Wyvernwood Tenants Split on Development
Both sides agree improvements are needed, but not on how to get it.
By Gloria Angelina Castillo, EGP Staff Writer
Hundreds of people attended a town hall meeting last week on a $2 billion project to redevelop the Wyvernwood Garden Apartments, a 70-year-old housing development in Boyle Heights.
While proponents and opponents of the project seemed evenly split, both cited rodent and roach infestations and other maintenance issues as the reason for their support of the project, or their distrust of the property’s owners, Fifteen Group.
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The meeting was presented by Los Angeles Councilman Jose Huizar — who last year said he opposes the project— in advance of the expected release next month of the final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on the plan to convert Wyvernwood into a high-rise mixed-use community.
There will be more opportunities to provide community feedback on the project, Huizar said.
The meeting began with presentations on the EIR Process, as well as information on moving assistance for tenants who will be displaced by the construction. Speakers were timed and each side was given 30 minutes to speak.
Proponents spoke first.
Knoll Duncan said he was tired of taking the bus or having to go in a car to buy groceries. “The project would bring news shops… It’s about time,” he said, referring to the developer’s plans to bring retail stores to the now exclusively residential complex.
Ramona Bernal said when she moved in 40 years ago, the apartments were beautiful, but now they need a lot of work. The plumbing is bad, the doors don’t work properly, there are a lot of gangs and crime in the neighborhood, she said, speaking in favor of the project.
Several others described Wyvernwood as run-down apartment units infested with roaches and mice. “We can’t stand the cockroaches climbing on us, and the mice destroying our furniture,” said Leticia Sanchez.
Another resident described constant plumbing problems, such as a recent incident she claims caused fecal matter to come out of her kitchen sink.
Others simply said they wanted a better community to live in and amenities such as washers and dryers inside their units.
Margarita Ortega and Leticia Ramirez said they want a nicer place for their children to grow up.
They believe the plans outlined by Fifteen Group for the nearly 69-acre site are a step in that direction.
But those opposed to the development said they like the community’s current spacious layout, which includes large areas of open land.
Speakers also questioned whether the redevelopment is worth the added cost, noting that past renovations by the current owner were “cheaply” done. They said the owner recuperated some of those costs by charging added fees for several years.
“Have you thought about how much this change will cost you? You will not pay the same rent, it will increase,” said Maria Hunter, who identified herself as a 40-year resident of Wyvernwood. “They will charge whatever they want.”
Hunter called the owner’s promises to relocate residents to new units at comparable rent rates “lies.”
Flor de la Torre said many of Wyvernwood’s problems are rooted in the poor maintenance of the property, which reflects badly on the owners. She said residents who have complaints about gangs should to take it upon themselves to call police. Increased density will only cause more problems, she said, referring to Fifteen Groups plans to increase the number of apartment units from 1,200 to 4,400, by adding high-rise structures where two-story structures now stand.
A few residents, including Antonio Jara, said they have never had problems with roaches or rodents.
Carmen Presiado, Ventura Espitia and others asked Huizar to support the “poor” residents who oppose the project.
But Priscilla Espinosa told project supporters that they can’t expect the landlords to give them a better life.
“Many people complain that they want to live well, they want a better life for their children, well work and get ahead by your own means because the owners are not going to help you. They want their money and we, we’ll get what we work for… and many people believe they are being promised heaven and earth and all that is good, but I don’t believe it,” Espinosa said.
Rudolfo Juarez wanted to know if more schools would be built to accommodate the increased density.
And still others accused supporters of being paid to be in favor of the project.
Responding to an EGP question about the conditions described by some, Fifteen Group Principal Steven Fink said a full-time maintenance team “does an outstanding job, especially given the outdated nature of the property, which dates back to the 1930s.”
Fink said he thinks supporters significantly outnumbered the opponents at the meeting, but Councilman Huizar told EGP that based on appearance alone, the crowd seemed evenly split.
“But then you start counting cards and a lot of [those] people weren’t there, so, you know, I have to ask the question, ‘were some people filling out cards for other people?’” Huizar told EGP following the meeting. “Then more people started showing up later, so it’s hard to say.”
Huizar said at a similar meeting held in 2008, only about 20 residents said they supported the project. But this time around, with about 200 people in attendance, the sides seemed evenly split. “So it’s an interesting dynamic,” he said.
But Huizar says he still opposes the project because he thinks it still has little community support and because it creates too much density. He wants to preserve some of the historical structures and doesn’t want the “feeling of community” that has existed for decades to be destroyed, Huizar told EGP.
Comité de la Esperanza (Committee of Hope), a resident group that opposes the development, held a small rally following the town hall. The group’s long-time president, Leonardo Lopez, said he is tired of the ongoing struggle but that he was there to fight along with residents.
Elena Popp, the committee’s lawyer, told EGP they are continuing efforts to gather support to save the apartment community from demolition. “You cannot put 4,000 units where there are currently less than 1,200,” Popp said, explaining the magnitude of the project and the impact it would have on the Boyle Heights community as a whole.
Fifteen Group said allegations that it will dramatically increase rents once the project is complete are unfounded. Current residents in good standing will be able to move into a new apartment at the same rent, and the Resident Retention Plans will be legally binding and formalized in the project agreement with the City, according to Fink.
The project will bring modern housing, new green spaces, new retail options, public safety enhancements and construction jobs, Fink told EGP.
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September 27, 2012 Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.