City Hall is Displacing Elysian Valley's Latinos to Create Luxury 'Waterfront'

Local residents attempt to save a proud, working-class neighborhood from developer-driven gentrification

By David Futch -- Rick Cortez and Kevin Mulcahy of RAC Design Build describe their firm's aesthetic as a modern vision with old school values. The firm focuses on adaptive re-use, historic restorations and a few group-up projects now and again. RAC are also general contractors and manufacture a line of steel-framed windows from their Frogtown working studio. 

These days, they have a new purpose: saving their adopted L.A. River neighborhood, Elysian Valley, from the ugly side of gentrification, reminding folks of how the proud Latino neighborhood of Chavez Ravine was ravaged to make space for the Dodgers' move to Los Angeles.

Cortez hopes Elysian Valley's historic working class community survives a development onslaught that Chavez Ravine families didn't.

“In 5 or 10 years, Frogtown is going to be messed up unless the politicians and planners focus on the residents, the Los Angeles River and integrate the interests of the new people who are going to come and how those realities collide,” Cortez said. “So if you focus just on who’s to come and you build for them, then the land along the river becomes another Americana Mall in Glendale. Sincere leadership and planning is absolutely required now. We know what happens when the future is left to only developers' imaginations.”

Robert Leyland is of Latino descent and has lived in Elysian Valley for 17 years. Leyland can’t stand the 56-unit luxury condo "River House" built within feet of Marsh Park. He says a nearly-completed 40-unit luxury apartment at 2980 Allesandro Street is an eyesore in this modest community of many cinder block homes.

A plan to stick 117-units where the Bimbo Bakery stands is considered heresy. Across the Los Angeles River in Atwater Village, Leyland sees the 419-unit 2800 Casitas project — being pushed by the Manhattan billionaire Manocherian family — as trouble for the L.A. River. 

“Developers are out of control because growth is supposed to be controlled by city planning,” Leyland said. “Instead, it’s the other way around."

“Elysian Valley development amounts to ethnic cleansing and class warfare," he says. "There are more and more people here walking their poodles. The people who live here cannot afford to stay. They can’t afford what’s being built here.”

The area is undergoing intensive evictions of longtime Latino families from its two-mile slice of land between Echo Park and the 5 Freeway along the river. Dodger Stadium is just a couple of freeway exits away.

The sliver of land was named Frogtown because decades ago hundreds of thousands if not millions of frogs emerged from the river during big rains. Later, Frogtown became a hated moniker to some, because the name was adopted by violent gangs.

George Abrahams lives in Hollywood, but he's smack in the middle of fighting the same Elysian Valley development on Allesandro Street that Leyland and RAC’s Cortez and Mulcahy can’t stand. Abrahams says City Hall today gives developers whatever they want whenever they want it. Frogtown's issues are the same ones he’s fighting in Hollywood.

Abrahams says City Hall should never have allowed 40 high-density luxury units to be built at 2980 Allesandro Street. But "spot zoning" and rubber stamping a developer’s desires has become a way of life inside the Department of City Planning, and, he says, their partner in crime, Building and Safety.

One thing is certain, developers now get their Christmas wish list filled every week of the year, with "spot zoning" and other ways around the local zoning to allow massive luxury projects in all the wrong places. The approvals are pushed along by the Planning Commission and the City Council — everyone inside the marbled halls bends the rules for wealthy developers.

Abrahams filed an appeal last May 9 over the 2980 Allesandro Street apartments, claiming zoning code violations. His appeal was denied by Building and Safety, and another appeal with Planning is pending. Meanwhile, construction of the 2980 Allesandro luxury project nears completion.

“Elysian Valley is being targeted by developers with the complicity of the city,” Abrahams said. “The Planning Department and Planning Commission are always finding a way to excuse a project by granting exceptions. There’s no way to stop it — unless you go to court.”

Therein lies the rub. Fighting City Hall's close ties to the developers who shower them with campaign cash, gifts, and donations to their pet projects takes money and time.

“The city plays the averages, hoping opponents won’t have the resources or the knowledge or the legal firepower, so people go away dispirited and worn out,” Abrahams said. “There are a lot of groups citywide helping each other out  now. The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative is the result of that networking. If we have to fight each project one-by-one, we’d be overwhelmed.”

Abrahams estimates that challenging City Hall on a single project that is trying to toss aside the local zoning costs from $30,000 to $1.5 million. And not many lawyers in L.A. are “willing” to stand up to City Hall.

“I’m concerned about the quality of life,” Abrahams said. “I want the kind of California living I came here for when I was 9-years-old from just outside New York City. That’s not the kind of living I want — sardine cans separated by ant trails.”

For decades, Elysian Valley has been home to working class Latinos, Filipinos and Asians. Many homes are cinderblock. In the mid-2000s, those houses went for $150,000. But when environmental groups got together to find a way to revitalize the L.A. River, that got the attention of the federal government and Los Angeles.

The feds and City Hall decided to spend $1 billion to rip out some of the tons of concrete that makes up the 51-mile-long flood control project and return parts of the river a more natural state. Lured by the prospect of this new L.A. "waterfront," developers came calling.

RAC’s Cortez and Mulcahy have identified 43 projects along 1.5-miles of Frogtown river bank that would change the community — and river revitaization efforts — forever. They agree the 2980 Allesandro Street apartment complex is “the Trojan horse” that will be used as an example to justify the other 42 to be built.

"As soon as City Hall grants favors to a developer it becomes a precedent in that area, and then the other developers point and say 'I'll have what she's having.'" says Abrahams.

Not all is lost. As the river is given a rebirth, riverside parks are promised. But now, developers eye these future and current parks as “free” open space, plopping down their boxy buildings next to a park, next to the river.

Wealthy developers are trying to displace Elysian Valley residents — evictions are the favored method — for those “more to the developer’s liking, a community that can pay higher prices,” Leyland, the resident and environmental consultant says.

Mulcahy and Cortez say they’re gambling with their firm’s own existence by speaking out against how City Hall is letting developers to dictate the future of the Los Angeles River, and the future of the city in general.

RAC Design Build’s business depends on Cortez and Mulcahy navigating LA’s planning department. They have already experienced city representatives obstructing their projects after getting wind of their protests with city officials justifying it as "payback."

To Cortez and Mulcahy, planning in Los Angeles has become a war. Mulcahy said that a decade ago city planners interpreted city land-use rules differently. If a developer requested a way around the rules, there was a much more public process.

"Years ago, discretion meant something," said Cortez. "Now it means backroom discretion instead of public discretion.”

Mulcahy added that “suddenly, a planning department that shapes the city is no longer planning but expediting development without planning. There is no planning anymore. It’s a rush to money.”

RAC Design Build has a backyard gate that opens onto the L.A. River bike path. One block north of RAC where Allesandro Street dead-ends is what Mulcahy calls “the big blister,” the 40-unit 2980 Allesandro Street luxury complex being built on a 20,000-square-foot lot.

When Cortez initially asked city planners about 2980, he says City Planner Greg Shoop kept pushing the Allesandro Street project along, telling Cortez and Mulcahy that their concerns would be heard.

Cortez and Mulcahy pulled together enough paperwork to show City Hall that 2980 Allesandro would create a devastating precedent — allowing the City Council to let other developers build luxury mega-projects that smother working-class neighborhoods.

Cortez notes that the development is four-and-a-half stories built right to the property line, looming over the L.A. River bike path. The "density" of the project was calculated by wrongly including Los Angeles River bottom and banks that are public land, not the developer's land.  Other problems include the project's negative impact on water, sewer and power needs.

“While Shoop was sending us emails telling us we’d have our say, he was stamping and approving the drawings for the project,” Cortez said.

The project didn’t even face public hearings — city planners argued that the project was “by right.” That means the property was within existing zoning regulations, thus no members of the public could oppose the project. Out came the rubber stamp.

Yet the apartment is at the end a narrow old street that requires drivers to perform eyeball negotiations with drivers coming the other way. When cars are parked on both sides of the road, it's one-way only.

On the opposite side of the river in Atwater Village and Glassell Park, communities face the same dramatic proposals, including the 2800 Casitas project of 419 luxury projects on just 5.7 acres of riverside land.

“This poor neighborhood (on Casitas) is going to get slammed,” Cortez: “No. They’re going to get displaced.”

Three years ago, Cortez and Mulcahy started forecasting that luxury overbuilding on the river was major emerging problem. Few listened. “We feel like we’ve been rolling the boulder up the hill.”

That’s when attorney David Bell, former East Hollywood Neighborhood Council president, let go with his two cents.

“I’ve been doing this for awhile and part of it has to do with idea that on some level you have people like (Cortez and Mulcahy) who are totally committed to the neighborhood,” Bell said. “These are the guys that go to the meetings, they run to the Neighborhood Councils, they sit on committees, go to City Hall every day and try to get involved in the neighborhood.”

But now, Bell said, 'The only way to have a seat at the table ultimately is through litigation. I just want to talk about it, but (City Hall) won’t talk to me until we get them in front of a judge. Then  they have to talk to you. So it becomes community participation through litigation. There’s no other choice.”

Cortez and Mulcahy back Measure S, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative on the March 7 ballot, because they that see the broken system inside City Hall is killing off working class Elysian Valley, threatening to displace an entire community and ending the dreams of what "Los Angeles River revitalization" is supposed to be.

Vote Yes on S on March 7.

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