Bowtie Project, Glassell Park, Los Angeles River

Action Alert: Massive Luxury Complex on LA River in Glassell Park/Atwater Is Not “Revitalization”

In Archive by David Futch

Pan Am Equities is set to unveil its mega-development plan for 6 acres on the Los Angeles River, at the Atwater Village Neighborhood Council’s Land Use Committee meeting, 7 p.m. Wednesday, September 21, at Christ’s Church Griffith Park, 3852 Edenhurst Ave., 90039. The massive project is not allowed by the riverside zoning, yet the developer is demanding a zone change — and that no Environmental Impact Report be required.

Bringing the Los Angeles River back to life is supposed to be about re-imagining the river as it was, without concrete and with people. That’s how Los Angeles City Hall politicians sold it.

Instead of condos, chain stores and cars, there would be parks and green space. Happy parents and kids could dip their toes in cool waters while lolling on the banks of the Big Ditch. Maybe even do a little fishing or kayaking. Maybe get bicycling snacks at a little cafe.

But just two years after City Hall got deeply involved, “revitalization” doesn’t seem to be about that at all. Revitalization is bumping up against luxury housing “redevelopment.” The greening is taking a back seat to a developer land grab with a view — gentrification to follow.  Working-class residents and river lovers see big developers paying big money for Los Angeles land, then seeking favors from the City Council to change the zoning. The plan is to transform much of the riverside with luxury rentals and unaffordable box-like condo complexes. And residents are scared.

“A friend of mine called what’s happening on the river ‘Chinatown 2.0,’” said one lifelong Atwater Village resident, referencing the classic 1974 Roman Polanski movie Chinatown, about the human cost and corruption involved in  bringing water to LA.

Not a happy movie. Neither are today’s goings on.

This is far bigger than folks living in Atwater Village or Glassell Park or Studio City or Elysian Valley or downriver in Boyle Heights can fully conceive. This is about the stealth takeover and gentrification of the L.A. River for profit, not for the public.

Where are the citywide public hearings at which the people themselves discuss and hammer out what the Los Angeles River, a public waterway, should become? They’re nowhere.

One project making residents fear that the story ends with them getting pushed and priced out of their own homes is called 2800 Casitas, part of the Bow Tie, a now-retired train-switching yard that, from the air, resembles a bow tie.

It started earlier this year when Manhattan-based development billionaires paid $22 million for 5.7 acres. You only lay down that kind of cash when you think somebody at L.A. City Hall is going to let you bend and break the rules to build a mega-development. The developer’s envisioned 2800 Casitas project is next to a proposed 18.6-acre state park that borders Atwater Village and also makes up part of the old Bow Tie switching yard.

Parks are what city leaders promised.

In August, the Manocherian family, New York gazillionaires who own a staggering 85-plus buildings in Manhattan, and are behind 2800 Casitas LLC, asked City Hall to throw out the land-use rules. They want the City Council to “spot rezone” the land, changing it from heavy manufacturing to “limited industrial.” Spot rezoning the property, bordered by Kerr Street and Casitas Avenue, the river and the 2 Freeway, would let the Manocherians erect a massive development of 419 apartments — 35 of them affordable —- and 39,600 square feet of commercial space.

Pan Am Equities, the parent company of 2800 Casitas LLC, is owned by the Manocherian family, according to The Real Deal – Los Angeles Real Estate News. This is thought to be their first project outside of New York City. They probably heard that in Los Angeles, zoning means nothing these days. It’s for sale: Los Angeles City Hall politicians take money from developers, then the pols and the billionaires ignore our land-use rules.

For generations, Los Angeles residents have carved out public uses and modest communities along the channel made famous in many a movie from “Grease” to “Terminator II.” Only a handful of riverside residents saw any potential, ultimately attracting the attention of then-Mayor Richard Riordan who with Friends of the Los Angeles River championed an early bike path.

But recently, Mayor Eric Garcetti and the feds got involved. Now, billionaire developers are slaking their thirst for a good deal, and the less-fortunate who live along the river and know it best find themselves at the corner of squeezed and pushed out.

Los Angeles residents were excited yet skeptical when L.A. City Hall and the federal government embraced a $1 billion proposed L.A. River. Then many were shocked and taken aback when the media revealed that architect Frank Gehry and City Hall officials had secretly been working on plans for the L.A. River for more than a year. Again, no public hearings, no citywide debate. They feared Gehry would create a palette on which developers could paint over whoever and whatever’s there now. Frogtown beware.

California state residents collectively own an 18.6-acre piece of land, called the Bow Tie Parcel, that’s supposed to become a state park as soon as the going rate of $1-million-to-$3-million-an-acre can be found. The Bow Tie park land is right next to the Manhattan developer’s proposed gigantic, box-like rows that make up the 2800 Casitas project.

For now, the state parks parcel is used by the non-profit artists’ organization Clockshop. The Frogtown-based group uses the park land for installations and performances, another legitimate use that many think of when they think “revitalization.”

At the Bowtie Project on LA River, "revitalization" means arts events like this Exile screening — not looming luxury apartments. Credit: Festival Ambulante

At the Bowtie Project on LA River, “revitalization” means arts events like this Exile screening — not looming luxury apartments. Credit: Festival Ambulante


Two years ago, Mayor Eric Garcetti called the Bow Tie “the crown jewel” of any large-scale restoration of the river. Then he gave his blessing to Gehry, whose firm is mum about its plans for the L.A. River. As if a firm whose business is building structures could secretly plan out a public waterway that touches dozens of communities.

Gehry is so secretive about what he’s doing that reporters are asked to sign non-disclosure agreements when they visit his office.

It’s not just about 419-units sought by a Manhattan builder who hopes to make a killing off the land after bending the rules in backdoor meetings at City Hall. It also fuels expectations among more and more speculators, that they’ll be able to line the river’s “waterfront” with their own rows of boxes. The Los Angeles Business Council Institute’s 32-page report says “many river-adjacent communities are ripe for revitalization and reinvestment bringing new amenities and job opportunities to a broad cross-section of the city and county population.”

Many locals interpret that as meaning gentrification will soon push them out, and untamed spaces will be fully jacketed in concrete and multi-stories.

One community activist who asked not to be identified has lived in the same Atwater Village home for 40 years. Her mother bought the small “cracker box” when things were still cheap. In recent years, gentrification has shifted from first gear to overdrive with homes like hers going for $900,000. “There’s been a frenzy of cash buyers.”

Luis Lopez of Luis Lopez Automotive thinks more parks and green space along the L.A. River is terrific – as long as the area’s infrastructure can handle it.

Lopez, who also serves as Atwater Village Chamber of Commerce executive director, says the neighborhood simply isn’t built for the level of redevelopment envisioned, which could bring thousands of cars and delivery trucks every day to the area’s unusually narrow and already busy streets.

In its filing with L.A. City Planning Department, the 2800 Casitas developers have asked for a stripped-down environmental review called a “mitigated negative declaration” which does not require an environmental study of impacts — not a traffic study or an air-quality analysis — and takes just 30 to 45 days. The more detailed “environmental impact report” (EIR) requires extensive study and can take up to a year. But even an EIR is tainted by the fact that they are written by consultants chosen by the developer, an obvious conflict of interest that the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative would prohibit.

Another Atwater Village activist has a pretty good handle on what’s going on riverside.

“I’m not opposed to development. I’m opposed to development where the ask is too high of neighbors who’ve already invested time and money into the community,” she said. “It’s not just about a river. It’s about people’s lives, investments, homes and future for all of us here now and for the people who don’t even live there yet.”

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