Monday, October 26, 2020
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Seeking CEQA: A Tale of Two Developments

By Angela McGregor

As I reported last week, the developers of the massive Reese-Davidson Community development proposed for the Venice median are requesting, under the recently passed AB1197, a complete exemption from a California Environmental Quality Act review, which would otherwise have required them to disclose to the public any significant environmental effects of the project, through the preparation of an Initial Study (IS), Negative Declaration (ND), or Environmental Impact Report (EIR).

 

AB1197, which was signed by the Governor in late September, would exempt Los Angeles shelters and supportive housing developments from such review until January, 2025, in the interest of speeding up the approval process for projects built with Prop HHH or H funds.

 

Back in 2016, upon hearing that Thomas Safran and Associates had been selected to develop a permanent supportive housing project at the Thatcher Yard, I joined a few of my neighbors at to form the Oxford Triangle Association.

 

We reached out to all of our neighbors (pro tip for anyone facing this type of nearby new development: do the organizing yourselves. Do not depend on developers to round up your neighbors, and recruit everybody — those in favor, those opposed and, especially, those who aren’t quite sure what’s going on.) and had our first, residents-only meeting at a nearby office in late October, prior to our first meeting with TSA.

 

We raised funds and hired a land-use attorney, and over the course of the next two and a half years held over a dozen meetings to hammer out the details of the
project. TSA assured us that every review would be conducted, including those mandated by CEQA and the California Coastal Commission. They commenced their CEQA review with a request for a mitigated negative declaration in January of 2018.

 

In April of 2018, the city passed two laws amending the City’s municipal code which would exempt projects like the one we were negotiating from density restrictions, parking requirements and EIR reviews.

 

Our attorney told the L.A. Times, “This is an important problem we need to solve. But we need to make sure that we’re thoughtful about this and that we’re not removing all of the protections that we have embodied into our law.”

 

This major giveaway of neighborhood and environmental protections was supposed to have resulted in much faster approvals and building of HHH-funded PSH in
Los Angeles. In fact, it would be January of 2020 before the first such project opened, in downtown Los Angeles.

 

The OTA filed a lawsuit against the City’s new PSH ordinance in May of 2018. But our negotiations with TSA continued, since they had assured us that they would not take advantage of the new ordinance, in any event. The process was laborious and thorough, and included a neighborhood-wide online survey that included a choice of proposals from two different architects (worth noting: TSA did not even
choose an architect for the project until negotiations with the neighborhood were well underway and their initial drawings incorporated requests made by the OTA).

 

In February of 2019, the City decided to take their anti-CEQA stance statewide, and AB1197 was proposed. We reached out to Safran and asked if they were considering taking advantage of the new measure. Their response was as follows: NO we are not using CEQA streamlining under AB1197 or other streamlining statute – we absolutely could have chosen a different path but didn’t based on promises to the community.  The city has prepared a SCEA (Sustainable Communities Environmental Assessment) which is basically an MND for transit priority projects which include a certain amount of affordable housing.

The OTA issued a letter approving the project in April, 2019, dropped their lawsuit against the city, and the VNC ultimately issued their approval of it at their May, 2019 meeting.

Ahead of the City Planning meeting in October, 2019, while the EIR was ongoing, the potential presence of  an exploratory oil well potentially containing explosive and toxic methane gas dating to the 1920’s — was discovered at Thatcher Yard by a couple of intrepid neighbors.

 

TSA pointed out that the project SCEA (which would not have existed had they decided to go ahead and skip the CEQA project entirely) included specific and thorough mitigation measures in the event that such a hazard existed,
which they planned to follow. Fortunately, their mitigation efforts revealed there was no such core hole on the site.

 

Last month, TSA secured funding for the project, and construction is expected to begin in late 2021. Ultimately, it was the pandemic — not the CEQA review — that delayed the project. The point of this jog down memory lane is as follows: CEQA is not the enemy. In fact, in the case of the Thatcher Yard development, TSA’s adherence to CEQA standards actually sped up the negotiations with
the OTA in demonstrating their trustworthiness and genuine concern for the neighborhood.

 

By contrast, VCHC and HCHC, the developers of Reese-Davidson, have demonstrated contempt for anyone who opposes the project, for any reason. Their suggestion that CEQA is a bridge too far for them to cross, especially in light of the massive scale of the project in a dual coastal zone, requiring a general plan amendment displays, to quote one LUPC member, ” a reflection of stubbornness”
Like Thomas Safran and Associates, the median project developers initially swore up and down that they would obtain every review necessary for the project, including CEQA and a California Coastal Commission hearing.

 

Unlike Safran, they’ve gone back on their word and dismissed any suggestion that their project may pose environmental risks as evidence of rampant NIMBY’ism.
Here’s hoping they reconsider and agree to go ahead with a thorough EIR instead. Venice deserves it.

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