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Will the Casden Development Be L.A.'s Bermuda Triangle of Traffic? 

Billionaire Alan Casden plans "transit concierge" for his project at 405 and Pico

Thursday, Apr 25 2013
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Just after a meeting with Metro officials, Howard Katz, a vice president for Casden Properties, sits in Grand Park downtown explaining why people shouldn't be fiercely fighting a massive apartment building and Target shopping center he wants to build at Pico and Sepulveda boulevards.

"Casden West L.A." would be a 17-story monument to high-density, "transit-oriented living," rising from the rubble of a concrete plant northeast of the 405 and 10 freeway interchange, replete with a "transit concierge" help desk to aid residents and travelers in navigating nearby Metro Expo Line and bus stops.

The 638 households containing some 1,800 renters are to be a new breed of Westsider. They will pay extra to be awarded a spot in the 2,000-space garage, and if they don't pony up to billionaire developer Alan Casden, they'll have to pay a garage fee or scour the surrounding streets for parking.

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In this grand social experiment plopped in the center of L.A.'s Bermuda Triangle of traffic — if you enter, you may not escape — some residents will get free Metro passes to nudge them to use buses or light rail.

But the project's many critics say it's just too big and would turn Sepulveda Boulevard — used by thousands as an alternative to the 405 — into a transit-oriented tragedy.

Casden's claim of being "transit-oriented" gives political cover to the developer-tied Los Angeles City Council if it approves Casden West L.A. and helps convince residents to accept the plan — that's what some passionate transit-oriented development advocates say.

"This is such a farce," says Ken Alpern, president of the Transit Coalition, which advocates mass transit and transit-oriented development. "This is simply overdevelopment, and they're using the line that 'this is affordable housing and transit-oriented' so that this passes muster."

In fact, Alpern says, Casden's luxury development "gives mass transit a black eye. ... And you're talking to someone who worked his ass off over a decade to make [mass-transit expansion] happen."

Katz, a bearded 60-year-old, is the public face of Casden West L.A. His boss, the combative, brawling developer who has spread 90,000 apartment units across the land since the 1980s, is widely known for not playing well with others. But Katz, wearing a button-up shirt with rolled-up sleeves, has the laid-back swagger of a Hollywood executive.

"Yes, we're going to add cars," he says. "Are they going to make the intersections not work? No."

As Katz emphasizes Casden's dedication to mass transit, he pauses midsentence, holds a hand skyward and jolts in his seat as though something inspiring has fallen from above. "The more dynamic public transit is, the hotter the site gets," he explains.

He talks of mutuality: The neighborhood needs to be successful for Casden to be successful, and vice versa. To show how plugged in to public-transit culture he is, Katz tells stories about his rides on Metro buses and trains.

It's Katz's job to "flush out" concerns. He's made presentations to neighborhood councils, politicians, city planning employees and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's political appointees to the Planning Commission. This, while trying to soothe residents who seem fed up with Villaraigosa's mantra of remaking L.A. by adding lots of large apartment complexes near fixed rail and bus lines.

Few people seem excited about Casden West L.A., aside from Katz and Casden. To make the massive project fit better in the tight space, Casden wants giant transit agency Metro, whose core mission is supposed to be cutting congestion, to lend Casden some nearby public land that Metro owns. That controversial idea, vilified by several Westside activists, has not been approved.

To begin construction, Casden West L.A. needs approval from the Los Angeles City Council, which rarely says no to projects bearing the "transit-oriented" label.

But even there, it faces some opposition. District 5 City Councilman Paul Koretz, who represents the area, pans Casden West L.A. in an email to L.A. Weekly, saying, "We owe it to our communities to design a better project than this one." Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose 11th District to the west of the 405 could see more congestion from the project, also opposes it.

Planning Commission president Bill Roschen, appointed by Villaraigosa, is an avidly pro-density architect who lives in leafy Mount Washington, far from density or transit. Roschen designed Millennium Hollywood, the controversial proposed twin skyscrapers approved by the Planning Commission, which, if built, would dwarf the iconic Capitol Records building and open the way to a radical remake of the Hollywood skyline.

Critics say Roschen presided over a rush-job approval of Casden West L.A.

In February, the Planning Commission brushed off a load of unsolvable problems detailed in an Environmental Impact Report. The EIR says Casden West L.A. will create much more traffic, which would spill onto side streets and freeways and further lower air quality.

Roschen insists the plan is appropriate for a "transit-oriented development" and says he pushed through some compromises, reducing the square footage and moving the apartments more than 500 feet from the 405 freeway. As a result, its residents would live just outside the residential danger zone next to freeways, a 500-foot-wide strip in which, UCLA researchers have repeatedly warned the Villaraigosa administration, children suffer lifelong lung damage.

Planning staff says "overriding considerations" trump these problems.

Over 15 years, Casden West L.A. would generate perhaps $35.2 million in fees and taxes for city coffers and add 59 or more apartments for low-income seniors. But key aspects of City Hall's vision about how the project's residents will behave are purely speculation, particularly the claim that if enough residents take light rail or buses to work, it could "lower annual household driving rates from 20 to 40 percent, reduce air pollution and energy use, increase public safety, revitalize neighborhoods and decrease local infrastructure costs."

Underlying the arguments, a philosophical question nags: How badly does L.A. want to be a mass transit–oriented city?

James Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape, rejects suburbia as a failed idea and says L.A. residents and workers must learn to do without cars. "My guess is that the culture as a whole will have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the pedestrian-friendly future," he says.

Kunstler predicts a dark time, when fossil fuels run dry and cars become prohibitively expensive, after which suburbs such as the San Fernando Valley and its halo of cities will have less access to the rest of L.A.

Beth Steckler, deputy director of public transportation advocacy group Move L.A., thinks the region is past the kicking-and-screaming point, noting that voters countywide overwhelmingly approved Measure R in 2008, raising the sales tax by half a cent to funnel $40 billion into mass transit and freeway improvements.

"Are we late to the game? Yeah, but we're making great progress," Steckler says. "I think we're really at a turning point. I think a lot of people are feeling like we've reached the limits of a suburban, car-oriented model. ... There's a lot of people pushing us toward transit."

L.A. might be inching toward a mass-transit heyday, but Barbara Broide of the Westside Neighborhood Council says the Casden project isn't what her community's future should look like. She sees Casden West L.A. as a clear indicator that city leaders and planners are rushing thoughtlessly into a transportation revolution with unknown consequences, rather than embracing a deliberate evolution.Says Broide, "That's what I really resent, instead of our city doing this in a thoughtful way, that a developer can buy a chunk of land and take advantage of this new philosophy. We seem to be abandoning all common sense."

Katz argues that great developments come with problems but that this project lands on the plus side. "Not everyone can live in a perfect environment," says Katz, who lives in an idyllic, expensive hillside neighborhood of L.A. "Most of us don't."

Reach the writer at bpalowrey@gmail.com.

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