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Knock On Wood We Don’t Become Manhattanwood!

DEEGAN ON LA-Reform is in the air across the land, and it’s also evident in our city. The mood has been set by an angry national political debate that pits the 99% against the 1%, the haves versus the have-nots, and the far left against the far right. Here in LA, it’s more prosaic where there is a call to reform our out-of-control development plan for the city. People are angry and it’s bubbling up into lawsuits and litigation that have replaced reason. That must change. We must get a grip on land use. 

There’s a ballot measure planned for the November elections asking the voters to weigh in on the land use and development policies in our city. Already, leaked murmurs from City Hall are calling for appeasement and conciliation to prevent this from happening.  

But let’s not negotiate. The people need to speak on this one, not just compromise with politicians. Let’s get the issue out there to be fully vetted by the public; the public deserves to vote. Remember, it’s the people, not the revolving-door politicos, who make up the permanent government. 

Politicos at the root of the land use regulation problem have been served notice: fixing the mess they’ve made may be taken out of their hands if the proposed Neighborhood Integrity Initiative qualifies to appear on the November 8 ballot. It calls for a two-year timeout on all development that goes against existing zoning -- a hiatus for all the winks and nods and special zoning variance favors between the politicos and developers.  

Pro-growth advocates can be expected to do everything possible to halt this proposed ballot measure in its tracks. They are wealthy, enjoying unqualified political support at City Hall from the Mayor and City Councilmembers. This is why it is so crucial for the conversation to be elevated above the heads of the politicos to include the voice of the voters. If there’s a ballot measure in November the people will speak and the politicos will be forced to listen. No wonder the opposition is forming. 

The clock is ticking and the players are scrambling, some to advocate and others to assail. The stakes are as sky high as the developers want their new buildings to be. In the run-up to the November vote, they will face greater scrutiny and city planners will be held more accountable; politicos will no longer be the masters of their districts when it comes to land use decisions – decisions that, until now, have needed only their sign-off on a variance to skirt around any kind of land use rhyme or reason.  

Of all the players, the 15 councilmembers stand the most to lose. Financial support from developers is the high octane fuel powering the engines of many council offices and campaigns. Only one councilmember, David Ryu (CD4,) has a website showing the transparency of his dealings with developers who do business in his district. Knocked as a naive newcomer, Ryu may be the last man standing if the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative is passed by the voters on November 8. He looks even better because the others look so bad. 

Anti-development sentiment is widespread but fractured. Each neighborhood seems to form its own splinter group with its own take on what’s good for them. Many have been tarred as NIMBY’s -- a stigma that needs to change. A good start toward changing this perception has been launched by the Coalition to Preserve L.A. (CPLA) and its Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, a grassroots-driven ballot measure seeking to rein in “mega” development in Los Angeles over the next few years. 

According to CPLA’s Campaign Director Jill Stewart, "The November ballot measure will put a two-year timeout on all development that goes against existing zoning, and will force the City Council into a public process during that moratorium, to rewrite the 1980s-era General Plan. Most planning is spot rezoning that is done in back rooms then presented as a near-inevitability. We're seeing a huge number of older, affordable housing units destroyed to make way for luxury units, and destruction of neighborhood character, not to mention significantly worse surface street congestion.” 

The developers’ mantra seems to be “let’s make a deal,” and it’s the politicos who are brokering those deals. The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative says, “let’s deal the people in -- all of the communities and neighborhoods that are being drastically affected by your back-room moves. Let them tell us what they want by voting “yes” or “no” on the ballot measure.” 

Paving the way for the ballot measure signature drive is the start of the “Stop Manhattanwood” campaign that, says the campaign’s newly launched website, “is a new awareness and advocacy campaign featuring billboards and online elements to educate concerned citizens in Los Angeles and elsewhere about the impact that tremendous growth and overdevelopment in Los Angeles—particularly in the Greater Hollywood area—is having on the overall quality of life in the city”.  

For once, there is no Hollywood dream-factory hyperbole or political overstatement to this sobering fact: the land use policies of the city are a mess-- physical Hollywood is the epicenter -- though not the only area of concern. 

So who are the known principal players right now in the battle that is shaping up? 

There’s Mayor Eric Garcetti,who has a history being at the eye of the Hollywood overdevelopment storm starting as councilmember in CD13 when the wrecking ball started rolling, followed by his tenure as President of the City Council, and now as Mayor. Some say a run for Governor or Senator may be next for him. He has motive, means and opportunity to get the land use mess cleaned up – and maybe put smiles on the faces of voters. 

Next up from the city is Garcetti’s newly appointed head of the Los Angeles Department of City Planning (LADCP) Vince Bertoni, who brings more than 25 years of planning experience – including a previous stint at LADCP. When Bertoni was Deputy Planning Director in Los Angeles he oversaw the adoption of 16 historic preservation overlay zones (HPOZ) and a Hollywood community plan. 

Nobody has stood up to say he or she is “for the status quo, for uncontrolled development,” and willing to take that side of the argument. It’s no wonder. Although an opposition is forming to the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, the fight will eventually be joined. 

So far there is no announced opposition, creating a vacuum allowing the advocates of reform to set the agenda and step into the empty space, claiming as much ground as possible before an opposition organizes and gets funded. The ballot measure team is off to a good start this week with twin programming launches -- both billboards and ballot measure awareness outreach. 

Leading advocates include the Aids Healthcare Foundation (AHF) President Michael Weinstein and Coalition to Preserve L.A. (CPLA) Campaign Director Jill Stewart. This is a tough and determined team involving an organization renowned for advocacy, inended on educating area residents about the growing problem in the city and region, and particularly in the Greater Hollywood area. 

An ad campaign using “Stop Manhattanwood” billboards has begun and can be seen at major intersections like Vine and Santa Monica; Cahuenga, north of Sunset (above the Jack in the Box); Sunset and Van Ness (near Denny’s); Melrose, west of La Brea; and at Western and Lexington Avenues. The campaign will run for three months, a prime time for gathering signatures for the ballot measure. 

Synchronized to this effort is the Coalition to Preserve L.A.’s Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, supported by a grassroots group that will be gathering signatures to place the measure on the ballot. They must amass 61,486 signatures to qualify its measure for the November 8 ballot. A few days ago, the Los Angeles City Clerk informed the backers that they may begin circulating petitions.  

The Coalition to Preserve LA (CPLA) will soon start the ballot signature process to qualify the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative for the November election. They will visit groups citywide to discuss the ballot measure and solicit citywide buy-in from individuals for the fight. Their aim is to build a volunteer corps trained in workshops that will help get out the message, to spread the word to neighbors. It’s like a political campaign.  

So, the race is on. Nearly 100 years ago, when New York City was only a village, Rogers and Hart wrote the classic, “I’ll Take Manhattan, a song that has become part of  “The Great American Songbook.” A century later, people in our sunny city are singing a different tune – “I’ll Take Manhattan? No, you can have it!” 

(Tim Deegan is a long-time resident and community leader in the Miracle Mile, who has served as board chair at the MidCity West Community Council, and on the board of the Miracle Mile Civic Coalition. Tim can be reached at timdeegan2015@gmail.com.)  Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.