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Joust in Time 

A late debate in Silver Lake over affordable housing that breaks the rules

Thursday, Apr 8 2004
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Nothing controversial about the new 64-unit, five-story apartment building planned for Silver Lake.

Except perhaps that it’s more than 50 percent larger than local zoning allows. And 12 feet taller than the legal maximum height. And it would only provide less than half the required parking spaces — and no guest spaces — in a neighborhood already plagued by parking shortages.

But controversial? Enough to warrant a public hearing? Or even to inform most residents in the vicinity?

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The area zoning administrator checked a box saying no public hearing was necessary. And officials gave notice only to property owners immediately next to the property. They also approved these and other substantial variances from local zoning. A separate city report, also in support of the project, noted — not surprisingly — that “no correspondence from the general public had been received.”

After residents did find out, through chance and their own diligence, they found plenty of reasons to object. By then, only 48 hours remained to file an appeal. They just beat the deadline, and now the whole matter gets a public hearing on April 14 before one of the city’s seven regional planning commissions.

The developer’s victory could be sustained, overturned or modified. It’s also possible that the developer and opposing residents will make peace over a project with merits. The Laguna Senior Apartments would offer affordable apartment housing for seniors, about a third of whom would be people with disabilities. The targeted disability would be people with AIDS. Whatever happens, the whole flap is a case study on the rough edges of neighborhood empowerment in a city still learning to embrace 1999 charter reforms that sought to provide neighborhood governance that is truly of the locals, by the locals and for the locals.

 

The proposed project at the corner of Myra Avenue and Sunset Boulevard would fill a troublesome vacant lot. In the past, the lot and the adjacent stairs, which rise up a steep slope to Sunset Boulevard, have attracted drug dealers and the homeless. Traces of old campfires dot the ground, and char marks darken some tree trunks. The project would stand three stories tall on its Sunset Boulevard frontage and rise five stories above Myra, which goes under Sunset at that point.

Local residents with qualms are some of the same folks who’ve planted community gardens, painted murals on an underpass, and used code enforcement to close a nearby hotel that was an alleged center of illegal drug use. These critics don’t object to senior apartments or apartments for those afflicted with AIDS. This is Silver Lake, after all, where residents applaud the progressive politics of Councilman Eric Garcetti, who represents this portion of the neighborhood.

But they say they don’t understand why this project has to break rules other developers must live by, especially when residents believe the rules make sense. Homeowners and apartment dwellers don’t want a precedent set for ever-larger and -taller buildings looming over their homes, cutting off sunlight and increasing congestion.

Because residents already park blocks away on some nights, it also makes them nervous to see officials approve 32 parking spaces for a building with 53 one-bedroom and 11 two-bedroom apartments.

And given the proximity to King Middle School, and the way similar housing elsewhere can become a magnet for drug dealers, residents want intense tenant screening and monitoring established as a project condition.

The developer, Affordable Housing CDC, an Irvine-based builder, has contended that, because of funding guidelines and timelines, this particular opportunity would fall apart if fewer units were built or if the project were substantially delayed by redesign issues. And adding more parking underground is made difficult by the high water table. Company executive director Joseph A. Stalzer declined to make himself available for an interview, but Councilman Garcetti’s office endorses these contentions.

Garcetti urged skeptical residents to visit a nearby 41-unit senior-housing complex, where the manager insisted to them that his 25 parking spaces were more than enough. That building is limited to seniors 62 and older, however, while the age minimum at Myra and Sunset would be 55.

 

It was Chief Zoning Administrator Robert Janovici who waived the public hearing last September. “This part of the city contains an enlightened, understanding community,” he said in an interview, “so there was no reason to assume there was any controversy or issue.” He added, “It was affordable housing for seniors in a city that has got an extreme housing shortage.” Janovici also noted, “We never received communication from any neighborhood council till the week after the decision was issued on this case.”

But then again, the planning department had apparently never notified or updated the two local neighborhood councils about the project in the first place. “We’ve been trying to perfect this computer system,” said Janovici. “It was maybe not in operation in September or August, but it is in operation now.” And when the city notified the handful of abutting properties, it included property owners, but not tenants.

Resident Madeleine Huttenbach contends that the city was remiss. “If you’re going to change the entire landscape of a community, part of the city’s job is to communicate this to its constituents, and no one in the neighborhood knew about it,” she said.

Garcetti spokesman Josh Kamensky defended the outreach: “This developer did meetings with both neighborhood councils well in advance . . . He followed every step required — the [zoning administrator] determined it could go forward without a hearing, and . . . his immediate neighbors had no problem with the variances . . . I can’t exactly pinpoint what ball was dropped by anyone. Some people don’t like some projects.”

Zoning Administrator Janovici noted that the case file contained a letter from the developer stating that neighborhood councils had “expressed their support,” which he regarded at the time as evidence favoring the hearing waiver.

Council members had indeed liked the concept when developer Stalzer explained it a year ago. And meeting minutes indicate that a project of 64 units was mentioned. But critics insist that Stalzer mentioned nothing specific about zoning variances. Members of the Greater Griffith Park Neighborhood Council say they first learned of these during a December presentation by the developer.

After some discussion, the neighborhood council invited Stalzer to meet on February 11 over possible modifications. The developer returned, but said he could not make major alterations. Two days later, unknown to the neighborhood council, the planning commission approved the variances. The council only discovered what happened when a member happened to check on the project’s status, and learned that the variances had already been approved. Mary Rodriguez, a Griffith Park council member, hurriedly filed an appeal.

“I’m hoping one thing that comes across here is that we need notification,” said Rodriguez. “The neighborhood council is a volunteer organization that doesn’t have an office, doesn’t have computers other than our own. For this to work, some part of the system is just going to have to come to us.”

Members of the Silver Lake council say they were similarly in the dark until alerted by the Griffith Park council. The lot lies just within the jurisdiction of the Griffith Park council, which has gone on record opposing the project unless there are significant changes. The Silver Lake council was scheduled to vote its preferences this week. The resolution before them would endorse the project, but also ask for modifications. Neither vote is binding on city officials.

“The community should have a facility like this in the neighborhood,” said Rodriguez. “I just want to know it works well with the neighborhood and the school.”

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