The restoration of the Los Angeles River offers an unrivaled 51 miles of opportunity to provide access to nature for the one million Angelenos living within walking distance of the River, many of whom live in park-poor neighborhoods. This includes plans for more than 100 continuous acres of open space on the River in northeast Los Angeles, but a proposed luxury development, Casitas Lofts, threatens those plans and critical public access. The Los Angeles Times highlighted Casitas Lofts as “the first big test” of the “twin challenges” of building more housing while restoring the LA River. If that’s the case, the private developers at Casitas Lofts are so far failing that test and setting a dangerous precedent for riverfront development in LA. Here’s why:
It’s the Wrong Project in the Wrong Place
The old real estate maxim reminds us that it’s all about location—unfortunately, Casitas Lofts has been proposed in exactly the wrong place. In developers’ rush to capitalize on River restoration efforts and extort the promising future of LA’s revitalized waterway, the proposed development sits in the historic floodplain, putting future residents in harm’s way. In addition, the Casitas Lofts development is proposed alongside the Glendale Freeway, between Atwater Village and Glassell Park where, according to a community member from Atwater Village, the project "would be a detriment to the area.” Studies have shown that living near major freeways can cause adverse health effects, including asthma, cancer, birth defects, and cardiovascular disease. Sadly, even the highest-quality air filters capture only some of the dangerous pollutants caused by car and truck exhaust.
It Does Not Respond to or Meet Community Needs
Casitas Lofts threatens to exacerbate existing traffic congestion by increasing vehicle miles traveled to and from the proposed project, including a staggering 500 total parking spaces to accommodate the projected influx of cars. A 2018 analysis by UCLA’s Advanced Real Estate practicum discovered that the Casitas Lofts developers have included approximately 100 more parking spaces than is required by the applicable Zoning Code.
Fletcher Drive, a street that intersects Casitas Avenue near the proposed Casitas Lofts, was deemed one of the most dangerous streets in Los Angeles in 2017. As a result, Fletcher Drive is still on the Los Angeles Department of Transportation’s radar for pedestrian and bicycle safety improvements. During a recent community workshop hosted by Friends of the LA River, a local architect from Atwater Village explained that “the traffic along Fletcher is concerning.” Even more worrisome is that the Casitas Lofts developers have made no effort to address traffic congestion or pedestrian safety along nearby streets like Fletcher. The Casitas Lofts developers have not engaged meaningfully with the local community in developing this project and that lack of meaningful engagement shows in what’s been proposed.
Casitas Lofts offers only a tiny fraction (8%) of dedicated low-income affordable units—and only in order to access greater density for the project. The developer has yet to show an understanding of, let alone a concern for, the very real fears of displacement associated with this project’s ripple effect on surging property values, speculation and ensuing median rents.
It Privatizes and Blocks Access to the River and Parks
The Bowtie Parcel is a soon-to-be-developed 18-acre stretch of land immediately adjacent to the proposed Casitas Lofts. The Bowtie, owned by California State Parks, is a unique space that narrows and widens into a distinct bowtie shape, and is home to regular art installations and community events. Although previously zoned for industrial use, the Bowtie is now seen as a perfect addition to River-adjacent public space given that it is framed by Rio de Los Angeles State Park, a 40-acre gem of a park that NRDC and community activists prevented from becoming industrial warehouses in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and Parcel G-2, a 42-acre riverfront plot the City of LA acquired in 2017 and which has been called the "crown jewel" of LA River restoration plans. These plans will restore natural habitats along the LA River and increase public access to the River, while converting vacant lots like the Bowtie into thriving green space.
Building a multi-story private development at the only entrance to the Bowtie creates a psychological barrier, deterring those in the neighborhood—many of whom are lower-income community members—from accessing and feeling welcomed at this restored land. During the Friends of the LA River community workshop last month, a community member from Silver Lake wrote, “we need a park, not more developments that no one can afford.” As designed, the proposed project clearly disregards a growing community desire for uninterrupted green space. In fact, in addition to hundreds of units of luxury housing, the Casitas Lofts developers also have plans to include expensive restaurants and elaborate retail stores that clearly do not align with the needs of those who already live in the community.
Finally, the Casitas Lofts developers have yet to identify a legally required on-site fire access road to serve the proposed project. This inability to comply with California fire safety laws makes it abundantly clear that this project is in the wrong place. It offers little to no benefits for the community. And as we’ve said before, any development along or near the Los Angeles River needs to be “equitable and sustainable.” This development isn’t either.
A big thank you to my colleague Alison Hahm, who contributed to this blog post.