On Friday, March 3, 2023, Carstens, Black & Minteer LLP filed a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles on behalf of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), a UNIDAD coalition member, for failing to comply with the law when they overrode regulatory decisions and allowed publicly owned land in South Central Los Angeles to be developed into a luxury hotel. This over-33,000-square-foot vacant lot was formerly home to the Mary McLeod Bethune Library, which was demolished in 2010.
SAJE’s lawsuit challenges the failure of the City of Los Angeles and its City Council to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, Planning and Zoning law, and various Los Angeles Municipal Code provisions in approving a 168-room hotel building for the Bethune site.
“We believe the city abused its discretion in approving this hotel,” says Maria Patiño Gutierrez, Director of Policy and Research at SAJE. “Permits for this project were denied twice by regulatory agencies, but the city council nullified those decisions. As long as city officials are allowed to specially exempt land-use decisions in their districts from laws and regulatory processes, we are not going to solve our housing crisis.”
For a decade, the city promised the Bethune site would be used for affordable housing. In 2018, the city selected a proposal for a mixed-used development with over 100 residential units, more than half affordable. Then, in 2019, an RFP was suddenly issued for a commercial development, with no mention of affordable housing. Just four months later, the hotel proposal was selected. In October 2021, the City Zoning Administrator denied a conditional use permit for the hotel. The developer appealed to the South Los Angeles Area Planning Commission, but again, the permit was denied. Then, in January 2023, Council Member Marqueece Harris-Dawson introduced a motion to override these permit denials, and city council subsequently approved the hotel project on February 3. Five days later, Mayor Karen Bass issued an Emergency Declaration to inventory surplus public land for affordable housing. But rather than void the city council’s decision to build a hotel on public land, she signed off on it.
“The city council’s approval contravenes fundamental Community Plan and General Plan policies and programs that prioritize the development of much-needed affordable housing on public land,” says Sunjana Supekar, an attorney with Carstens, Black & Minteer.
“Over the years, hundreds of South Central residents tried to be involved in determining what would be built on the Bethune site. The message this city council maneuvering sends to constituents is: your voices don’t matter,” says Gutierrez.
SAJE hopes that this lawsuit will lead to this valuable, publicly owned land being used for affordable housing—as it was always intended to be—instead of being sold off to a private actor for private gain.
“We cannot hope to solve our affordable housing crisis if our elected officials continue to sidestep regulations put in place to ensure that public land is used for public good,” says Gutierrez.