By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Hricko cited Puerta del Sol, the city-backed condos near the I-5 freeway in Lincoln Heights, and the massive, 1,000-unit, walled-in, University Village directly abutting the 405 freeway in West L.A., as two troubling, real-life examples of housing developments that could make residents sick. "There are a lot of small kids in that housing," Hricko said of University Village.
It's ironic that UCLA, with great ballyhoo, touted the new University Village as affordable college housing in the 1990s and filled it with university students and employees. University Village immediately flanks both sides of the 405 freeway along Sawtelle and Sepulveda boulevards, where 281,000 passing cars and trucks create one of the world's most congested freeways. The roar of traffic necessitated towering sound walls, yet the University Village Web site boasts a playground and "state-of-the-art" child-care center — for 200 children.
The pale-stucco apartment buildings have a hipster feel that has attracted many young medical-school students and other student residents, as well as UCLA employees. They probably think it's a great deal because the rents are set below market rates for the pricey Westside.
According to a UCLA scientist who works with the EPA Southern California Particle Center, no studies of health effects were conducted at University Village. But in 2004 scientists measured the shape and size of the indoor and outdoor ultrafine "nano" particles in the village — which are of concern to scientists because nano particles can act as miniature transporters of toxins into the human respiratory tract.
Just like developer Geoff Palmer's upscale Orsini and Medici residences in L.A.'s "new downtown," and the Avenue 26 project, University Village sits well inside the 500-foot zone scientists say is hazardous to kids — and, they fear, almost no amount of mitigation can change that. Some scientists say that air-filtration systems designed into buildings — and even double-paned and triple-paned windows that are common in the luxury downtown condos next to the Harbor and Hollywood freeways — cannot stop the finest pollutants from finding their way in.
As McConnell told the city's planning commission in 2008, when pollution is tested next to Southern California freeways "you see a huge increase in a number of traffic-related pollutants, and it diminishes quite rapidly when you go back to 300 meters" or 984 feet, about two city blocks. The number of asthma cases among children, McConnell explained, tracks the same way — more sick kids near the freeway, more healthy kids farther away.
That day, the USC professor gave the planning commissioners an unusually firm recommendation: "I think there's strong health-science justification for regulating exposures within 500 feet of roadways with heavy traffic," he said. "I'm not sure that will guarantee the health of our children, but I think that there's very good evidence that within that margin, what might be thought of as a margin of safety, that there are health effects that children are going to be suffering."
Hricko concurred, saying a 500-foot buffer zone was merely a "start" and strongly suggested that real estate developers be required to disclose to prospective buyers and tenants the facts about possible health risks of living right next to a freeway.
By the end of the two-hour City Hall meeting in the late summer of 2008, Michael Woo, the planning commissioner, was shaken to the bone. "My reaction was, 'This is a very serious problem,' that it's worse than I thought," Woo tells L.A. Weekly.
Then–planning commission President Jane Usher ordered Los Angeles City Planning Department staffer Charlie Rausch to return in three months with "next-steps" suggestions from the planning department for the planning commission to consider, and potentially enact.
But by the deadline in November 2008, Rausch's boss, planning chief Gail Goldberg, had failed to produce any "next steps" for the planning commission. Goldberg and Usher, in fact, were busy sparring over City Hall's controversial push to increase housing density in neighborhoods citywide. Goldberg led City Hall's so-called density hawks, and Usher was on the other side, upset that carefully designed Community Plans were too often ignored by Goldberg's planning department — for example, that developers seeking height and size "variances" to override local zoning were regularly given the green light. Usher resigned as planning commission president that December, in a very public parting.
The next month, in January 2009, with the outspoken Usher gone, Goldberg finally delivered her list of freeway-adjacent housing recommendations, which Woo describes as "weak." Goldberg suggested several mitigation ideas she said had been "proven very effective." Among other things, Goldberg said vegetation could be planted between housing and freeways — but some scientists say a thick and deep stand of mature trees would be required.
She suggested the installation of home air-filtration systems and proposed that developers install windows that don't open — both measures that scientists say do not keep fine-particulate matter out of the lungs of children and others because the dust is so pervasive and works its way through a building's tiniest cracks and holes.
The planning department and Goldberg "never really accommodated anything from that [August] meeting" with the scientists, says Angelo Logan, executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, who was present and also testified.