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New housing development takes root across from Mariachi Plaza

A few months ago, residents and merchants in Boyle Heights persuaded the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority to rethink plans to develop historic Mariachi Plaza. But a new development on Metro-owned land is about to get going across the street – something locals say caught them by surprise.

Many first heard about the project just months ago: An 80-unit apartment building on the southwest corner of First Street and Boyle Avenue, diagonally across from the plaza, where Metro’s plan to build retail and medical office space was rejected by residents.

“The concern came up about this development right after the Mariachi Plaza fiasco,” said Joel Garcia, who works east of the plaza along First Street. “This development, just kind of like - out of nowhere.”

But Metro officials say this building has been in the works for some time. The development, which will be called the Santa Cecilia Apartments, was approved in 2009 but never broke ground. They say the building will contain affordable housing units, about half of them reserved for residents making less than half the region’s average median income.

Locals say they aren’t opposed to affordable housing. Still, they fear the displacement of residents and local businesses. They want input on issues like parking, and what goes into planned ground-floor retail space in the new building.

“That is a key thing, making sure the businesses here are catering to the residents that are already here,” Garcia said, “and not to a future stock of residents that will be brought in.”  

Garcia joined local artists and students who mounted a protest at the construction site last month. They conducted a survey of what local residents would like to see on the site. During the rally, they tied ribbons with those messages – like, for example, “green space” – to the fence surrounding the still-vacant lot.

The controversy over the apartments comes just as MTA officials try to build trust in the neighborhood, following the uproar over the Mariachi Plaza project. Metro says they will  eventually come up with a new proposal for the plaza and seek the community’s approval. 

Agency Project Manager Vivian Rescalvo said the Mariachi Plaza experience got the community more engaged in development plans – and the agency wants to work with them.

“We need to continually be vigilant about engaging the community and working with them, and make them part of the process,” Rescalvo said. “Before that, maybe they felt that they weren’t. So we really want them to be a part of it.”

At the heart of both controversies is a fear of gentrification from the west, as upscale development downtown continues. Metro has other development projects in the area, but the iconic plaza – named for the musicians that have long gathered there – especially drew residents to band together in opposition.

“There are a lot of major development projects in Boyle Heights,” said Carlos M. Montes, president of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council, which has also voiced concern about the new apartments. “Our main concern is that it doesn’t displace our local residents who have loved here and worked here for many years.”

Infrastructure is also a problem: For example, he said, a laundromat and a grocery store were lost to the Metro Gold Line development years ago.

While residents hope to have a voice at the table as the apartment project begins, it is moving forward: A spokeswoman for developer McCormack Baron Salazar said their contractor has received a notice to proceed, meaning construction could begin as soon as next week. The building is expected to be finished within 15 months.

Meanwhile, Metro is planning to put out a request for proposals from design consultants within the next month for Mariachi Plaza. Rescalvo said this time, the agency plans to talk proposals through with residents.

“I think we should have an open mind, and let the community decide what should be there,” Rescalvo said.