Cumulus. Is the sky the limit?

As developers get ready to drop a skyscraper in the middle of a local community, friends of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, join with the non-profit Crenshaw Subway Coalition, to sue the City Council, the city, and the developer

AUG16CumulusThe campaign team at the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, and a City Hall reform measure heading for the March 2017 ballot, watched with interest as major media stories broke about a barely-known Los Angeles City Council plan. This plan will allow South L.A.'s first-ever skyscraper, a 30-story tower known as Cumulus, to be surrounded by a fortress-like complex of 10-story luxury office towers at the corner of La Cienega and Jefferson. 

How could Angelenos have almost zero word of this historic change proposed along the western boundary of West Adams? It's so imposing and out of scale that it will cast hours of shadow on homes and jam tens of thousands of commuters, LAX-bound travelers and residents using already-congested La Cienega, Venice, Jefferson, Washington and even Wilshire boulevards.

Cumulus' pricey tower apartments will number 1,200 units, and its surrounding luxury office fortresses would be squeezed onto land that is now home to KLOS and KABC radio stations. This is full-scale gentrification, targeting well-to-do Westsiders willing to pay $2,500 to $4,000 a month if they move a little east.  There will be zero affordable housing in this “Century City south.”

Just a handful of housing will be available to middle-class people such as families of the Latino and black homeowners and renters who live in the surrounding Baldwin Hills, South L.A. and West Adams neighborhoods. All over Los Angeles, the city's development policies are creating human displacement, destruction of neighborhood character, growing homelessness and mass demolition of affordable apartment units.

In fact, 22,000 rent-stabilized units, home to more than 60,000 people, have been destroyed since 2000.

On the Cumulus site, the wealthy San Francisco developers did not earn one penny of their instant wealth. When the politicians decided to allow a massive project far bigger than the land-use rules allowed, they granted Carmel Partners (CP V Cumulus) tens of millions of dollars in profits — by a flick of the pen. 

The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, sponsored by the Coalition to Preserve L.A., and aimed at reforming the City Council, will halt this rule-breaking and gaming of the land for two years. During those two years, the ballot measure forces the City Council to pivot back to its real job: Creating a rational plan for L.A. that addresses our intertwined needs for parks, housing, businesses, roads, sewers, water and safety services. 

Isn't it the City Council's core job to create a “General Plan” that firmly guides all land use, updates our infrastructure up to serve existing residents, and provides for those long-promised parks we never got?

Yes, that's their core job. But City Hall has abandoned its duties. In a very quiet City Council vote in 2005 — which our Coalition to Preserve LA campaign team unearthed — the City Council voted to not have to write a modern General Plan. 

And nobody, including the media, noticed.

Now, 11 years later, the mayor and City Council point to L.A.'s “badly outdated” General Plan dating to 1996, and say they have no choice but to grant exemptions to developers — because the rules are “so old.” It's a circle of cynicism: The City Council made sure the General Plan is outdated. They benefit from these backroom deals, with $6 million flowing to them and to the mayor, from real estate interests, since 2000.

So a volunteer support group of citizens, known as Friends of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, joined with the non-profit Crenshaw Subway Coalition, which is fighting Metro's on-the-cheap Crenshaw light rail plan. The two groups sued the City Council, the city, and Cumulus. 

But suing to make City Hall do its job is a tough row to hoe. The powers that be are in a meltdown over the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative because it empowers voters to wrest back power over what neighborhoods, and L.A. as a whole, should become. 

Little wonder that City Hall, developers, and lobbyists had been uttering fantastic fabrications about the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. We are messing with their power, and their profits. 

Every week or so, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce president sends out a newsletter to members of Neighborhood Councils and homeowner groups, filled with whoppers designed to scare voters away from our citizen initiative. The Chamber president, for example, says the ballot measure “creates a ban on all housing in Los Angeles.” 

Let's be real. Los Angeles zoning today allows 1 million units of new housing to be built “by right” without breaking any zoning rules. Our measure protects and encourages developers to tap that existing zoning. One million units of housing is allowed right now — think of that. 

With all due respect to Chamber of Commerce leaders downtown, the only “ban” our measure creates is the timeout on City Council backroom mischief, greased by campaign contributions. Land deals unfold behind closed doors, in the offices of individual council members, long before the public knows a giant project has even been proposed.

Under the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, during the two-year timeout, all development will continue that plays by the rules. We're targeting the wildly inappropriate mega-projects and outsized developments that often plop a huge building on a badly gridlocked intersection where a big complex is clearly not allowed. 

According to extensive public data from the Department of Building and Safety and the Department of Planning, 95% of all developments of multi-family housing, commercial buildings, retail projects, public buildings and other projects DO follow the zoning rules. These 95% of projects will all thrive and move forward during our moratorium.

Yet developers who oppose our measure like to say that the 95% figure is padded with things like “permits for new toilets.” 

We respect Los Angeles residents. We want you to know: the Department of Building and Safety and the Department of Planning's own data show that 95% of development — projects of $1 million and up, including everything from modest four-plex housing to downtown office buildings — follow the zoning rules. They will be untouched by the timeout.

We can't seem to find those $1 million toilets the Chamber leaders say are used to pad that 95% number. 

What's really going on here? Why build a skyscraper on the KLOS/KABC land instead of the appropriate development the West Adams Community Plan (which encompasses the Cumulus land) calls for? 

The answer is that developers want to gentrify and the City Council almost always goes along. 

A developer of 100 percent affordable housing project who abides by community zoning explained, “The City Council sucks all the air out of the room for South L.A. by encouraging developers to build as big and tall as they want in richer areas. The only way to force the City Council to plan good, viable development in South L.A. – not these crazy gentrification projects – is to put a cap on what developers can build in the richer areas like the Wilshire District. They have to be forced to look south.”

There is already a cap in richer areas. It's called zoning. But at City Hall, once a single developer gets to break all the zoning rules, then a “precedent” has been set. Other skyscrapers will push in. 

In the case of Cumulus, what did the San Francisco developer “give back” to the community? The Los Angeles Times ran a photo of a pretty, five-story building with a lovely park, not a skyscraper. Who could oppose that kind of development south of the 10, where development is overdue? And didn't a number of neighbors finally agree to back the project after considering a lawsuit, because the developer promised a small park and some shopping?

Step back from the misleading imagery the Times chose to promote, and the real Cumulus project comes into focus: A towering, Century City-style profit center for a Bay Area developer, with a tiny park and few shops. As one resident who opposes Cumulus and backs the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative said, “It shouldn't take a skyscraper to get us a grocery store.”


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Established in August of 2008 by writerartist Dianne V. Lawrence, The Neighborhood News covers the events, people, history, politics and historic architecture of communities throughout the Mid-City and West Adams area in Los Angeles Council District 10.

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