10,000 New Housing Units By 2031? LA Metro Faces Tall Task With Sprawling Development Plans
Twenty sites tagged by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority as redevelopment destinations for transit-oriented affordable housing could one day hold thousands of new housing units in a county where residences are sorely needed. But the sites, stretching from Santa Monica to Pomona, bring vast differences in priorities, housing need and community sentiment.
That means Metro's recently announced plan to accelerate the creation of these units, with the aim of finishing them by 2031, will require a nuanced approach, taking each community's quirks into consideration and complicating the effort.
"We don't want to sacrifice the quality of the outreach, but we do want to focus it and make it move faster than these protracted, long processes that end up really being a stumbling block to getting the projects built," Metro Deputy Executive Officer Wells Lawson said.
It is an ambitious plan and one that Metro says is still being figured out in some respects. But the transportation agency has already gotten the ball rolling, putting out a call for developers interested in partnering with it on any of these sites, which range from 30K to 450K buildable SF. Applications are due early next month from interested developers.
Local leaders say that the development of these sites presents a tremendous opportunity for the communities in which they are located, but some highlight that whatever comes to these sites needs to be carefully tailored to the needs of those communities — and that a failure to do so would constitute a missed opportunity at best.
Metro’s full-court press involves taking steps to speed things up where possible, especially in the procurement process. Building a bench of developers is one of several strategies Metro is using. A disadvantage is that there won’t be rolling enrollment, so developers who don’t get in now might not be able to do so later.
The sites range in size and location, but because Metro is a public agency, there won’t be a lot of wiggle room for what will go on them. All sites must have at least some income-restricted affordable housing.
There's a major need in the region, which is partly Metro's motivation. It is estimated that the LA area has a shortage of about half a million affordable homes and has among the highest unaffordability levels in the country for rent — and that isn't expected to change anytime soon.
In order to follow “the best and most streamlined path, though not the easiest,” Lawson said, the projects will be either 100% or 25% income-restricted.
Metro plans to tap into existing streamlining measures, such as Mayor Karen Bass’ Executive Directive 1, to further expedite approvals. Part of the job of their outreach is to present the fact that the affordability aspect of these projects isn’t up for debate as an advantage for communities, Lawson said.
“This is an opportunity to be more focused,” Lawson said. “We don't have to argue about the affordability. We get to talk about the ground-floor uses, about how the open space is repurposed. We get to talk about the cosmetics, like the architecture of the site, and other public benefits.”
Those details are likely to be supremely important to many of the communities these projects will call home.
In Glendora, Metro is planning to develop a site with 290K buildable SF near the city’s under-construction A Line station. The city has long had its own plans to add housing to the part of Vermont Avenue where Metro’s site is located.
Glendora is planning to start its own process to solicit community feedback on what residents want development here to look like, using a grant from Metro to help it figure out how best to add housing in a 1-mile radius around the future station.
“The important thing really is how the look and feel meets with the commercial [uses] on the other side of where this project will be and also with the future development of that area,” Glendora City Manager Adam Raymond said.
Anything proposed will eventually have to be approved by the city of Glendora, so having information at the ready about what the city and its residents want to see here is intended to help the eventual developer know what the community’s desires are early in the process, Glendora Community Development Director Jeff Kugel said.
But there are others for whom the affordable housing component is a chief concern — namely, that it may not be affordable enough.
Los Angeles City Council Member Eunisses Hernandez said she generally feels that Metro’s past efforts to create housing have fallen short of providing what she calls deeply affordable housing — units that are within financial reach of the people who are living in the immediate area around development sites.
“I've let [Metro] know that these projects — not these particular lots, but overall Metro building projects — need to meet the needs of the communities that they're coming into and not just build for the communities that they want to see there,” said Hernandez, whose district stretches from Northeast LA to the edges of Downtown and includes parts of Highland Park, Cypress Park, Chinatown, Echo Park, Koreatown and University Park.
Hernandez referenced the transit-oriented communities program, a city of LA program that has been wildly popular from a planning and development standpoint but has drawn fierce criticism from tenant groups and anti-poverty advocates who have long said that older buildings with lower rents are being replaced through this program with newer, more expensive housing and displacing people who have few or no alternative housing options.
The two sites in Hernandez’s district, a parking lot near the Heritage Square L Line station and a bus layover lot west of Downtown LA, are in neighborhoods where projects through the city’s program have cropped up already, she said.
“It’s not just about building. It’s about building the right type of housing,” Hernandez said.
Metro knows that many of these projects are likely to face some kind of resistance, whether it is a push for deeply affordable housing, pushback against it or something totally different. But the agency is hoping that its move to speed up clunkier parts of the process will help it build support in the neighborhoods and cities where these projects are headed.
Lawson said that in reviewing past Metro developments, the agency found the exclusive negotiation period for these types of projects has taken from three to 10 years. That is long enough for council members and other elected officials to term out, for people to move into the neighborhood and for other major stakeholder changes to take place, which can result in people feeling like a project they know nothing about has just appeared, Lawson and Metro Director of Community Relations Karen Swift said.
“You're not necessarily doing a better job when you take a long time,” Lawson said. “Yes, you need to figure out ways to bring everybody in and have a good conversation [and] you need to be really transparent, but you also need to do it in a focused manner that's really fast.
“That's our fault for not moving faster.”
Two of the three largest sites are in the San Fernando Valley. The largest of the 20 Metro sites, with 450K buildable SF, is in the San Fernando Valley, at the Sepulveda Orange Line station near Sepulveda Boulevard and Erwin Street.
The site will be within walking distance of the Orange Line, a Costco and a suite of new restaurants next to an LA Fitness gym.
As a parking lot, it isn't being put to its best use, Valley Industry and Commerce Association President Stuart Waldman said.
“This [redevelopment] will just bring more business there,” Waldman said.
The other large site, which sits between South Weddington Park and the Universal City/Studio City subway station and offers 250K buildable SF, is one whose development has been discussed for “quite some time,” Waldman said.
Other sites on this list have had projects proposed but never built. And that hints at something Metro is well aware of: the difficulty of moving these projects along quickly and the work that still remains to be done in order to meet this bold goal.
Metro is taking steps not to let these projects die on the vine. Its exclusive negotiating agreements, which it will enter into with selected developers, will include deadlines and penalties for developers and Metro if those deadlines aren’t met, Lawson said.
But he also said that building thousands of new units in this time frame is something they are figuring out how to do as they go.
“We are going to need some set of tools on the financing side and on the construction side, at least, to move that fast,” Lawson said.
And they’re going to have to get creative. That likely includes using these sites as a kind of testing ground for newer building technologies like prefab, Lawson said.
“To get 10,000 units by 2031 is going to require some serious mobilization, and there are questions, frankly, that we haven't answered yet that we need to answer to get it done,” Lawson said.