EASTSIDER-The Developer vs. NELA Open Space fight is one we Angelenos understand all too well. What makes this dispute different is that there is a rational developer, and based on the respective positions of the two sides, there should be a solution that works for all. Since that hasn’t happened, the question is “why the heck not?” For the scene, the struggle, and possible solutions, read on.
For those of you who don’t know, Glassell Park is that series of hills near downtown LA, bordered by the Glendale Freeway on the west, and the 5 Freeway on the south. Recently overwhelmed by a wave of gentrification, suddenly a small home in these hills is going for something like $600,000 - $800,000 and beyond.
Aside from proximity to downtown, one of the main attractions of what was a sleepy little community is the presence of 4 or 5 (depending on how you count) of the last open space canyons in the City, preserving native species from critters to trees in a natural habitat.
Over the last 15 years or so, these canyons have been ground zero for hotly contested disputes between developers, who see a great commercial opportunity, and a variety of community based groups, such as the Glassell Park Improvement Association (a homeowners group), the Glassell Park Neighborhood Council, the Mt. Washington Homeowners Association, and a coalition of open space groups under the umbrella of Nelagreenspace.
To no one’s surprise, the amount of this open space has diminished to the point that we are essentially left with two large open spaces -- Walnut Canyon and Moss Canyon (Barryknoll is already in the midst of development.)
The Shifting Sands of Northeast LA Politics
Over these same fifteen years, there have been three Council Districts involved with Glassell Park -- CD1, CD13, and CD14. During that time, the political elite of the City have seen fit to gerrymander the area covered by each of these three districts so that there is little political continuity, a fact which I believe has led to the tenuous interest of the current crop of Councilmembers in actually giving a damn about the folks who live here. Two of our three Councilmembers (Huizar and Cedillo) are on the PLUM Committee.
For example, our very own Mayor, Eric the Bold, used to have a good chunk of the community in CD13, but that has now diminished to a teeny area mostly around San Fernando Road and Fletcher Square. The District is now run by his former staff person, Mitch O’Farrell.
CD14, which used to encompass most of Glassell Park when Antonio Villaraigosa was the Councilmember, got shrunk to a pittance after his successor, Jose Huizar, decided he could make more money selling off Boyle Heights and Downtown LA.
And finally, CD1, which was run by that paragon of planning, Ed Reyes, got radically expanded in the last redistricting exercise, and is now under the tutelage of Gilbert Cedillo. His district now includes the bulk of these canyons.
I think the redistricting shuffle is a pretty good variation of three card monte, and gives you a clue as to exactly how rotten the state of politics currently is on Northeast LA.
That said, accompanying the gerrymandering there has been an equal upheaval in how the politicians view Glassell Park. Back in the day, our Three Amigos (Reyes, Huizar, and Garcetti) were dead against building in the hills. They passed a bunch of legally questionable Interim Control Ordinances, Community Design Overlays, Q Conditions and many more bogus “planning tools,” all of which had the effect of stopping virtually all building of single family homes in the hills.
The open space people were ecstatic, but some of us noticed that the real thrust of the Council actions were aimed against the right of individual people like you and me to be able to build our own home on a lot in the hills. They didn’t touch their big time campaign contribution base of large developers. The land was being warehoused.
Of note, the bulk of the people wanting to build were multicultural families who had owned these lots for some time, and simply wanted to build their family a home. In other words, people with no real money and therefore no political power.
Then came the housing crash in 2007-2008, and god took care of the hillsides for a while. Instead of open space, we all concentrated on figuring out how to cope with a 40% drop in the value of our homes, not to mention staying employed to pay the bills.
The Adobe at Glassell Park
Now the worm has turned, and housing near downtown is hot! Silverlake properties are largely unattainable, unless you are running an Airbnb party house, and anything around Echo Park has popped up like pot grown in a hothouse. We in Glassell Park (and to some extent, Cypress Park) have gotten discovered as the next great thing.
In the midst of all this, along came the developers of The Adobe at Glassell Park, a four-acre piece of the 30-acre Walnut Canyon. Unfortunately for those who want to preserve the canyon, Adobe has the legal ability to build 32 single family homes on their four acres. This is because that land was zoned and 32 lots were approved way back when.
With virtually no inventory in Glassell Park and a housing comeback, in 2014 the developers got serious about moving forward with their plan. It’s Unusual for developers, but these folks actually did engage the community and have a number of community meetings. Furthermore (gasp), they were and continue to be open to selling their property as open space, for a park or such, and reaffirmed this willingness last Saturday at the Glassell Park Community Center.
On the other hand, this is a capitalist country (even before Trump), and the developers are interested in making a decent profit out of the deal. Duh.
Saturday’s Meeting at the Glassell Park Community Center
On January 28, a community meeting was held at our community center, a space leased by Council District One. The event (and thank you very much) was cosponsored by the Glassell Park Improvement Association and the Glassell Park Neighborhood Council.
As usual, the crowd was huge, and the rhetoric was as toxic as the bike lane meetings were in Highland Park/Cypress Park/Glasell Park. Toxic indeed. While it is clear that the community will do everything in its power to stop the development and preserve Walnut Canyon, it is equally clear that the owners have a right to build, and the most the community can hope to do is delay the project, not stop it.
I think it is that frustration which has led to the vehemence in attempting to block the project, a frustration over our community’s lack of political power to preserve the canyons.
Of course an unmentioned fact is that most of the groups in our area supported the loser in the last race for CD1: Ed Reyes’ Chief of Staff Jose Gardea. In an almost $2 million dollar campaign, Gil Cedillo won by 52% to 48%. And wouldn’t you know it, the Mt. Washington crowd was prominent in the Gardea camp, many of whom had some pretty incendiary things to say about Mr. Cedillo. I won’t say that elections have consequences, but I haven’t seen a lot of kiss and make up since the election. Sigh.
The real problem is that public institutions have failed in step up to actually do something to preserve what little open space there is left in Glassell Park. For example, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and its OberGrupenFuhrer ‘Ranger Joe’ Edmiston, has been too busy posturing to come up with the money from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy to buy the land.
It also turns out that the spiffy new Measure “A” Parks money which was just passed by the voters won’t really be available until sometime in 2019. After all the hype it turns out that even then the funds will be up for grabs by various denizens of the Supervisorial District. So good luck to our local open space folks.
That leaves the City of Los Angeles. It seems to me that this is a grand opportunity for Council District 1 to see about some fresh ideas on how to keep Walnut Canyon as open space. God knows the rest of LA is turning into a concrete jungle, a place where the only open spaces are the potholes.
There is precedent for the City stepping up for open space. After all, a few years ago Jose Huizar proudly bought Elephant Hill for over $9 million bucks and hailed it as a great victory.
The value of a pristine canyon or two is inestimable to all the citizens of Los Angeles, particularly those people squashed into outrageously priced condos in the downtown area. Maybe Huizar could help out, since he runs the PLUM Committee. He, after all, was the one who gerrymandered his way out of Northeast LA in favor of downtown, and I think his constituents just might like to take a ride and see a tree, or a critter, in a canyon.
(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.