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Violations Validated 

It’s cool to break zoning rules in Silver Lake for low-cost apartments

Thursday, Apr 22 2004
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City officials OK’d a Silver Lake affordable-housing project that would be taller, larger and more crowded than allowed by zoning ordinances. The $10 million project became a focus of community anger after city officials waived a public hearing, then approved a spate of variances without alerting the area’s two neighborhood councils.

A public hearing belatedly took place last week after an area resident appealed the zoning exceptions. At the hearing, unhappy community members gathered on one side of Ramona Hall in Highland Park. The development team, advocates for affordable housing and their clients assembled opposite them. The four-person local-area planning commission listened to each group separately.

Residents went first, ticking off objections one by one — including fears that the five-story project would set a precedent for oversized developments. They also complained about the lack of guest parking spaces and provisions for 32 resident spaces rather than the required 64.

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“I have to park a block and a half to three blocks away on a given day,” said Peter Bedard.

“I don’t understand what the regulations are in place for if these kinds of variances can be approved,” said Mary Frances Smith-Reynolds.

But the other side was prepared with an equally numerous and vocal turnout. They emphasized the city’s dire housing shortage. The proposed Laguna Senior Apartments would offer subsidized rents ranging from $220 through $730 a month. A third of the 64 one- and two-bedroom apartments would be set aside for the disabled, especially targeting people with AIDS. All residents would be 55 or older.

The development teams Affordable Housing CDC, an Orange County–based nonprofit on its first development, with Project New Hope, an experienced manager of affordable housing for people with AIDS. “Without this housing, I would be in the streets,” said one client of a New Hope building. He added that he has neuropathy in his foot and can’t drive, so parking wouldn’t be an issue for someone like him.

Housing advocate Jan Breidenbach cited underused parking in similar apartments. “To add parking is to spend dollars for empty space,” she said, in a city where limited affordable housing dollars should be building as many units as possible.

In a later interview, developer Joseph A. Stalzer said the project could theoretically be redesigned with fewer apartments. That change would address the density, height and parking issues. But it’s also possible, he added, that a redesign would kill the development entirely. He’s cobbled together funding from six sources. A new design would force him to resubmit applications, he said, while driving up the cost of construction per unit. A smaller, less efficient project would then score lower on competitive applications for housing funds. In the best case, he said, a redesign would add delays of a year or much longer and ongoing additional costs.

At the hearing, a representative of City Councilman Eric Garcetti read a prepared statement urging all parties to work together. This ostensible neutrality came across as an implicit endorsement of the project. Garcetti has been a staunch advocate of affordable housing.

In the end, commissioners said they sympathized with residents over the waived hearing, but they voted 4-0 to uphold the variances — even though both of the area’s neighborhood councils and some other community groups opposed the variances.

“I have mixed feelings,” said Mary Rodriguez, the Greater Griffith Park Neighborhood Council member who filed the appeal. “I am really glad there will be some decent homes in our community for senior citizens and HIV patients.” But the result “sent a very strong message that it’s business as usual at City Hall. I know there are ups and downs when you’re working as a community activist. But the newer people who came in to the neighborhood council — I’m kind of concerned they’re going to walk away thinking, ‘What’s the point?’”

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