Legado’s first mistake was picking a fight with the residents of Playa del Rey

We could say that Playa del Rey dodged a bullet last Friday with the L.A. City Council’s 13-0 vote upholding a grassroots appeal to block the Legado apartment project slated for Culver Boulevard, but that wouldn’t give local activists enough credit. They organized, pushed back and ultimately gave their city councilman the ammunition he needed to mount a successful defense.

Legado could have been disastrous for Playa del Rey, and not just because the four-story complex would have set a precedent of shattering local height limits and privatized portions of public land to make more room for luxury housing. In its present design, Legado would very likely trigger a rush by landlords and developers to tear down existing residential and commercial properties in order to make them taller, denser and a lot more expensive.

What does that mean? In terms of community character, we’re talking radical change. For starters, imagine Playa del Rey with upscale chain restaurants instead of Mo’s Place or The Shack — a low-key beach community transmogrified into Abbot Kinney Boulevard south. Then think about the hundreds of people in rent-stabilized apartments who could be displaced when their homes are demolished to make way for new construction.

Legado offered eight subsidized housing units for very low income tenants among 64 upscale market-rate apartments, tapping state density bonus incentives for affordable housing creation. While few aspects of the development process in Los Angeles are straightforward or simple, the Legado Co. has only itself to blame for making this process a lot harder than it had to be — first and foremost by attacking the character of its opponents rather than asking how to win their support.

What really set people off was the developer’s lobbyist/attorney arguing in the press and during public meetings that racism and classism were driving opposition to the project — that opposing new housing on Legado’s terms made you automatically against minorities or low-income families moving into the project’s eight affordable units.

“Saying this is about affordable housing is like a restaurant saying a steak dinner is a vegan option because it comes with a side of broccoli,” L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin told The Argonaut after convincing his council colleagues to uphold the appeal. “If Legado would have stuck to an appropriate height limit on just the land they owned, this project would have been built years ago, before I even took office. Instead, the developer decided to pick a fight in the community and add insult to injury by calling people names.”

We could leave it there, but the conflict between Legado and Playa del Rey activists demands a few other points be made.

For Bonin, otherwise a resolute proponent of affordable housing construction, the situation typifies a lot of what’s wrong with the development approval process in Los Angeles: “This developer, like so many developers in Los Angeles, thought the rules should bend to him instead of the rules applying to him.”

For The Argonaut, it’s an opportunity to admit that we could have done a better job of covering this issue, particularly when the chips were down. In hindsight, we should have brought more immediate skepticism to the late-emerging and completely unsubstantiated narrative that racism was driving project opposition, instead of allowing such wild accusations to persist in the context of traditional “he said / she said” reporting.

We also took a lot of heat for allowing the developer’s attorney to plead his case in the same Power to Speak space that we provide for community members to express their viewpoints. Of course there’s nothing wrong with offering our readers multiple viewpoints on any particular issue, but the timing of publication — a day before the city council hearing on the project’s fate — was widely interpreted in Playa del Rey as a de facto endorsement of the project (and a cowardly one at that). The truth is that after years of covering public hearing after public hearing, largely emphasizing community concerns about the project, we lost track of the complex, often tedious public approvals process and incorrectly believed we had more time to weigh in before the final City Hall hearing.

That won’t happen again. Legado will inevitably get some sort of project back on the table, and we hope this time it’ll be one the community can support. Either way, we’ll be watching — and asking the community to help us keep our eye on the ball.