January 18, 2006 - From the January, 2006 issue

Kaplan Laments Battle Over Downtown Parcel

As land becomes ever more scarce in the L.A. area and prices rise ever higher, conflicts over parcels become ever more heated. Issues of control, community input, and competing interests loom over even the most well thought-out projects, and resolutions can take years. In the following essay, exclusive to TPR, noted L.A. journalist and planner Sam Hall Kaplan tells the tale of MerueloMaddux's efforts to develop one such parcel near downtown L.A.

Sam Hall Kaplan

There is a planning adage that postulates cities are shaped parcel by parcel, project by project, the sum determining whether a city becomes memorable, mediocre, or marginal. The following is a prejudiced report concerning one parcel the fate of which is still to be resolved:

The 23 acres known as Parcel F edging the L.A. River off of San Fernando Road in Glassell Park had been widely advertised for sale as "industrial land" when it first caught the eye of developer Richard Meruelo in early 2004.

What Meruelo envisioned then and later in February 2005 when he eventually purchased the vacant parcel was a vibrant, high density mixed use and mixed income, new town, in-town, development, with a projected $1 billion build out offering a paradigm for a revitalized L.A. River.

The immodest vision consistent with Meruelo's pursuit of low-end properties with high potential in and around the central city was very much in the spirit of what I had been advocating in my commentaries promoting the unappreciated and under developed river in the L.A. Downtown News and on select websites.

So when he and partner John Maddux challenged me to put on my old battered hat as an urban designer and direct a planning and architectural team to shape the site that had been part of the Taylor railroad maintenance yards into a distinctive riverside community, I, of course, said yes.

How could anyone not, if you are like me and see the L.A. River as an engaging spine of natural habitats, active parks and mixed use housing developments, offering a viable inner city alternative to the continued noxious suburban sprawl consuming and compromising the region?

I also agreed with the MerueloMaddux firm's refreshing stated commitment to "socially responsible" development, with a particularly sharp eye for fringe properties and an evolving Latin population. This policy aggressively pursued for over 30 years has made the firm one of the largest land holders in downtown, and not incidentally contradicts a prejudiced portrait of its principals painted by a sometimes catty real estate industry, parroted by an indolent media.

For the record, the parcel also had been identified by the LAUSD as one of several possible sites for the proposed Central Region High School #13. But when Meruelo entered the picture reportedly the district staff had recommended against the site, the board was wavering and not pursuing the purchase. And the owner was anxious to sell.

Additionally, it was obvious to those familiar with the area that the adjoining Fed Ex site immediately to the south was a far better location for the school, being directly adjacent to the newly designated 40-acre Taylor Yards Park and its potential for joint use, as well as ease of access.

Indeed, during the subsequent planning effort involving the firms of RTKL, the Quatro Design Group, and Deborah Murphy Urban Design + Planning, it was recommended that the 10-acre Fed Ex property be included in the site, and the proposed 2,295-seat school sited there to take advantage of the park. "It was, and is, so obvious that is where the school should go," states the principal planner, Nate Cherry of RTKL.

Also included in the parcel were the unsightly strips of commercial and industrial uses on San Fernando Road that are not part of the school site. All were cobbled together for the MerueloMaddux project, tentatively called Riveredge, to emphasize its relationship to the river.

Various options were developed, calling the school as centerpiece, along with a mix of housing types in a variety of architectural styles totaling from 950 to 1,290 units, including up to 20 percent affordable. There also was a range of neighborhood and river-related stores, shops and eateries, and local serving offices, totaling up to 80,000 square feet, gracing a network of pedestrian friendly streets and spaces to form a flavorful village.

Woven throughout the various developments options are lushly landscaped pathways, so-called "green fingers," that link Glassell Park to the anticipated inviting L.A. River, at present the subject of a major $3 million study. Also proposed is assorted traffic calming devices, encouraging pedestrian, bike and bus use.


Subsequent reviews with concerned local representatives prompted the addition of an aquatics center featuring a 25-meter pool, and a family health care clinic.

Actually, the planning effort was relatively easy. Harder has been the promotion of the plan, due to the pernicious politics and petty parochialism that tends to plague such undertakings in a fractious Los Angeles.

Shading the discussions in the community and City Hall has been the unfortunate residue of last year's mayoral race, created in large part by an article in the L.A Times that correctly identified Meruelo as Villaraigosa's major supporter and friend, and incorrectly had him coming "in out of the dark" and swooping down to snap up the parcel for a quick profit.

The article hand fed by former Mayor James Hahn's political advisors to undiscerning Times reporters in search of an exclusive scoop came in the waning days of the campaign when the incumbent was desperately trying to surreptitiously paint Villaraigosa as both a pawn of developers and the fictitious but nonetheless feared Latino mafia.

The implication in the article made it clear that Meruelo's contributions were prompted by the anticipation of flipping the property and currying favors in other future ventures Villaraigosa as mayor could influence. No mention was made of the intense planning effort already launched.

The article unfortunately also appeared when the Meruelo firm was being sued by the Southern California Institute of Architecture over its pending purchase of an adjacent parcel for which school had failed to exercise an option.

That the suit had no merit and was concluded with the school being chided by the court for its case and spending an estimated $1,000,000 in legal fees did not mitigate the articles and editorials in the Times portraying Meruelo as a nefarious developer.

The effect of this negative publicity haunts Riveredge. While local representatives and their staffs have praised the joint use design, they are reluctant to publicly promote it as an alternative to the school out of fear of being identified with the developer. However, they are not reluctant to add on some elements, such the aquatics center and a family clinic, and suggest more affordable units.

L.A. River advocates also have praised the planned, in particular the access from the community to the anticipated revitalized watercourse. However, they, too, do not want to delay the school or alienate the community.

The community seems divided. Some want the school as presently planned. Some want a smaller school; some see the benefits of 1200 mostly upscale housing units, and the riverside village ambience, while some are just concerned the development will aggravate traffic and make a left turn from Division Street to San Fernando Rd. more difficult.

As for the LAUSD, its preliminary plans by the architecture firm of HCM indicate a sprawling school, encompassing all of Parcel F. It recognizes the possibility of more recreation uses if sited on the FedEx site to take advantage of the adjacent park. However, it is militantly intransigent concerning anything that might delay the project from its promised opening in 2010, no matter how it might better serve the community, and the city.

The hope among the planners and the MerueloMaddux firm is that the potential of a joint school, housing and park development on Parcel F in combination with the FedEx site will prevail, and that the project become a paradigm for a more urbane Los Angeles, a triumph, if you will, of hope over experience. We shall see in the next few months.


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