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Residents Fear LA's Plans For Historic Filipinotown Could Mean Gentrification

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Riding in a Jeepney on the streets of Historic Filipinotown, Aquilina Soriano points at landmarks that make this 2.1-square-mile neighborhood next to downtown Los Angeles unique. 

At Unidad, or Unity, Park on Beverly Boulevard, there is a large mural on the side of a building that depicts prominent Filipinos and Filipino-Americans that have contributed to U.S. history.

Pilipino Workers Center Co-Founder Aquilina Soriano on a Jeepney at the nonprofit's headquarters in Historic Filipinotown.
Pilipino Workers Center co-founder Aquilina Soriano on a Jeepney at the nonprofit's headquarters in Historic Filipinotown

On Temple Street, Tribal Café sits in the same spot that once was home to the Travelers Café, a popular hangout for Filipino residents in the 1960s and 1970s. Travelers Café boasted frequent visitors like Filipino author Carlos Bulosan, author of “America is in the Heart,” before it was torn down for redevelopment.

Soriano, the executive director and co-founder of the nonprofit Pilipino Workers Center, drives by other historic Filipino-American assets: Five granite monuments honor Filipino World War II veterans in a memorial in Lake Street Park; the headquarters of the Filipino American Community of Los Angeles, founded in 1945, once served as a boarding house for seasonal Filipino farm and cannery workers. 

She passes by the headquarters of SIPA, Search to Involve Pilipino Americans, and FASGI, Filipino American Service Group Inc. 

Throughout the trip, an overhead radio plays the voices of Historic Filipinotown residents, including a World War II veteran, a farmworker and today’s domestic workers.

But driving along these streets, one would be remiss not to notice the dichotomy of the neighborhood. 

Many of the older buildings are showing their age, worn out with the letters of signs missing or long faded away. Many of the homes are on tightly packed streets. Makeshift tents from homeless residents are on some street corners.

In sharp contrast are the new developments with bright and gleaming colors and modern architecture with the word "luxury" on draped banners that stand out. There are movie studios, offices and restaurants. Construction cranes and skeletons of new developments dot some areas of the neighborhood.

Eliseo De Silva's
Eliseo De Silva's "Gintong Kasaysayan, Gintong Pamana" (A Glorious History, A Golden Legacy) at Unidad Park in the Historic Filipinotown neighborhood of Los Angeles

Activists say the influx of new projects, along with market-rate multifamily buildings that began springing up shortly after the recession are attracting a new crowd and displacing longtime residents.

Some see hints of the future in the number of projects in nearby Koreatown. Many Koreatown residents have moved out because of skyrocketing rent prices. Koreatown is considered one of the most gentrified areas in Los Angeles in the past 15 years, according to UC Berkeley's Urban Displacement Project.

Because downtown Los Angeles is experiencing a renaissance of development, nearby neighborhoods, including Historic Filipinotown, Silver Lake, Echo Park and Boyle Heights, are seen as the next hot spot for a new wave of projects and redevelopment.

What is shaping Eastside neighborhoods will be part of the discussion at The Future of Eastside of Los Angeles Oct. 31 at the Omni Los Angeles Hotel at California Plaza.

According to RentCafé, the average rent for an apartment in the Westlake neighborhood that includes Historic Filipinotown is nearly $1,900. Ten years ago, the average rent was $1,300.

To alleviate some Historic Filipinotown residents' concerns about development, Soriano said, Councilman Mitch O'Farrell, who represents the neighborhood, and the Los Angeles Planning Department came up with a "North Westlake Design District" community master plan to improve the area.

But the proposed pedestrian- and transit-friendly overlay that places regulations on the type of new construction, business signage and other requirements for local and new businesses only heightened residents' concerns, Soriano said. The plan did not include any affordable or low-income housing.

Low-income and older residents worried about being priced out. Filipino residents worried about losing a piece of their identity as new development continued to move into town without recognizing the area's unique Filipino designation, Soriano said.

"For a long time we didn't have a Filipino town," she said. "In 2002, when we got established, it started becoming more of that gathering place, a place that gives us [Filipinos] visibility. So if we lose that then it just further hurts our visibility."

"The community is anxious, especially the Filipinos who have lived here for years and generations," said Joel Jacinto, the executive director emeritus of Search To Involve Pilipino Americans, a nonprofit Filipino-American youth organization. Jacinto also serves as a member of the board of public works commission for the city of LA. "A lot of people want to know what this design district overlay is all about. What is all this going to bring? That is the central tension."

Historic Filipinotown 

When Filipinos — mostly seasonal farmworkers and some office workers — began settling in Los Angeles in the early 1900s, they first settled in Little Manila, now known as Little Tokyo, and later Bunker Hill.

City of Los Angeles Planning Department's North Westlake Design District plan for Historic Filipinotown in Los Angeles.
City of Los Angeles Planning Department's North Westlake Design District plan for Historic Filipinotown in Los Angeles

After being displaced due to redevelopment to accommodate the growth of the city, many Filipino settlers in the 1940s to 1970s began relocating and buying homes and setting up businesses in the Temple Street-Beudry Avenue neighborhood and Temple Street and Beverly Boulevard area, Jacinto said. 

It is unclear how many Filipino residents there were in the neighborhood during its heyday, but the area is home to some of the oldest Filipino-American organizations, churches and Filipino-run businesses.

Many of the original settlers and their children have moved to other places and set up enclaves with large Filipino populations across Southern California, including Carson, West Covina, Eagle Rock and Cerritos

In 2002, in recognition of the area's Filipino history in Los Angeles, then-Los Angeles Councilman Eric Garcetti, who is now mayor, designated the Temple-Beaudry, Temple-Beverly area as Historic Filipinotown.

Jacinto said it is the only designated district for the Filipino-American community in the United States.

Today, Historic Filipinotown has about 7,000 Filipino residents. Latinos make up most of the residents of Historic Filipinotown.

The area is mostly made up of working-class, middle-income to low-income residents, Jacinto said.

North Westlake Design District

In 2014, the Los Angeles Department of Planning first introduced the North Westlake Design District ordinance as a guide for new construction and development to complement the neighborhood.

City officials envisioned a pedestrian- and transit-friendly environment as a way to promote the businesses in the area, especially along Temple Street and Beverly Boulevard.

After hosting the first series of workshops to residents, the planning department refined its plan and introduced a new proposed ordinance last year. 

On the surface, the ordinance didn't seem cumbersome — the proposal addressed the type of signage businesses can place, parking allotments for new developments, setbacks and other design aesthetics.

Luxury residential apartment in Historic Filipinotown
Luxury apartment in Historic Filipinotown in Los Angeles

Soriano said one part of the proposal would also require developers to host meetings with the public prior to breaking ground.

The city planning department and Councilman O'Farrell's office had not responded to questions from Bisnow by press time.

When planning officials reintroduced the plan last year, residents were still upset.

The Los Angeles Tenants Union teamed up with local activists and neighborhood groups and rallied against the design district, saying it was a way to speed up gentrification, said Joseph Bernardo, a Filipino-American historian.

In a neighborhood meeting hosted by the planning department earlier this year, several activists spoke against the design district plan. 

Local activist Arturo Garcia spoke out about the lack of affordable housing developments coming into the area and called the design plan terrible. 

"All we are seeing is market-rate housing," Garcia said. "Who can afford $2,100 for a one-[bedroom] apartment?"

"Historic Filipinotown is being erased because of these designs," said Garcia, according to video taken of the meeting by the Coalition to Defend Westlake posted on the organization's Facebook page. "This is our only area and if you erase this I do not know [what will happen]. We will fight you and we will not let the design district ordinance ... be passed." 

Construction crane for Trammell Crow Residential's Alexan Bahay multifamily apartment can be seen in the background of a Historic Filipinotown sign in Los Angeles.
Historic Filipinotown sign and construction of the Alexan Bahay on Temple Street in Los Angeles

The Future Of Historic Filipinotown

A large construction crane rises high above an under-construction wooden structure on Temple Street. 

Trammell Crow Residential broke ground on this 22K SF mixed-use development on 1.7 acres at 1910 West Temple St. in 2016.

The six-story building will consist of 200 market-rate units above ground-level commercial space. The development will have all the features of a luxury property with a resort-style pool and spa, private patio or balcony, fitness center and dog washing and grooming station.

The location is hard to beat, Trammell Crow Managing Director Michael Genthe said. 

"This core downtown Los Angles location has great access to all of downtown’s amenities and nearby Hollywood," Genthe wrote in an email. "[It is] only a short bike ride to Echo Park Lake, a half-mile from ... hip Echo Park, close to Dodger Stadium and a mile from downtown Los Angeles."

A few months ago to honor its Historic Filipinotown location, Genthe said the company changed the name of the development from Alexan South Echo to Alexan Bahay. Bahay is the word for "home" in Filipino.

"We just wanted to pay homage to the area," Genthe said.

Genthe said he has reviewed the North Westlake District plan and likes the reduction in parking for retail and neighborhood services but also points out the overlay's flaws.

"This design district requires building standards which increase construction costs," Genthe said. "These requirements will make many redevelopment projects unfeasible. This ordinance will further restrict new signage, which makes it harder for business owners to succeed."

Soriano, the PWC executive director, said hers and other organizations will be paying close attention to the next iteration of the district design plan.

During the last meeting, there were protestors asking for a new plan, Soriano said. 

The city planning department is working on a new draft with more input from those who spoke against the North Westlake Design District, and it is expected to come out soon, Soriano said. 

"We will be studying it, paying close attention to what our members have to say and reach out to all of the different stakeholders," Soriano said. "We want to figure out if this is something driving or intensifying gentrification or is it something that will provide a few more gathering places for the community?"

Soriano said whether it is the city's design district or something else, Historic Filipinotown needs a community plan to help the residents and improve the neighborhood. 

Ideally, she wants a plan that will provide affordable and low-income housing to the market and a way for local community organizations to work with developers and businesses to promote Historic Filipinotown.

"We are very concerned about displacement," she said. "We need more affordable housing for the community and also a process that requires developers to consult with the community."

Hear more about what is influencing development in Eastside cities at Bisnow's The Future of Eastside of Los Angeles Oct. 31 at the Omni Los Angeles Hotel at California Plaza.