Road­block to hous­ing

Builder’s pro­posal near free­ways raises health con­cerns

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By David Zah­niser

Busi­ness­man Ali Awad went to Los An­ge­les City Hall five years ago with a sim­ple plan: Build 24 new homes on a va­cant lot, next to the in­ter­change of the 91 and 110 free­ways.

The Plan­ning Com­mis­sion shot down that idea, wor­ry­ing that nearby car and truck emis­sions would pose a health risk to fu­ture res­i­dents. At the time, a top ad­vi­sor to Coun­cil­man Joe Bus­caino said the prop­erty was “clearly not a good place” for homes.

Now, Awad is back with a more mod­est pro­posal: 15 sin­gle-family houses on the same site, lo­cated in L.A.’s Har­bor Gate­way neigh­bor­hood. This time, Bus­caino is en­ter­tain­ing the idea.

Bus­caino spokesman Bra­n­imir Kvar­tuc said L.A. is fac­ing a hous­ing cri­sis and needs more homes to ad­dress ris­ing prices. He ar­gued that L.A. has al­ready ap­proved other res­i­den­tial projects near the 110 Free­way, including the Da Vinci apart­ments, which hugs the 110-101 in­ter­change.

“Let’s say air qual­ity is an is­sue. Let’s say that,” Kvar­tuc said. “How dif­fer­ent is it than ev­ery sin­gle house in Har­bor Gate­way? That’s why he’s neu­tral at the mo­ment. There’s good ar­gu­ments on both sides.”

Kvar­tuc said Bus­caino, who serves on the board of the South Coast Air Qual­ity Man­age­ment District, asked the de­vel­oper to in­clude fea­tures to re­duce the ef­fect of nearby ve­hi­cle emis­sions. Be­yond that, Bus­caino has not taken a po­si­tion, he said.

Cal­i­for­nia air qual­ity of­fi­cials have warned for more than a decade against build­ing new homes within 500 feet of free­ways, not­ing that

res­i­dents in those ar­eas have higher rates of asthma, heart at­tacks, lung can­cer and pre-term births. Yet a re­cent Times anal­y­sis found Los An­ge­les has ex­pe­ri­enced a spate of home build­ing in those lo­ca­tions, with thou­sands of units go­ing up.

Awad’s project lies about 100 feet west of the 110 and 150 feet north of the 91, ac­cord­ing to a re­port pre­pared by the Depart­ment of City Plan­ning. Some homes in the Awad sub­di­vi­sion could come within 60 feet of a swoop­ing 110 free­way ramp, ac­cord­ing to a map of the project sub­mit­ted last year.

Foes of the de­vel­op­ment say it would gen­er­ate ad­di­tional traf­fic, mak­ing streets more dan­ger­ous. They also con­tend that Awad has been re­ly­ing on a se­cret weapon to get his project through: state As­sem­bly­man Mike Gip­son, who rep­re­sents their neigh­bor­hood in a district stretch­ing from South Los An­ge­les to Wilm­ing­ton.

Gip­son spoke in fa­vor of the de­vel­op­ment dur­ing a neigh­bor­hood meet­ing on the project in Oc­to­ber. Four meet­ing at­ten­dees told The Times that dur­ing ques­tions from the au­di­ence, Gip­son said he had been work­ing as a con­sul­tant, or paid ad­vo­cate, on the project at 173rd and Hoover streets.

Ron­ald Robin­son, who lives in Har­bor Gate­way and op­poses the de­vel­op­ment, said he and his neigh­bors be­came an­gry over Gip­son’s re­marks. “It was — ‘You’re my rep­re­sen­ta­tive. Shouldn’t you be rep­re­sent­ing me, and not the de­vel­oper?’ ” Robin­son said.

Har­bor Gate­way res­i­dent Frank Madarasz said he too heard Gip­son speak at the Oct. 1 meet­ing, con­ducted by the Har­bor Gate­way North Neigh­bor­hood Coun­cil’s Plan­ning and Land Use Com­mit­tee. Madarasz said Gip­son was con­fronted about whether he worked on the 15-home project — and re­sponded by telling the au­di­ence it was le­gal for him to have out­side in­come.

“He said, ‘I can have a sec­ond job,’ ” Madarasz said.

Gip­son de­clined in­ter­view re­quests from The Times. In an email, Gip­son chief of staff Mark Lomeli said Gip­son has not been paid by ei­ther the de­vel­oper or the de­vel­oper’s con­sul­tant. Although Gip­son at­tended three meet­ings on the Har­bor Gate­way project last year, he has no fi­nan­cial stake in it, Lomeli said.

“Mr. Gip­son solely par­tic­i­pated as a pri­vate cit­i­zen,” he added.

Lomeli also said that Gip­son’s pub­lic state­ments in Oc­to­ber were an ac­knowl­edg­ment that he might some­day have out­side work. “Again, Mr. Gip­son is not in­volved in this project, but an­tic­i­pates re­ceiv­ing his real es­tate li­cense in the fu­ture,” he said in the email.

Nei­ther Awad nor his land use rep­re­sen­ta­tive, Emilio Gutierrez, re­sponded to re­quests for com­ment about the pro­posed de­vel­op­ment. In pa­per­work filed with the city, Gutierrez said the de­vel­oper has ad­dressed neigh­bor­hood con­cerns about air qual­ity.

Large trees and other land­scap­ing will cre­ate a buf­fer be­tween homes and the in­ter­change, ac­cord­ing to the project’s en­vi­ron­men­tal doc­u­ments. Each house will have an air con­di­tion­ing sys­tem with high-per­form­ing air fil­ters. In ad­di­tion, the de­vel­oper will “min­i­mize” the num­ber of op­er­a­ble win­dows that face the free­way, the re­port says.

Once those and other fea­tures are in place, “air qual­ity at the new project will be bet­ter than the one avail­able to most res­i­dents in the vicin­ity,” the de­vel­oper said in the project’s pa­per­work.

Ros­alie Pre­ston, who serves on the Har­bor Gate­way North Neigh­bor­hood Coun­cil, has her doubts. Fu­ture home­own­ers, she said, will still want to en­joy their yards, putting them­selves at risk.

“You’re still go­ing to be ex­posed to a lot of the free­way pol­lu­tion,” she said.

Ef­forts to de­velop the project be­gan nearly a decade ago, when the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion sold the prop­erty to the de­vel­oper, ac­cord­ing to a city re­port.

Records show that Awad, work­ing with the firm Mo­hamad Pour­nam­dari Inc., ap­plied for a zone change to con­vert the free­way-ad­ja­cent land from one that al­lows pub­lic fa­cil­i­ties — a land use des­ig­na­tion left over from Cal­trans — to one that per­mits res­i­den­tial de­vel­op­ment.

The plan­ning com­mis­sion con­sid­ered Awad’s ap­pli­ca­tion in 2012. Dur­ing the meet­ing, the city plan­ner as­signed to the project voiced con­cerns that a mo­torist on the el­e­vated free­way ramp could have a med­i­cal emer­gency, veer off and land on one of the pro­posed homes.

Ali­son Becker, a Bus­caino aide at the time, tes­ti­fied that the de­vel­op­ment site was “clearly” a buf­fer zone be­tween the neigh­bor­hood and the free­way in­ter­change. She told com­mis­sion­ers they had no obli­ga­tion to ap­prove the re­quest.

“It’s OK to say no, be­cause the sci­ence is be­hind us,” she said. “It’s all right to say that res­i­den­tial is not OK in this par­tic­u­lar case.”

The com­mis­sion de­nied the ap­pli­ca­tion with­out prej­u­dice, al­low­ing Awad to try again. Awad’s scaled­back project went be­fore the Har­bor Area Plan­ning Com­mis­sion in Jan­uary. That panel, made up of ap­pointees of Mayor Eric Garcetti, also voted to re­ject the project, cit­ing pub­lic safety and other is­sues.

Dur­ing that meet­ing, com­mis­sion Pres­i­dent Es­ther Hatch said she had vis­ited the site and was dis­turbed by the project’s lo­ca­tion. “When I stood there I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s right un­der that free­way. The noise!’ ” Hatch said.

Gutierrez, the de­vel­oper’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive, said the new zon­ing would con­form to the nearby neigh­bor­hood, which con­sists of sin­gle-family homes. And he con­tested Hatch’s de­scrip­tion, say­ing the project would be at least 50 feet from any por­tion of the free­way.

Awad ap­pealed the com­mis­sion’s de­ci­sion. A coun­cil com­mit­tee is sched­uled to take up the project Tuesday.

Irfan Khan Los An­ge­les Times

GAR­DENA RES­I­DENT Craig Kusunoki stands near the site of the pro­posed de­vel­op­ment. Not­ing ad­verse health ef­fects, state air qual­ity of­fi­cials have long warned against build­ing homes within 500 feet of free­ways.

Irfan Khan Los An­ge­les Times

RON­ALD ROBIN­SON, right, and sev­eral of his Har­bor Gate­way neigh­bors op­pose a pro­posed hous­ing de­vel­op­ment near where the 110 and 91 free­ways meet.

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