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Westside development fuels debate over growth -- smart or otherwise

The corner of Pico and Sepulveda boulevards is your standard Westside traffic nightmare, with rush hour commuters inching along at discouraging speeds just blocks from an even more congested 405 Freeway.

The intersection, already a subject of bitter conversations among nearby residents, could see thousands more cars each day if the Los Angeles City Council this month signs off on a plan for 638 apartments, a supermarket, new restaurants and possibly a Target store.

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Backed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the so-called Casden West L.A. project is one of the city’s most controversial examples of transit-oriented development — shopping and housing concentrated around a planned Expo Line light rail station. While supporters call it socially responsible, critics say it will cater too heavily to the automobile, making congestion even worse.

The project’s developer, Casden West L.A. LLC, is well known at City Hall, having provided $100,000 for the council’s failed campaign to pass a sales tax hike this year. But key politicians and an array of homeowner groups have lined up against the project, now envisioned as four buildings ranging from seven to 17 stories. They say it is too big for the surrounding neighborhood of mostly one-story commercial storefronts, Spanish-style bungalows and low-rise apartments.

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Councilman Paul Koretz, who represents the area, wants the development chopped down in size. City Atty. Carmen Trutanich said the Planning Commission, composed of Villaraigosa appointees, signed off on the project despite his objections about the thoroughness of the environmental review. Neighborhood groups have three sets of lawyers fighting the project, including well-connected land-use attorney Ben Reznik, who contends that the city used an illegal planning procedure to make the development larger than zoning rules allow.

“The community’s up in arms because they’ve never seen someone try to pack so much density of commercial and residential [development] on such a tight parcel,” he said.

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Backers say the Casden complex will create 1,600 construction jobs, offer dozens of apartments for low-income seniors and create much-needed amenities for students across the Westside who lack cars. One Villaraigosa staffer called it the “quintessential example” of smart growth, the planning strategy that places multi-story residential projects, combined with shops and restaurants, next to transportation hubs.

Janet Garstang, who lives two blocks from the development site, agreed that traffic in the area is “intolerable, impossible and insane.” But she supports the project anyway, saying she looks forward to walking to the grocery and other amenities planned by Casden. Right now, her nearest supermarket is on the other side of the 405 — a daunting destination when rush hour hits, Garstang said.

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“It’s only a mile, but in the afternoon it takes a good 35 minutes to go from the market east to get back to my house. It’s crazy,” said Garstang, a retired cosmetics industry executive.

Garstang contends that she will drive less frequently once Casden’s project opens. But other public transit enthusiasts have spoken out against the project, criticizing both its scale and the possibility that it could include a Target. Casden is in talks with that company and others about opening in the project’s 160,000 square feet of commercial space.

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Darrell Clarke, co-founder of the advocacy group Friends 4 Expo Transit, described Target as the type of “big-box” store that lures shoppers in their cars, not on foot. Although he described himself as a major supporter of smart growth, Clarke said that land-use philosophy should not be used to place oversized buildings where they don’t belong.

“To me, it all comes back to the sheer size of the thing,” said Clarke, who worked with his Sierra Club chapter to fight the proposal.

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As now envisioned, the Casden complex would replace a cement plant that sits alongside the 405 Freeway with homes containing more than 1,800 residents. Once the stores are open, the project would generate an extra 9,953 new car trips per day, according to the city’s traffic analysis. Nearly 1,000 would occur during the peak evening rush hour.

Casden has promised to pay for an array of transportation improvements, including new right- and left-turn lanes and partial funding of the rail station, said spokesman Brian Lewis. Even after those measures are in place, the development is expected to have “significant and unavoidable impacts” on 18 intersections near the 405 Freeway, Lewis said.

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Hilary Norton, executive director of the group Fixing Angelenos Stuck in Traffic, predicted that plenty of shoppers will go to the Casden project without cars. Some will arrive with the two-wheel pull carts seen more often at markets in East Coast cities. Others, she added, will ask for their oversized goods to be delivered.

“Only in Los Angeles have we embraced the fact that we have to put everything we just bought in a vehicle,” Norton said. “Other cities all the time are doing something different.”

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After hearing from Norton and others last month, the council’s Planning and Land Use Committee sent the project to the full council. Although a vote had been scheduled for this week, representatives of Casden say the council will not take the project up until late June. If the plan is approved, lawsuits are almost a certainty.

Reznik, who is representing the Beverlywood Homes Assn., said the city’s handling of the project was fatally flawed from the beginning. In letters to the council, he said city officials violated zoning laws when they calculated the square footage of the project. That calculation, he said, improperly factored in land owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and used for the Expo Line.

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Lewis, the Casden spokesman, said the procedure is legal and is similar to strategies used for other transit station developments.

david.zahniser@latimes.com


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