By Gina Thornburg
Developers got an awesome gift on Christmas Day 2013 when the Warner Center 2035 Specific Plan went into effect. Five years on, though, this developers’ bonanza is a bust for middle- to low-income workers and residents in the southwest San Fernando Valley.
In the midst of LA’s twinned crises of homelessness and a lack of affordable housing, the Warner Center 2035 Specific Plan aims to graft a dense, skyrise-filled, luxury enclave onto Woodland Hills, a suburb distinguished by excessive heat and a congested stretch of US-101, as well as residents who love to shop at Costco.
Passed as an ordinance by the LA City Council, the Warner Center 2035 Specific Plan guides land use and redevelopment of the 1.5-square-mile Warner Center neighborhood of Woodland Hills. The plan jettisons density restrictions and height limits, encouraging high-rise construction and shared parking, while granting streamlined entitlements and processing of applicants’ projects.
The resulting building boom shows no signs of slowing, attracting developers and investors from throughout the state and from places as far away as Texas, Florida, China, and France.
With 10 large projects underway and many more approved or proposed, the specific plan began a five-year review by the LA Department of City Planning (LADCP) in December. The time for concerned area residents to urge changes to the plan is now. The LADCP is accepting written comments, and a meeting before the City Planning Commission will take place later in February or March, according to statements made by city planning officials at the only open-house-style public meeting on the plan’s five-year review, hosted by LADCP on January 30 in Van Nuys. The department is required to submit a status report to the city within 90 days of the plan’s five-year anniversary.
Ahistorical and Anti-poor
The specific plan created eight subdistricts in Warner Center that are unrelated to how longtime locals think of the place: Topanga, River, Uptown, North Village, College, Commerce, Park, and Downtown. The plan allows 19,000 new residential units to be built in addition to Warner Center’s 2008 baseline of 6,200, an extreme density for a community with such hot summers, inadequate public transit, and little open space.
Twenty-eight significant projects have been filed so far under the specific plan, 15 of which have been approved. All but three of the 28 projects have a residential component, with no affordable units proposed. The 13 projects filed with the city but not yet approved offer 6,089 market-rate or luxury residential units, almost all of them rentals. Eighteen of the 28 projects mix residential units with office, commercial, retail, and/or entertainment uses. (For more details about the significant projects filed under the specific plan, see “Selected Warner Center Projects” below.)
And although the specific plan intended to create a district where people would live so close to work they could ride a bike or walk there, the rollout of the plan is lopsided: No new major employer has yet committed to relocating to the district. Whether current Warner Center office workers who commute in decide to move there remains to be seen.
Of the 1,998 market-rate units under construction in Warner Center, 379 are nearly complete at Fairfield Residential’s Vela on OX in the College subdistrict. A studio apartment in this luxury development starts at $2,130 a month. Using the federal definition of housing affordability, i.e., rent costs no more than 30% of a household’s annual gross income, a household must earn $85,200 a year to afford that tony studio, hardly a reasonable expectation for the 22,000 students attending LA Pierce College less than one mile away.
Recognizing the need for affordable housing in Warner Center, LA City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield (CD 3) passed a motion in May to study the feasibility of including an affordable-housing requirement in the specific plan moving forward. The process to craft this policy is ongoing.
In response to the councilmember’s motion, the Woodland Hills Impacts and Policies (WHIP) Committee of the Woodland Hills–Warner Center Neighborhood Council (WHWCNC) submitted a set of options last fall. Two recommendations, if pursued by the city, spell trouble for low- to moderate-income renters, including those who have lived in Warner Center for years. One is that there be no mandate for affordable housing in Warner Center …
(Read the rest of Gina Thornburg’s article on this developers’ bonanza here, at CityWatchLA, about the bizarre effort by WHIP to keep desperately-needed affordable housing OUT of the Warner Center 2035 plan.)