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Plan to End Land-Use Pact Angers Residents

City agency backs using Mid-Wilshire site for housing instead of offices, as it first agreed.

June 08, 2003|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

A parking lot in the mid-Wilshire area has become the latest battleground in Los Angeles' housing crisis, with a developer arguing that a six-story apartment building on the site would help fill a desperate need and homeowners in the area accusing the city of backsliding on a deal to limit the parcel to commercial use.

Although neighboring residents said the project is too large and too close to homes, the Department of City Planning recommended last week that AvalonBay Communities Inc. be allowed to build 173 luxury apartments above some new shops and a restaurant on a 1.73-acre site on Wilshire Boulevard.

To approve the project, Planning Director Con Howe and a city hearing officer have recommended that the planning commission terminate a decade-old development agreement that residents negotiated with the city. That agreement -- to allow an office building on the site -- was part of a deal that paved the way for the construction two years ago of eight single-family homes on an adjacent property.

"What's the value of an agreement with the city if they are going to say 10 years down the line, 'Just forget it,' ?" said Michelle Owen, a board member of the La Brea Hancock Homeowners Assn. "The community has expressed that it doesn't want multifamily housing."

The homeowners association voted recently to oppose the project at 5115 Wilshire Blvd. after 80% of members at a meeting cast ballots against the development.

Faced with opposition, City Councilman Tom LaBonge said he would not support the project at its present size and has urged the homeowners and developers to negotiate a compromise.

"Housing is important, but 173 units would overwhelm the amount of land at that location," LaBonge said Thursday, a day after he met with 75 opponents of the project in a park near the site.

At LaBonge's request, the developers have agreed to a 30-day delay in the planning commission's action on the project, which had been scheduled for this week.

William Delvac, an attorney for AvalonBay, said he welcomes "a constructive conversation with the neighbors" but he defended the company's plans.

"This is an important project for the city," he said. "The city desperately needs housing. An effort to cut the density way back runs counter to city efforts to solve the housing crisis."

LaBonge announced his opposition to the project at a meeting where residents complained about his past support of it and expressed concern that he had received political contributions from backers of the development.

City records show LaBonge received $500 in contributions from Delvac, $750 from lobbyists for AvalonBay and three contributions totaling $1,500 from Watson Land Co., whose president, Bruce Choate, is on the board of directors for AvalonBay.

LaBonge said any political support will not weigh in his decision.

The councilman said it is important to encourage housing, but the development may have to be scaled back to levels allowed in the nearby Park Mile area. Using that standard, Fred Pickel, president of the association, said the project should not be allowed to have more than 75 apartment units.

Owen said she was encouraged by LaBonge's stand. She and other neighbors scoff at the claim that the project is necessary to address a housing crisis. "The need is for affordable housing. This is luxury housing," she said, adding that an informal survey had found buildings with more than 5,000 units of apartments in surrounding areas.

The homeowners association co-signed the agreement after dropping opposition to construction of eight single-family homes in exchange for a promise the remaining property would be developed with an office building, according to Pickel. The agreement is with USAA Realty, which owns the site but has a contract giving AvalonBay the right to buy the property.

The residents said they had fought for the development agreement with USAA Realty 10 years ago to avoid further encroachment of multifamily housing in their neighborhood.

"It's the 24-hour noise and the potential for creeping apartment construction in the area," Pickel said.

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