When Metro completed construction of its light rail expansion to Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles in 2009, some residents of the neighborhood near Indiana Station began looking into the possibility of creating a small, pocket park in an empty lot at the northeast corner of First Street and Lorena Ave – a site that had been used as a staging ground for Gold Line tunneling.
But Metro had other plans. As with other vacant lots that resulted from rail line construction throughout Los Angeles County, the agency planned to build an affordable housing project that would benefit from tax incentives related to closeness to public transit. In 2013, Metro entered a joint development deal with A Community of Friends – a nonprofit that specializes in supportive affordable housing for homeless individuals and families living with mental illness.
The project was stalled by strong opposition and even a lawsuit that tried to block it. Now, nearly 10 years after it was conceived, construction is set to begin next month on Lorena Plaza, a 49-unit, four story building for unhoused people and veterans with about 7,5000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor.
“It feels wonderful,” said Dora Leong Gallo, CEO of the developer ACOF who has spearheaded the project since its inception, about the impending construction. “It’s a combination of gratitude, relief and excitement. Gratitude because we had the community support us. Relief to be able to move forward. And excitement because we’re going to build this project and provide services to all those people.”
Besides housing, the Lorena Plaza project is intended to provide supportive services to its tenants. Gallo said that of the 49 apartments, about 32 will go to unhoused individuals and families, another 16 to low-income families and the remaining unit will go to a resident manager. Of the 48 apartments to be leased, half would go to veterans who may be either unhoused or low-income.
The units will go to households earning at or below 30 and 50 percent of the area median income levels – which in 2021 was $80,000 for a family of four in LA County. Last week Urbanize LA reported that rents for the studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom units will range from $591 to $1,464 per month, including utilities.
A small portion of the project’s funding – about $2.9 million – comes from Los Angeles County Measure HHH funds destined to alleviate the homelessness crisis. At one point, Lorena Plaza had been expected to be the first housing project in Los Angeles to benefit from the bond initiative.
‘Re-Abandoning’ the well
For the last few weeks, crews have been working with a tall oil drill on the lot, which sits across the street from Evergreen Cemetery. Gallo said workers are currently removing an oil well which was unproductive and abandoned almost immediately after it was installed in 1949. “We have to open up the well and recap it, that’s what we’re doing,” she said. “It’s called re-abandoning the well.”
Construction should begin in earnest in late April or early May, with completion expected no earlier than October of 2023.
The project’s current estimated cost is $37.3 million – much higher than the $23 million originally calculated. That cost includes $4.3 million for the retail space and $1.7 million for the recapping of the oil well.
Gallo said that most of that increase in cost is the result of a prolonged opposition to the project, principally from former councilmember José Huízar and the project’s neighbor to the East, El Mercado de Los Angeles, whose owners went as far as suing the city in 2018 to prevent the development from going forward.
“The four-and-half-year stall [caused by Huízar and El Mercado] nearly cost us $9 million,” Gallo said.
The project has long faced some opposition from those community members who wanted Metro to consider creating a green, open space in the vacant lot. Huízar voted against the project as a member of the Metro board and accused ACOF of not listening to community concerns.
But the loudest opposition came from the owners of El Mercado, who claimed that the old oil rig had dangerously polluted the lot and tried to block the development by filing an appeal to its environmental report with the city council’s planning committee – chaired by Huízar. While the councilmember originally granted the appeal, he changed his mind after being harshly criticized in a Los Angeles Times editorial, and the City Council finally gave the project the green light in 2018.
The owners of El Mercado quickly sued to force the city to reverse its action, but a judge dismissed the lawsuit a year later – finally clearing the way for the development.
Not everyone in the community opposed the Lorena and First project. After some initial hesitation –and several presentations by ACOF– the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council voted overwhelmingly to give it a pass.
The project also had huge support from civic and nonprofit leaders throughout the city –including several large nonprofits– who supported Proposition HHH and feared that a rejection of Lorena Plaza could set a precedent for other homeless housing projects funded by the bond measure.
“So many people supported us,” said Gallo. “When somebody files a lawsuit it doesn’t feel great, especially when you’re doing everything (you’re supposed to).”
Design changes over the years
Lorena Plaza’s design has gone through several changes over the years –it was originally meant to be a five-story building with more than 25,000 square feet of retail.
After meeting with Metro’s design advisory council, which included Boyle Heights residents, the designers toned down the color of the building, made changes to the landscaping and added more lighting. They made the walls thicker and added insulation, to reduce noise from the businesses next door.
To appease concerns by the owners of El Mercado, they agreed to eliminate all windows and openings from the wall facing East and to set the building back a few meters so as not to block the view of the iconic murals of the popular shopping center.
The latest design by Gonzalez Goodale Architects –which has created other affordable developments in Boyle Heights – includes a pedestrian plaza in front of the building and an interior courtyard for residents.
The design also calls for a mural on the front of the building which has been commissioned to Boyle Heights artist Fabian Debora.
A groundbreaking ceremony for the construction is expected in early April.
This post was updated on March 18 to correct name of artist Fabian Debora and to correctly identify a photo caption.
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Read more about the Lorena Plaza housing development:
Affordable housing in the works near Metro Gold Line – May 10, 2019
Times editorial calls on Huízar to act on 1st and Lorena development – April 25, 2017
Metro gives time to developers to plan affordable housing – Dec. 8, 2015
Neighborhood Council gives nod to controversial Lorena Plaza development – July 28, 2015
Boyle Heights residents express concerns over proposed mixed-use housing development – Feb. 17, 2014