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Proposal for walkway over downtown L.A. homeless camp stirs debate

Social IssuesHomelessnessJose HuizarEric GarcettiSafety of CitizensPoliticsGovernment
Developer: Bridge between apartment blocks would keep tenants safe from transients
Critics: Developer is demonizing downtown's poorest inhabitants with plans for walkway
Homeless encampment resident: 'The people here do not want trouble'

A well-known developer in downtown Los Angeles is fighting to erect a pedestrian bridge between two apartment buildings, saying it would protect future residents from a nearby homeless encampment.

Geoffrey H. Palmer, whose company is known for the Orsini, the Medici and other faux-Italian apartment buildings, wants the private walkway to join structures going up on both sides of Temple Street. In a report filed with the city, his company said a span over Temple would help his tenants steer clear of transients living under the nearby 110 Freeway.

"The best form of self-defense is not being placed in a situation where you have to defend yourself," the company's document states.

The request has sparked debate in downtown L.A., where gentrification has brought an influx of new upscale residents but also charges that the poor and the homeless are being pushed out. Palmer's proposal — along with other pedestrian bridges he has already built — has triggered complaints from advocates who say he is turning his back on the street and demonizing downtown's poorest inhabitants.

The Central Area Planning Commission — a panel whose members are selected by Mayor Eric Garcetti — rejected Palmer's request last month, saying downtown's pedestrian activity belongs on the sidewalks, not above them. City Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents much of downtown, wants his colleagues to overturn that decision when the council meets on Friday.

Huizar said this week that the bridge had nothing to do with the homeless but rather would provide a convenient path from one part of Palmer's 526-unit Da Vinci development to the other, giving residents easier access to shops, a basketball court and other amenities. "This is simply a connection [from] one residential area to another," he said.

Supporters contend the Da Vinci, currently under construction, will improve the street-level experience of pedestrians by adding new sidewalks, stores and a traffic signal to a moribund stretch of Temple between Figueroa and the 110. Critics say the bridge goes against a basic tenet of the new downtown: building a vibrant pedestrian life along the street. Once the bridge is in place, they say, the sidewalks below would remain a "dead zone."

"They're denying that street the activity that it needs," said Will Wright, government affairs director for the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects. "For every person that crosses that bridge, that's one fewer person not helping to make that street more appealing and more urban."

The pedestrian bridge would run parallel to the adjacent 110 Freeway, which is just west of Palmer's property. A dozen or so people have been living underneath an overpass where the freeway passes over Temple, bringing bags, bedding and even furniture to the sidewalk.

George La Torre, who has been there since February, said residents of the Palmer project would have nothing to fear from him and his neighbors.

"It's peaceful here on Temple Street," said the 59-year-old, standing next to a shopping cart, his cushions and other assorted possessions. "The people here do not want trouble. They don't look for trouble."

The bridge battle is the latest example of Palmer's contentious relationship with City Hall. Over 15 years, his company — G.H. Palmer Associates — has fought with city officials over historic preservation, affordable housing requirements and demands for him to put businesses on the ground floor of his residential projects. The company has already won approval for pedestrian bridges at its other buildings, including one over nearby Figueroa Street and another over Cesar Chavez Avenue.

Greg Smith, Palmer's vice president of development, would not comment. But in documents submitted to the Planning Department, company officials said they were especially worried about crimes taking place near the Da Vinci during evening hours, when the homeless population is "more active."

"It is reasonably foreseeable that a project resident who is traveling alone and carrying a package ... will attract attention and risk being victimized by individuals who can quickly retreat under the overpass area," the company's filing states.

UCLA Law School emeritus professor Gary Blasi said he believed the developer's pro-bridge arguments were about discomfort with encountering the homeless, not public safety. "It's not like homeless people need additional vilification or stereotyping as being criminals. And it's actually the reverse — homeless people are much more likely to be the victims instead of perpetrators of crimes," said Blasi, who has studied the issue for more than 20 years.

The overpass recently drew the interest of celebrity news outlets, which reported that actor Zac Efron was punched during a late-night altercation after his car stopped under the 110 Freeway. TMZ said Efron told police that transients confronted him after a bottle was thrown out of his vehicle — and that they thought the bottle had been hurled at them.

A Police Department spokesman said no arrests were made in that incident.

As part of its request for a bridge, Palmer's company said police had identified 651 crimes within a mile of the Da Vinci site over a year.

The Department of City Planning came out against the bridge proposal in February, saying it conflicts with city's downtown planning and design guidelines. City planner Blake Lamb said she had found that only 24 crimes had been reported within a fifth of a mile of Palmer's property — all of which were reported at Palmer's other apartment projects at Figueroa and Cesar Chavez.

Garcetti's appointees on the Central Area Planning Commission, one of seven panels that review development proposals in different sections of L.A., sided with Lamb and rejected Palmer's appeal. Three weeks later, Huizar pushed for the council to revisit the issue, saying in a written motion that the bridge would satisfy "resident public safety concerns, particularly during the evening hours."

On Tuesday, Lamb told the council's Planning and Land Use Committee — a panel chaired by Huizar — that her agency's policies do not support "the physical segregation of people" as a way of addressing safety and homelessness. But downtown business and neighborhood groups backed Palmer, saying the bridge makes sense given the Da Vinci's unusual layout — it has freeways on two sides — and bleak surroundings.

"There's 20 people now encamped underneath that freeway. G.H. Palmer is the only developer with the guts to go in and make this investment with these conditions," said Hal Bastian, executive vice president of the Downtown Center Business Improvement District.

"This bridge is essential while the area is going through its transition," Bastian added.

That message did not surprise one of the men living beneath the nearby overpass, a former solar panel installer who identified himself as James Morton. He predicted the people living under the 110 Freeway would be pushed out once the Da Vinci opens.

"When that building goes up, we're out of here," he said. "He's got mucho power."

david.zahniser@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Social IssuesHomelessnessJose HuizarEric GarcettiSafety of CitizensPoliticsGovernment
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