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A Hi-Density Vision Gone Bust? Council’s $9 Billion Public Transit Investment Suffers Ten Percent Drop in Usage

EASTSIDER-A Bit of Background: Years ago, I used to live in Lincoln Heights, in a loft at the Brewery, over by the San Antonio Winery. It was there that I got sucked into LA politics, and even hosted an event for Tony Villaraigosa for CD 14, helping him dump incumbent Nick Pacheco. In retrospect, I apologize for that lapse. 

Anyhow, that was at the beginning of the Neighborhood Council movement and it became my entry into the world of “planning” by our political class. Just after Nick Pacheco was on his way out, beaten by Tony V, the ink was hardly dry when the Brewery and a bunch of other folks were gerrymandered (I mean, “redistricted”) into CD1 run by Councilmember Ed Reyes. Hello City politics…and hello Ed. 

Reyes came in with a city planning background so he naturally gravitated to the PLUM Committee. And there he reigned supreme until he was termed-out in 2013. Ed was famous for running the PLUM Committee as a “Committee of One” -- a fancy way of saying that his other two committee members couldn’t be bothered to show up for a lot of the meetings. 

Council Rules to the rescue -- you only need one committee member to conduct business. This was especially helpful when the other two members were folks like Jack Weiss and Jose Huizar. 

Along with Reyes came a big picture vision of “transit corridors” and “mixed use high density housing” to get us out of our cars (bad) and into the City’s version of “the wave of the future” (good.) I had never heard all those PLUM buzz words like “Adaptive Re-use” or “Residential and Accessory Services,” so it was pretty hard to figure out what they were talking about -- until it was too late to stop the steamroller. 

From the ground level, it seems that this stuff boiled down to warehousing public and private land –making it possible for the Council to (1) sell off and build all these transit-corridor, high-density, so-called affordable housing projects along the rail and bus lines; and (2) sell or resell the big old downtown buildings to their favorite real estate developers to be turned into condos and apartments. 

Evidently, this started a movement since we now see that the building of all this high density housing continues like a brush fire going through the Gorman pass on a high wind day – complete with all kinds of tax breaks, building waivers, and the elimination of parking to the “tune” of the rap song, “No one will need a car in the new LA.” 

Of course, in the real world we know now that there ain’t no affordable housing in LA. The Council “proponents” of affordable housing have largely destroyed it and the very idea of “affordable” is so laughable it should be a punch line on the Jimmy Fallon Show

I discovered the hard way that not one blade of grass, not one liquor permit, and not one single substandard plot of land was touched in districts controlled by the PLUM Committee without the personal say-so of Committee Members. And boy, oh boy, did they have the necessary control tools -- Interim Control Ordinances, Community Design Overlays, redefinition of various zoning codes, variances, and granting approvals of some projects while secretly allowing the building of entirely different projects with virtually no public input or notice. 

The Times Article

Does any of this sound familiar? What got me thinking about all these not-so-wonderful memories was the recent article in the LA Times about transportation funding – in which we see proof of the lies they told us. 

So, after approving Measure B in 2008, designed to be a thirty-year 1/2 cent sales tax to help build a wonderful transportation infrastructure necessary to serve all those smarmy crammed-in-like-lab-rats high density projects, we now discover that transit ridership is down. It’s not only down, it’s in a downward trend that is actually accelerating. 

So in exchange for something like $9 billion dollars of infrastructure investment, we’re seeing a ten percent decline in the use of that investment. This tells me that all the professional planning designed to get people out of their cars and onto public transportation was nothing but hype. 

Read the Ballots, Follow the Money

We must pay attention to the history our political elite – something they hope we will forget – and look at the City’s Mobility Plan 2035 (as re-amended). Here, again, is another project that doesn’t add up. The $9 billion spent to “get LA out of its cars” did just the opposite. Only in LA, right? 

So go ahead and have a good cry over the destruction of the City of Angels by those in search of hot money and fast exits. 

And get worried, get very, very worried. Remember this article when the next tax hike scam hits the ballot. Also, please read Jack Humphreville’s article,  “…Kicking the Can Down the Road.” 

Revisit the history. It seems the 30 year tax provided by Measure B wasn’t enough. No sir, even as we were spending that tax money for declining use public transit, Tony V and his pal Herb Wesson were running around in 2012 hawking Measure J, designed to extend the 30-year sales tax from Measure B for another 30 years! Honest, folks, even I don’t have the imagination to make this stuff up. In the end, Measure J’s necessary 2/3 majority was defeated by only a cat’s whisker – Yes, 66.11% and No, 33.89% – and that should scare the daylights out of everyone. 

Finally, let’s not forget Prop A, the last City power grab, when they tried to pass a 1/2 cent LA City sales tax to help balance the budget – a budget that was a train wreck, largely due to giveaways and waivers given to developers who were busy densifying and restructuring our City in the hope of getting rid of cars and reducing traffic congestion, greenhouse gas, and our reliance on fossil fuels. Fortunately for us, voters didn’t buy into all the doom and gloom predictions from the political elite. People didn’t believe that the City would be broke if that tax didn’t pass -- and it failed by a vote of about 55% No to 45% Yes. 

Next time, let’s ignore the rhetoric and follow the money trail before we approve any more spending.

And if you’re feeling proactive, try checking out the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, a ballot measure campaign run by Jill Stewart, formerly of the LA Weekly. This measure is also supported by our own Jack Humphreville.

 

(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.