Free Minds & Free Markets

Los Angeles Spends More Than a Decade Trying to Turn a Vacant Lot Into 'Transit-Oriented Development'

There are no angels in this long-running turf war.

Elswarro/Dreamstime.comElswarro/Dreamstime.comThere are no angels in the fight over the affordable housing complex that a city agency wants to build in East L.A.

The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Agency, a.k.a. Metro, dreams of turning that car-dependent city into a transit-oriented metropolis. For more than a decade, it has been trying to build a housing complex on a vacant lot it owns in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of Boyle Heights, with a generous number of units reserved for formerly homeless people.

Standing opposed are many residents of the neighborhood, who fear the influx of a "sensitive tenant population" and want to stop the development by any means necessary. From the moment Metro first signed a deal to develop the site with the nonprofit group A Community of Friends (ACOF), local NIMBYs have used California's notoriously burdensome environmental review process to keep the project at bay.

In March of this year, the Los Angeles City Council finally voted to let the project go forward. A Boyle Heights business immediately sued, alleging any number of calamitous environmental impacts from the project, from excess shadow to the potential release of hazardous chemicals. A court will now decide whether the site will remain a dirt patch.

This turf war shows the perils of turning urban development in an impossible balancing act between the mutually exclusive demands of overambitious central planners and intractable local communities, as opposed to letting private parties do pretty much what they want with their own property.

The trouble started in the early 2000s, with Metro's eastward extension of its Gold Line project.

To build the light rail extension, Metro acquired a number of parcels in Boyle Heights, including the now contended plot at Lorena and 1st Street. The plan was to use these parcels for staging and storing equipment during construction, then lease them out later to developers to build mixed-use residential/retail projects.

Transportation Planning Manager Robin Blair laid out the goals in 2006: to gin up ridership by locating people and businesses near new transit stops, and to generate revenue from these new developments to subsidize its unprofitable train service.

It's questionable whether transit-oriented development is in fact a good tool for spurring economic development. But whatever the wisdom of the strategy, Metro quickly abandoned the goal of maximizing revenue in favor of less lucrative pursuits. The Request for Proposals for the Lorena site encouraged developers to "to consider the inclusion of housing units affordable to a range of household income levels." And in 2007 Metro recommended a proposal from ACOF to build a mixed-use affordable housing and retail complex.

Over time, the retail component was scaled back from 26,000 square feet to 10,000 square feet, while the affordable housing component was scaled up, including plans to make 50 percent of the units available for mentally ill and formerly homeless tenants.

All this angered the neighbors, who increasingly accused Metro of not having a genuine concern for their interests. Metro did itself no favors in this regard. At a 2012 community outreach meeting, for instance, the agency failed to provide Spanish-language speaker cards for the mostly Hispanic crowd. Metro also shot down requests that a park go on the Lorena site, stating flatly that a park would do nothing to improve transit quality.

The resentment got worse as Metro firmed up its plans for affordable housing on the site. By the time the agency inked a final agreement in 2013 to negotiate exclusively with ACOF to build affordable housing on he site, many in the community were resolved to fight the project. Their weapon of choice: the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Passed in 1970, CEQA requires any public agency tasked with approving a development to study it for significant environmental impacts and to propose ways of mitigating any impacts it finds.

"A number of categories come under the realm of environmental impacts," says Paul Beard, a land use attorney with the law firm Alston & Bird. "Aesthetic impacts—that includes the visual character of the site and of the surroundings. Agricultural resources. Air quality is a big one in California. Biological resources. Geology and soil. I mean the list goes on and on."

Studying these impacts takes both time and money, with these costs often shifted onto the developer. The process "can cost anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe even millions, depending on how large the project," Beard says. The number of impacts a project must take into consideration also gives opponents ample opportunities to sue.

ACOF took its time studying those potential impacts. After three years, in March 2016, city staff approved a final report on the environmental effects of building an apartment building on the dirt lot, demanding some changes and conditions but otherwise saying there would be no significant impacts from the project.

Almost immediately, the owners of El Mercado—a landmark Latin market next door to the prospective affordable housing development—filed an appeal claiming the final environmental report failed to sufficiently address several potential effects. This included a failure to appropriately account for the amount of shade the building would cast on El Mercado, or the possibility that the site could be of archeological interest, or that the soil could be contaminated by an oil well that had been abandoned in 1949 or a lumber yard that went out of business in 2001.

El Mercado's attorneys also claimed that city staff had failed to appropriately address the environmental impact of introducing a "sensitive tenant population"—i.e., former addicts and mentally ill residents—into Boyle Heights.

"El Mercado does not object to the provision of housing for the chronically mentally ill and/or addicts," reads the appeal. "However, the City must ensure that such housing is sited in appropriate areas." By "appropriate areas" they meant "not next to us."

This stalled approval for the project for another two years. Finally, on March 6, 2018, Councilman Jose Huizar, a longtime holdout who represents Boyle Heights, flipped sides on condition that the number of units reserved for formerly homeless residents would be reduced.

But even with city council approval, construction will not go ahead yet. On April 5, El Mercado filed a suit demanding that the city vacate the approval it granted to ACOF to start building, ensuring more months if not years of new delays.

All the while, Metro's Lorena lot will remain vacant.

Photo Credit: Elswarro/

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Am I to feel sorry that the government's own onerous regulations are being turned back on one of its agencies?

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    I love it.

  • ||

    You're to feel sorry for the taxpayers.

    Except California taxpayers love their Big Government.

    So fuck 'em.

  • ||

    Except California taxpayers love their Big Government.

    This California taxpayer does not, I can assure you.

    And after a couple of decades of essentially one-party rule, even Democrat voters in CA are starting to say "where the hell is all of our money going, anyway?"

  • ||

    where the hell is all of our money going, anyway?

    Look, the last great tax revolt in California was 40 years ago. And it resulted lessening of the tax burden of Californians.

    Give up. Enjoy the surf and the Stone brewery and forget about CA politics. It's hopeless.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    @Square = Circle

    MP: "Give up. Enjoy the surf and the Stone brewery and forget about CA politics. It's hopeless."

    Either that or get the hell out while you still can.

  • CE||

    That's easy -- the money is going to the millions of former California government workers who retire in their early 50s after jacking up their final year pay to maximize the financial impact, and of course to sort-of high speed train projects to the middle of nowhere that never finish.

  • ||

    I've actually been thinking for a while that if there's anything that can turn the tide against over-regulation, it's this kind of thing. Public agencies don't mind burdening private industry - there's a (interestingly contradictory) mentality that the private sector can accomplish literally anything, and that any complaint coming from the private sector is therefore just whining and laziness ("we've been passing regulations for years and years, and 'business' complains every time, but 'business' still exists, so obviously there's no problem").

    But I've been noticing over the last 10 years in CA that public agencies themselves are often paralyzed by not even actually knowing what other agencies' regulations they are going to be required to comply with.

    I first started thinking about this years and years ago when I was trying to pull a permit for a sewer connection for a small restaurant remodel in Fremont CA and the plan checkers were adding requirement after requirement saying they weren't sure about such-and-such air-quality board, and such-and-such "Bay-Friendly Construction Practices" reviewer, or state vs. county health inspectors or such-and-such "coalition of Bay Counties stakeholders" and whatnot.

    It's when public agencies start to be paralyzed by oversight that we may have a chance of rolling these things back a bit. Or public agencies will simply exempt themselves from oversight, which is really the more likely scenario . . .

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Self-exemption would be the remedy of choice.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Will that last productive person to leave California please shut off the gas and have the mail stopped?

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    There's productive people left in California?

  • LDRider||

    Yes, six of them. For now....

  • CE||

    Well, according to the mandated signs, everything in California is known by the state of California (whoever that is) to cause cancer.

  • Just Say'n||

    "It's questionable whether transit-oriented development is in fact a good tool for spurring economic development."

    Understatement of the year.

  • ||

    Especially when the "Glorious Transit Destination" does double-duty as Section 8 housing.

  • Illocust||

    Yeah, no way to make people not want your public transport in their neighborhood than connect it to section 8 and other bad areas. No one wants to give criminals a quick cheap way to get to your neighborhood.

  • Trollificus||

    Not "no one". Any refugee from the Portland School of Urban Planning sees it as a way of 'democratizing' the distribution of wealth and, if nothing else, the desirable goal of increasing the difficulty of automobile transportation.

    Such rapscallions are regrettably employed by the otherwise surprisingly effective Salt Lake City government, and have done just that with public transportation-creating a light rail line that connects our lovely, semi-gentrifying* neighborhood to the west side, to which no one wants to go and from which nothing is desired.

    *-semi-gentrifying: When a neighborhood that once was an admirable and rare example of 'economic diversity' moves towards the "wealthy, hipsters and homeless" composition seemingly desired by such people. Hypocrisy disclosure: I complain, but we WILL cash the check reflecting an 800% profit when we sell out.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Also, they should have named it L0t 1337.

  • Jordan||

    Weaponizing the bureaucracy against itself. I like it.

  • CE||

    The feds should copy this strategy. The Justice Department should be solely focused on investigating government agencies that annoy the citizenry.

  • Trollificus||

    And said agencies can spend all their time defending themselves from such investigations and creating difficulties for the JD and EEOC. Perfect. Almost ouroborosian, if I may be permitted a neologism*.

    *-Neologism Application delayed while the Department of Language Fairness responds to accusations of discrimination against ESL Americans. Their preference for clarity has been found to be "problematic". I'd hoped to slide through under an exemption in the "Obfuscation, Verbosity and Jargon" clause, but no such luck. My last neologism, "petarded", is in similar limbo. Fuckin' A, man.

  • queen dopplepopolis||

    [parks and rec theme plays]

  • ||

    I'm commenting on Hit & Run in order to buy sex.

    Anybody got a problem with that? I'm asking you, FOSTA/SESTA!

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Here's my question... have you been successful yet?

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    He did manage to sell a kidney.

  • Sevo||

    Did he have sex with the nurse?

  • Don't look at me.||

    The kidney didn't taste as good as I had hoped.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    trying to build a housing complex on a vacant lot it owns in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of Boyle Heights, with a generous number of units reserved for formerly homeless people.

    Standing opposed are many residents of the neighborhood, who fear the influx of a "sensitive tenant population" and want to stop the development by any means necessary.

    Is this where we get a headscratcher article in the establishment newspapers wondering why reliably Democratic hispanic populations would oppose such a forward-thinking progressive ideas?

  • Don't look at me.||


  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Common sense?

    Hell, if you oppose each and every project a City Planning bureaucracy proposes, you won't be wrong often enough to matter.

  • Hunthjof||

    Well you would think that all the progressive politicians and celebrities would be wanting it in their neighborhood. ::sarcasm off:: That is always how these things play out. Liberalism is great as long as the Liberal need not suffer of it. Take for example the rich liberals in Alexandria and Arlington VA. They say we need to be compassionate and take in refugees to the US yet the ones who were resettled in VA were not settled anywhere near their neighborhoods. In stead they went to the poorer sections of the state.

  • Sevo||

    "Take for example the rich liberals in Alexandria and Arlington VA. They say we need to be compassionate and take in refugees to the US yet the ones who were resettled in VA were not settled anywhere near their neighborhoods."

    "The pleas have been put out there by two East Bay mayors: Open your home to a homeless person.
    Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf made her plea in November, at her State of the City speech.
    "Give up that Airbnb," she said. "Fix up that back unit."
    " Schaaf said in November that while she doesn't currently have space in her home, she's willing to explore creating a secondary unit in her house. That plan is on hold."

    That plan will be 'on hold' until I get the ice-skate rental concession in Hell.

  • Sevo||

    Ooops. In reply to Hunthjof.

  • Trollificus||

    Interesting article. Lots of organizations looking to help the homeless, providing administrative jobs and decent pay to good liberals with poli sci or public admin degrees, which is the group that most often benefits from the creation of such organizations.

    All was well, until, near the bottom, they mentioned churches. I was triggered. I think, unless it can be demonstrated that such churches are the kind that don't ACTUALLY believe in anything, they should be barred from helping the homeless. Otherwise they might try to 'witness' to the homeless, which is just church-talk for "shoving their religion down peoples' throats"!! ProbleMATIC.

  • IceTrey||

    So much for California being full of bleeding heart liberals.

  • Trollificus||

    So full that their homes are absolutely brimming, stuffed so full of other right-thinking libs they just can't make room for any homeless or mentally ill veterans, or recent border hoppers. So sawreee...the carpet in our spare room totes needs to be replaced and the Trans PoC designer we want to do the window treatments has been SO busy...

    Libby Schaaf appears to be insane (I mean that literally: she LOOKS insane in televised interactions with journalists), but still understands the wide chasm between her rhetoric and actual, like, literally real reality.

  • gphx||

    'We must tax people and take their homes at gunpoint if they can't pay so we can build homes for homeless people'.

  • AD-RtR/OS!||

    The various governmental agencies in and around Los Angeles couldn't organize a one-car funeral procession.

  • pemaintoto||

    FBI harus menyalin strategi ini. Departemen Kehakiman harus hanya berfokus pada penyelidikan instansi pemerintah yang mengganggu warga negara.

  • prediksifajar||


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