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Question of Density Tests Curbs on Growth : Development: Planners say a proposed complex has too many apartments, but developers reply that they are entitled to density bonuses.


The Los Angeles Planning Department has turned down a building application for a 90-unit apartment complex on a key corner of Highland Park, setting the stage for a battle between project developers and the Highland Park Neighborhood Assn. over the strength of a recently approved slow-growth ordinance for the area.

The Planning Department ruled Monday that under the Interim Controls Ordinance (ICO) adopted in April, the two-building Spanish-style project could not exceed 62 units.

But the developers say they are entitled to the state-mandated 25% density bonus for moderate- and low-income projects, which would raise the number of units to 77.

"The ICO doesn't say anything about density bonuses, and it cannot overshadow the state-mandated bonus," said Hernan Rebolino, one of the developers. He said he would meet this week with city planners to clarify the matter.

The Los Angeles Planning Commission, apparently unaware of the restrictions, granted preliminary approval of the density bonus for the project in October.

City Planner Sterling Barnes, who wrote the Planning Department report, said the ordinance supersedes state law. Hence, he said, the developers are not entitled to the bonus.

A spokeswoman for the office of Councilwoman Gloria Molina, whose district includes Highland Park, said Molina is opposed to granting the density bonus and would vote against it if it reaches the City Council for final approval.

Originally a French Continental design, the project was changed to a Spanish design with tile roofs and ornate balconies to meet objections from the homeowner association. The current project design consists of two four-story buildings with a swimming pool, a spa, a playground and entrances from both Figueroa Street and 50th Avenue.

The report said the architectural design of the project is compatible with the neighborhood, but the height, scale and density are not. The project should be limited to 30 feet as opposed to 45, and each building should have no more than 25 units, the report says.

The project thus would have to be trimmed from two four-story to three three-story buildings.

While acknowledging that neighbors objected to the building's original design, a spokesman for the neighborhood association said the developers missed the point when they redesigned the building--which homeowners consider a minor concession--without lowering density.

"We say we object to the density, and the developers tell us they are willing to compromise on the style of the balconies," Richard Barron, chairman of the association's Architectural Review Committee, said. "They don't seem to believe that the ICO is for real."

As outlined, the ordinance prohibits the demolition of buildings in most cases and limits new construction to projects compatible to those in a surrounding 300-foot area. David Trelongo and Rebolino, the developers of the project, have obtained demolition permits for the boxlike church that occupies the project site.

The spokesman for the Highland Park Neighborhood Assn., which has vocally opposed the project and lobbied both the Planning Department and Molina's office to obtain reductions, said even 62 units may be too much.

Barron said he is conducting a land-use survey of the neighborhood to determine the accuracy of Barnes' findings. "I don't know yet, but it seems to me that 62 is too many units." He said he would appeal the Planning Department's decision if his study shows that fewer units should be allowed.

The proposed project is strategically located at the southern end of Highland Park, across the neighborhood's main artery, facing a line of historic houses, some of which are being renovated. "It's a key location," Barron said. "It's the gateway to Highland Park."

It also sits between two neighborhoods of distinct characteristics.

Along the winding streets in the Highland Park hills to the west of the proposed site there are rows of upscale houses with trimmed lawns hidden behind trees. To the east, a predominantly ethnic, low-income population is crammed in low-quality apartment buildings along a two-mile stretch of flatland that ends at the Harbor Freeway.

"We have to preserve the integrity of our neighborhood," said Barron, looking west.

"We want to upgrade the neighborhood while providing affordable housing," countered Trelongo, pointing to the east.

Rebolino said he could live with the restrictions imposed by the Planning Department--if the density bonus is not taken away. Without the bonus, he said, the developers' $1.9-million investment for the 57,000-square-foot lot would not pay off.

"You can't sell units in this area for more than $120,000," he said, maintaining that he would need to sell them for higher than that if he were limited to 62 units.

If he is denied the bonus, he said, he will meet with his attorneys to study alternatives. He can either appeal the Barnes' decision to the Planning Commission and eventually to the City Council, or he can sue the city for denying the bonus. He said that if the Planning Department does not reconsider its ruling, he probably will resort to legal action.

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