THORNBURG’S HAMMER—In the rigged game of Los Angeles city planning, where well-meaning urban planners refuse to acknowledge the power relations existing between them and LA’s neighborhoods and residents,
a wrong-headed blueprint for redevelopment of the Promenade Mall in Woodland Hills, dubbed Promenade 2035, is whisking its way through various administrative levels of consideration—with little to no public input shaping its scale, design, massing, or content. Southwest San Fernando Valley residents are up in arms over Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield’s (U-R-W) proposal for a nearly Forum-sized, roofless sports and concert stadium on one-third of the Promenade Mall property at Topanga Canyon Blvd. and Oxnard.
Asking just about anyone at local stores or on the street, “What do you think of the proposed stadium for our community?” elicits blank looks and furrowed brows. Full disclosure of the facts of Promenade 2035 then sparks alarm and astonishment.
U-R-W proposes a luxury mixed-use redevelopment of the 34-acre Promenade Mall property—with no affordable units among its 1,432 luxury rentals, even though LA’s homelessness crisis is one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the developed world. Last year, 900 homeless people died on our streets, and two died in Woodland Hills this spring. Partially fueling this crisis is the lack of affordable units, coupled with aggressive, predatory practices on the part of landlords who evict tenants unjustly and raise rents exorbitantly year over year. In Warner Center from 2013 to 2018, rents jumped 33%, outpacing wage and salary hikes.
French company U-R-W marches on, though, having retained the Westfield brand when Unibail Rodamco purchased the Australian company last year. Westfield’s longtime representative, Malibu resident Larry Green, is still the face known to the well-heeled Valley elites who boost this project to the detriment of the community. The Promenade 2035 plan proposes 23 buildings, ranging from one to 28 stories, including seven towers, plus a 15,000-seat, roofless concert and sports stadium. The stadium, at 320,050 square feet and with 155-foot-high walls, is nearly as massive as the 350,000-square-foot Forum. The first question any local asks is, “What’s it supposed to be for?”
“[T]he wording in the plan … by U-R-W is very vague,” notes Woodland Hills resident and physician Mina Mortezai, D.O.
By its nature, the stadium alone would change the character of the southwest Valley forever, exacerbating already bad street-traffic conditions, along with choke points at the on- and off-ramps of the US-101.
“It will bring many outside people for shows, which means more crime and more traffic and more pollution to our area,” Mortezai says. “As it is, the San Fernando Valley was found to have the worst pollution in all of LA county last year. There are no trains (not until 2057, which is 22 years after this project is done!) that would come into our area … [which] would mean hundreds of thousands more cars onto Topanga Canyon and Ventura Blvd. corridors, which are already horribly congested.”
Promenade 2035 is spurred by the Warner Center 2035 Specific Plan, which grants no height limits to developers and no mandate to deed over any of the private property in the 1.5-square-mile area to the city for public goods and amenities, like parks, schools, community centers for seniors and teenagers, clinics, a police station, libraries, museums, or performing arts venues—the threads that weave a strong socioeconomic fabric in any equitable urban downtown. The specific plan has generated a building boom of luxury and market-rate apartment buildings, with 7,600 apartment units either under construction or proposed in Warner Center. U-R-W’s project would solidify the conversion of the future Warner Center into an affluent enclave, the true intent of the specific plan.
Including a stadium in this project, subject to the master environmental impact report for the specific plan, is problematic. The stadium does not comply with the Warner Center 2035 Specific Plan, which encourages “entertainment uses” but neither anticipated nor analyzed the impacts of a stadium in its environmental impact report, issued in 2008.
United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles noted the problems with U-R-W’s strategy. In a letter to Elva Nuño-O’Donnell, the city planner tasked with receiving comments on Promenade 2035 until 4 p.m., May 14, the board of UN4LA wrote:
“The inclusion of a stadium in the proposed project is illegal. A stadium is a special use that needs to be analyzed as a stand alone project. The analysis in the Promenade EIR is completely inadequate with respect to noise, crime and traffic. The Warner Center EIR did not include an analysis of this type of land use. Stadiums generate massive amounts of traffic, and expectations that this will be mitigated by proximity to transit are not based on actual data.”
In Warner Center the current transit system consists of busses, in particular the Metro Orange Line, which conveys passengers across the Valley to meet up with the subway’s Red Line. It is unlikely that the additional nearly 54,000 residents expected for Warner Center when all 19,000 new market-rate units are finished, along with the thousands of low-wage workers in retail, restaurant, hotel, and office jobs, will use the Orange Line in significant enough numbers to mitigate the burden of greenhouse gas emissions from automobile use (in addition to personal cars, imagine the thousands of trips by Uber and Lyft cars!). During the nearly 15 years of construction, Woodland Hills can count on workers in the construction trades traveling long distances, including from as far away as Lancaster, to fulfill U-R-W’s plan. Locals can expect hundreds, if not thousands, of trips generated by heavy equipment and a steady stream of trucks transporting dirt and materials.
Environmentally, Economically, and Socially Irresponsible Redevelopment
Although U-R-W and booster organizations like to tout the creation of thousands of jobs through the Promenade 2035 plan, for 15 years, almost all of the good-paying jobs will go to men: Women working in construction comprise just 1.3% of the workforce, according to statistics provided by the National Association of Women in Construction. What types of jobs will be left after the construction dust settles? Aside from retail, restaurant, and hotel, it is hard to say, since U-R-W has not committed to attracting any major employer to the property. The Final Environmental Impact Report analyzed the potential number of jobs that could be created by the proposed 15,000-seat concert stadium; the FEIR concluded that the stadium would generate approximately 125 jobs. In proposing this stadium, U-R-W asks much of the community while providing little long-term benefit.
“The permanent jobs to be created by this project will be primarily low-wage, service jobs while the housing will include no affordable units,” notes Leslie Simon, a Woodland Hills resident and attorney, emphasizing the inability of such workers to live in the luxury units proposed for this project. “Given that the public transportation options to the West Valley are lacking, with no rail service, this will only increase traffic congestion and pollution, both of employees and of those who will be coming to use the stadium and additional retail outlets.”
Developers in Warner Center have no incentive to build affordable units, because the Warner Center 2035 Specific Plan is so generous, particularly with its lack of height limits. State and city density bonuses are irrelevant there. And U-R-W refuses to do the socially responsible thing and include affordable units in its plan. Other problems with the Promenade 2035 project abound.
UN4LA, in its letter to the city, called attention to U-R-W’s request for a Master Conditional Use Permit (CUP). Westfield has been granted CUPs in the past, including for the struggling, open-air Village and the upcoming redevelopment of the Sears building at the Topanga Mall, which will feature eight restaurants, nine luxury movie theaters, and a 3,500-seat food hall. For the Promenade 2035 project, U-R-W has requested a master permit to serve and dispense alcohol to 21 on-site and two off-site places. Yet the city of L.A. did not analyze the crime-related effects generated by so many new alcohol-serving establishments, including the stadium. When U-R-W is done with Warner Center it will be awash in alcohol, spewing its alcohol-related behavioral problems out into surrounding neighborhoods and onto the US-101.
“Research shows a relationship between alcohol density and violent crime,” UN4LA writes. “In failing to assess the impacts on police and emergency services of a Master CUP covering alcohol sales at 23 establishments the EIR is inadequate and the Master CUP should not be granted.” About two weeks after the public comment period ends on May 14, zoning administrator Charlie Rausch will likely issue his report on the project, according to statements made at the April 30 public hearing.
Before and after U-R-W became one, Unibail Rodamco has promoted itself as a paragon of “corporate social responsibility,” according to Better Places. Annual Sustainable Development Report 2016. To that end, it reportedly supports and encourages strategies at its many luxury retail developments to reduce and recycle waste. It also champions “environmental best practices, social fairness and transparent governance.” Its current incarnation, U-R-W, goes so far as to pronounce that its developments result in “less carbon emissions,” “less polluting transport,” and “less top-down, better collective power”. Perhaps U-R-W’s corporate headquarters is unaware of conditions on the ground here in Los Angeles, where transit-oriented developments displace people of low to moderate household incomes and do not result in increased usage of public transit. As well, our city is doing poorly when it comes to handling its waste.
Mayor Garcetti’s RecycLA program got off to a bad start. The city is “currently dumping massive amounts of recyclable materials in landfills because we do not have the necessary recycling capacity,” according to UN4LA. Exacerbating the waste-generating problems of large U.S. cities is the Chinese government’s decision to stop accepting shipments of our recyclable materials. The Promenade 2035 plan based its waste-impact analysis on the expected success of RecycLA, stating in its EIR that 62% of the project’s waste would be diverted out of the waste stream. This is not credible and not based on any observable practices or results, and a stadium would produce mountains of waste that would end up in landfills.
What You Can Do Now!
Read over the Final EIR, linked above, especially the file named “NOA.” In that notice for the public hearing you will learn that U-R-W proposes alternatives to its preferred version, which was the only version discussed at the April 30 public hearing in Warner Center. In fact, Alternative 4 reduces the proposed density by offering fewer buildings and removing the stadium. The neighborhood council supported this alternative. The Final EIR states: “Alternative 4: Studio Mixed Use development—Reduces density of retail/restaurant and office uses, would introduce studio uses, and would not include hotel uses or the Entertainment and Sports Center.”
Submit your comments on Promenade 2035 by 4 p.m., May 14, to city planner Elva Nuño-O’Donnell here: firstname.lastname@example.org or 6262 Van Nuys Blvd., Room 351,Van Nuys, CA 91401) and send a copy to Councilmember Bob Blumenfield: email@example.com. Include the project’s case numbers: ZA-2016-3908-MCUP-DI-SPP, VTT-74587; VTT-74588; VTT-74589. Write more than once, if you want.
(Gina K. Thornburg, PhD, is a geographer, writer, editor, and community activist based in Woodland Hills. She serves as the at-large alternate on the WHWCNC board. Dr. Thornburg is a founding member of the West Valley Neighborhood Alliance on Homelessness and a member of the Homelessness Committee of the WHWCNC. She is the founder of Coalition for Valley Neighborhoods. Email: GinaT.firstname.lastname@example.org.