Located at the edge of South Los Angeles, the 30-story high-rise is unlike any other residential building in that part of the city, looming over its neighbors. It’s part of the Cumulus District, a development slated to house restaurants, a Whole Foods supermarket and more than 1,200 apartments.
Cumulus is the type of massive high-end development that’s typical for downtown, Hollywood or Century City. In L.A.’s West Adams neighborhood, which has struggled for decades to attract grocers and retailers, the project is viewed as transformational.
No one at City Hall was more essential to getting the project approved than Councilman Herb Wesson, who represents the area and is now running for county supervisor. Wesson pushed for the site to be rezoned, eliminating the property’s 45-foot height limit, and voted to remove language aimed at ensuring the project would offer city-regulated affordable housing.
Now, with leasing activities just getting under way, the project has resurrected debate over whether Cumulus represents a resurgence for neighborhoods south of the 10 Freeway or the gentrification of one of Los Angeles’ historically black neighborhoods, driving out people with limited means.
Activist Damien Goodmon, who challenged the project without success in 2016, said he was stunned to learn that Arq’s two-bedroom apartments were recently listed for $5,292 per month and up.
“Those are Beverly Hills prices in South L.A.,” he said. “I’m not going to lie. It scares me.”
Goodmon said the city should have limited the project to eight stories and incorporated low-income affordable housing to reflect the incomes of the surrounding neighborhood. Wesson, in turn, has said he simply followed the wishes of the community, which was “overwhelmingly” in favor of Cumulus, including the tower.
In 2016, the neighbors wanted open space and a supermarket on the site, not more affordable housing, Wesson and an aide said earlier this year.
“The community felt that they were surrounded by affordable,” Wesson said. “That, at this point in time, was not a big issue to them.”
Others in the community like what they see.
Eva Marie Aubry, a longtime resident of West Adams, praised Wesson for his handling of the project, saying it will inject new life into the neighborhood. Aubry said Cumulus will keep her from having to drive so much to The Grove, the Fairfax district and Santa Monica to shop and dine.
“I’d prefer to have something nice in my own neighborhood,” said the 77-year-old.
Carmel Partners, the project’s developer, acknowledged the 300-unit Arq tower is catering to higher-income renters. But the company said it plans to voluntarily charge “workforce” rents in at least 180 units of the project’s 900-unit second phase, now under construction. Those units constitute affordable housing, the company said in a statement.
While Carmel has not revealed how much those rents will be, city officials say workforce housing can rent for up to $2,959 for a single, $3,379 for a one-bedroom and $3,803 for a two-bedroom. Those prices, tenant advocates say, will still be out of reach for most residents of West Adams and nearby L.A. neighborhoods.
Since the council approved the project, Carmel Partners has come under scrutiny in a federal corruption probe that has led to the arrest of two council members. However, prosecutors have made no mention of the Cumulus development and have not publicly accused Wesson of any wrongdoing.
Instead, the bribery investigation has focused largely on real estate projects in Councilman Jose Huizar‘s downtown district, including a 35-story Carmel Partners tower. Prosecutors have accused Huizar of securing financial benefits from Carmel while reducing the amount of affordable housing required in its project.
Huizar has pleaded not guilty in the case. Earlier this year, Carmel Partners said the Huizar case featured “numerous” false or misleading conclusions, saying campaign donations were not the reason its downtown project was approved.
The push to build Cumulus, located on La Cienega Boulevard one block outside of Culver City, began in 2013, when radio broadcasting company Cumulus Media announced it was selling the 10-acre site. The property, home to Cumulus radio stations KLOS-FM and KABC-AM, was marketed to potential buyers as a chance to create a “city within a city” right next to an Expo light rail station.
Carmel Partners entered into a purchase agreement with Cumulus Media in mid-2014, starting a two-year escrow period, according to a Carmel spokeswoman. LA Radio LLC, the Cumulus subsidiary that owned the site, authorized Carmel to handle the project’s application at City Hall, according to planning records.
To make Cumulus a reality, Carmel needed the council to change the property’s zoning from manufacturing to one that could accommodate 1.9 million square feet of commercial development, including housing. Getting Wesson on board was crucial, since L.A. council members typically defer to the wishes of the council member who represents the area where a project is proposed.
Carmel Partners filed its first paperwork on the Cumulus project in December 2014. From the beginning, Wesson and his staff made the project a priority, arranging a meeting between the development team and high-level city officials.
Behind the scenes, Wesson’s top deputy repeatedly pushed city agencies to move quickly on the project, according to emails reviewed by The Times.
“Mike, this project is very important to us,” wrote Wesson chief of staff Deron Williams in an email to Michael LoGrande, then the city’s planning director.
In February 2015, Wesson scheduled a lunch meeting with a high-level Carmel executive at Morton’s Steakhouse, according to emails reviewed by The Times. Neither Carmel nor Wesson would confirm whether the lunch took place.
Five days after the planned meeting, the campaign for two ballot measures heavily backed by Wesson, which sought to change the city’s election dates, reported receiving $25,000 from a Carmel affiliate.
While city agencies were analyzing the proposal, Wesson’s son Patrick “PJ” Wesson picked up a job at the Cumulus radio complex on La Cienega, where the project was proposed. On his LinkedIn page, the younger Wesson said he began handling social media and video production for KLOS & KABC Cumulus Radio in May 2015.
A Cumulus Media spokeswoman confirmed that Patrick Wesson was employed by the company in L.A. from 2015 to 2019, working for both stations. She declined to comment further.
A Carmel spokeswoman said the firm had no contact with Wesson’s son at any time during the transaction or approval process. “Nor were we aware of his job search or hiring at the time,” she said.
Wesson told The Times his son got the job on his own, saying the work was part-time. The councilman also said he was unaware that Patrick Wesson was employed by Cumulus when the Cumulus project was under review.
“I don’t think that I actually knew that [his] paychecks came from Cumulus until we got this inquiry from you,” he said.
Wesson delivered a framed city proclamation to KLOS’s “Heidi and Frank Show,” where his son worked, in August 2015. The councilman told The Times earlier this year that he thought his son’s employers were KABC and KLOS and not the developer.
Wesson said that when the Cumulus application was filed, Carmel Partners was handling the request to rezone the land and approve the tower, not Cumulus Media.
Patrick Wesson, 44, did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The state’s conflict-of-interest law does not generally apply to scenarios involving politicians and their adult children. Still, one ethics watchdog argued that Wesson had a responsibility to know the financial relationships of his family members, to ensure they did not improperly intersect with his public duties.
“[Wesson] made a decision that affected the financial well-being of his son’s employer,” said Sergio Perez, former director of enforcement for the city’s Ethics Commission. “That connection should have been proactively disclosed.”
In August 2016, three months after the council approved the 30-story tower, the Cumulus Media subsidiary sold the La Cienega property for $110.6 million. That price would not have made sense without the council’s decision to rezone the property, real estate experts told The Times.
In its quarterly filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Cumulus Media said it recorded a net gain of $94 million from the sale.
Cumulus moved quickly through the city’s review process, said Chris Joseph, whose firm prepared the project’s environmental impact report. Normally, reports for large-scale projects can take city agencies up to two years to process, he said. The analysis for Cumulus reached city decision makers in half that time.
“I’ve never seen one reviewed by city planning as fast as this,” said Joseph, who has been preparing environmental impact reports in L.A. for more than 30 years.
When Mayor Eric Garcetti’s appointees on the planning commission took up the Cumulus project in 2016, Wesson asked them to vote for it, saying it would bring investment south of the 10 Freeway. Supporters called it a classic example of transit-oriented development and spoke excitedly about the prospect of new restaurants and a supermarket.
Still, some on the commission were troubled by the lack of affordable housing, saying they feared the luxury tower would spur nearby property owners to raise their own rents, displacing families in South Los Angeles.
Neils Cotter, Carmel’s vice president for development, said new rent restrictions would jeopardize the project’s financing. But Commissioner Renee Dake Wilson refused to back down, saying the vote to rezone would make the Cumulus site so much more valuable that affordable housing would not be “a barricade” to the developer’s profits.
“The amount of increase in property value they’re getting on this, by developing it as a residential site, is really quite astounding,” she added.
Commissioners signed off on the project. But they said the developer would need to provide 55 units of affordable housing, serving families who earn 80% to 120% of the area median income, in order to receive approval to build more than 1,200 units.
Carmel’s lobbyist asked Wesson and the council to remove that requirement, saying the area was already “well served” by affordable housing. The council agreed to do so and approved the project.
This month, Carmel issued a statement saying it will voluntarily set rents at 150% of area median income inside 180 of the project’s remaining 900 apartments. Carmel does not intend to register its workforce units with the city, which works to ensure developers keep their affordable housing promises.
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