VOX POP--A few years ago, then-state Sen. Alex Padilla implored us to embrace a fast-tracking plan that let wealthy developers rush huge mega-developments through the courts, getting around opponents by slashing the time they were given to fight back under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.
Padilla, who is now California Secretary of State, repeated at the time to KCRW's Warren Olney what Gov. Jerry Brown and the majority Democrats in the legislature were saying in 2011: California's then-12% unemployment rate justified the pushing aside of environmental damage concerns created by massive developments, to create jobs.
Asked what the rush was, given the possibility of environmentally questionable developments sailing through the courts, Padilla said, "The urgency is 99 percent driven by the unemployment rate that we have," which had soared to 12%.
He went on to predict that a purportedly badly needed NFL stadium for Downtown Los Angeles would create some 20,000 jobs. It was a wild exaggeration in a time of desperate unemployment.
Fast forward to today. The California unemployment rate has plummeted, its urban areas are vibrant, and the absurd plan for a downtown NFL football stadium, squeezed onto insufficient land next to one of the most congested freeways in the world, died on the vine. The phony claims about "Farmer's Field," proved to be just that -- downtown Los Angeles soon exploded in growth and jobs, sans the NFL stadium.
Now, Gov. Jerry Brown and some very sneaky California Democratic state legislators are trying to push through the 2.0 version of that end-run around our environmental protections. But because Brown and Co. no longer have horrible unemployment levels as an excuse for egregious environmental backsliding, they went with a hardball, last-minute, non-debated, surprise law as their strategy, Senate Bill 734.
Brown harbors a bitter hatred toward CEQA, stemming from his battles with low-income communities as mayor of Oakland. He will now try to push through SB 734, a law that came out of nowhere, had no public debate, and took California's major environmental and legal organizations purely by surprise.
It is opposed by the Sierra Club, the Judicial Council that administers California's courts, the Planning and Conservation League, and my own organization, the Coalition to Preserve LA, which is aiming to place the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative on the March 2017 ballot to end developer control of Los Angeles City Hall.
SB 734 will allow wildly inappropriate private developments to breeze through the courts, such as the traffic-freezing "Crossroads of the World" mega-blob development, proposed next to badly jammed-up Highland Avenue and Sunset Boulevard, an area now all but shut down for hours each day by overdevelopment and its endless, attendant, commuter traffic.
Under SB 734, the Crossroads boondoggle will get what its developer agreed was "benefits" by getting fast-tracked through the courts, even past other serious courtroom battles. Neighbors in the Hollywood flatlands will be trapped in a nightmare scenario: thousands and thousands of additional upscale commuters pouring into one of the city's most tangled, developer-created gridlock scenarios. And it will hardly be the last. Skyscrapers are proposed in completely inappropriate areas of Koreatown and South LA, and megadevelopers are drooling over new ways to cash in on the "waterfront" lands along the Los Angeles River.
It's shocking to watch the Democrats elected to serve us in Sacramento try to shove down the public's throat a law that would cut off at the knees any environmental or community groups suing the local government or developer for failing to avert environmental damage.
Howard Penn, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, explained, "The long and short of it is that because Gov. Brown is outright opposed to CEQA ... we are getting more and more of these attacks, and they are endless and relentless and continuous."
Penn says his umbrella group has been tracking more than 30 bills in the legislature "to weaken CEQA. None of them were for strengthening it."
Much of this is personal. Legislators are showered with money from developers, and Brown maintains a major chip on his shoulder from his days trying to heavily redevelop downtown Oakland, where he found that poor people and environmental groups could use CEQA and other laws to challenge his personal vision of urban renewal and preserve their longtime neighborhoods.
As Penn notes, it's no secret that "Jerry Brown got waylaid by the process in Oakland and he got bitter and he carried that bitterness to where he is now. He sees CEQA as a barrier to his plans for big things like tunnels, and his plans for housing. And as opposed to working together to adjust CEQA, which is our group's aim, he and the legislature are going after every little thing" to dismantle it without a serious and reasoned debate.
When you try to check out SB 734 at the California government's official website, leginfo.ca.gov, it's telling that the loophole law is all-but-hidden, listed under the wrong legislative author and described as something having nothing to do with CEQA. Only when you drill down on the website do you see the actual language, taken directly from the last mega-development loophole to get around CEQA, known as Assembly Bill 900.
The big differences this time is that AB 900 at least made an effort to pretend the bill was not a big giveaway to some of California's richest developers. The old language from 2011 states, as its Number One justification, that California was suffering from a 12% unemployment rate.
The new language, hidden in plain sight on the government website, merely places a strikethrough across the AB 900's topmost justification, the desperate unemployment during 2011.
But in today's developer-owned Sacramento, no rational argument is needed to sell out our communities' and our cities' environmental protections.
(Jill Stewart, a former journalist, is campaign director for the Coalition to Preserve LA, sponsor of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative.)