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If we are serious about housing homeless people, let's get this Eastside project up

On Tuesday, a Los Angeles City Council committee has an opportunity, finally, to give the go-ahead to a smart, well-conceived, affordable housing development in Boyle Heights.

The development sits on a vacant one-acre lot on the corner of East 1st and Lorena streets. On one side is the venerable El Mercado shopping center and restaurant. On the other side, across the street, is a cemetery. Across another street, a Pizza Hut. There’s no question that the planned development would enhance the block.

We desperately need projects like this. In a city with scarce affordable housing, a city where the homeless population has risen 20% since last year, this development would offer 49 residential units — half going to homeless people and the rest to low-income veterans and families. It would also offer 10,000 square feet of commercial space.

And it has the blessing of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council, the L.A. City Planning Department, and the L.A. Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which owns the land. A highly regarded nonprofit developer, A Community of Friends, was chosen by Metro to be the developer.

City planning department professionals approved the developer’s environmental analysis, but the El Mercado owners have appealed it, saying the developers should go through a full environmental impact review. This is little more than a ploy to kill the project.

Even with the modest amount of housing for the homeless in this project, it has still drawn opponents who just don’t want housing for homeless people near them. We need community advocates and political leaders to coax people to drop their unfounded fears about this. There are supportive housing developments all around the county and they fit into their neighborhoods just as well as typical market-rate apartment buildings.

Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents this area and also chairs the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, which will hear the El Mercado appeal on Tuesday, has been resistant to this project from the time it first appeared before the Metro board. When his PLUM committee took up this issue in May, he said that his objections were not NIMBYism. He said he felt ambushed by the Metro board for approving the project with changes that were not run by him first. “I was appalled at the way it was pushed through,” he said.

Ok, that was more than four years ago (so it didn’t get pushed anywhere fast) and a lot in the project has changed since the Metro board approval. Dora Gallo, the chief executive of A Community of Friends, has sought to incorporate suggestions and allay concerns all around. She increased the project’s commercial space at Huizar’s office’s request, made design changes to address the El Mercado owners’ concerns, and added a child-care facility and fitness space at the community’s request.

Will everyone be pleased with it? Of course not. Nor should the developer have to appease everyone. This is a solid, attractive, much-needed project that has been approved by planning professionals and the neighborhood council.

City voters have made it clear that they want to house homeless people. Last November, they approved Proposition HHH bond money that will build as many as 10,000 units of permanent supportive housing for homeless people across the city over the course of a decade. Can we just start with these 24 units for homeless people on Lorena Street?

Huizar said in May that “this is not the right location for this type of project.” Why not? It has housing — not just for homeless people but for veterans and families. It has commercial space. It has open space. This doesn’t have to be a difficult call. Deny the appeal that will hold up the project. Let it finally proceed.

carla.hall@latimes.com

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