By Bill Hendrickson
[Editor’s note: The following article has been updated to include response from the office of Councilmember Kevin de León].
A coalition of organizations and individuals in Highland Park is appealing the city’s approval of a controversial apartment development at N. Avenue 64 near York Boulevard in Highland Park’s historic Garvanza district.
The development, approved by the City Planning Department on September 16, calls for a three-story building measuring nearly 60,000 square feet with 33 mostly market rate apartments. Most of the apartments in the development would have four or five bedrooms with a bathroom for almost every bedroom. The rent would be $3,500 a month to $5,100 a month, according to estimates by the developer.
In granting its approval, City Planning said that the size and density of the project were justified because of the development’s proximity to public transportation. Under rules for developments near public transit – known as “Transit Oriented Communities,” or TOC – the Garvanza development can be three stories instead of two, with 33 apartments instead of 22 and with only 17 parking spaces for the 33 units. In exchange for those incentives, the developer has to include three very-low income apartments in the development.
The appeal by the Highland Park coalition asserts that the proposed development does not qualify for a TOC designation. The appeal also objects to City Planning’s granting of a “Certificate of Compatibility” for the project, in which the city basically says that the project fits with the historic neighborhood.
The coalition definitely has the Highland Park/Garvanza neighborhood on its side. Since August 2020, when the project was first presented publicly, local opposition has been overwhelming. Opponents have criticized the size of the building as wildly out of scale with the neighborhood. They have also pointed out that the area needs affordable housing, not large, expensive apartments.
Critics have also raised questions about the intended use of the development. Originally, the developer said the large units would be ideal for co-living, in which generally young adults band together to rent multi-bedroom apartments while pursuing their careers and creative projects. When the community objected to a co-living development, the developer said the apartments would be ideal for multi-generational households. Opponents of the development scoffed at the implied notion that the area’s multi-generational immigrant families were the intended residents of the expensive apartments.
The public’s disapproval of the project has deep roots. The developer is Gelena Skya-Wasserman of Skya Highland Park Partners II. In 2016, the same developer bought the 60-unit Marmion Royal Apartments in Highland Park. After the purchase, rents were increased substantially and ultimately, dozens of tenants were evicted and displaced, many of them working-class Latino families.
In February 2021, Skya’s Garvanza project received a unanimous thumbs down from the community when the Board of the Highland Park-Garvanza Overlay Zone (HPOZ) said the building’s design was “antithetical” to the HPOZ guidelines, a set of longstanding rules for historic preservation and land use in the area.
City Councilmember Kevin de León, who represents the Garvanza district, also weighed in on the development in February, saying he had “deep concerns” about it. The Boulevard Sentinel asked De León for comment on City Planning’s approval of the development and the appeal by the Highland Park coalition, but as of this posting, had not heard back. We will update this story as commentary is received. [Update, Oct. 6: A spokesperson for Councilmember De León said via email that De León and his staff “are closely reviewing the appeal materials in order to craft his recommendations for the appeal hearing at the East L.A. Area Planning Commission.” The email noted that in February, De León had instructed the developer to work closely with the Highland Park-Garvanza HPOZ, but that the opposition to the project “reflects that did not happen,” adding, “The Councilmember is concerned with the minimal affordable units in this proposed project — 3 affordable units out of 33 total units. This falls far below the need in the area, especially given skyrocketing housing prices.”
The email also noted that the site of the proposed development “is a good location for multifamily development, provided that the project is compatible with the HPOZ and contributes much needed affordable housing in the community.” ]
This past February, Councilmember de León submitted testimony calling on the developer to work closely with the Highland Park-Garvanza HPOZ. The HPOZ Board opposition to the submitted project reflects that did not happen. The Councilmember is concerned with the minimal affordable units in this proposed project — 3 affordable units out of 33 total units. This falls far below the need in the area, especially given skyrocketing housing prices. When Skya Ventures purchased the Marmion Royal Apartments in Highland Park in 2016, they substantially raised rents and evicted long term tenants, raising concerns that future residents could be vulnerable to these same tactics.
Neither the Councilmember nor the community members who have contacted his office oppose new housing at this site- which is a good location for multifamily development, provided that the project is compatible with the HPOZ and contributes much needed affordable housing in the community. For now, the Councilmember and his staff are closely reviewing the appeal materials in order to craft his recommendations for the appeal hearing at the East LA Area Planning Commission.
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