By Bill Hendrickson
[Editor’s note: This article was updated on May 2 to include additional comment from the office of Councilmember Kevin de León.]
A coalition of individuals and organizations in Highland Park has failed in its effort to block the development of an imposing apartment building at the entrance to the neighborhood’s historic Garvanza district.
The defeat came on Thursday when the City Planning Commissioners voted 8-0 to reject the coalition’s appeal of an earlier decision by the city to approve the development, to be built near the intersection of York Boulevard and Avenue 64.
In general, the coalition argued that the development, at some 54,000 square-feet, is vastly out of scale with the neighborhood and fails to meaningfully address the area’s need for affordable housing.
Both of those points are true, but according to the commissioners, they are not disqualifying.
For example, the coalition said that under current rules, the project is wrongly designated as “transit oriented,” a label that that lets developments near public transportation be much bigger than otherwise allowed. The planning commissioners said the building met the rules for transit-oriented status when the developer applied for the designation years ago and that any changes since then are irrelevant.
As a transit-oriented project, the Garvanza development will be three stories rather than two. It will have 33 units rather than 22, of which 30 will be market rate and three will be set aside for very low income tenants. The development will have 54 below-ground parking spaces.
The commissioners did not dispute the puny allocation of affordable apartments in the building but said unaffordability is not their problem to solve. “Affordable housing is not our purview,” said Commissioner Jenna Hornstock, adding, “The project doesn’t have to be built for people who already live in the community.” Commissioner Helen Leung explained: “[We] don’t have the ability to demand more affordable units.”
No updated estimates were given at the hearing of how much the market-rate apartments in the development are expected to rent for, but last year, the developer gave the range as $3,500 to $5,100 a month.
The commissioners also shot down the coalition’s argument that the project should be stopped because it had been rejected by the Board of the Highland Park Overlay Zone (HPOZ), which sets the guidelines for historic preservation and land use in the area. The commissioners said that HPOZ determinations are advisory only, not decisive.
Similarly, the commissioners rejected the coalition’s argument that the project did not meet technical requirements under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
There were some two dozen speakers at the hearing.
Emma Howard, director of planning for Councilmember Kevin de León, spoke favorably of the project, saying that the developer had incorporated many design improvements that de León’s office had asked for, among them, better outdoor lighting and better landscaping.
De León’s spokesperson, Pete Brown, clarified on May 2 that De León was supportive of the appeal to block the project but felt it couldn’t succeed and so worked hard at getting the developer to improve its plans.
Duncan Gregory, board president of the Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council, objected to the project because of its dearth of affordable housing and its failure to gain the endorsement of the HPOZ. Gregory also said the project would increase traffic in the neighborhood and that the developer, Gelena Skya-Wasserman of Skya Highland Park Partners II had a history of evicting rather than respecting Highland Park residents. Gregory was referring to events in 2016, when Skya Ventures bought the 60-unit Marmion Royal Apartments in Highland Park and subsequently forced out dozens of tenants, many of them working-class Latino families.
Of 27 remaining speakers at the meeting, 25 were opposed, mostly for the reasons cited by Gregory.
Two people spoke in favor of the development, including Brad Chambers, the owner of property adjacent to the lot where the Garvanza development will be built. Chambers had originally opposed the project and was one of the individuals on whose behalf the appeal was filed. He said he is now in support of the project due to design improvements made by the developer.
Many people in Highland Park have fought hard to stop the Garvanza development, but the city’s pro-development policies have once again carried the day.