Council Adopts Harbor-Area Apartment Moratorium

Times Staff Writer

After five months of public meetings and bitter community conflict, the Los Angeles City Council took quick action Wednesday to adopt a one-year moratorium on the construction of high-density apartment buildings in Wilmington and Harbor City.

The action, by a 13-0 vote, will restrict development to one new housing unit for every 1,500 square feet of lot space--effectively cutting in half the amount of construction allowed in the two communities, said Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who introduced the measure in February at the urging of homeowners.

Flores said the moratorium, which takes effect this week, will buy time while a citizens advisory group completes a new zoning plan for the two areas. The adoption of that plan is expected to result in lower density limits in areas where new apartment buildings are threatening to crowd out single-family homes.

Hearings on the plan are expected to begin later this year, Flores said.

"We think (the moratorium) will go a long way toward cooling things down in the interim," she said, calling the measure a response to intensive apartment construction that has occurred in recent months. "When I talked to developers, I told them they had brought this on themselves--and they agreed to that."

Peter Mendoza, president of the 500-member Wilmington Homeowners Assn., described the moratorium as an important but difficult victory for homeowners who requested it. Flores, who in the past has supported the property rights of developers, agreed to support it only after recognizing its importance to homeowners, Mendoza said.

"We're working with a council person who has been pro-development from Day 1," he commented. "This (moratorium) is something we could have used six months or a year ago."

The one-year moratorium, which affects all building plans filed after March 6, can be extended for two six-month periods.

Flores said she supported the measure because developers were showing more interest in collecting profits than in building lower-density buildings that would help improve the two communities. One homeowner group estimated that at least 50 apartment complexes had been built or planned in the two communities during the past year.

When homeowners suggested a moratorium in October, developers strongly objected, arguing that the density limits would drive down property values. They also argued that high-density developments need not be damaging to the Wilmington-Harbor City area.

By Wednesday's meeting, however, only two developers appeared to protest the measure, complaining that a moratorium would unfairly restrict their rights to use property they had purchased. Other developers did not even attend the council session, saying they were resigned to the measure's passage.

"There really isn't anything that can be done to stop it," said Catherine May, the owner of a Hermosa Beach planning firm that represents developers in Wilmington and Harbor City.

In a telephone interview before the meeting, May said developers had done all they could do to fight it. "We've been to meetings and we've voiced our objections," she said. "We're . . . not happy with it, but now is not the time to say anything."

May expressed hope that the moratorium would at least "calm down the residents so they will no longer fear the developers." That, she said, might better enable builders to help shape the new community plan.

The density limits now being considered by the citizens committee would force some developers to abandon Wilmington in favor of other areas, she said. In particular, May said, developers object that zoning for single-family homes has been proposed for some areas of Wilmington that already have been "infiltrated" by 8- and 12-story apartment buildings.

'In a Vacuum'

"For a year and a half, they worked on that plan in a vacuum," May said of the citizens group. "What will come out of this (moratorium), hopefully, will be a general plan that will address the concerns of everybody."

Another developer, Hubert G. Toll, owner of the H.G. Toll Co., called the moratorium a proper response by Flores to the overwhelming push by homeowners to slow growth. But in an interview, he predicted that the measure would result in "further decay in an area of the city that needs to be redeveloped.

"As the builders quit building and the demand (for housing) rises, rental rates will go up . . . and the value of the land will go down," Toll said. "I don't think anyone wins in that situation."

'Whose Voice?'

Residents disagreed.

"Whose voice is to be heard--80,000 residents or a handful of developers?" asked Mendoza, president of the Wilmington Homeowners Assn.

Testifying Tuesday before the council's Planning and Environment Committee, which endorsed the moratorium by a 2-0 vote, Mendoza called the proposal a necessary measure to protect Wilmington and Harbor City from overdevelopment while the community plan is being developed.

"Real estate development is a speculative business," he said. "I think it's unfair to these residents to guarantee a profit to these developers" by allowing development to continue.

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