Friday, August 5, 2011

Perspectives from the year 2007 :: "The NEXT LA"

The Next Los Angeles

L.A. has more people per square mile than any urban area in the country, and over the next two decades it’s going to add millions of new residents. Can smart growth stave off impending citywide gridlock?


eighborhood activist Anne Schermerhorn is not the kind of woman who cries over city ordinances. But there she is, tearing up during the public comment period at a meeting of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission on the 10th floor at City Hall. The frustration, she explains, has been so intense. 

“We’ve been fighting these developments for two and a half years,” Schermerhorn is trying to tell the commission, “and this is the first time we’ve been heard by the city … .”

For a moment there, she can’t go on.

Schermerhorn is attempting for the third time to lobby the powers that be for an Interim Control Ordinance, or ICO, a little bit of jargon that would grant Glassell Park and other Northeast L.A. neighborhoods some control over how big, how high, and how environmentally damaging new developments can be in the hillsides ringing downtown. Like Echo Park, Mount Washington, and Atwater Village that surround it, Glassell Park is the latest working-class neighborhood to be targeted by home-buyers and developers looking to capitalize on lower-priced properties. But the intentions of these new property owners has become an issue. Groups like North East Trees, Occidental College, the Latino Urban Forum, and the Anahuak Youth Soccer Association have sent word that they support more regulated development, and José Carlos Romero, the city’s own head planner for the area, dims the lights and offers up a Power Point presentation graphically testifying to the “urgency” of the problem.

“You’ve provoked us to a better place,” Commission President Jane Usher says, and an hour later, the ICO is approved. But it’s destined to be a short honeymoon between Schermerhorn and the Department of Planning.

Two weeks later, Schermerhorn informs me she and her group HESC – the Hillside Environmental and Safety Coalition – are suing the city over an eight-house development they believe is being constructed in defiance of city codes but has somehow garnered city approval. The way she sees it, “We were stabbed in the back by city council.”

In the past 12 months, land use conflicts have triggered charges of anti-Semitism in Valley Village, dragged Montecito Heights residents into arbitration over the right to walk across one man’s lawn, and prompted Venice’s neighborhood council to question whether its neighborhood could just stop growing altogether, putting a temporary halt to all commercial development along its major thoroughfares.

All over the city, this clash is repeated, in neighborhood after neighborhood. Why have things gotten so heated? Numbers tell the story: in 2000, the city issued 106,000 building permits. In 2006, it handed out 153,000. Developers have indeed reacted to a booming real estate market, but they are also finally accommodating a mushrooming population. In the last 20 years, some five million additional Angelenos took up residence here, while only one new housing unit was built for every two families. As of the 2000 Census, the Los Angeles area officially became the densest urban region in the U.S., besting New York City and its suburbs by nearly 2,000 people per square mile.

And we’re growing. Experts are now predicting that we’ve got to make space for another two-to-five million neighbors before 2030. (If you’re of a mind that 700 miles of fencing could prevent this, you can put down your trowel right now. Anywhere between 40 to 80 percent of L.A.’s projected growth will come from the birth rate of its current residents alone.) At this point, it’s hard to argue with a straight face that L.A. will live out its days as a gently sprawling haven for single-family homes and limitless automobiles. One way or another, our fair city is about to become incredibly dense, and rapidly. The question is – are the city’s leaders up to the task of managing that density in a smart way? It won’t work, of course, to simply deny growth. It’s going to happen, no matter what.

“We get that we have to house this population, and there is a lot of support in my community for mixed-use apartment buildings nearer transit corridors,” says Helene Schpak, who is working with Schermerhorn to mitigate Glassell Park’s growing pains.

Instead, some residents say, the city is flouting its own codes as it offers a glut of more of the same – projects either in the worn-out suburban model or high-end luxury line, both of which may be out of touch with Angelenos’ needs, and both of which can’t help but overburden an already overtaxed infrastructure. As Barbara Broide, president of the Westwood South of Santa Monica Homeowners Association puts it, “We know we have a housing shortage, but if we have a shortage of $1.2 million condos, I don’t know.”

“Glassell Park is ground zero for these conflicts, and the problem is not the developers and it’s not the community. The problem is the city,” says Schpak. “Developers do what they do. It’s for the city to bracket what they do with guidelines.”

Poor Planning

Of all the historical forces that have contributed to creating the hell on wheels we call Los Angeles, the most significant could be that this is a developer-driven town. “It’s in the DNA of the city’s power structure [to approve as many developer applications as possible],” says one city hall veteran. So-called “smart growth” has not been on the city menu for several decades. Con Howe, who exited the planning department in 2005 after 13 years as its director, has been accused of presiding over an administration with an institutionalized disregard for zoning codes.

Which is complete turnaround from where we started. Planning, after all, literally created Los Angeles – a boomtown which owes its epic proportions to the awesome force of Midwestern boosterism – mainly through the use of thousands of miles of privately owned trolleys, quite a few of which were laid down in order to open land for developers. Yes, it was mass transit that set in motion Southern California sprawl and helped lay the blueprint for our megalopolis. Then the car companies did away with public transport in the 1950s and ’60s. And now the city is trying desperately to rebuild them into the scheme of things again, at outrageous expense, with maximum disruption.

Last October, city Controller Laura Chick released an audit lambasting the department for a host of bad habits and wrong thinking, and this February, when former San Diego planner Gail Goldberg was installed as Howe’s replacement, a six-months-to-reform clock began ticking. Not everybody feels they have the luxury of waiting to see how that story turns out, however.

Up in Glassell Park, the story is a familiar one. Old homes are torn down or gutted for massive renovation. Some by homeowners, some by speculators, eager to capitalize on the urban real estate boom.

“Our hillsides are so fragile and falling apart as we speak,” Schermerhorn says. “We are not [fighting the city] because of one house. We’re here because of 136 houses. No one in the city ever takes into account: Is this one out of two permits or one out of 200?”

Legally speaking, there is some question as to when the city can factor in cumulative effects, as most smaller developments are considered “by right,” and often fly under the radar of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a state law designed to ensure that a project’s impacts are mitigated.
But that’s potentially a bureaucratic sleight of hand with absurdist repercussions. “According to the code, the city can only grant a zoning variance on a unique basis,” Schermerhorn says. “All 136 developers asked for a variance. There is no more meaning to the word unique.”

Perhaps the word city officials ought to be searching for is “vision,” as in “The city has no vision,” says James Rojas, an urban planner and founding member of the Latino Urban Forum, a volunteer band of architects, planners, and transportation experts working to improve the city’s built environment. LUF advocates for ideas like linking land use policies to transportation systems and comprehensive, citywide thinking that gives considerable thought to how strict zoning codes in, say, Larchmont get played out in the overcrowded apartments of under-regulated East L.A. “The city needs to connect all these dots,” Rojas says.

There have been a number of recent projects that get it right, advocates say. In Pasadena, developers created Paseo Colorado, a mélange of housing, dining, and shopping designed to generate a community hub. In Lincoln Heights, two mixed-use, mixed-income projects near a transit stop are promising to transform an industrial wasteland into a residential community, and Boyle Heights residents have rallied around the re-imagining of an underutilized Sears warehouse as a live/work/play space destined to be just as accessible by the Gold Line’s extension as by automobile.

Avenue of the Cars

For decades, L.A.’s Westside has been the breezy, wide-open cousin to the rapidly urbanizing East end. Since 2003, however, 3,000 condominiums have sprung up in West L.A. alone, and 1,700 more are currently gearing up to break ground. Overall, the Westside still averages out to a less cramped population per square mile, but neighborhoods to the left of Doheny have started feeling the pinch and are wary of what the future could bring.

“There are a number of developments we’re watching right now,” says Michael Eveloff, president of Tract 7260, a homeowners association in West L.A. Among these concerns, Eveloff lists the New Century Plan at the Westfield mall in Century City, which would bring residential units to a formerly commercial area, the adaptive reuse overhaul of the Robinsons-May department store at the Beverly Hilton, and the redevelopment of a condo building on Bellwood Avenue that could double the building’s current occupancy.

“We’re not anti-development,” clarifies Eveloff. “There are no evil empires here. We have a great working relationship with developers.”
But with land selling at exorbitant prices – “A parcel on Santa Monica Boulevard just sold for $110 million,” Eveloff says, “That’s just for the dirt” – even as the housing market cools, many worry that developers will be under extra pressure to maximize profits by pushing the envelope on density.
And in the meantime, “I can’t think of a single development [Councilmember Jack] Weiss hasn’t endorsed,” Eveloff says. “There are no plans for infrastructure, but plenty of plans for developments. Weiss does a lot of great things, and you can’t confuse little and big issues, but on big issues, it seems that the councilmember is not our friend.”

On March 15, Weiss told the Los Angeles Times that the Westfield project would improve the neighborhood’s appeal as a Westside destination. Eveloff says his jury is still out on the Westfield plan, and they are happy to keep an open mind as they learn more. What concerns them is that Weiss has apparently already made up his own mind. “Weiss came out in favor of the Westfield project without speaking to a single constituent, as far as we can tell,” says Eveloff.

Residents on the Westside are still smarting over a 2003 project rubber-stamped by the planning department on the basis of environmental data from the late ’70s. The developer had applied to transform a vacant lot into a 35-unit/21-story tower under the assumption that nothing in the neighborhood had changed since the Carter administration. The community begged to differ.

“Sometimes it seems like the [environmental studies] are more about meeting deadlines and doing the process than about studying the effects,” says Broide. “A lot of us feel we go through the process and when we listen to the responses, frequently the questions were never answered. We don’t have the access, we don’t have the high-paid lobbyists. When I’m at city council standing behind the rope, waiting for my turn to speak, I watch lobbyists walking around me to talk to the councilmembers. It’s a hopeless feeling.”

“Like with many other issues, some areas of the city are better organized and feel more empowered than others,” says Lisa Hansen, Weiss’s deputy chief of staff. According to Hansen, Weiss remains confident there will be ample time for public input on projects like Westfield as the environmental review progresses. “The neighborhood council system offers a new arena for community input. Certainly, all councilmembers strive to ensure fair public processes.”

From his vantage point in Northeast L.A., though, District 14 City Councilmember José Huizar has seen how ensuring equal public access can get a little tricky. “Absolutely, I think there is an industry in this city with attorneys and developers who know how to work the system better than residents do,” Huizar says. Vice-chair of the Planning and Land Use Management committee, Huizar – along with Weiss and committee chair Councilmember Ed Reyes of District 1 – hears from eight to 20 cases a week in the council’s busiest committee.
“I think there is a gap,” Reyes says, “between the expectation of what the law says you should be doing versus what you should be doing. We have to fill that gap in education.”

And there’s the irony. Reyes, Huizar, CD13’s Eric Garcetti, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa have been preaching the gospel of smart growth for years, and yet, Reyes says, projects get stalled or innovative ideas reach the council dead on arrival, victims of the system, the sanctity of property rights, or NIMBYism.

“We are just beginning to build the internal capacity to effect these changes. It took me three years to change the zoning in Lincoln Heights and get permitted a mixed-income housing complex next to the Gold Line,” says Reyes. “Three years and that’s one location. To do this on a wholesale level across the city, we’re not prepared.”

To fully appreciate this irony, know that Huizar is Schermerhorn’s councilmember. He professes to agree with her on every point and put his beliefs into the public record even as the city attorney convinced him that backing her appeal could be construed as a “capricious and arbitrary” decision by the developer, which would then open the city up to possible litigation. Schermerhorn’s lawyer is now using Huizar’s speech to the council as the basis for her lawsuit against the city.

“If residents keep challenging these developments on the CEQA basis, it won’t stand up in court,” Huizar says. “I’m trying to find ways to make changes at the policy level.”

Vision of the Future

Say the word “density” to Diego Cardoso, and it’ll be 10 minutes before you can get another word in edgewise. Cardoso is a bundle of kinetic energy on a mission. He’s also one of L.A.’s new planning commissioners. “This is a very, very important premise,” Cardoso begins his soliloquy. “Density is the outcome of other goals. What we’re trying to do is build a livable city. If you just say we’re going to add more density, that doesn’t make sense.”

In about two to three months, Cardoso says, the planning commission will be ready to articulate a new vision for the city of Los Angeles, heavily shaped by Villaraigosa’s smart growth platform and councilmember feedback. But anyone swinging by the Department of Building & Safety with a permit application is already hearing about what sort of changes are afoot.

Picture if you will, Cardoso’s dream: lofty high rises line up along Wilshire, Olympic, and a number of other strategic locations where developers can trade parking spaces for ground-level storefronts and subway access, then moving away from major boulevards and transit stops, densities fading into smaller, single-family neighborhoods. L.A.’s doctrine of separate use is reorganized, so that residents can walk to the office, have lunch at a sidewalk café, take in a movie, and stroll through the park, all in the radius of a few blocks. Let both the Exposition Line and the Red Line stretch out to the ocean, ride your bike from Canoga Park to downtown alongside a re-greened and newly non-toxic L.A. River, and landscape a three-block chunk of open space into the center of downtown. Oh, and – this is where Cardoso, a painter as well as a transportation planner, brings a little artistic license to redesigning L.A.’s urban landscape – in 30 years, tear up any unnecessary miles of disused freeway. “Sure, it will happen,” Cardoso says. “The Embarcadero in San Francisco used to be a double-decker freeway.”

Back here on earth, even Cardoso acknowledges that reality is proving much more complicated. “I think we have a system of government and an economy that hasn’t worked well with large-scale design,” he says.

“The Westside is very dense,” Cardoso says. “But it doesn’t have choices in transportation. Century City is probably one of the best examples of a city that can only be accessed and navigated by car.”

These pesky little actualities have homeowners pleading for a slow and cautious advance into the wild new frontier of increased density.
“It seems a little disingenuous to put density on transportation corridors when those corridors aren’t moving,” Broide says.
“One thing you have to take into account, for instance, in Century City, they’re talking about adding a residential population where there wasn’t one before,” Eveloff says.

Exactly, Hansen says. “Century City employs 40,000 people, if new housing makes it possible for some of those people to walk to work, that will reduce traffic.”

After fighting a number of battles with city officials simply to make departments enforce their own regulations, though, Eveloff says many residents have adopted a trust-but-verify approach to municipal promises. To him, it makes sense to build the infrastructure first. “If we could snap our fingers and have the Red Line appear here, that’d be great,” he says. “A lot of people used to not want it, but now are thinking that might have been a mistake.”
The notion of reviving the Red Line’s expansion is once again under consideration at city hall, but should any residents feel their officials appear a little gun-shy on the subject, Reyes says that shouldn’t come as a surprise. “There’s been a lot of push-back focused on those officials who suggested mass transit,” he says “In the world of term limits, who’s going to expend that kind of political capital?”
“If there’s no strong push for change, things stay the status quo,” Huizar says. “With the Northeast L.A. ICO, it took Ed and myself to make sure the planning department focused on that. [Going forward] it’s going to take the council and mayor to make sure we move some of these entrenched interests.”

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