Low-Income Provision Stalls Plan for Apartments

Times Staff Writer

Playa del Rey developer George Smart hopes to build an innovative, luxury apartment complex at the Centinela Drive-In Theater site in Westchester.

Along with the customary swimming pools, spas, racquetball courts and a jogging track, Smart proposes to include in his 3-story, 624-unit complex storage space in the garage for each tenant, a child-care center with priority for tenants and a recycling center for glass, aluminum and newspapers.

But another innovation required by the Los Angeles Planning Commission may be one too many for the project: The commission last week said it wants Smart and his Sage Development Corp. to set aside at least 93 apartments in the complex for low-income residents.

Smart said that provision may make financing the project impossible.

"Our money people are looking into it now," Smart said in an interview this week. "But if it doesn't pencil out, we may have to abandon it.

"We're not trying to get out of our responsibility to build low-income housing, but we want to build something that is economically viable for us. We're willing to build low-income housing, but we believe it would be better to provide that housing in other surrounding sites."

Support from Residents

Smart has the support of some nearby residents. Ronni Cooper, president of the Ladera Heights Civic Assn., which represents about 3,500 residents in the unincorporated county area across the street from the drive-in site, said her group opposes the inclusion of low-income residents.

"We would have to oppose the project if that provision is not excluded," Cooper said.

The requirement to include low-income units in the project could be another setback in developing the 11.7-acre site at 5700 W. Centinela Ave., between the San Diego Freeway and La Tijera Boulevard, that has housed a drive-in theater since 1939.

Sage Development Corp. purchased the lot in December, 1986, for $13.3 million, a price based on its zoning for light manufacturing, according to Smart.

Earlier this year, a plan to build a new bus maintenance yard for the Southern California Rapid Transit District at the site was dropped after residents of Ladera Heights, where homes average about $400,000, opposed it, saying it would lower property values and give the area a bad image.

The residents also opposed a proposal for two 15-story office towers totaling 750,000 square feet and another proposal that would have included a mixed-use of commercial and retail space.

Earlier this summer, when a majority of residents indicated that they preferred a residential development, Smart sponsored weekly open houses at the site to get community input.

With community support for his gated, Mediterranean-style complex, Smart said he thought he finally would get a project approved.

He got approval from the Planning Commission, but he also got the unexpected requirement to set aside 15% of the units for low-income residents.

A planning department spokesman said that requiring low-income units in a luxury complex is rare but not unheard of.

William G. Luddy, president of the Planning Commission, said the panel looked at the project simply as a land-use matter.

"It seemed appropriate, particularly for the Westside, to include a percentage of low-income housing to try to meet a real need in the city," Luddy said. "We are trying to provide a housing need sufficient to match job requirements of an area."

Luddy said he might have considered allowing Smart to provide the low-income housing on another site but questioned whether other land would be available. He also said that if low-income housing is to be provided on another site, a higher percentage should be required.

"The developer proposed providing the housing within a 5-mile range of the site," Luddy said. "But where is that going to be? I don't know.

"How it pencils out for him is up to him to come to terms with. If in fact it kills the project, they may be able to get an agreement with the City Council to allow for the housing off-site. It was not our intention to break the project."

Rick Ruiz, a spokesman for Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, said Galanter supported the developer's original request to provide the low-income housing on other sites, but she is not now necessarily opposed to the Planning Commission's recommendation.

"We're waiting to hear from the developer to see what his financing people have to say," Ruiz said. "We don't know what's going to happen yet. We would like to see this thing happen for the benefit of both the developer and the community."

Meanwhile, Cooper says she and other homeowners in Ladera Heights are upset that after discussing this proposal since February, the Planning Commission included the requirement for low-income housing at the last minute.

"No one at any time mentioned anything about low-income housing," Cooper said. "The man is there to make a profit, and he should be able to do it. He is the first developer that I have worked with who listens to the community. It really is a shame when you have a guy who want to please the community, and then he gets screwed."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World