The 553-acre Los Lomas project in North Los Angeles County "is dead, as far as we're concerned." That's the assessment of Mitch Englander, chief of staff for councilman Grieg Smith, whose opposition to this mixed-use development was the impetus behind the Los Angeles City Council's 10 to 5 vote last week to halt its review of this project, which has been in the works since 2002. Its developer, Santa Monica, Calif.-based Palmer Investments, had already spent $20 million, which includes fees for teams of lobbyists and an aggressive campaign to get council members on board.
The council members who opposed Los Lomas-which billed itself as "the Northern Gateway to Los Angeles"-claim that it would have placed too heavy a burden on Los Angeles' highways and water supply. But this project has never been on solid footing. The city of Santa Clarita, which two-thirds of the project's land borders, has long opposed it and is currently involved in litigation with Palmer Investments over its "sphere of influence" about the annexation of this land by Los Angeles County, which also ended up rejecting the plan. Getting approval from the city of Los Angeles to proceed may have been Los Lomas' last recourse, although its developer says it's not giving up yet.
"We're disappointed, but we're weighing all of our options," Hillary Norton Orozco, Palmer's executive vice president of community, told BUILDER during a telephone interview yesterday. "Our concern is that this city still needs housing, transportation, and jobs, and Los Lomas would have provided a jobs and housing campus for L.A."
Some estimates project that Los Angeles County's population could expand by as much as 5 million people over the next 20 years. They have to live somewhere, and there are several huge projects with residential components being proposed in this market, including a $4 billion Universal City development, which would include 2,900 homes, that could receive its first public hearing this year. Englander says the city council isn't against development, per se. But he notes that Los Lomas did not meet its demands for affordable housing or sustainability. The Los Angeles Times quoted Smith as stating that the community, if completed, would add 15,000 cars per day to the area's already congested thoroughfares. "Smart growth isn't just a pretty ribbon on top of a box," says Englander, adding that the developer was also trying to get Los Lomas approved as a Melo-Roos district, so it could tap public financing through the sale of bonds.
Orozco counters by saying that Palmer Investments had already made "significant" changes to its plan over the past several years and was willing to negotiate further adjustments to assuage the city's concerns. For example, the plan originally called for 5,800 homes with no affordable options; that has since been lowered to 5,553 attached units, 15 percent of which would be priced as workforce housing. (She said the size and pricing of the units had not been established, and that the final number of housing units was negotiable.) More than 300 acres within this development would be open space, and 85 percent of that would be a permanent nature preserve. She says the developer offered to submit the entire development for LEED certification. As for the traffic problem, Orozco says the developer offered to pay for a shuttle system, run on compressed natural gas, that would ferry commuters to and from Los Lomas and to nearby metro stations.
The $2 billion community calls for 2.3 million square feet of commercial space, which Orozco says would create "thousands" of jobs. (The buildout alone could create 13,000 construction jobs, she notes.) And Orozco says Palmer offered to pay for the installation of all infrastructure (including a water-treatment plant and schools). "All we asked was to be allowed to go through the entire [approval] process."
Palmer Investments owns about 50 percent of this land outright, and Englander says it has approval to build only 247 homes there. To accommodate the area's population growth, Englander says that Smith, at least, favors the establishment of special zones within the county where builders are given incentives to build houses "that people can afford."
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