The following post is an editorial and contains the personal opinions of its authors.
One of the characteristics which makes Downtown Los Angeles unique in the context of Greater L.A. is how receptive the community is to new development. The self-selected Downtown population has long been sold on the benefits of an urban lifestyle, and is generally welcoming to the revitalization and amenities brought by new construction.
While other neighborhoods have played host to anti-density battles over high-rise development or even calls to limit growth altogether, most Downtown projects have proceeded swiftly and controversy-free.
However, a recently proposed development in the Historic Core has proven to be the exception to this rule, drawing the ire of residents in a neighboring building.
Developer Trammel Crow Residential (TCR) plans to build a 26-story high-rise known as The Alexan on what is now a parking lot at 9th and Hill streets. The modern mixed-use building would contain 305 rental units, 6,999 square feet of retail space and a 333-car parking garage.
This is not the first Downtown high-rise built near historic structures. The Onni Group recently completed work on LEVEL Furnished Living, a 32-story residential tower one block west of the Alexan's development site. The Vancouver-based real estate firm also plans to break ground in the near future on a 50-story tower which will rise directly across Hill Street.
However, neither of those developments have inspired the type of organized opposition seen by the Alexan.
The difference boils down to location. TCR's tower would rise immediately west of the Eastern Columbia Building, the former headquarters of the Eastern and Columbia Outfitting Companies which was converted to condominiums in 2006. Several homeowners in the 1930s Art Deco building have expressed concern that the Alexan will block views of the building's iconic clock.
“Not only does the proposed development significantly impact the views from my unit but the proposed development detracts from the Art Deco aesthetic of the Eastern Columbia”, commented one resident of the Eastern Columbia Building in a change.org petition opposing the Alexan.
Another Eastern Columbia resident, commenting on the DTLA Rising article which announced the tower, stated that "this places a giant wall in front of the iconic national landmark Eastern Columbia building. The beautiful clock tower will be obscured from all of LA west of our skyline. Don't block the clock!"
Reading through the complaints from Eastern Columbia residents in the aforementioned comment thread, one can see the genesis of the Society for the Preservation of Downtown Los Angeles (SP-DTLA), a non-profit group which filed its organization papers less than a week following the Alexan announcement. “Don’t block the clock” has since become their rallying cry.
According to the group’s website, SP-DTLA advocates for the creation of a “zone of respect” around historic buildings and monuments in Downtown Los Angeles. Its website includes links to an online petition calling for a new environmental impact report for the Alexan, as well as instructions to call the Los Angeles Department of City Planning and the office of Councilman Jose Huizar (CD14) to officially log opposition to the project.
SP-DTLA’s timing, as well as their focus on a single project thus far, raises eyebrows with respect to their motivations. If their concern is the protection of the clock's viewshed, why organize following the Alexan announcement instead of several years earlier when the Onni Group's actually-clock-blocking tower was proposed and built? Why focus on the immediate vicinity surroundings of the Eastern Columbia Building, instead of on the entirey of Downtown with its myriad historic buildings? Why have they not expressed concern with developer Izek Shomof's planned 34-story tower at 4th Street and Broadway, which would sit directly across the street from a building on the LA Conservancy's register of historic places?
Is this just a group of homeowners worried about losing their views? Or is the group making a valid point about preserving historic viewsheds? Is TCR making an honest effort to be a good neighbor? We decided to speak directly to Trammel Crow Residential to learn about their process.
“We’re not asking for any variances here." explained John Readey, the TCR development associate in charge of the Los Angeles office. “The four variances developers in downtown Los Angeles typically ask for are to build less open space, to plant fewer trees, and to build less car and bike parking than what is required. We’re not asking for any of that. We’re planting seventy-six trees to meet the requirement. We’re adding a bicycle storage facility with over 300 spaces, are putting it directly behind one of the retail spaces which we’ve specifically reserved for a bicycle operator. We’ve turned the requirement into a feature for the community.”
Readey went on to describe TCR’s efforts to structure the massing of the Alexan in a way that respects the Eastern Columbia Building. “The downtown design guidelines require that the portion of towers above 150 feet to be set back at least 40 feet from the property line of any current or potential future towers. ” Readey explained. “The Eastern Columbia is not technically a tower, so we weren't required to do this. But, in keeping with the spirit of the guidelines we set back the Alexan's tower 81 feet from the Eastern Columbia — almost the width of Hill Street and double the requirements. The distance between the tower and the Eastern Columbia's clock is actually 176 feet."
So what of SP-DTLA’s claim that the Alexan will block views of the Eastern Columbia’s clock? Does it actually hold water? Upon closer inspection, this may not actually be the case.
Visiting the site in person, it is clear that the Alexan could block views of the clock from a limited area near the southwest corner of 9th and Hill Streets. Further west on 9th street, the Onni Group’s 32-story LEVEL tower already blocks views of the clock. Ironically, heading east of Hill on Ninth Street the Eastern Columbia building itself blocks the view of the clock tower, which is set back against Broadway.
Furthermore, what would halting a development for the sake of view preservation mean for the longterm trajectory of Downtown Los Angeles?
In recent years, Downtown has become one of the one of the few Southern California neighborhoods which offers an authentically urban experience. It is quite possibly the only place in Los Angeles where desperately needed housing stock can be developed without major impediments. Its long-awaited revival has captured the attention of national and international media outlets, including the New York Times and the Guardian.
If we cave to SP-DTLA and its blatantly self-serving agenda, what precedent does that set for future battles?
Should a small group of vociferous opponents be allowed to hamstring the progress which civic leaders and community members have worked for decades to achieve? Especially when their entire argument is based on a particularly dubious claim of blocking views of a clock?
In New York City's skyscraper-building heyday, developers would frequently buy the air rights of surrounding parcels so as to permanently preserve views from their buildings. With that in mind, if the Eastern Columbia Homeowners Association so desperately wished the save the western vista from their condominiums and from their rooftop pool, why did they not purchase the adjacent land?
Instead, we are being treated to a disingenous "preservation," battle where the only thing truly at stake is a surface parking lot.
You can register your support for the Alexan at www.alexandtla.com, or by attending Trammel Crow Residential's project presentation at the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council (DLANC) Planning and Land Use Committee meeting on Tuesday November 17th @ 6:30pm, 505 S. Flower St. Suite B530. Full meeting details here.