Could a new rezoning plan hit the gas on the gentrification of Skid Row?
In short, it’s more like a very slow release of the brakes.
Last month, when the Los Angeles Department of City Planning dropped DTLA2040 — a plan for the comprehensive rezoning across Downtown L.A. — activists jeered while developers simply shrugged. For homeless advocates, it goes too far. For developers, it doesn’t go far enough.
The central goal of the plan is to zone for enough housing for the 100,000 or so people the city expects to move to Downtown L.A. over the next two decades, which would more than double the area’s population from the 76,000 people living there today.
As a 50-block area within the downtown, Skid Row is the only part of Downtown that hasn’t seen significant market-rate development in the current cycle. The plan would allow market-rate development on the perimeter of the neighborhood, which has traditionally been a center for affordable housing and social service organizations in addition to functioning as a magnet for homeless people from around Southern California. Local social service organizations worry that the rezoning will harm Skid Row’s already vulnerable population.
L.A.’s homelessness crisis is worsening by the day. The number of people the county considers homeless within L.A. city limits jumped 12 percent during the 12 months ending in January to 36,300. Around 7,900 of those people live in City Council District 14, which covers Downtown L.A. and Skid Row. The majority of those people are unsheltered.
In 2017, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights said Skid Row in some ways fell below minimum standards for U.N. refugee camps. Cases of typhus prompted city officials to designate Skid Row a “typhus zone” last fall.
Meanwhile, just across the street, on the western side of North Main Street, DTLA is on an upward economic trajectory — thanks in no small part to the billions of dollars developers have poured into L.A.’s urban core. Skid Row is looking more and more attractive to investors.
DTLA2040 or not, Skid Row is where the economics of L.A.’s renewed prosperity and destitution literally meet. As the economic forces driving development downtown strengthen, a clash seems inevitable. The question to ask is not whether Skid Row will change, but how it will change and what that change will look like.
What’s in DTLA2040 for Skid Row?
The city has stated that it wants to allow for a mix of uses across the area with the hopes that each micro-neighborhood will have a healthy mix of housing, commercial space, green space, and other uses.
The plan in Skid Row more or less boils down to this: zone only for more affordable housing in the very core of the neighborhood, where service agencies and affordable housing is already located, and allow market-rate development along the edges of Skid Row.
Only units affordable to people making under $58,000 would be allowed in the central parts of Skid Row. (The neighborhood is roughly defined by the boundaries of East 7th Street, South Alameda Street, East 3rd Street and South Main Street).
Lee Raagas, Executive Director of the the service provider and affordable housing developer Skid Row Housing Trust, cautioned that it was too early in the process to weigh in with a position on the plan, but said her organization and others have concerns over the effects market-rate development could have in Skid Row.
“The concern lies with market-rate development driving up land and construction costs so that affordable and permanent supportive housing is impacted by rising costs and pricing,” Raagas told The Real Deal.
The draft plan requires that all developers building on the edge of Skid Row pay into city programs to fund affordable housing and other initiatives to benefit unsheltered Angelenos. They could receive density bonuses — allowing building up to 24 stories in some parts Skid Row — if they include affordable units in those developments.
The Department of City Planning would not say if they had estimates of the number of affordable units the rezoning could allow and said they considered doing so to be problematic.
Helping the homeless
Officials told The Real Deal that planners did not design the rezoning and density bonus system based on the number of unsheltered people living in the area, adding that the department was one of numerous departments across the city government collectively tackling the affordability and homelessness crisis.
That is in line with the city’s long-term goal to spread affordable housing and social services across the city, a reversal of the now-maligned Skid Row “containment policy” officially adopted in 1976 and in place . Critics of the policy consider it to be the foundation of the health, safety, and economic issues that plague Skid Row today.
But the impacts of the containment policy can’t be reversed overnight. Years of the policy means a strong sense of community and belonging for many people living there exists, said Raagas.
“The spirit of the containment policy is people will stay where they want to stay, whether unsafe or not, they interpret it as familiar,” Raagas said. “How do you facilitate familiarity without centralizing? It’s a challenge.”
Raagas added that some unsheltered clients that have spent years in Skid Row will refuse housing in other parts of the city, preferring to stay where they’ve built a community.
Community isn’t all that keeps people in Skid Row. Betsy Starman, who’s volunteered or worked for numerous homeless outreach groups in Skid Row and herself spent years living on the street, is critical of city policies she says enables a cycle of poverty and prevents any sort of significant change on the ground.
Starman said the city’s recent legal settlement with homeless advocates to not clear out the belongings of unsheltered people allows for the proliferation of “tent cities.” She is also critical of the state’s decision to downgrade certain low-violence crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, which she claims artificially lowers crime rates in the neighborhood, which officials have pointed to as a sign of progress.
She’s highly skeptical that a rezoning would result in any change in conditions in Skid Row if the city doesn’t also change other policies in Skid Row.
“There is no zoning that would not make me pitch a tent wherever I want,” Starman said.
So what will development actually look like in Skid Row?
DTLA2040 likely wouldn’t spur market-rate developers to suddenly scoop up and redevelop properties any more than a few blocks into the loose “borders” of Skid Row. What it can do is accelerate what’s already being going on for years: the slow, creeping change along the edges of the neighborhood. Block-by-block, buildings are renovated, more affluent people move in, retail shops open, and Skid Row shrinks.
Spring Street, just a 10 minute walk from the heart of Skid Row, was one of the first streets to become gentrified. Two decades ago, many of the historic buildings on the street were neglected and vacant. Many have been renovated and turned into residential lofts. Their retail spaces are home to hip brands, restaurants, and bars.
Brigham Yen, a commercial and residential agent and founder of the popular urbanist DTLA Rising blog, said that developers are likely to scoop up and redevelop properties where there’s already other development happening. Market-rate projects on a block that hasn’t yet begun gentrifying run the risk of filling up slower than a developer needs.
“Because how many investors are willing to risk that?” he said. “It doesn’t sense if they can’t make a profit, so I’m not 100 percent sure how that would take place.”
Today, zoning in L.A. is somewhat arbitrary. The zoning code is archaic and nearly all development projects viable by 21st century economic standards require some sort of discretionary approval, which is often granted by the city.
In other words, Skid Row doesn’t need a rezoning to be developed. Residential-friendly rezoning of industrial and commercial properties along the edges of Skid Row will promote development, but the city would likely support residential rezoning in those areas if requested by a developer today or yesterday.
A 2017 L.A. Times analysis found that since 2000 the city planning commissioners approved 90 percent of developer requests for general plan amendments, zoning, or height district changes.
Creating new zoning would allow for more as-of-right development and potentially move planning away from the ad hoc discretionary approach that is ubiquitous in L.A. and that critics say is ripe for abuse.
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a constant thorn in the side of L.A.’s developers, say spot zoning allows city officials to ignore land use regulations and has turned L.A. into a place where developers “could construct anything they wanted, whenever they wanted.”
Ad hoc zoning could be disastrous for Skid Row, considering the extreme disparity between the economic forces at play. That’s why activists have pushed so hard to influence the plan. Earlier in July, a group of advocates called on the city to make all housing in Skid Row and one of every four new units built across downtown income-restricted, according to the L.A. Times. They said that would create enough housing for every person living unsheltered in Downtown L.A.
The Skid Row Housing Trust is among a larger group of stakeholders the city is engaging with on the issue.
“We’re at a lot of the tables, and we understand the perspective of each angle,” Raagas said. “The upside to perimeter pressure is forcing comprehensive talks.”
In any case, Skid Row is bound for change. The DTLA2040 plan can both spur market rate development and protect affordable units already in Skid Row. The city will hold a series of open houses and public hearings to seek more input on the plan, which will then go to the City Planning Commission and City Council for approval sometime next year.