SAJE Files Lawsuit Against the City for Approving a Luxury Hotel on Public Land

March 6, 2023

By Maria Patiño Gutierrez, Director of Policy and Research

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) 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 167-room hotel building for the Bethune site.

Community members express their opinion on public land.

For a decade, the city promised the Bethune site would be used for affordable housing. The Community Redevelopment Agency acquired the land and approved a proposal for a grocery store and 55-unit affordable housing project. That proposal fell through in 2012, after California dissolved redevelopment agencies across the state. In 2013, the site was added to Los Angeles’ Long Range Property Management Plan, and the city stated its intention to sell it to an affordable housing developer. In 2018, after a lengthy RFP process, the city selected a proposal for a mixed-used development with approximately 100 residential units, more than half affordable, and a cleantech business incubator.

Then, in 2019, another RFP for the Bethune site was suddenly issued, this one for a commercial development, with no mention of affordable housing. Just four months later, a proposal for a Marriott Hotel was selected. The selection process was hasty and lacked community input, and District 8 residents expressed concerns: Why was the city reneging on its promise to create a community-serving development? Why was the city suddenly prioritizing tourists’ needs over those of long-term residents? 

Even more puzzling, in December 2019, District 8 Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson introduced a motion to create a policy designating surplus public land for 100% affordable housing in Black and Latinx neighborhoods as a corrective to Los Angeles’ history of racist housing and land-use policies. Conveniently, the Bethune site, surplus public land in the council member’s own district, had been pre-exempted from this motion when it was promised to a hotel developer. 

In October 2021, the City Zoning Administrator held a public hearing to determine whether to grant a Conditional Use Permit to the hotel developer. It was attended by dozens of community members, neighborhood council representatives, and community organizations who opposed the project. The Zoning Administrator denied the permit, but the hotel developer pressed on, appealing in September 2022 to the South LA Area Planning Commission. Again, the Conditional Use Permit for the hotel was denied

This should have been the end of it. But in January 2023, Councilmember Harris-Dawson introduced a motion to override these permit denials. His motion passed, and it was referred to the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, which he chairs. On January 31, the committee voted almost unanimously in favor of permitting the hotel development, and their decision was approved by the full council on February 3.

Curiously, just five days later, Mayor Bass issued an Emergency Declaration to inventory surplus public land and assess its feasibility as sites for temporary and permanent housing. Rather than void city council’s decision to build a hotel on “viable city-owned property” of exactly the type her Executive Directive is meant to identify, she signed off on it. 

The Bethune saga is instructive because it underlines a larger problem with the way our city does business. As long as our council members are allowed to treat their districts as their own personal fiefdoms, where their land-use decisions are exempt from laws, regulatory processes, and emergency declarations, we are not going to solve our housing crisis. 

Furthermore, allowing our elected officials to carve the city up as they wish undermines public participation in planning and land-use decisions. Over the years, hundreds of South Central residents have tried to be involved in determining what would be built on the Bethune site. The message this city council maneuvering sends to constituents: your voices don’t matter.

Council district exceptionalism around land use is nothing new. In January, former Councilmember José Huizar pled guilty to accepting bribes from real estate developers in exchange for favorable treatment. Late last year, former Councilmembers Nury Martinez and Gil Cedillo and current Councilmember Kevin De Leon were caught on tape discussing how to use redistricting to pit Black and Brown voters against each other, disempower tenants, and secure economic resources to build their personal power and influence. And soon in downtown Los Angeles, the Angels Landing luxury hotel and condominium complex will rise on public land the city sold to developers. Under the Surplus Land Act, this site, adjacent to the historic Angel’s Flight funicular, should have been prioritized for affordable housing, but it was—you guessed it—exempted by special legislation in September 2022. Just 13 of the 252 apartments planned for Angel’s Landing will be designated affordable.

If the Los Angeles City Council is serious about solving our housing crisis, they should start prioritizing affordable housing in their own districts. We cannot hope to solve our homelessness crisis if our elected officials continue to sidestep regulations put in place to ensure that public land is used for public good.

You can read the full lawsuit here: BETHUNE LAWSUIT FILING