Mike Bonin’s Big Idea
Metro’s three-plus acres of prime Venice real estate at Main Street and Sunset Avenue — worth as much as $50 million — is slated to become affordable housing
By Joe Piasecki
A block and a half from the beach, diagonally opposite Google’s “Binoculars Building” and just a short walk from the high-end shops of Abbot Kinney Boulevard, L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin stands in a bleak fenced-off lot that until recently operated as a Metro bus yard.
There isn’t much to look at except for about three acres of weathered asphalt, an old office building, a diesel filling station and some fuel storage tanks. But it’s here that Bonin sees the beginning of an answer to Venice’s mounting housing affordability crisis, and by extension much of his West L.A. district’s.
On Jan. 28 at Bonin’s urging, Metro’s board of directors is expected to initiate a redevelopment process with the intent of building affordable housing on this rare piece of government-owned prime Venice real estate. An agency estimate contemplates the land’s market value as between $30 million and $50 million.
Bonin’s plan, which he discusses publicly for the first time in this story, is backed by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and cosponsored by L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who also represents Venice. Each sits on Metro’s 13-member board.
“We’re in a tremendous crisis in Los Angeles. Lack of housing, lack of affordable housing and homelessness are three different aspects of the same crisis,” says Bonin, who went on to describe exorbitant rental costs as crippling Angelenos’ ability to provide for themselves and participate in the local economy.
“This is a foundational issue of whether or not Los Angeles survives long-term as a society. It’s a huge moral imperative that we have housing in Los Angeles that people can afford,” he says. “It’s very important, I think, for government and neighborhoods to have some skin in the game — to use our assets to help provide affordable housing.”
Kuehl, who last year led the county to adopt a housing fund that will grow from $20 million in 2016-17 to $100 million annually, characterized the plan for Metro-subsidized affordable housing as a milestone effort.
“This is a big win for Venice if we can do it,” she says.
In a brief statement, Garcetti praised Bonin’s leadership on the issue.
“As we continue to struggle with a lack of affordable housing in our city, it is critical to find creative ways where we can leverage resources to meet the needs of communities,” Garcetti said.
As city officials prepare to outline a $100-million spending package to confront homelessness, Bonin says it will be necessary for local government to commit even more land to the cause of dialing back a regional homeless population that’s 44,000 and growing.
“Projects are getting harder and harder to do because of the cost of land. On the Westside in particular, it’s very difficult to make affordable housing pencil out. … Take away the land acquisition cost and now you’re only talking about development cost, which is a very different equation,” says Bonin.
“I’m not prepared to announce specific properties or projects, but one thing I will say is that this is not the only piece of government-owned property in my council district that will be used for affordable housing.”
PARKING, OPEN SPACE
How much affordable housing can be built at the southwest corner of Sunset Avenue and Main Street depends largely on the outcome of an extended public review period that Bonin says will also weigh two other community priorities — open space and public parking.
After this week’s vote, Metro will begin a lengthy process of environmental review and community feedback leading up to a request for proposals by developers before adopting a construction plan. Under the agency’s newly adopted Joint Development Program, Metro would retain ownership of the land and require the developer to offer at least 35% of any new housing at rates deemed affordable to residents earning no more than 60% of the area’s median income (which Bonin mentally calculates as families with annual incomes somewhere in the mid-$30,000s or less).
Community benefits in addition to the 35% affordable housing mandate remain fluid, and Bonin sees possibilities for public parking, open space and “workforce housing” for teachers, nurses and other moderate-income professionals.
Because it’s a Metro project, public transit connectivity will also be a priority — not only access to current bus lines, says Bonin, but possibly also bike share service and a stop for a future neighborhood shuttle route he hopes to break ground in the future.
The affordable housing concept has yet to face public scrutiny, however, and Kuehl is expecting a range of opinions.
“I think it depends on how the people of Venice feel about so-called ‘affordable’ housing. Some people think that it just means low-income, like what we used to call ‘projects,’ but those are really a thing of the past. What we have in mind is nice housing,” she says.
Bonin is confident his plan will find much wider community favor than the alternative: Metro selling the land for private commercial development to “whoever had the deepest pockets,” he says.
“Because the land is zoned for commercial/office, it would likely become a giant office complex or a heavily commercial one, which would probably mean significantly more traffic without the opportunity for community dialogue about open space and parking,” Bonin says. “Metro has committed to a very robust community engagement process for development of its properties.”
Before the lot at Main and Sunset became a bus yard, the land operated as a railyard as early as 1901 and later served the defunct Pacific Electric Red Car trolley system until 1950, according to Metro’s Dorothy Peyton Gray Transportation Library.
And before the land was slated for affordable housing development, it nearly became a luxury gated community. In 2005 a private developer sought control of the property through a land swap deal that flamed out under widespread community opposition.
Because the California Coastal Commission has partial jurisdiction over the land, it’s not clear how many housing units a developer could build in the space, though Bonin says a forthcoming local coastal development plan could give city officials more say in the matter.
While density remains uncertain, however, the land’s desirability is without question.
And that raises another question underlying affordable housing strategy in Greater Los Angeles: Is it better to spread affordable housing construction throughout the region or to focus on neighborhoods where land is cheaper in order to increase the overall number of units that can be built?
“That’s a tough philosophical argument,” says Bonin, but a false choice in this case because sale proceeds from Metro property would likely fund transit instead of housing.
“There’s an ongoing dialogue about whether it’s better to sell off public properties that are in very high-value areas and use the money to do a lot of development in lower-cost areas, or go for a mixed-population area so that we don’t have enclaves of rich and enclaves of poor,” says Kuehl. “I personally favor the second approach, which is to build affordable housing even in areas where the land is very valuable, because otherwise whole swaths of the city are totally out of reach, and they’re usually the most desirable swaths — beach access, green space, all the kinds of things that make life better.”
But why here? Why now?
“The answer to both would be because it’s available,” Bonin says. “You have to seize the opportunity.”
What do you think? Write to email@example.com to start the discussion.
Editor’s Note: The Metro board approved Bonin’s motion on Thursday morning.