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Councilman Jose Huizar drops his opposition to a Boyle Heights homeless housing project

Councilman Jose Huizar drops his opposition to a Boyle Heights homeless housing project
After Councilman Jose Huizar reversed course, the Los Angeles City Council cleared the way Tuesday for construction of a homeless housing project on this lot in Boyle Heights next to the popular El Mercado shopping center. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Ending five years of staunch opposition, Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar cleared the way Tuesday for construction of a homeless housing project next to a popular Boyle Heights shopping and entertainment center.

After Huizar’s recommendation, the City Council voted 13 to 0 to reject an appeal of a nonprofit developer’s plan to build 49 units of affordable housing for veterans and homeless people on a vacant lot adjoining the El Mercado center.

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Huizar said he was dropping his opposition after the developer had addressed his concerns. Proponents of supportive housing for homeless people praised his change of heart as a major step forward.

They saw the decision as a victory in their efforts to pressure elected leaders to stand up to constituent opposition to projects funded by Proposition HHH, the voter-approved city bond measure to build homeless housing.

“This was one of the first projects that came to the city right after Proposition HHH,” said Gary Toebben, president and chief executive director of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. “When it did not go forward immediately there was concern the political will was not evident to implement the will of the voters when they passed HHH.”

Toebben said the chamber and other groups had met with Huizar and other members of the City Council to press their case for the project.

“I believe after a number of conversations he was compelled to say we have to find a way to make this work,” Toebben said.

Huizar had spoken passionately against the proposal at public meetings going back to 2013, and held it for more than a year in the city’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee, which he chairs.

The project would fill a vacant lot in Huizar’s district on 1st Street between El Mercado and the Evergreen Cemetery. The lot is owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which used it as a staging area during construction of the Gold Line extension into the Eastside.

When Metro no longer needed the lot, it offered it to A Community of Friends, a nonprofit that has developed and manages more than 40 housing projects for mentally ill homeless people.

The owners of El Mercado, Pedro Rosado (who has since died) and his son Tony Rosado, opposed the project during the 2013 meeting of the Metro board, of which Huizar was then a member.

At the meeting, Huizar harshly criticized A Community of Friends and Metro staff for changing the proposal. He said the community had originally been told the project would include 25,000 square feet of retail space, but that Metro and the developer had cut that by more than half.

Despite the opposition, the Metro board approved the project. City officials later approved the plan without requiring a full environmental review.

The Rosados appealed that environmental clearance.

Their attorney presented the planning committee with a detailed rebuttal of the environmental clearance, saying it did not take into account an abandoned oil well on the property. They also provided a log showing that a nearby building owned by A Community of Friends had caused more than 1,000 calls for police service over 7½ years.

At Huizar’s urging, the committee granted the appeal, sending the case to the City Council.

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On Tuesday, Huizar, who has backed several homeless housing projects in his district, again spoke passionately, saying his opposition was mischaracterized in the media as NIMBY-ism.

He also criticized A Community of Friends for failing to build trust with the community.

“It’s an issue of community process, building trust no matter what you’re building,” he said. “We have a lot of challenges before us. As we do, I hope this is the last time we see something like this come before us.”

Huizar said he changed his mind after the developer offered changes that resolved his concerns.

The developer committed to a state-monitored evaluation of any potential environmental issues and to comply with any recommendations.

It also agreed to reserve half the units for veterans and to reserve some of the commercial space for community activities, including an early learning center and the YMCA.

Tony Rosado, who was in Mexico on Tuesday, said through a spokesman that the family still opposes the project and is reviewing legal options.

“We are disappointed that the City Council approved a project to be built on a toxic site without first studying and cleaning up the contamination,” the statement said. “That endangers the neighbors and the future residents of this project. El Mercado supports creating housing for the homeless, while still following the law and proper planning.”

Times staff writer Emily Alpert Reyes contributed to this report.

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