as soon as Spring 2015.
In the meantime, new development projects are coming online, each a possible danger to the neighborhood character.
Not all development is evil, clarifies the group, but it is difficult to parse that just from a developer's rhetoric. "We do not want to discourage redevelopment, but we are adamant that such changes need leadership with a strong tool kit to guide appropriately scaled and thoughtfully produced projects," said Mulcahy.
The proof is in the final approved building plans.
"The River House, next to Marsh Park, is big and it's new, but it is also an example of growth. Through a public process, the project was reshaped and scaled back to meet the community's goals for managed development," said Mulcahy. The same project could have been built using the same 0.75 FAR guideline with an additional density bonus.
"In the end, careful collaboration between planning representatives and project owners ultimately struck a balance," said Mulcahy, "What we need is an earnest, balanced collaboration between private interests and equally empower community representatives to guard against damaging impact on the community as a whole and the river at large."
If Elysian Valley is to emerge from Los Angeles River development in a better position that it is now, planning should mediate growth to prevent displacement of a wholesale displacement of its existing community. Mulcahy said, "The reality is that existing communities (and ironically, so is the market) better served when development does not overshadow an embryonic environment overnight."
Read the full RAC DB presentation here.
UPDATE 10/10 4:00 p.m.: This story was updated for clarification and additional quotes from Councilmember O'Farrell.