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Sam Hall Kaplan

City Groping for Skid Row Policy

July 19, 1987|SAM HALL KAPLAN

Coming to Los Angeles this week to take a look at how the city might better deal with its Skid Row housing problem is an advisory panel of the Urban Land Institute, a national association made up mostly of well-meaning developers and public officials.

And while the nonprofit institute's record of accomplishments has not been the best when dealing with the problems of inner-city neighborhoods--it fumbled such an effort in the North Lawndale community of Chicago last fall--its involvement in Los Angeles is welcome.

The city certainly needs all the help it can get, for it and its point bureaucracy on the problem, the Community Redevelopment Agency, have been stumbling badly in recent months in their commitment to provide and preserve decent housing to the estimated 8,000 persons who live in the area's single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels.

It is important to note that these are not the homeless--that is another, and in many ways, greater problem for Skid Row, the city and the nation. These are the poor and the increasing number of down-and-out families with children who have been unable to find any other inexpensive housing in the city.

But many may become homeless as the city procrastinates.

To be sure, there is a mayor's committee supposedly studying the problem. But like the mayor himself, the committee, at this point, has yet to come up with a specific plan to develop needed affordable housing, as well as preserving the existing housing.

At present, there are five more months to go on a moratorium on the demolition of SRO hotels, which earlier this year were being picked off by speculators and developers anticipating a shift into the area by the burgeoning toy manufacturing and warehousing industries, and an increase in demand for commercial space.

Fueling speculation has been a proposal within the city Planning Department to rezone the area, bounded by Main, San Pedro, 3rd and 7th streets, to light manufacturing. This, in effect, would kill any thoughts of new housing there, while undermining the city's stated policy to preserve the SRO hotels.

"Stated" is emphasized, for there are persistent rumors that pressures on City Hall by Central City East interests are building to "amend" the policy by fiat or inaction and "cleanse" the area.

"The moratorium is just a smoke screen," said a caller a few weeks ago. "For a clue to what the city will, or will not do, watch CRA's budget for rehabilitation funds to correct the seismic defects of the SROs and bring them up to code. A minimum $11.5 million is needed to save about 3,000 units. That's housing for maybe 4,000 people."

Last week, the agency approved $5.5 million for the seismic safety loan program, with the possibility that even some of the funds would be diverted to other efforts.

Perhaps the $5.5 million is all that the agency can handle, for its existing rehabilitation program in the area has been moving excruciatingly slow. Gone seems to be a commitment to program, unfortunately, at a time when the city and those suffering on Skid Row need the most help.

How the city can better implement its policy is what the ULI panel will be studying, or should be studying. There is some talk that the CRA wants the panel to consider whether the policy is appropriate.

That seems to be a question that should be debated by elected officials, not by visiting panelists, study committees or, for that matter, by the CRA board.

WESTWOOD WOE: The question these days in and around the fast food, fast sales and fast forward entertainment district of Westwood Village is whether a proposed, so-called specific plan can make a difference.

Prepared for the city by Gruen Associates, the plan recommends a sweeping down zoning, reducing buildable footage from the present four times the lot size to twice the lot size, setting height limits, increasing parking requirements and putting a lid on the current number of movie seats.

At the same time, the plan, through a system of building bonuses, encourages the preservation of structures of historic interest and the development of stores that provide neighborhood services. The latter would include drug and hardware stores and groceries, as opposed to yogurt parlors, pizza stands and T-shirt emporiums.

The plan also calls for a variety of pedestrian amenities, including, at long last, the widening of sidewalks, a sensitive selection of street furniture and plantings, and encouraging sidewalk cafes.

Better late than never.

Though the plan will not turn the clock back to a time when Westwood Village was, indeed, a village in style and spirit, it will control the growth somewhat and may even make the area a pleasant place for a person over 30 to stroll through on an occasional evening.

Despite the bonuses for the neighborhood service, Westwood Village most likely will continue in the evenings to serve the region's adolescent and post-adolescent population as a big, uncovered mall and "the place to go to when there is no other place to go."

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