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60 years after being mistaken for an abandoned LA freeway, homes could be given new life

Six decades after California transportation officials began foreclosing on hundreds of properties for a never-before-seen freeway project, Los Angeles executives unveiled a proposal to replace the decaying vacant homes and the clay courts of the El Sereno district with new parks and housing.

If the plan comes to fruition, it would be a big step forward in the saga involving the shrunken 710 highway, which hit a wall of opposition before it could spread to richer communities.

The The Eastside neighborhood has long borne the most visible and lasting scars of the abandoned project, with a high concentration of abandoned homes left in its wake. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, activists repeatedly attempted to take back vacant homes in response to the region’s affordable housing crisis.

“The time has finally come to restore the community of El Sereno and re-establish it in its entirety,” Los Angeles City Councilor Kevin de León, who represents the neighborhood, said at a press conference on Friday morning. presenting the plan.

The city’s proposal is only part of what remains a long process to end the disturbances in El Sereno and neighboring South Pasadena and Pasadena that began in the 1950s. found themselves on the way to what was to be the last connection of Highway 710 which stretches from the area’s commercial ports at Long Beach to the San Gabriel Valley. But litigation and political setback stalled construction, and the project was finally officially killed off three years ago, leaving a 4½ mile gap on the highway between Alhambra and Pasadena.

In limbo, hundreds of homes have been acquired by the California Department of Transportation, ranging from modest residences in El Sereno to artisan mansions on the stately streets of South Pasadena. Most famous, Caltrans’ real estate portfolio includes the 110-year-old Pasadena childhood home of chef Julia Child, which has been vacant for 35 years.

The agency has notoriously mismanaged properties for decades, with tenants complaining of rodent and mold infestations and other homes being left in such a disrepair that they have become uninhabitable.

The town plan would transform the crumbling empty houses and fenced plots that dot the tidy bungalows and small apartment complexes of El Sereno into 252 new or rehabilitated houses or apartments, alongside pocket parks and courts. hillside trails.

The proposal increases the number of homes in the neighborhood slightly, with efforts to add accessory housing units or rear homes on single-family plots and the construction of flats confined to larger lots on the outskirts of the neighborhood. A dusty corner property marred by cracked concrete, where officials held Friday’s press conference would become 16 apartments with a retail or cafe downstairs.

All units would be intended for low- and middle-income tenants or owners. Officials and community members said the proposal would act as a bulwark against gentrification in El Sereno.

“We have a chance, a real chance to restore the community in a way that makes sense,” said Lisa Mauricio, 45, an owner of El Sereno who helped develop the town plan. “We welcome the new families who will join us.

However, the proposal is far from becoming a reality.

State law requires Caltrans to sell these properties to affordable housing developers through a competitive bidding process, and the city’s effort essentially boils down to an offer. The aid is a requirement that the state sell the properties at their original 1960s purchase prices. Thus, some packages that could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars on the open market will be offered for around $ 30,000. .

The city has set aside $ 2.5 million for 77 vacant homes and land in El Sereno, which De León says will be enough to buy them all.

Caltrans officials plan to start selling the properties next year.

De León, who was joined by community state lawmakers – Democrat MP Wendy Carrillo and Senator Maria Elena Durazo – at the press conference, said it was essential that all vacant properties be sold together so that the city can carry out the plan in its entirety.

The city’s plan does not provide for the acquisition of homes currently occupied by long-term tenants or those in South Pasadena and Pasadena, all of which have separate sales processes.

There will likely be at least one competing offer in El Sereno, however.

A group representing around 400 families living in Caltrans-owned homes along Corridor 710 is considering setting up a community cooperative that also wants to take control of the properties, said Roberto Flores, member of United Caltrans Tenants.

The organization wants to form a land trust to ensure homes remain affordable for potential owners and tenants, he said, with any increase in real estate value being funneled into wealth creation for the entire neighborhood. .

Flores said the group is still developing their proposal for the properties, but that it will also likely include a mix of single-family homes, small garden units, apartments and parks.

“What is important here is not so much what they will build but who will control it,” said Flores, criticizing elected officials for not coordinating with the organization. “How will they allow the community to participate in the management of all these houses? “

Flores was also frustrated that the city’s efforts failed to recognize the actions of members of the tenant group who increased public pressure to house people in the vacant homes.

In March 2020, as government home-support orders began to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of homeless and precarious housing Angelenos broke into some of the homes with the intention of staying. In response to demands to open properties, the state has rented 26 previously vacant units to the city as temporary residences, and about a dozen families who entered the homes last spring are now staying there, officials said. from the city.

A second staged attempt to take over the day before Thanksgiving 2020 erupted into chaos as activists clashed with California Highway Patrol agents who in some cases violently kicked out those who broke into in 19 other houses.

The drama over the 21-month period was just the latest chapter in decades of struggles over what the highway plans forged.

The cities of Alhambra and South Pasadena fought a vitriolic political battle over whether the extension of the highway should take place. Those in the Alhambra argued that they had to deal with the disruption and vehicle exhaust of the freeway traffic that ended in their town due to opposition from the wealthy in South Pasadena to the 710 crossing. their city.

A Caltrans official once described the inter-city feuds as “like the Hatfields and the McCoys.”

At one point, building the longest continuous road tunnel in the United States by digging underground was proposed as a possible solution to the gap in the freeway. In the end, federal officials withdrew their approval for the project, and local leaders redirected hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for its construction to other efforts.

The project’s death in 2018 coincided with the state’s growing affordable housing problems, so attention quickly turned to the plight of Caltrans-owned properties. Efforts to sell them have also been marred by political dysfunctions and red tape. Last year, a state bill to reduce regulations around the sale of homes failed because lawmakers did not put it to a vote before the passing deadline.

De León said on Friday it was time to overcome all these issues.

“We can turn a dark time into a wonderful time for everyone in El Sereno,” the city councilor said.

Los Angeles Times

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