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San Pedro Infill Project Presents Conundrum

Regional planning strategies are not necessarily compatible with local desires, especially when satisfying regional needs means putting a bunch more cars on already overburdened streets.

This is a common story in California's urban regions, and it is playing out right now in San Pedro, where developer Bob Bisno has proposed a 1,950-unit housing development on 61.5 acres along South Western Avenue formerly owned by the Navy. A 13-member community advisory committee to Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn rejected the project primarily because of traffic impacts.

"At this point, I am in agreement with my advisory committee," Hahn said. "Traffic is just too much of a problem on Western Avenue and the project built on this site should not be any denser than its current R-1 zoning."

But keeping the residential single-family zoning, which would permit in the range of 525 to 725 houses, is unrealistic and a wasted opportunity, according to the developer. Plus, a traffic analysis says that a single-family development would put just as many cars on Western Avenue at peak hours as the proposed multi-family project, known as Ponte Vista, of which 44% would be restricted to senior citizens.

"I don't think anyone seriously believes this should be developed with 5,000-square-foot, single-family lots. Nobody is developing that in the region," said Alan Abshez, Ponte Vista's land use attorney.

The site is located about 2 1/2 miles north of downtown San Pedro, and less than two miles from the Port of Los Angeles. The City of Rancho Palos Verdes lies across Western Avenue. For nearly four decades, the site provided housing for Navy personnel stationed at Long Beach Naval Shipyard. The shipyard and the housing closed in 1999 and, ultimately, the Navy auctioned the property. Bisno Development Co. acquired 42 acres for $88 million and later bought the remaining 19.5 acres from Volunteers of America, a homeless advocacy group, for $34 million. The property has been zoned for low-density residential development since the City of Los Angeles annexed it in 1980.

Bisno originally proposed 2,300 townhouses and condominiums in four- to six-story buildings, with one-quarter of the units located in a gated community for senior citizens. Also proposed were about 10,000 square feet of retail uses, a community clubhouse and 11 acres of parks.

"The concept is to provide a resort-like community in which people of different income levels can enjoy the amenities," Abshez explained. "We wanted to have a project that would service several market segments seniors, entry-level buyers, move-up buyers."

"It's an incredible infill opportunity site in every sense of the term," Abshez continued. "It's located next to the region's largest employment source the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach."

No one disputes that the demand is enormous because housing development has not kept pace with the explosion in employment in and around the country's busiest port complex. "Virtually no new housing has been built in that area of the City of Los Angeles in the last 20 to 30 years," Abshez said.

The response during nearly a year's worth of Hahn's community advisory council (CAC) meetings was mixed, but concerns about density and traffic were too hard to ignore. In June, Bisno downsized the project to 1,950 units in buildings of no more than four stories. There would be 850 senior condos in a gated community, 1,000 townhouse-style condos and 100 upper-end, attached, three-story townhouses. The developer also agreed provide 20% of the units (370 units) at or below the "workforce" pricing level, which Abshez estimated at about $460,000.

The developer would pay extensive fees to improve traffic on Western Avenue, with the bulk of the money going for expansion of and improvements to a signal automation system that adjusts based on traffic conditions.

But the CAC questioned the traffic figures from the city and Bisno's consultant, as well as the practicality of a signal automation project that requires better coordination among Los Angeles, Rancho Palos Verdes and Caltrans simply to meet current demands. The CAC expressed extreme frustration with the city, which members said failed to provide needed information "and left the CAC rudderless in a process that very much needed good direction."

By a vote of 10-1, the CAC rejected the revised project, and by a vote of 8-4, the committee recommended keeping existing single-family zoning. Committee members said they appreciated the need for new housing and supported infill policies, but insisted that multi-family projects such as Ponte Vista belong near public transit centers, not along a gridlocked arterial that has only routine bus service. They cited recently adopted city Planning Department guidelines that urge "additional density at train and rapid bus stops, and discourage new density where we anticipate no mass transit relief."

However, a five-member CAC minority urged Bisno, Hahn and city planners to negotiate on a new mixed-use, multi-family project.

"In short, by failing to suggest a reasonable compromise, we are missing an opportunity to improve traffic on Western Avenue and to provide needed housing for people to come to or remain in San Pedro," the minority group wrote. "Opportunities such as this are unlikely to present themselves again."

Indeed, 61.5-acre infill sites that have virtually no environmental hazards are extremely rare in metropolitan Los Angeles, which explains why a developer was willing to pay nearly $1.5 million an acre for unentitled dirt. The San Pedro Peninsula Chamber of Commerce is among the organizations that has endorsed the project because of its positive impact on local goods and services providers, and because of its mix of housing types. And the project won an endorsement from the Southern California Association of Governments, whose regional planning urges infill.

Hahn, however, appears ready to accept the CAC's recommendations. "There is no doubt that Los Angeles is facing a housing shortage, which is why I have been so supportive of new housing in downtown San Pedro, where we have the public transportation and roads to support it. But increased density at the Ponte Vista site is clearly just the wrong fit for San Pedro," she said.

Public hearings on Bisno's request for a general plan amendment, zoning change, specific plan, development agreement and tract map are scheduled to begin about the first of the year. One complicating factor is the Los Angeles Unified School District's proposal, still under consideration, to take about eight acres of the site for a small high school.

Contacts:
Alan Abshez, Ponte Vista, (310) 203-7573.
Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn, (213) 473-7015.
Ponte Vista website: www.pontevista.com
Citizens Advisory Council report: www.nwsanpedro.org/pdfs/pontevistaCACreport%20final.pdf