On November 21, 2016 Blair Besten Told The City Of Los Angeles That Her Zillionaire Developer Bosses Were Ready To Gentrify And Build Out Skid Row And Listed The Kinds Of Zillion Dollar Handouts, Tax Breaks, And Zoning Giveaways They Wanted. Seven Weeks Later She Was Lobbying José Huizar In Opposition To Skid Row Neighborhood Council Formation. This Is Not A Coincidence

Background: You can read my previous stories on the Skid Row Neighborhood Council formation effort and also see Gale Holland’s article in the Times for a more mainstream perspective.

Scott Gray of major Skid Row property owner Capital Foresight, likely behind-the-curtain string-puller for the covert anti-SRNC lobbying campaign, was famously quoted in the Downtown News in March 2017 with respect to the Skid Row Neighborhood Council formation effort to the effect that:

…the pending proposal to divide Downtown Los Angeles into separate geographic districts will have significant fiscal and far-reaching economic impact on the entire city

Anyone who attends to the shady world of Los Angeles real estate development can easily imagine in the abstract the kinds of things Scott Gray means, but there has hitherto been very little specific information about what he was talking about.

It turns out that in November 2016 Blair Besten’s megadeveloper bosses at the Historic Core BID had their heavy artillery aimed at Skid Row and had begun soliciting the usual array of sleazy under-table giveaways, such as tax abatements, relaxed zoning, and so on. It’s no surprise at all, then, that when the Skid Row Neighborhood Council Formation Committee’s proposal was approved by the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment in January 2017 they flipped out to the astonishing degree that they did. As always, documentation and highly detailed description after the break.

As part of a release of emails between the Historic Core BID and the City of Los Angeles, I obtained a November 21, 2016 email from Blair Besten to Bryan Eck, a policy planner at the Los Angeles Department of City Planning It seems likely that this is in relation to DTLA 2040, but I can’t be absolutely certain:

Bryan,

We sat down and fleshed out some of the ideas that we shared with you. The executive committee was in agreement with most if not all of the concepts.

Please let me know if I need to revise any of the comments so they make more sense. You may have other language that says it better.

Thanks for letting us be a part of the process.

Kindest regards,

Blair Besten

Attached to this email was this PDF of a letter from Blair Besten to Bryan Eck listing her Board’s dream conditions. You can find a complete transcription of this PDF at the end of this post.

From this letter we learn that the Department of City Planning seems to be in the process of rezoning Downtown.1 They are also soliciting input from developers about how the rezoning should go.2 But most importantly, we learn that Blair Besten’s bosses on the Board of the Historic Core BID seem to have some highly specific plans for the development of Skid Row, at least based on the fact that they have some highly specific requests for rezoning the area.

This, of course, is why the prospect of a Neighborhood Council in Skid Row terrified them. Community outreach is required of developers as a part of the project approval process. Neighborhood Councils typically make this super-easy for developers. The chance that a SRNC would roll over like DLANC is essentially zero, though. Result? Horror!3 Here are some excerpts and comments, and the whole letter is reproduced at the end:

  • Greater incentives should be given for mixed income projects within the 50 blocks that encompass the boundaries of “Skid Row*.” These incentives could be property tax abatement (for the life of the project or 55 years) and/or TFAR bonuses. — They want to pay little to no property tax on stuff they build in Skid Row. They’re claiming it’s so that they’ll have incentives to build mixed income projects, but it never really works out like that. The most important conclusion to be drawn from this bit is that they are ready to build housing on Skid Row and they’re angling for putative incentives that will yield more profit for stuff they are already planning to do.
  • Areas such as … “Skid Row” … should be considered beneficial locations for mixed income, mixed use projects by not restricting zoning nor implementing height limits. — See above. We are going to build a whole bunch of crap in Skid Row and we want you to act as if we’re doing everyone a favor and get rid of all possible restrictions so that we can make even more money than we are already going to make.
  • The necessity of the preservation of a “Nonprofit Zone” could be alleviated by simply offering FAR bonuses to developers willing to lease to nonprofits or service providers in retail spaces in the designated area. Incorporating the population served by nonprofits into the rest of the community will ultimately serve them better and alleviate a zone traditionally more impacted by crime and public health issues. Incentives could also rewarding [sic] current lessors by rewarding their efforts rather than excluding diverse retail development in the area. — It’s not clear exactly what these “nonprofit zones” that they’re talking about might be. It’s possible, though, that they’re related to the the DTLA 2040 rezoning of Downtown which, it seems, may include parts of Skid Row to be specifically reserved for nonprofit social services and/or low income housing.4 It’s also possible that they’re related to current zoning restrictions mandating low income housing. In either case, what the zillionaires seem to be suggesting here is that for-profit enterprises should be able to control (and profit) from those properties under any new plan rather than leaving their management up to nonprofits. Also, note the typical zillionaire pseudoconcern for the well being of their victims. Of course, say the zillionaires, it’s bad for the homeless to do stuff specifically for them. In fact, say the zillionaires, it turns out that helping homeless people actually causes crime and sickness. DO-GOODERS AND SOCIAL SERVICES ORGANIZATIONS KILL HOMELESS!! We care deeply about the homeless, though, and that’s why we’re proposing this plan to stop helping them and deport them all to Lancaster or whatever because it’s ultimately better for them that way. The fact that we’re going to make tons more money if the City stops helping homeless people and ships them all to San Bernardino is just a coincidence, really.
  • Considering the growing urban center, a potential waiver of parking requirements or incentives for building underground vis-a-vis FAR bonuses, for example, is a positive way of removing parking podium blight and encouraging more regular public transportation use. — This is why developers pretend to care about public transit. It gives them a superficially plausible reason to ask for zoning variances. As in all of these examples, what’s going on here is that these developers are trying to remove as many obstacles to profit as possible in advance of building stuff by pretending it will make them more likely to build when everyone knows they’re going to build anyway.
  • TFAR areas should be expanded wherever reasonable, but especially in the areas of “Skid Row” and Fashion District which are in need of more housing. — TFAR means “transfer of floor area ratio,” and seems to refer in general to ways for developers to exceed mandated size limits on their projects. They either buy the right to excess capacity from other developers who have extra or obtain it from the City in exchange for various concessions. So it seems that what they’re asking for here is a normalized and straightforward way to evade zoning restrictions on density.5 Obviously, again, they’re already planning to build in Skid Row and they want to make even more money.

These are certainly some of the reasons that Blair Besten’s zillionaire Emerald City behind-the-curtain puppetmasters freaked out at the prospect of even a little self-determination for Skid Row in the form of a neighborhood council. Certainly others will be coming to light soon, so stay tuned!

The letter from Besten to Eck:

Dear Mr. Eck,

The Historic Core Business Improvement District Executive Committee was tasked by the HCBID Board of Directors to write a list of recommendations for the new zoning of Downtown Los Angeles.

The following is the list of recommendations:

  1. Considering the shortage of housing in the City of Los Angeles, and the considerable expense of building affordable housing through nonprofits, the committee recommends creating incentives for market rate housing developers to include affordable housing and workforce units within their projects. Greater incentives should be given for mixed income projects within the 50 blocks that encompass the boundaries of “Skid Row*.” These incentives could be property tax abatement (for the life of the project or 55 years) and/or TFAR bonuses.
  2. Areas such as Arts District, “Skid Row” as defined above, and Fashion District should be considered beneficial locations for mixed income, mixed use projects by not restricting zoning nor implementing height limits.
  3. The necessity of the preservation of a “Nonprofit Zone” could be alleviated by simply offering FAR bonuses to developers willing to lease to nonprofits or service providers in retail spaces in the designated area. Incorporating the population served by nonprofits into the rest of the community will ultimately serve them better and alleviate a zone traditionally more impacted by crime and public health issues. Incentives could also rewarding [sic] current lessors by rewarding their efforts rather than excluding diverse retail development in the area.
  4. Considering the growing urban center, a potential waiver of parking requirements or incentives for building underground vis-a-vis FAR bonuses, for example, is a positive way of removing parking podium blight and encouraging more regular public transportation use.
  5. TFAR areas should be expanded wherever reasonable, but especially in the areas of “Skid Row” and Fashion District which are in need of more housing.
  6. The implementation of an Artist-in-Residence model of housing for fashion designers for live/work housing called “Fashion-in-Residence” would be an excellent manner in which to encourage a growth of fashion manufacturing and business in the Fashion District.
  7. Outline all the benefits and programs designed for developers upfront, not piece-by-piece hurdles through planning and entitlement processes. This would enable more levels of developers to participate in the process and better strategize their proformas and project management.
  8. The TFAR process should be shortened wherever possible.
  9. Best practices should be created for permanent supportive housing regarding green or open spaces onsite, which should be strongly encouraged.
  10. Programs for “dog park alleys” in addition to “green alleys” for alleyway space with incentives to developers who front costs or maintain should be developed.
  11. The CUB process could be made easier on Broadway in spirit of an “Entertainment Zone.”
  12. Restaurants, entertainment, and bars in the Historic Core should be allowed to stay open past 2:00am without special considerations. (State law prohibits alcohol sales past 2:00am, ho9wever facilities that continue to serve food and toher beverages past 2:00am would delay crowds on the streets and give patrons time to sober up before heading home.

*The term “Skid Row” as defined here by the Los Angeles Department of Public Health, which is likely a broader area than what has been historically defined as “Skid Row.”

Respectfully submitted,
/s/ Blair Besten
Executive Director
Historic Core Business Improvement District


The image of Huizar and Besten started out as a public record that I obtained from somewhere, and the modified version is ©2017 MichaelKohlhaas.Org.

  1. It’s likely but not absolutely certain that this is related to DTLA 2040. Maybe this is all quite well-known, but I didn’t know it.
  2. This seems normal, actually. Everyone involved should have input into zoning and rezoning.
  3. H/T Katherine McNenny for explaining this aspect of the process to me.
  4. YAH/T Katherine McNenny for suggesting this explanation, which seems eminently plausible to me, of what “nonprofit zones” might be.
  5. I don’t know much about this subject, so please let me know if I’ve gotten it totally wrong.
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