LINCOLN HEIGHTS, Calif. – Tensions over a proposed housing development in Lincoln Heights reached a boiling point ahead of a public hearing Thursday with the Los Angeles City Planning Commission.
A group of residents has been working to halt the approval of a 468-unit apartment complex called Avenue 34, developed by a Los Angeles-based development company called the Pinyon Group.
Patty Camacho, who lives across from the property where the mixed used project is proposed, helped lead the effort to file an appeal with the city.
“The fact that even the people that are the closest to this location were not aware of it is a little disturbing,” Camacho said. “We’re talking about a community’s culture being changed by that development.”
Camacho has been working alongside her neighbor, Michael Hayden, to rally other residents to oppose the project and seek more community input. They feel the developer has left the area’s residents out of the conversation.
“I don’t feel they care about what we want. They haven’t made enough changes or effort to address concerns we’ve raised,” Hayden said.
Among the residents’ biggest concerns: the size and density of the project, environmental factors with the plot of land next door to the proposed development, and affordable housing.
At an August 13 public hearing with the City’s Planning Commission, Camacho said dozens of people waited more than seven hours to state their opposition to the project.
“We’re talking about increased rent across the community, small businesses that may now go out of business and you’re looking at a community of color that is going to have such a huge impact with something that was forced on us,” Camacho said.
Attorney Jerry Neuman of DLA Piper said he represents Avenue 34’s developer, the Pinyon Group, and stated that the team has been nothing but responsive to the community’s concerns, adding that the property had city entitlements to build a project even larger in scale than Avenue 34.
“This site has already been approved for a larger, more impactful project that doesn’t serve the community nearly as well as what we are proposing,” Neuman said.
Neuman said some Lincoln Heights residents have been spreading misinformation and using intimidation tactics to promote fear about the project.
Neuman added that the current project has fewer buildings than the original entitlement, that the developer is working with the city on options to mitigate traffic on Avenue 34 and that affordability has been a priority.
“We have committed that a majority of the units on the site will be for workforce housing, that would support people who are firefighters, nurses, teachers, first responders,” Neuman said.
The residents say they don’t believe the developer is being sincere. Fourteen percent of units were designated as affordable in the project plans but Camacho and Hayden feel that number isn’t enough.
One of the residents’ other major concerns is the site next door to the proposed development, the former Welch's uniform laundering facility site, which is located at 3505 Pasadena Avenue. The site is part of a voluntary cleanup program managed by the Department of Toxic Substances Control for potential trichloroethylene (PCE) contamination. The land has not had a development on it since 1988.
“There are four schools within this vicinity. If they were to excavate the lot, there could be toxic fumes. That is of huge concern to us,” said Camacho.
Pinyon Group addressed the environmental concerns in the following statement:
“There is no contamination on the property and the adjacent property which is the subject of the misinformation and presumed source of the contamination received a No Further Action Letter from Government Agencies demonstrating that any toxic issues have been resolved. Beyond that, the project must obtaining a clearance from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control confirming the site is safe for a residential use under their strict objective standards prior to obtaining a building permit, and it must ongoingly monitor soil throughout construction to ensure no contamination exists.”
The LA City Planning Department approved the project in June 2020. In a statement to Spectrum News 1, spokesman Steve Garcia sent the following statement about Avenue 34:
“City Planning carefully reviews housing options and development proposals, particularly during this housing crisis. Mixed-use, mixed-income developments that are accessible to transit should provide equitable access to affordable housing and sustainable economic development for the benefit of the community.”
But Camacho and Hayden are also raising questions about transparency in the development process. They said during the August 13 hearing with the Planning Commission, a caller revealed he was offered $100 to speak in favor of the project, even though he lived nowhere near it.
“I was going to be paid to be on the opposite side, to be for this project. I just couldn’t bring myself to not let that be known, um, because it would feel bad on my conscience,” said the caller, Garrett Walker, during the public hearing.
Camacho and Hayden said they were shocked.
“It just speaks to the fact that there is so much money behind this project that people are paid to speak for it when they don’t live in the community and they’re not aware of the facts,” Camacho said.
Walker spoke with Spectrum News 1 and agreed to have his name included in this report. He said he and four of his roommates heard “through a friend of a friend” about the opportunity to speak at the meeting in exchange for $100. He shared an email that included an attachment with talking points to support the project.
Walker said when he heard the residents share their concerns over the course of the meeting, he felt compelled to be honest about his situation. He connected with Hayden after the meeting.
“He even said on the call he just moved to Los Angeles, he had never been to Lincoln Heights before, he didn’t know anything about this project. He was just given an email with a list of talking points,” Hayden said.
We reached out to the Los Angeles Ethics Commission to ask if being paid to offer support on such a call was appropriate or legal but did not hear back.
Neuman told Spectrum News 1 the developer has never paid anyone to advocate for Avenue 34 and suggested Walker might have been part of an opposition group. He did acknowledge, however, that Pinyon Group let go of the consultant who offered that money to Walker and his roommates.
The developer then brought on a new consultant, Arturo Gonzalez, to take over community outreach. Camacho and Hayden said they are concerned about the hire because Gonzalez is a former staffer of embattled former Councilman Jose Huizar, who was charged by federal prosecutors in July with racketeering and leading an extensive pay-to-play bribery scheme involving developers.
Pinyon Group said the residents are trying to paint a picture of guilt “by association” and defended Gonzalez’s work as a civil servant.
“It’s all very disturbing,” Camacho said. “Those are the sort of things I hope will be investigated further. And I’m hoping the developers, the city commissioners, and the city representatives will listen to our concerns and realize that changes have to be made. The project proposed now does not make sense in this community.”