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Published on December 27th, 2012 | by RLn Staff

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Proposed Density Increase in San Pedro Neighborhood Gets Panned

By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

With one notable exception—the upzoning of subarea 260 around 25th and Western—the San Pedro community appears to be quite pleased with the overall thrust of the San Pedro Community Plan, which was presented for public comment, Dec. 12, at a meeting at the Boys and Girls Club.

Even Northwest Neighborhood Council President Diana Nave, which has generated the broadest, most systemic criticisms, primarily involving assumptions of growth estimates, said, “it’s got a great vision.”  And for good reason. The community plan includes a brief, specifically articulated vision that helps guide the plan as a whole, and a variety of points specifying the ways in which the plan “provides a high quality of life for its residents, while retaining the community’s small town feel for multiple generations of San Pedrans.”

Points articulated deal with everything from cultural heritage and open space to “clean industrial development.” It also has a diverse range of housing options, “a distinctive downtown,” “a synergistic connection to the waterfront…,” and “an identity as a destination place [for] home residents and visitors alike.”

What’s more, the planning department has been working with community members since 2006 on developing the plan. So there’s a great deal of specific detail fleshing out that vision.

However, the meeting was dominated by a single issue—the proposed upzoning of “subarea 260,” the commercial district centered at 25th Street and Western Avenue. The upzoning will allow significantly denser and higher development. This feature of the plan drew the vast majority of critical comments at the meeting.

At the heavy-duty political end, Rep. Janice Hahn – a resident of the local South Shores neighborhood – weighed in with a statement read into the record by an aid, Mike Aguilera. This was buttressed on the policy level by South Shores Homeowners Association, Jerry Gaines, who summarized a Nov. 30 letter detailing the homeowner’s groups 5-point objection to the plan.

“The proposed zoning change is unnecessary, unjustified, and will have a negative impact on the surrounding communities,” Hahn’s statement read, in part. “New buildings up to 75 feet or six stories intruding on the existing single-story building, single-family homes would result in serious disruption… This proposed change would neither benefit the neighborhood nor will it serve the goals of the development plan. I oppose the proposed zoning change because it does not keep with the character of the neighborhood.”

The South Shores Homeowners’ objections summarized by Gaines included lack of compatibility with the coastal plan, which calls for preservation of ocean views, the impact of increased traffic flows, the lack of local commercial demand (there’s no significant land for future residential development), and potential negative impacts on existing businesses. Gaines also briefly shared some of his relevant background. Not least, he’s a former member of the Harbor Area Planning Commission, which will review the Community Plan in March, before it goes to Los Angeles City Council. But the multiple points he made had a simple conclusion:

“We just don’t see a logic in planning to increase density,” Gaines said.

Similarly to Nave, Gaines praised the plan as a whole.

“There’s a lot of nice work, you’ve done very well, with a lot of good thinking,” He said, but followed with the reminder. “This is penninsula area that the San Pedro plan is contained in. We come to it, not through it.”

But the majority of the testimony came from residents – some of whom had circulated petitions, talking to dozens, even hundreds of their neighbors – whose perspective was personal, passionate, and down to earth.

Mark Smith was the first such resident to testify, and tone-setter for the evening. He lives adjacent to the existing commercial area and said he has experienced “many security and privacy problems,” which he expects to dramatically worsen under the proposed plan.

“I’m really strongly opposed to rezoning property in any way,” Smith said. “A 75-foot height limit on that property is extremely inappropriate. It would make the value of my property and the quality of my life significantly decreased.”

Shortly after Smith, Jack Marcenkowski spoke. He began by saying he supported the broad purposes of the plan, but, “The idea to change the zoning of subarea 260 is misguided, and it definitely will not improve our community. It will destroy it. It will destroy its character and it will lower the property value.”

“I can’t believe that this is even thought about,” Hugh Von Kleist chimed in. In terms of density alone, “I can’t turn left” in the morning because of the traffic. “We need to lower the density, if anything.”

Von Kleist was one of several present who gathered petitions opposing the zoning change.

“I found out about this less than a week ago … and I spent the last couple of days walking up and down South Shores, getting over 200 petitions signed,” he said. “And, I’m telling you, nobody knew about this … I think the timing of this is perfect. Because if people really did know about this, this gymnasium wouldn’t hold these people.”

After the meeting, several South Shore residents shared their suspicions with Random Lengths that a specific developer with an already-planned project for the 25th Street and Western Avenue subarea was behind the proposed rezoning. The perception is understandable, given the long history of similar secret backroom dealing at the Harbor Department, which is a semi-autonomous city agency.

But the Planning Department is wired quite differently and, though not immune to developer pressure, a much more straightforward explanation is available: In principle, upzoning subarea 260 can actually be seen as consistent with the plan’s vision, as reflected in the ideas of promoting “well-designed and economically vibrant commercial corridors” and “new development located near transit and integrated with local businesses.”

City planner Debbie Lawrence, who has lead the process, confirmed that explanation in a followup interview.

“When we started our outreach in 2006, we met with various focus groups in the area, and the neighborhood councils,” Lawrence explained.  “What we heard from everybody was to leave alone the single-family and the multi-family and all the residential neighborhoods and just put the growth in other places. So what we did is, in accordance with our framework plan, we directed growth into the commercial centers, where there’s already existing services and development.

“We tried to come up with capacity along the commercial corridors and our commercial areas. That particular area at 25th and Western, was a neighborhood commercial area and we thought we could increase capacity there.”

The planners did hear opposition at the neighborhood council level earlier this year, but that was during the summer.

“At that point the EIR [environmental impact report] had already been completed,” Lawrence explained.

Principal City Planner Ken Bernstein, who heads the unit Lawrence works in, stepped in to explain that this sort of planning glitch is not unusual—indeed, it’s part of the reason the process is structured as it is.

“It’s important to point out that the draft plan, and what was presented to the community at the hearing this week,  represent preliminary recommendations only,” Bernstein said. “Indeed, the public response and public input is the very purpose of holding a public hearing and open house in the community at this stage in the process.”

As for the dog that didn’t bark—the lack of any serious objections to the intensive work done on downtown San Pedro, Bernstein said, “The entire team that has worked on this plan has done considerable outreach over more than a 5-year period. And the plan is very clear that part of the vision of this new community plan is to reinforce the downtown area and enhance the connections between downtown and the waterfront, and we did not hear any significant objections to those goals and policies.”

Finally, Lawrence explained that the 2010 census information was included in the updated draft EIR, but was not used to recalculate the planning baseline.  “We’ve received comments on this and we will be taking a look at all these comments, and responding in the final EIR, and addressing this in the staff report on the plan,” Bernstein added. “These are points we are considering.”

As for what comes next, the staff will complete its report in February, with a hearing before the Harbor Area Planning Commission in early March, followed by a city council hearing before the Planning and Land Use Management  Committee, before going to the full city council. That hearing would probably not be held in the Harbor Area, as several commentators had proposed, the planners explained, because more than one project would be heard in a single session.

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