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The Real Deal Los Angeles

Leung pushes to move Sea Breeze project ahead despite DA investigation

Developer of 352-unit condo allegedly funneled $600K in contributions to local pols
By Cathaleen Chen | May 24, 2017 05:30PM

Mayor Eric Garcetti, Council member Joe Buscaino and a rendering of the Sea Breeze project at 1309 Sepulveda Boulevard (Credit: City Planning, LA Mayor, LA 15th District)

The developer of Sea Breeze, a major Harbor Gateway residential project that became a symbol of the city’s shady entitlement process, is forging ahead despite an investigation into his clandestine donations to local politicians.

New city filings show that Samuel Leung, of A&M Properties, applied for a vesting tentative tract map application with the planning department last week. If the application were approved, Leung could develop condos rather than rentals.

A spokesperson for the city confirmed to The Real Deal that the project was progressing.

Leung allegedly funneled $600,000 in campaign contributions to local politicians through more than 100 of his associates in order to garner support for the $72 million project, according to an October investigation by the Los Angeles Times.

Following the Times’ story, the L.A. District Attorney’s office announced it would investigate the donations at hand, which went to half a dozen lawmakers including U.S. Rep. Janice Hahn, Council member Joe Buscaino, Council member Jose Huizar, and a committee that supported Mayor Eric Garcetti.

If approved, it would mean the developer would have the option to convert rental units into condos, according to a land use consultant not connected to the project, which calls for 352 units at 1309 Sepulveda Boulevard.

“If [A&M] feels confident enough to submit the condo conversion application at this point in the development, then I doubt it faced any pushback from the city,” said the consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“The project will be in two phases, each comprising of 176 units,” the vesting tentative tract map reads. “Both phases are currently under construction.”

Leung and A&M Properties could not be reached for comment.

Leung initially filed for the development in 2009, city records show. Both the planning department as well as the city’s Planning Commission rejected the proposal a few years later, claiming the site was zoned for heavy industry and therefore not appropriate for dense housing.

Garcetti, however, pulled out all the stops to ensure Sea Breeze would happen: He invoked a rarely used mayoral prerogative to reduce the number of council votes needed to approve the project, allowing council members to override the commission’s rejection. It was officially approved in February 2015.

A spokesperson from the L.A. district attorney’s office said in a statement that the investigation is still underway.

But even a D.A. investigation wouldn’t derail the project, experts said, given the council’s legally binding approval.

“It’s of the planning department’s purview now, since approval was already granted by the City,” the land use consultant said. “So now it’s more of a Building and Safety issue, which would prevent the project from going forward if it violates the conditions of approval.”

Anti-density housing advocates have long lamented the opaque process through which L.A. lawmakers approve developments. It was one of the main issues raised by proponents of Measure S, the controversial ballot initiative that called for a two-year suspension of all projects that require land use variances.

But in the case of Sea Breeze, Council member Buscaino, who represents the Gateway Harbor district, said the project was vital to counter the city’s housing shortage crisis.

“If I didn’t get one penny for this project, I’d still support it,” he told the Times in October.

In the span of seven years, he received $94,700 in campaign donations from Leung and his associates.