If Los Angeles aims to add more housing, it should look at the neighborhoods lining its long-maligned river to do it.
That's the thrust of a new report out Friday from an influential local business group, highlighting development opportunities in neighborhoods along the Los Angeles River.
The city could make a big dent in Mayor Eric Garcetti's goal of adding 100,000 housing units by 2021 if it streamlines permitting and creates incentive zones in places along the river, said the report from the Los Angeles Business Council.
The report comes in the wake of a billion-dollar plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to revamp 11 miles of the L.A. River north of downtown, and amid growing efforts to reclaim other sections of the concrete trench with bike paths, nature trails and more.
That work, plus the mix of older industrial areas, relatively low-density neighborhoods and access to jobs and transit, makes many spots along the 51-mile waterway that snakes from Canoga Park to Long Beach attractive for people who want to build housing that's relatively close to the region's core, said Paul Habibi, a UCLA real estate professor who authored the report.
"If you look at frontiers and underutilized resources, I think the L.A. River is really fertile land with a lot of development potential," he said. "There's market-driven demand, a lot of developers who are eager to get in there."
But executing on projects — which often requires cleaning up polluted sites and sometimes rezoning them — can be tricky. Doing so on a budget that allows for affordable housing is even trickier. So the business council proposed a variety of tools, such as local design guidelines and expedited permitting, to help hasten development and keep costs down.
And it's recommending the use of newly created incentive zones — called Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts, or EIFDs — that would capture new tax revenue in particular neighborhoods and funnel it back into street work, parks and affordable housing projects in those places. A district running the length of the river could raise $5 billion to $10 billion over the next 45 years, the report estimates.
"That would go a long way to help develop a lot of housing," said Mary Leslie, president of the business council.
Starting with a full-river EIFD might be unrealistic, the report acknowledges. So it proposes two pilot projects, one in Studio City and North Hollywood, the other in northeast Los Angeles.
"Those are some areas where we're already watching development move aggressively, near transit," Leslie said. "The question is how do we accelerate what we're doing right?"
It's a tricky balance, said Robert De Forest. He's co-founder of Terra River, which is developing a 40-unit live-work complex in Elysian Valley. He bought the site before the Army Corps announced its project, and has watched land prices soar along the corridor since. While he'd welcome a simpler development process, he also sees how attracting more developers can drive costs upward.
"It cuts both ways," he said. "On one hand it's great for a developer to have certainty. The flip side is, when a municipality telegraphs exactly what can be done, a lot of times what happens is that gets baked into the land price, and makes it harder to build a project that's going to be affordable."
Concerns about affordability are at the top of Robert Garcia's mind too. Founder of the City Project, a nonprofit that works to improve access to parks and green space in low-income neighborhoods, Garcia sat on the business council's advisory panel for the study and urged its authors to focus on ways to avoid displacing residents, so they can benefit from the housing and jobs that might come.
"That has been our experience, that communities of color and low-income communities that engaged in this epic struggle to create green space will no longer be able to afford to live there or even work there," he said. "That people have to move out of their houses and smaller businesses have to move out. That's the risk."
That's why making sure affordable housing is part of the mix and getting community input on design guidelines are both so important, Leslie said. And, she pointed out, many of the neighborhoods that line the river are not only low-income and largely minority but also among the most polluted places in the state. Cleaning them up helps everyone.
"We can take back areas that have been environmentally degraded and make them useful again," she said. "That's a good thing."