In uncommon partnership, developer and social justice groups reach deal on affordable housing

South Los Angeles residents and others with the Unidad Coalition celebrate a City Planning Commission decision approving a high-rise that would include units affordable for low-income residents.
South Los Angeles residents and others with the Unidad Coalition celebrate a City Planning Commission decision approving a high-rise that would include units affordable for low-income residents.
Sharon McNary/KPCC
South Los Angeles residents and others with the Unidad Coalition celebrate a City Planning Commission decision approving a high-rise that would include units affordable for low-income residents.
The Grand Metropolitan, once built at Washington Blvd. and Olive Ave., would reserve 24 of its 160 units for low-income renters
Norman Isaac, developer


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Low income residents were not the tenants developer Norman Isaac had in mind as he drew plans for his Grand Metropolitan high-rise next to the Blue Line. But a coalition of social justice advocacy groups working in South Los Angeles changed his mind.

After five months of negotiations with the Unidad Coalition, Norman agreed this week to set aside 24 of his 160 planned units for poor families.

The agreement also sets aside some of the ground floor retail space for small, community-based businesses, and requires certain percentages of the construction and future retail jobs go to local residents and disadvantaged people.

"It's going to be a good model helping the community in that area, which is really needing that kind of development, definitely," Norman said. "It's very important to create jobs, to create benefits for the community.

"This project of ours is not a big project - it's fairly small project," he added, "but for the bigger projects coming up it can be a good role model."

Typically, it's city officials - not community groups - who are pushing developers to add or pay for affordable housing, usually in exchange for variances to city rules or zoning. In this case, the deal was negotiated completely apart from the official city planning process.

The construction is still not guaranteed. Norman needs the city change land use zoning for a parking lot to allow the mix of residential and commercial uses.

The parcel was previously zoned for light manufacturing. It's on the north side of Washington Blvd. between Grand and Olive Ave, close to L.A. Trade Tech and a county courthouse.

On Thursday, the Los Angeles City Planning Commission recommended the City Council make the zoning change. After the decision, about 30 coalition members gathered on the mosaic marble floor under the City Hall rotunda to cheer the agreement.

"With today's decision we have set an important precedent for how development can be done along the Blue Line, so we should celebrate together, " said Joe Donlin of Strategic Action for a Just Economy.

At issue is what happens to older, low-income communities as new transit corridors transform parts of the neighborhood, ushering in new development.

Donlin said this type of side agreements with developers could reduce the displacement of longtime residents as new buildings go up, taking advantage of public transit.

The pro bono law firm Public Counsel represented the groups in the negotiations with Norman.

The groups involved are: Community Development Technologies Center, Esperanza Community Housing Corporation, St. Francis Center, Strategic Action for a Just Economy, and Tenemos que Reclamar y Unidos Salvar La Tierra-South LA.

They called themselves the United Neighbors in Defense Against Displacement coalition, which spells out UNIDAD, which is Spanish for unity.

In a statement, the coalition said the deal is the first major community benefits agreement in South Los Angeles since 2011.

The last deal was the Lorenzo apartment project, which included a guarantee of local jobs and affordable rental units and a low-cost health clinic. The clinic opened last week.