LA Planning Commission Greenlights Onni’s Mammoth Times Mirror Project

The Canadian firm agreed to include 34 “middle-income” units within the 1.5-million-square-foot mixed-use development across from City Hall.

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The Los Angeles City Planning Commission (CPC) has advanced Onni Group’s mammoth 1.51-million-square-foot Times Mirror Square project set for the heart of Downtown.

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The commission spent much of the hearing criticizing the project’s design and lack of affordable housing for a project that will add nearly 1,130 units across from city hall amid a yearslong housing and affordability crisis. But in the middle of deliberations, the Canadian developer said they will designate 34 units — about three percent of the total — to “middle income” residents, and won the appreciation and praise of the commissioners.

“That’s what I’m talking about, Onni,” Commissioner David Ambroz said. “My priority is people, and this project is blocks from Skid Row…So anything that goes towards ameliorating the housing crisis, I support that idea, and I think it’s a gracious offer.”

The development would span a full city block bounded by Broadway, Spring, 1st, and 2nd Streets. While adding 1,127 units and two new towers to the city’s skyline, the project includes rehabilitating the historic Times, Plant and Mirror Buildings into 307,300 square feet of modern office space, and adding a new 50,000-square-foot grocery store and 18,817-square-foot restaurant.

Now that it’s passed through the CPC, the project will next be considered by the city council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee

CPC had previously delayed their vote on the project due to concerns over design, lack of onsite affordable housing, and the firm’s plan to use public benefit payments on historic preservation of the existing historic buildings, because it would benefit Onni more than the public.

Along with design changes to the towers, Onni said the firm will take the funding designated for historic preservation and instead use it to include the 34 “middle-income” units with the project. With the remaining $4.65 million in direct public benefit payments, 92 percent ($4.28 million) will also now go to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, and 8 percent will go to the general parks fund.

Originally, Onni planned to spend $23.91 million (including $11.95 million in cash to the city) for the Transfer of Floor Area Rights (TFAR) to allow for extra space for the Times Mirror Square project. The funding included $3.65 million for the citywide affordable housing fund, $1 million for the Pershing Square Renovation Fund, and the $7.3 million onsite historic renovation of the Times, Plant and Mirror buildings. 

After commissioners raised concerns about the TFAR payments going to restore and improve the value of Onni’s property and “not to the public,’ Onni proposed taking the $7.3 million for historic preservation costs, and instead include 34 workforce units in the project. 

“We need every category of housing that will help people stay in L.A.,” said Commissioner Marc Mitchell. “For people who are in the workforce, for people who are currently homeless — it is all over the map and socio-economic levels of people who need help to have housing to stay in L.A., and so, this is a great gesture and step in that direction.”

No Onsite Affordable Housing

Dale Goldsmith, representing Onni at the hearing, explained that since the project does not require a zone change, general plan amendment, or density bonus incentives, that no onsite affordable housing is required for approval.

“Including onsite affordable housing would jeopardize the project’s financial viability,” Goldsmith said at the planning hearing. “It has taken almost four years to get to this point in the entitlement process. During that time, construction costs have risen by more than 35 percent…In addition, COVID-19 has affected both the financing markets and the future sales price and rental rates for the project.”

The Canadian firm purchased the Times Mirror Square complex in 2016 for $120 million, and Goldsmith said they made the deal based on TFAR rules, and “did not factor in onsite affordable because there was no such requirement.”

Still, the CPC criticized the project for not including affordable units when they have been one of the most prominent developers in the residential boom downtown. 

“Facing city hall, and ignoring the crisis our city is facing is pitiful,” Ambroz said.

They also criticized Onni for trying to use TFAR payments to improve its own site, rather than add to the affordable housing fund. 

“I mean, we are talking about a major project with over 1,000 dwelling units across the street from city hall, with no onsite affordable,” said Commissioner Vahid Khorsand. “I don’t think that’s a good look for the city, not just us as a commission…An entire city block not having any onsite affordable that we approved, and I personally don’t feel comfortable with that.”

Deciding Design

The CPC also remained less than enthused by updated designs. 

Architect Paul Coleman, principal and COO at AC Martin, presented revised designs to respond to concerns that the project was too “boxy” and flat on top. He said the new designs are more in sync with the surroundings and historic buildings, with a more pedestrian-oriented base.

“This paseo will become a known, local destination in downtown,” Coleman said.

CPC President Samantha Millman said it is “a really important site and the architecture should be excellent and iconic.” 

“I think we’re moving in the right direction, but we’re not quite there yet,” she said. “Because this applicant has been responsive to the feedback we’re giving them, and because there are significant carrying costs associated with delays in their approvals, I want to set them down the path for approvals.”

Commissioner Karen Mack called it “boring, boring, boring;” Ambroz called aspects of the designs “banal;” and Commissioner Caroline Choe said it was “not world-class at all.”

“I think there could be a lot more done, especially because it’s such a meaningful building,” Choe said. “Do we really want it to look like another apartment building or condo that Onni owns?”

Ambroz criticized the “top hat” at the top of the building, “which is on every other Onni project downtown.” 

“If you look at Google and you look at some of the buildings they built down there, it’s the same, I call it a top hat…I am exhausted with top hats and ‘flat,’” he said. “I am looking for some angular features in L.A.’s skyline. And I support the angular [option].”

CPC directed Onni to create a tower that “should be unique and iconic with design elements that recognize, but are distinct from, the adjoining L.A. Times building,” and the roofline “should add creative flair to the city skyline deviating from the flat roof line common in Downtown L.A., while taking notes from the adjoining structures in the civic center area.”