It is disappointing that Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar wants a long-delayed housing development in Boyle Heights for poor and homeless people to be delayed even further while an extensive environmental report is prepared. This looks less like an attempt to ensure that the site is safe than an attempt to slow down — and derail — a well-designed project that could offer housing to Angelenos who desperately need it.
The project, which is being developed by a highly respected nonprofit organization, would sit at East 1st and Lorena streets — next door to the popular El Mercado shopping mall and restaurant. It would create 49 units of housing, including 24 for mentally ill homeless people, and 10,000 square feet of commercial space. In a city with roughly 34,000 homeless people, such housing can't be created fast enough. So the idea that a promising project for which the land has already been provided could be slowed down for an additional year by a requirement to do a full environmental impact report is quite worrisome — both for the immediate project at hand and for future projects that require City Council approval.
The full environmental report Huizar recommended last week is simply unnecessary. The project's developer, A Community of Friends, had already submitted an environmental study — and the city's own planning department had signed off on it. At issue, Huizar says, is the impact of an abandoned oil well deep underground at the site. In fact, there are thousands of oil wells buried in Los Angeles, and developers deal with contamination all the time by mitigating the soil before starting construction.
The project's environmental consultants did an initial study of the site that showed the risk to public health from soil contamination was low. The consultants did recommend a second (or Phase 2) study to determine, with certainty, if there was any contaminated soil and how to clean it up. This is not uncommon and doesn't require a project to be held up for long periods. Bottom line, the consultants said that they expected no significant contamination hazards.
Nevertheless, at last week's Planning and Land Use Committee hearing, Huizar pounced on the fact that the developer had not done a Phase 2 study yet. In fact, the developer's consultants never said the study needed to be done right away. The work could be done closer to construction.
It's bad enough that Dora Gallo, the chief executive of A Community of Friends, has had to go through this tortured process to build badly needed housing on what is now a vacant lot surrounded by a cemetery, a Pizza Hut and a shopping mall and restaurant. Even more troubling is the difficulty it may presage for all the other homeless housing projects the city needs so badly.
Last year, city voters approved $1.2 billion in bonds to build as many as 10,000 units of housing, mostly for homeless people, over the next decade. Developers already are proposing projects, and the city is preparing to fund them.
But consider what's going on in Boyle Heights: A respected nonprofit that has built — and manages — about 40 buildings with supportive services for formerly homeless people has spent the last four years shepherding this Lorena Street project through community forums and government agencies, making significant adjustments to the design to satisfy the community's concerns. The project has the support of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which owns the site, the city planning department, the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council, the United Way and the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce, among others. City Atty. Mike Feuer sent out an email voicing his full support for the project.
The opposition comes from some residential neighbors in the area, as well as from El Mercado and Huizar, who has said repeatedly that he is upset that the project got approved by the Metro board four years ago even though there were elements that had not been run by him first.
If these are the hurdles that face a viable, reasonable project to create a mere two dozen units of housing for the homeless, how in the world is this city going to get 10,000 units built? There will always be neighbors who oppose a project, there will always be officials annoyed at someone who disrespected them, there will always be an environmental concern of one sort or another that can be exploited.
Huizar has adamantly said that his opposition is not about NIMBYism. OK, then he should show us that. Why not sit down with Gallo and hammer out a compromise plan that he and the developer can live with? Huizar may never convince the naysayers — including the owners of El Mercado — that this is a good project. But that should not stop him from supporting it. That kind of leadership is what we are looking for from the entire council and other city elected officials as we embark on this ambitious building project over the next 10 years.
When all the members of the City Council hear this issue Aug. 29, they should deny the El Mercado appeal and let this project finally move forward.