Community contests The Fig Project at public hearing

Residents, tenant advocates, developers and lawyers attend a public hearing for The Fig Project Wednesday. The project’s final environmental impact report was presented to the city. (Daniel Hahm | Daily Trojan)

The final environmental impact report of The Fig Project, a 4.4 acre development on Exposition Park, was presented to the Los Angeles City Planning Commission in a public hearing Wednesday morning.

Around 100 people — residents, tenant advocates, developers and lawyers — provided testimony for the proposed project, which would demolish eight historic multi-family buildings to make room for a seven-story hotel, 222 units of student housing, 186 units of residential housing and a commercial retail space, according to the report.

Ventus Group, the real estate investment company behind the project, has supported construction of the area since 2014. The final report must be approved by the planning commission in order for construction to begin, and is supported by Councilman Curren Price, the area’s city council representative.

Compared to the draft report Ventus Group submitted in 2017, The Fig’s total floor area decreased 3,480 square feet in the final version.

Eighty two units of The Fig’s living space will be affordable housing, although current residents are unsure they will be able to qualify for it. The residents expressed fear about the potential displacement The Fig Project will bring to their homes on 3900 Flower Drive.

“When a developer comes in with a complete lack of respect of what is the context of a neighborhood, it’s unacceptable,” said Jean Frost, chair of the North Area Neighborhood Development Council. “It is the genocide of a neighborhood.”

Frost said the council generally supports the development, but not Ventus Group’s proposal, which will remove 32 rent-controlled housing units.

The buildings targeted by developers for removal were designated historic by the state of California in 2008. Historic preservationist Jim Childs told the Daily Trojan in September that Ventus Group has the option to build around the historic structures, but chose not to in the planning process.

“When something’s designated as historic, you have the responsibility to build around that,” Childs said about the draft report. “If you want to tear [these buildings] down, you have to go through a process. What [Ventus Group] failed to do was offer reasonable project alternatives to this development, which is a requirement.”

According to Frost and Childs, the neighborhood council had suggested an alternative design plan that would leave the historic residential units as they are, but Ventus Group rejected the proposal in its draft report.

Howard Sunkin, a USC alumnus and partner of EK, Sunkin & Bai public affairs firm, sat with individuals from Ventus Group, and said he believed The Fig was a good agreement for the families in the impacted area.

“It’s fair to say [Ventus Group will compensate] three times what the law requires,” Sunkin said. “We have people accepting them as we stand here today, so obviously it must’ve been a very reasonable offer.”

If evicted, the tenants will be entitled to relocation assistance fees under the Ellis Act, a state provision that allows landlords to remove tenants if the property is leaving the rental market. The fees will vary depending on tenant income levels, duration of stay in the unit, family size and age.

While some residents expressed the possible benefits of The Fig, others remained adamantly opposed to the development.

“Not having our street anymore will destroy our memories we have built there,” said resident Elyse Valenzuela. “The people who are sitting here agreeing to this project, Ventus will be knocking on their doors letting them know their homes will also be demolished.”

Opponents of the project, like Valenzuela, fear that The Fig will attract developers to surrounding areas which can amplify displacement.

Mirna Romero, a USC alumna and former resident of the development site, said the project can bring increased city tax revenue and improve the neighborhood’s infrastructure.

“We would be able to provide more housing in general,” Romero said. “If you do a cost-benefit analysis, we’re displacing 23 families, but we’re getting 200 units. All of that revenue is brought into the community — there’s property taxes that are paid.”

Opponents of The Fig’s final environmental report can provide comment to the city about their concerns, but developers are not required to respond to them, according to the Los Angeles Department of City Planning.

The project’s draft report was available for a 45-day public comment period starting in October 2017.

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