Lawsuit Over Fountain and Werhle Project Relevant to Other Parts of the City

By Jon LeSage

Homeowners in Long Beach’s Bryant neighborhood are facing a major dilemma. How do you get to enjoy living on streets and in houses built at least a hundred years ago in this day of expansion and building out?

For those interested in learning more about the concerns addressed in Bryant Neighbors for Responsible Development Vs. City of Long Beach, a legal action filed at LA County Superior Court on May 22, try taking a walk in the neighborhood. Keep in mind that this section of Long Beach was in place before residents owned cars.

In April, the Long Beach City Council approved zoning changes that gave the green light to a 73-unit affordable apartment construction project for lower-income residents that will begin construction next year. Two addresses were used in the construction project city document – 4151 Fountain St. and 4220 Wehrle Court. They’re both located on narrow streets with little available parking. The Fountain Street address is a block away from Bryant Elementary School that can be packed with parents dropping off or picking up their kids.

The former 4151 Fountain St. building that used to be a home for troubled youth and which was purchased by the City of Long Beach in 2017, was demolished a few days after the city approved rezoning. The demo project started on April 28 and took a few days to complete. The second address, 4220 Wehrle Court, is still standing as of June 5. It’s located on a narrow, one-way street that goes out to Ximeno Avenue.

Homeowners and renters on Fountain and Wehrle, and on Belmont Avenue that meets Fountain Street in between the construction zone and the elementary school, will be heavily impacted; as will those living in proximity on Bennett Avenue and 14th Street. They’re expecting the construction project, which starts next year and could take a year-and-a-half or more to complete, and the number of apartment renters and their cars that will move in, will be overwhelming at times.

The two new apartment buildings will have the capacity to be available to families in the larger units. The city says that the project’s available bedroom count includes 1-, 2-, and 3- bedroom units and will serve lower-income families as well as those with disabilities. There will be 67 at-grade parking stalls on the facility as well. The actual number of people who will be living in these apartments isn’t clear, but it could mean at least 150 people will be moving into the new housing complex with more cars than the parking stalls can accommodate.

Why Homeowners Group Filed Lawsuit

Santa Monica-based Scott Pomerantz is the attorney for Bryant Neighbors for Responsible Development, a group of homeowners in that neighborhood. He says that the verified petition for writ of mandate and injunctive relief filed in the LA County Superior Court will serve more as a hearing than a trial. Evidence from public records will be presented to the court by both sides, and the judge will evaluate the documents based on state laws and court rulings. It’s more like an appellate court hearing than a trial, Pomerance said.

A trial-setting conference will be held on June 20, 2024, at the Hill Street courthouse in downtown Los Angeles.

The court filing breaks the allegations down into two concerns. The first one states that the City of Long Beach granted the construction project exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). CEQA is a state law that requires local governments and public agencies to evaluate and disclose the environmental impacts of major land use decisions and development projects. Serving as the lead agency granting the exemption, the City of Long Beach committed prejudicial abuse of discretion – for not proceeding in a manner ‘required by law or if the determination or decision is not supported by substantial evidence,” according to the court filing.

One of the concerns described by the plaintiff was that the city had posted a map online that it claims is a purported land use map from the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) using 2021 data. It categorizes the entire neighborhood, including Bryant Elementary School as is “Mixed Residential and Commercial.” It also describes the retail businesses nearby on Anaheim Street as is “Mixed Commercial and Industrial.” Where that map came from is unclear, and it does not reflect the neighborhood, according to the filing. The map used by the City of Long Beach was tied into SCAG’s “transit priority project,” as if this neighborhood is part of a transit corridor. The plaintiff located another SCAG land use map, and presented it in the court filing, that it says does reflect the neighborhood much more accurately.

The second cause of action deals with actions the city took involving zoning approvals, that could be “subject to an abuse of discretion standard” according to the court filing. The city council’s approval of the zone changes was not supported by findings and did not provide evidence to support the findings, according to the court filing.

David Lake, president of the Bryant Neighbors for Responsible Development, says that the city did not take the concerns of area homeowners seriously prior to the April 16 approvals. The petitioner homeowners had objected to the project orally, in writing, and by filling out speaker cards before the close of public hearings.

Their objections included lack of privacy for area residents with the three- and four-story apartment buildings planned to be put in place; that there will be far too many cars coming into the new buildings than the narrow streets can handle; there won’t be enough parking spaces on their lots when new residents get moved in; and there will be excess idling with cars attempting to get in and out of the congested neighborhood, which would violate CEQA clean air standards with the exhaust coming out of those idling cars.

As a fireman, Lake is also very concerned about how hard it would be for fire trucks, paramedic trucks, and ambulances to access the new facility and its neighbors on these very narrow streets. Another concern is that there will be rooftop decks on both of the new apartment buildings, meaning that parties will probably be taking place creating excess noise and more parking spots taken up in the surrounding neighborhood.

Rick de la Torre, community information officer for the Community Development Department, said that the city is aware of the lawsuit.

“The city followed all proper procedures for this project. We won’t be litigating through the press, but the city will be defending its actions in court,” de la Torre wrote in an email response.

Demolition on the primary structure is complete. The city and project sponsor (Linc Housing) are in the process of demolishing these structures to alleviate any nuisance activity and make way for the approved affordable housing development, de la Torre wrote.

Could Adjustments Be Made?

Most of the courtroom proceedings in California end up as settlements accepted by both parties and the judge. Attorney Pomerantz and the neighborhood group couldn’t comment on possible negotiated settlements, nor could the City of Long Beach, at this time.

But what if this did end up as a settlement?

The city describes this project, which it calls ‘Fountain Street & Wehrle Court Family Housing,’ as being built in a ‘high resource’ area. Christopher Koontz, director of Community Development, has publicly stated that these ‘high resource’ and ‘high opportunity’ areas are determined by the State Tax Credit Allocation Committee. It comes from examining resources in these neighborhoods such as schools, parks, access to employment, access to groceries, and other factors.

New and existing residents to this new development can access the grammar school down the street for their children, the public library on Anaheim Street, the public transit bus system, and stores and restaurants along Anaheim St. But what about getting to grocery stores, and getting out of the neighborhood to be at work on time?

Questions had come up in the public commentary meetings about whether opening up Anaheim Street for traffic could help solve some of the access problems. The Community Development department hasn’t seen this as being a possible option for private property, District 3 Councilmember Kristina Duggan previously said.

What about Anaheim Street businesses that are nearly empty? Can the city claim eminent domain and take over those properties to provide direct access for the new dwellers and additional parking for their cars?

What about splitting up the two apartment buildings into two different locations in the third district? Or in another district in Long Beach that has room for an apartment building? Duggan doesn’t see any more affordable housing projects coming up in District 3 at this time.

Another concern raised by local residents has been the danger factor with all the new vehicles that will be jutting in and out of traffic.

Neighborhood resident Merry Colvin had expressed those concerns to Daryl Supernaw, the District 4 Councilmember who used to oversee this neighborhood prior to the 2021 redistricting. She’s also more recently spoken to Duggan about it.

Supernaw did look into a traffic light being put at the intersection of 15th Street and Ximeno Avenue. For those turning onto Ximeno from 15th, it is not a safe place at times with the hillside gradation and limited visibility of fast-approaching cars. There have been a few major car crashes there.

He said that the streetlight idea was dismissed by the city due to upcoming decisions about bike lanes being put in there and other parts of the city, with input coming from the state’s Caltrans agency.

Colvin thinks the city could have done a much better job of disclosing what was being voted on in April for the Fountain and Werhle construction project. There was a lot of homeowner input missing from the process, she said.

“Long Beach’s charm has been slowly eroding,” Colvin said. “They’re taking down old buildings. You don’t do that. Now they’re destroying small neighborhoods.”

Duggan also expressed concerns about parking, and ingress and egress on the development’s shared street with Bryant Elementary School. But it was a project given to her district when she took the elected position in December 2022.

Jon LeSage is a resident of Long Beach and a veteran business media reporter and editor. You can reach him at jtlesage1@yahoo.com.

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