A Los Angeles city commission backed plans Thursday for a new complex with hundreds of hotel rooms, shops, restaurants and housing near USC, overriding opponents who complained it would drive out longtime tenants and destroy a historic district.
The Fig would bring seven-story buildings to a 4.4-acre site along Figueroa Street across from Exposition Park. The planned project will include nearly 300 hotel rooms, more than 200 units of student housing and nearly 200 more apartments for other residents — including 82 units set aside for households with limited incomes, according to city reports.
The Planning Commission, whose members are appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, praised the new housing and amenities included in the proposed project. Commissioner Marc Mitchell said it would advance important goals for the city in a neighborhood undergoing a “renaissance,” including luring more tourists and building more housing.
“This is near transit. This is an area that’s becoming more and more dense. There’s a large affordable housing component to this. So that, to me, is a move in the right direction,” Mitchell said.
The proposed project now heads to a City Council committee for another vote.
The only commissioner to vote against the plan was Karen Mack, who said she was uncomfortable with the elimination of dozens of rent-stabilized apartments, even if the developer was building a higher number of affordable units in the new project. Mack stressed that the income restrictions on those units will last for only 55 years.
L.A. is “unaffordable for so many people,” Mack said Thursday. “The middle class is struggling to afford to live in Los Angeles ... and when I think about this area in particular, I think this is one of the most impacted areas in terms of displacement of people who are low-income.”
Community activists had challenged the planned project, raising concerns about the displacement of families from eight buildings being torn down or moved to make way for it. Thirty-two apartments that fall under the Rent Stabilization Ordinance, which limits annual rent increases for tenants, would be eliminated.
Many said they were especially galled that the city was planning to provide taxpayer subsidies for the hotel. In June, the City Council voted to hire consultants to analyze what kind of financial assistance could help the planned project move forward, citing the need for hotel rooms to accommodate tourism and the future Olympic and Paralympic Games.
”There’s been a lot of rhetoric about how the Olympics would not cause displacement, not disrupt neighborhoods,” said Joe Donlin, associate director of Strategic Action for a Just Economy, one of the groups that challenged the project. “Yet the City Council is exploring whether to subsidize a project that is displacing families from their homes.”
Some of the tenants facing displacement spoke up at Thursday’s meeting. “We’re not just being displaced from our homes, but our community,” said Mynor Rios, who works at USC. “Rent is so high that I would not be able to afford to live in Los Angeles anymore.”
Historic preservationists have also raised concerns about the proposed project.
Apartment buildings that now sit on the South L.A. site are part of the Flower Drive Historic District, a group of Mediterranean Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival structures deemed eligible to be listed in the California Register of Historical Resources.
“If a developer can walk in and demolish this, then no historic district is safe,” West Adams Heritage Assn. board member Jim Childs said in an interview.
His group argued that the city could have saved the apartment buildings by building a taller structure with a smaller footprint. City staffers and a representative for the developer, Ventus Group, countered that would have made the project incompatibly taller than anything else in the surrounding neighborhood.
Ventus Group and its representatives stressed that the number of affordable units would significantly outnumber the rent-stabilized apartments that are being eliminated. Most of the tenants at the existing buildings have already agreed to leave, accepting a buyout package that included a year of free rent, assistance finding a new apartment and a payment that exceeded what is legally required, said Alice Walton, a spokeswoman for the project.
Backers of the project, including labor unions and some residents, said it would provide tourist amenities in an area with new attractions such as a soccer stadium and the future Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, as well as sorely needed housing and good jobs for local workers. Scott Gale of Ventus Group called it “the right project at the right time,” touting its proximity to the 110 Freeway, the Expo light rail line and the attractions of Exposition Park.
“We need jobs and housing in our community,” said Vanessa Heras, who identified herself as a neighborhood resident. “For too long, we had very little investment in these two areas.”
Another supporter, Erick Cupa, framed the new project as a matter of equity. “Our community should be able to have beautiful new projects just like the other areas in Los Angeles,” Cupa said.
The planned project is located in an area represented by Councilman Curren Price, who supports it. Edgar Morales, a planning deputy for the councilman, touted the “overwhelming number of benefits this project adds to the community,” saying that the new apartments would “help ease the housing crisis here in Los Angeles.”
At Thursday’s meeting, one critic asked how the commission could proceed with its decision in the middle of an FBI investigation involving real estate development and City Hall. Price was named among more than a dozen people in an FBI warrant seeking evidence of possible crimes including bribery, kickbacks and money laundering, which was filed in federal court last year.
“How can this board move forward in good faith, full steam ahead, on a project while all of this looms over City Hall?” asked Adam Smith, a member of the NOlympics LA coalition.
The warrant does not say the FBI has gathered evidence of criminal activity by any of the people named in the document. A Price spokeswoman said last month that the councilman was “not aware of any of the matters listed in the warrant” but would cooperate with any investigation.
In reaction to comments about the FBI investigation, Commissioner Vahid Khorsand stressed that they were “independent voices” who do not always agree with council members or staff.