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Q Conditions: Limiting Development in Elysian Valley

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Los Angeles may be in the midst of a housing crisis, where a combination of high rents and low wages have made it difficult for residents to find a suitable place to live, but the solution isn't always to increase density.

Last month, Los Angeles' City Planning Commission brought home this point clearly, as members of the commission, the community, and property owners testified for and against the proposed changes in the neighborhood's Q conditions, a set of guidelines that affect how much could be built. These conditions can affect building height and how much of the land a new structure would be allowed to cover, among other things. Currently, most properties in the affected Elysian Valley area are allowed to build up to three stories, which some residents feel is already too high.

Elysian Valley is a neighborhood quite unlike any other. Hemmed in by the the 110 Freeway to the south, the 2 on the north, the 5 on the west and the Los Angeles River and Metrolink train tracks to the east, many of its small, narrow streets are lined by single story homes that dead-end at the Los Angeles River. Glimpses within the structures yield evidence of home-based businesses that have long characterized the working class neighborhood. It stands in stark contrast to the wide-open spaces one imagines when thinking of Los Angeles sprawl. It makes sense that this unique working class neighborhood with not much room to expand outwards needs a different approach to development. With the proposed changes, planners and community members are hoping to curb the opportunity for developers to build tall and large, overshadowing the small homes already present.

Unrestricted height could make Elysian Valley look like this | Image: RAC Smart Growth for Elysian Valley
Unrestricted height could make Elysian Valley look like this | Image: RAC Smart Growth for Elysian Valley

The proposed conditions include a change of height for commercially zoned properties from 45 feet in height to 30 feet in height. This is the lowest height district in the city, according to Council District 13. It has also removed the 100 percent residential use by-right throughout the zone, limiting it only to live-work units. "[This] is to preserve productive uses and employment while reducing distortions in commercial property values," said Alex Heath, Planning Assistant, during the meeting. "Staff has acknowledged the existence of live-work uses in Elysian Valley, which supports the industry that has come to define the commercial manufacturing zone." Heath referred to the many live-work dwellings in the area that housed artists and makers who have called Elysian Valley home. It also limits development to only 60 percent of the lot size, to limit the occurrence of overly large buildings looming over the Los Angeles River, as well as the small homes in the surrounding neighborhood.

The proposed update affects 118 parcels in Elysian Valley. These parcels are: between Blake Avenue and Los Angeles River, north of Altman Street and south of Marsh Street; parcels north and south along Allesandro Street east of Crystal Street; parcels located between Blimp Street and Gail Street; parcels located at the east end of Ripple Place; and parcels located at the end of Glover Place, between Los Angeles River and Crystal Street.

"We have to look at the big picture," said Christine Peters, Policy Adviser for Council District 13. "We can't look at this like we're downzoning a community at a time when Los Angeles is in a housing crisis. We don't see that the 118 parcels that will be affected by this Q ordinance update are going to solve the city's housing crisis. I don't think the 100,000 units we need in Los Angeles--and we need them desperately--are going to be solved by this tiny, little neighborhood that's already impacted on a daily basis by so many other issues."

The Commission approved the proposed the changes unanimously. Peters thinks that these changes are a step in the right direction.

Though the proposed changes now look dry and straightforward, they weren't arrived at easily. These restrictions were a result of workshops and communications between the community, developers, and the city for more than two years. Even as the City Planning Commission debated these restrictions' benefits, there were still questions as to how restrictive this update would be.

Local residents like Robert Leyland-Monefeldt are on one end of the spectrum, who opposes even the approved Q conditions. He's looking for a one-story height limit on all development, "Elysian Valley isn't designed for high-density. It would destroy Los Angeles River wildlife."

On the other end are people that support development, such as land use consultant Jessica McBride of three6ixty. "The height limit of 30 feet is very restrictive and coupled with restrictions on lot coverage and set backs effectively downzones the properties there," said McBride, "This disadvantages property owners who've already invested in the community."

Joe Clifford, who owns a few properties in Mount Washington, Highland Park and Boyle Heights, is also more inclined toward increased development. "I don't have properties in Elysian Valley, but this whole anti-gentrification wave concerns me. We live in an urban environment and I fall into the group of people who think we need density for effective transportation, economies of scale, walkablity--all the things that make urban areas attractive and vibrant--to work." Clifford says the drawings he saw were "comically skewed toward causing hysteria and negative reactions to anyone looking at them."

Residents fear that by keeping current regulations, the working class families will eventually be pushed out. Peters states that there have been bidding wars. "Properties that were selling at $300,000 to $400,000 have had offers that go up to $3-4 million. The speculation and pressure on the community is intense."

Without the 30-foot height limit that would cap the development to two stories, three-story housing projects will be built throughout the area with no affordable housing and no commercial or live-work. This would displace the current working class community living there. "The Bimbo Bakery project is three-story townhouses with roof decks and no affordable housing," Dake Wilson explained later. By limiting new construction to 30 feet and two stories, Dake Wilson says developers would be more motivated to take advantage of the density bonus, which allows them to build 11 feet higher and up to four stories. A 30-foot new construction can also be built without the density bonus and it would fit within the scale of the existing neighborhood.

At 30-foot building limit (about two stories) with added 11-foot density bonus, developers could potentially build up to four stories. This might be enough for developers to use the density bonus and add affordable housing to their projects.

At 36 feet height limit (about three stories) and an additional density bonus, developers can build up to four stories. Developers may just opt to build three floors by-right without taking advantage of the density bonus to build a fourth story.

Courtesy of Renee Dake Wilson.
Courtesy of Renee Dake Wilson.

At 32 feet height limit, developers could still build three stories without the use of the density bonus. "I don't think there's enough of a carrot to get developers interested in providing some affordable housing," said Dake Wilson.

The commission's main concern was exactly what the community Elysian Valley had been tackling these past couple of years with the help of Council District 13. "It's not something we thought of overnight," said Peters of the proposal, "We worked on this literally from the day we took office."

How can development be encouraged in the neighborhood while protecting working class residents? The solution, for now, seems to be subtly encouraging affordable housing development and restricting height and lot coverage to ensure that the Los Angeles River banks remain porous to the public.Given the restrictions,any development that would be done in the neighborhood would require creativity to make a profit.

Elysian Valley isn't out of the woods yet. Robledo said, "The Q still has to go to the City Council for a vote, then get Planning department to approve. There is still room for outside influences to de-rail or amend in my opinion. So the Elysian Valley community is still vigilant and will attend every meeting until the Code is amended."

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