First & Spring

Koreatown development stirs parking concerns

Koreatown residential project shows the tensions over parking policy in LA

Koreatown resident Daniel Martinez has been driving only a few years. But he says he's already racked up eight parking tickets, five of them for parking on street-sweeping day.

The 21-year-old mechanic lives on one of the 10 worst blocks in Koreatown for receiving street-sweeping tickets, according to a recent Times analysis. Koreatown was one of the five most ticketed neighborhoods in L.A. for street-sweeping violations in 2012.

That poses something of a financial risk to Martinez's household, which has five out of six family members relying on cars to get to work and school. Finding a space could become even more challenging if city leaders sign off on plans for a six-story residential building around the corner from Martinez's Kingsley Drive apartment.

Developer Robert Neman, who is looking to build 131 residential units at the corner of 8th Street and Harvard Boulevard, has faced serious pushback from neighborhood leaders over parking, affordable housing and other issues.

The debate over the project highlights the tensions over L.A.'s parking policies in high-density spots like Koreatown, which has an array of public transit options but also working-class residents who rely heavily on their cars. But it also offers a glimpse into the efforts made by real estate interests to avoid the city's complex and sometimes costly planning and zoning requirements.

When Neman proposed his project last year, he requested a break from city parking regulations, offering to provide 202 spaces instead of the required 309. Neman also sought an exception — known in City Hall parlance as a "variance" — from city density limits, asking for 131 housing units instead of the 96 normally allowed. He wanted to be spared from rules dealing with bicycle parking, building setbacks and the structure's size.

Councilman Herb Wesson — Koreatown's representative — offered his support for the project last summer, saying through an aide that it would provide new homeownership opportunities. But Koreatown's neighborhood council refused to endorse it, arguing that it had too few parking spaces and no affordable housing.

If city officials gave Neman the variances he wanted, the group said, they would be providing a benefit worth at least $10 million to the project. In October, a city zoning administrator denied the developer's requests.

A month later, the developer filed an appeal of that decision with the Central Area Planning Commission, a panel made up of mayoral appointees. But in recent days, he signaled he's ready to redesign the project.

Here things get more interesting. By switching from condominiums to apartments, his building would need around 200 spaces, far fewer than the amount originally demanded by the city, said Christopher Pak, the consultant hired to get the project through City Hall. After bicycle parking is included, the parking requirements will drop even more, Pak added.

One crucial difference: Under the city's planning rules, new condominium projects must offer parking spaces for guests. For reasons that officials couldn't clearly explain, apartment buildings do not.

That disparity infuriates Aura Vasquez, who serves on the Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council, the panel that declined to endorse the 8th and Harvard project. Vasquez, a renter in Koreatown herself, says tenants have visitors too.

"You have the same lifestyle whether you live in an apartment or a house," she said. "That's just common sense to me."

Vasquez is waiting to see the reworked version of Neman's project. But she criticized the parking breaks granted elsewhere in her neighborhood. Though she prefers to use the bus, Vasquez still needs a car to get to meetings for her job with the Sierra Club. One bus trip to Santa Monica, she said, took two hours.

"People think because they reduce parking, it will force people to take public transportation. But it just makes things more crowded … and it makes more profits. The breaks on parking mean the developer can make more money. And it helps the city, because when you can't park and you get a ticket, who profits? The city."

Parking is not the only sticking point on Neman's project. He plans to tear down 44 rent-controlled apartments as part of the 8th and Harvard development. Larry Gross, who heads the tenant advocacy group Coalition for Economic Survival, said the neighborhood would suffer if the developer doesn't replace them with an equal number of affordable units.

"He should not be rewarded for destroying valuable rent-controlled apartments and replacing them with luxury units," Gross said. "And on top of that, he's contributing to the parking situation."

Pak, a frequent campaign contributor to L.A. politicians, says his client is considering setting aside some apartments for lower-income residents — although just how many hasn't been decided. On the parking issue, Pak argued that Koreatown, like the rest of L.A., is experiencing a transformation that requires residents to rely less on automobiles.

"The city's at a crossroads," he said. "Do we really want to provide more parking? Or do we want to encourage people to take more public transportation?"

Efforts to roll back parking requirements are also favored by Jessica Meaney, who recently launched the transportation advocacy group Investing in Place. The city's parking rules seriously add to a project's construction cost, she says, making it more difficult for L.A. to add much-needed housing.

Wesson, who is now running for reelection, intends to support the reworked project once it reaches the Planning Commission. The councilman has asked the developer to do more to follow city parking rules and provide affordable housing, said spokesman Ed Johnson.

Wesson aides showed a keen interest in the 8th and Harvard project over the last year, said Michael O'Brien, a former zoning administrator who reviewed the development application last year. O'Brien said he received half a dozen calls from the councilman's aides about the project — a level of interest he described as "very unusual."

"They kept saying, 'When are you going to push this project through?' That sort of thing," said O'Brien, who retired last year.

Grace Yoo, who is waging a long-shot bid to unseat Wesson, said she believes the developer is now making concessions because neighborhood leaders and planning officials had the foresight to say no. Yoo also surmised that some of the changes are being made because the councilman is now in a political campaign.

"This is election time," she said. "You don't need negative press for the incumbent."

Johnson, the Wesson spokesman, would not make that connection.

"The developer is being responsive to the city and community's concerns, which is not uncommon," he said.

@DavidZahniser

Times staff writer Ben Poston contributed to this report.

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