RIDING WITH RICHARD--It will come as no surprise to the readers of the blogs I infest, including this one, that I complain a great deal about The State of Things. The city’s roads, the city council, the LADOT, the incivility of discourse, the agreement among the Windshield Set willfully to ignore the pervasive evidence of Driver Privilege (which, like White Privilege, sets teeth to gnashing among those so privileged every time the subject is so much as mentioned) …

Today is different. Today I feel compelled to celebrate the mere all-suffusing joy of a bike ride along a dedicated path through a beautiful place and time…for we all need a break from the struggle now and then.

Sunday afternoon I headed west, as I usually do, but this day I chose not to visit anybody; I decided simply to ride along the Ballona Creek bikeway to the jetty between Marina del Rey and Playa del Rey and look at the ocean.

Of course, I knew it was springtime—with jasmine sweetening the air all over LA, only the most obtuse would miss it—but I had forgotten that the Ballona Wetlands (saved from development by the concerted efforts of hundreds of ordinary folks like you and me) would be in bloom. And indeed, the world seemed a fabric of bright yellow flowers for miles and miles as I rode. Even my usual weary cynicism was shattered by the sight, on that cool and gray afternoon, so I took a few snapshots, which fill the rest of this page.

All I can say is that sometimes you’ve just got to get out and ride for the sake of your own soul. Do it soon: the bloom won’t last. Take the Expo Line to Culver City and get on the Ballona path and just ride. No need to hammer: the slower you go, the more you’ll enjoy. A little R&R to give you respite from the battle …

(Richard Risemberg is a writer. His current professional activities are focused on sustainable development and lifestyle. This column was posted first at Flying Pigeon.)  


COMPASSION VS JUSTICE-On Aug. 10, 1969, Leslie Van Houten held down Rosemary LaBianca so fellow Manson-follower Tex Watson could skewer her with a bayonet. Then, she took a knife and stabbed the helpless woman 14 more times in the back. 

Nineteen times since she participated in the infamous slaughter, Van Houten applied for parole. Nineteen times, the state parole board turned her down. 

Until last week, when a two-member panel inexplicably recommended to grant her parole. 

The Association of Deputy District Attorneys (ADDA) vehemently opposes this mind-boggling decision, as does District Attorney Jackie Lacey. There was a very good reason the parole board denied her 19 times. How was her 20th petition any different? 

Van Houten's attorneys have painted her as a model prisoner. They said she earned bachelor's and master's degrees and ran self-help groups for incarcerated women. 

Maybe so. But let's not forget the facts. 

Van Houten brutally murdered an innocent woman while her cohorts carved up her victim's husband, wealthy grocer Leno LaBianca. She was sentenced to death; her sentence was commuted to life in prison only because the California Supreme Court struck down the death penalty. 

Even if she has been a model prisoner, her behavior behind bars doesn't mitigate the savagery of her crime. And time does not erase the fact that she willfully committed the crime. 

"We still suffer our loss," Leno LaBianca's daughter, Cory LaBianca, told the Los Angeles Times. "My father will never be paroled. My stepmother will never get her life back." 

Van Houten's parole is not a done deal. 

The parole board's legal team has to review the recommendation. If they uphold it, Gov. Jerry Brown will decide whether she goes free or remains in prison. 

Sometimes justice means compassion, and compassion means justice. But not in this situation. 

The ADDA will keep you updated on the status of Van Houten's case. If it ends up on Gov. Brown's desk, we will provide you with information on how to express your opposition to freeing this brutal murderer.


(Michele Hanisee is President of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys. The

Association of Deputy District Attorneys (ADDA) is the collective bargaining agent and represents nearly 1,000 Deputy District Attorneys who work for the County of Los Angeles.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

SOUTH OF THE 10--Although this is not breaking news, it still shocks me. The Clinton family came to the national attention of Black families in 1992 thanks to the Arsenio Hall Show. Then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton started blowing his saxophone on the popular night time talk show and we were hooked. Black folks dubbed him our “First” Black president.

After winning in 1992, President Clinton signed two laws into effect that have negative repercussions for Black families. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) which placed limits on how long a mother could receive welfare benefits and the The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 led to the creation of “three strikes”.

Decades later, on Wednesday, July 15, 2015, former President Bill Clinton apologized to Black people for his role in the mass incarceration of Blacks.

Today, at least a half dozen Black men are lined up to be delegates for his wife’s bid for the White House. 

Bill Clinton said Wednesday that the crime bill he signed into law as President in 1994 worsened the nation's criminal justice system by increasing prison sentences. 

"I signed a bill that made the problem worse," Clinton told an audience at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's annual meeting in Philadelphia. "And I want to admit it." 

According to the NAACP, African Americans constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population, and have nearly six times the incarceration rate of whites. 

The Department of Justice paints an even grimmer picture. Approximately 12–13% of the American population is African-American, but they make up 35% of jail inmates, and 37% of prison inmates of the 2.2 million male inmates as of 2014 (U.S. Department of Justice, 2014.) 

Candidates wishing to be delegates for the 2016, are self-promoting on social media, hoping to garner support at the polls May 1. 

So, what do delegates do? 

Odest Riley Jr. says the role of the delegate is to vote at the Democratic National Convention, the sentiments of the residents who elected them. 

Millennials will play a large role this election cycle.

Brent Dominic Page, managing partner at the consulting firm Millennial Government Affairs, tells 2 Urban Girls: “It is important for Millennials to vote this election cycle because there is a lot at stake. Millennials are facing a contracting economy with little job opportunity. While there are no job opportunities they are forced into over $1 trillion in student loan debt. Millennials have the greatest political potential but a lot to lose. In this election Millennials will be a huge driving force at the polls. In 2012 23 million millennials voted so we expect to see an increased number for the 2016 general election.” 

Many millennials were integral in the passage of Proposition 47 due to their families being in prison on petty charges. 

The male candidates don’t fit the criteria and are not affected by Clinton’s crime bills but possibly know of someone in their community who is. 

With the 43rd Congressional District being home to some of the most underserved, poverty stricken people, the message being sent is, since those laws don’t pertain to me, then Hillary’s cool. 

It will be interesting to see how the delegates selected will be able to look other Black people in the face and sell Hillary Clinton as the person we need for our next President.


(Melissa Hébert is an alumni of California State University Dominguez Hills with a degree in Political Science and a member of LAAAWPPI. She is the editor-in-chief of blog 2urbangirls.com and host of the Urban Girl Show. Melissa is also President of School Site Council in Inglewood Unified School District and is the mother of two handsome sons. She can be reached at Melissa@2urbangirls.com) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams. 

EDUCATION POLITICS-According to the Declaration of Independence, "All men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights." That is unless they have been systematically and purposefully subjected for generations to what remains a measurably inferior racist public education model specifically designed to assure their non-attainment of potential and the "unalienable Rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness," which in no small part is dependent on the achievement of such an education.

Predominantly students of color continue to exclusively be subjected to a non-education system of rote regurgitation of multiple choice answers with little or no writing or analysis. Their Pearson lessons consist of fragments of texts comprised of words and concepts they have never been taught. What most educational reformers ignore, who either have never been in an inner city classroom or do not care about dealing with the subjective reality they would find there, is that both teachers and students in these schools have an acquired aversion to the Socratic method of dialogue between teacher and student and the critical thinking it is designed to stimulate in both the student and the teacher.

The teacher's excuse is that they are faced with students who arrive in their class already years behind grade-level and their peer group. The majority of these students have continually been socially promoted grade after grade without prior grade-level standards mastery. Teachers now faced with this reality and no administrative plan or support to do otherwise have opted in their own Pearson subsidized self-defense to give these unprepared students multiple choice busywork to preempt the chaos that would be sure to follow from the boredom of students whose youthful vitality and potential has never been addressed in school. Can anyone explain to me the educational value of a word search on a grid of mixed letters?

As for the student, who has been socially promoted into subsequently harder grades with few if any critical thinking skills ever having been taught to them, the very act of now trying to educate these students in a relevant educational process that is asking them to think and not just choose A, B, C, or D is a destabilizing activity that will more than likely lead to a classroom rebellion against an activity of thinking they have never been asked to engage in before- perfectly predictable and understandable.

Social promotion or fraudulent credit recovery programs that offer students with profound academic deficits a passing grade in courses they objectively cannot pass by any honest measure is only deferring the students failure, while wasting the precious time of their youth, which could be more profitably used by honestly identifying and teaching the necessary academic foundation standards they literally have never been taught.

As for White folks- 94% of whom are out of public education- they literally have no idea as to the abysmal level of their local public school, because 62 years after Brown v. Board of Education, they are still able to avoid going to these schools by putting their children in private schools. Probably the quickest way to improve public education would be to require attendance for all in public schools as is done in Finland- the best educated country in the world.

Human beings are creatures of habit. And it is not easy work to finally teach a minority student what they should have been taught from pre-kindergarten and beyond. But there is literally no other alternative to doing this, if we want to finally break the cycle of racism in the United States.

Racist inspired underachievement has become such a part of American society that one does not even question why such a large part of the African American community- that which is under-educated- still speaks with an accent, while other immigrants have long since been incorporated into the fabric of American society.

Truly successful public education reform can only take place where there is both recognition and factoring in of the damage that institutionalized public education racism over generations has made our present day dysfunctional public school reality.

(Leonard Isenberg is a Los Angeles observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He was a second generation teacher at LAUSD and blogs at perdaily.com. Leonard can be reached at Lenny@perdaily.com)



EDITOR’S PICK--If you claim that the L.A. Department of Water and Power is a bloated, bureaucratic mess, you won't get much of an argument. Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Council president Herb Wesson and Councilman Felipe Fuentes have all said they want to make the department more "nimble" and "efficient" — and all are engaged in a debate over how best to do that.

But if you ask why the department is a mess, you run into trouble. To hear Fuentes tell it, the issue is political interference from City Hall and the city's cumbersome civil-service system. His proposed solution is to establish an independent governance structure and a new personnel system for DWP, both of which would separate it from City Hall. 

Yet a recent report from the City Administrative Officer and the Chief Legislative Analyst offers a somewhat different diagnosis. The report finds that many of the causes of the DWP's inefficiency are internal to the DWP. Distancing the utility from City Hall would not solve those issues. 

For instance, the report finds that it takes as long as two years to fill a vacant position. Vacancies are subject to an internal "bid process," whereby the most senior eligible DWP employee who bids for the position is automatically granted the job. If a manager does not want that candidate, the position may remain vacant indefinitely. Hiring of supervisors also is subject to veto by rank-and-file workers, which is exercised routinely.

Naturally, these rules make it difficult for the utility to hire people, or to consider candidates from outside the utility. That makes it more difficult to adapt to changing market conditions. All of these rules are the product of side agreements with the unions, and the unions would be loath to give them up.

"The primary disadvantage to removal of these rules is that negotiations will be very difficult," the report dryly notes.

"More than 95 percent of positions at DWP are IBEW 18," says Fred Pickel, the utility's ratepayer advocate. "They're the elephant in the room."

Pickel did his own report last year on the utility's billing fiasco, in which thousands of customers were overbilled and then forced to wait an hour or more to talk to a customer service representative. Pickel's report faulted the civil-service system and procurement processes but also blamed "labor rigidities." 

"The DWP has a management-labor relationship that is unlike that of any other utility known to [the ratepayer advocate], and the result is that some practices are decades behind the times," Pickel wrote.

DWP management employees are represented by their own bargaining unit. Of the 8,700 employees at the utility, all but 20 belong to a union.

For many important decisions, management and labor have an equal vote. Pickel argued that arrangement creates an "imbalance," which has made it impossible for the utility to evolve into the 21st century.

"When two partners each have a vote, it is self-evident that they also each have a veto," he wrote. "Vetoes are biased toward the status quo."

Andrew Rea, a consultant who authored yet another report on the DWP for the city controller, offered a different take on the union. In his view, the IBEW should be treated as a "partner" in making the utility more flexible, and solutions can come from deeper labor-management collaboration.

"The union is a key stakeholder and does a lot of good," Rea says.

That report has influenced Councilman Fuentes' proposal. Fuentes' plan would allow the DWP and IBEW to establish their own hiring procedures, unrelated to City Hall's personnel system. But it would not address the issues internal to the DWP that were raised in the CAO/CLA report or in Pickel's report. In public hearings to discuss DWP reform, the role of the IBEW is almost never mentioned, except occasionally by angry members of the general public. (Fuentes has taken $35,000 from the IBEW for his state and local campaigns.)

Pickel argues that the utility urgently needs to rebalance its relationship to its union.

"They have to be better at adapting to changing business environments," he says, citing the rise of rooftop solar as an example of new competition. "They’ve had a nice, comfortable, growing monopoly for 100 years. Now it’s not growing. It’s not projected to grow in the next five years. ... Lots of things are likely to happen in the utility industry."

(Gene Maddaus wrote this piece for LA Weekly  … where it appeared on April 21. He leaves the Weekly soon to write for Variety.)


TENANTS RIGHTS--Democrat Assembly Member Mike Gatto (photo above) represents many tenants in his 43rd Assembly district, which includes East Hollywood, Atwater Village, Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Burbank and Glendale. Yet, Assembly Member Gatto has become a landlord lobby front man by introducing legislation that would severely undermine tenants' ability to defend themselves in an eviction action. 

The landlord-backed AB 2312 (Gatto), would gut tenants' rights in an unlawful detainer actions by requiring represented tenants to deposit monthly rent in advance of trial with their attorneys. 

In fact, the landlord group Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles takes full credit for drafting AB 2312 and then giving it to Mike Gatto to introduce it on its behalf. 

AB 2312 is unjust and burdensome to tenants. There is no such requirement on any other group of litigants. The bill singles out tenants as a group and effectively discourages them from defending themselves. 

Many tenants face real barriers in accessing a bewildering legal system due to limited financial resources, limited English proficiency, cultural differences, disabilities, work demands, caregiver responsibilities, and/or lack of transportation options. To add a requirement that a tenant facing eviction be required to deposit the alleged rent owed into escrow adds to these almost-insurmountable burdens, and will create a "pay to play" justice system. 

There are many legitimate reasons why a tenant may not pay the alleged rent owed and will not have it available for deposit. He or she may dispute the amount of rent due because the payment was lost. (Photo right: Assemblyman Gatto.) 

Some tenants do not have checking accounts and pay by money order or cash, so that they no longer have easy proof of the funds once delivered. There are often misunderstandings with landlords over how payments have been applied to the amount owed. Tenants often (legally) pay out of pocket for necessary repairs and deduct such costs from their rent payments. Tenants may also (legally) withhold rent for ongoing habitability problems. 

Despite the myriad legitimate reasons a tenant could dispute the amount of rent claimed by the landlord, this bill would force the tenant to deposit the claimed amount just to get a lawyer. 

AB 2312 would strip many tenants of their right to an attorney, and with it, their ability to defend themselves in speedy, highly confusing eviction proceedings. 

  • ACTION INFO: The Assembly Judiciary Committee will hear this horrible bill on May 3.

We ask that you contact the Chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, Assembly Member Mark Stone (D-Monterey Bay), and urge that he do everything that he can to kill this bill.

Tell Assembly Member Stone that you are opposed to AB 2312 and urge they he and other Assembly Judiciary Committee members vote NO!

(Larry Gross is the Executive Director of the Coalition for Economic Survival and an occasional contributor to CityWatch.)


A WIN FOR TRANSPARENCY-The truth about the behind-the-scenes battle over the Archer School for Girls’ building project may soon be revealed now that the City of LA has lost its fight to keep secret the contents of 146 emails written by or to city officials, including Councilman Mike Bonin, during the heat of this controversy. 

The winner in this fight for greater government transparency is the Sunset Coalition, a non-profit public advocacy group organized to oppose the controversial $100 million Archer campus expansion project. The project was approved in August 2015 by the City Council. 

“The city and Archer wrongly withheld these emails in violation of the law,” said Brentwood resident Zofia Wright. Wright and her husband, David, are leaders of the Sunset Coalition. 

“The judge’s ruling is a major victory for transparency and open government,” added Wendy-Sue Rosen, president of the Brentwood Residents Coalition. “Now we will be able to see what the City has been trying to hide from the public.”  

The fight over the emails is one chapter in the Coalition’s larger legal fight to overturn the City Council’s decision to allow the Archer expansion project to go forward. 

In its lawsuit, the Coalition has alleged Archer’s massive expansion project will overwhelm Brentwood with its illegally large structures, jeopardize the health of its own students with toxic fumes and swamp already-paralyzed Westside streets, including Sunset Boulevard, with “tens of thousands” of additional vehicle trips. 

The LA Superior Court lawsuit argues that the campus expansion project – involving nearly a quarter million square feet of construction and tens of thousands of construction-related truck trips – will “significantly burden not only the nearby residential community, but also the entire west side of Los Angeles.” 

According to recent city records, Archer spent $985,016 to hire the law firm of Latham & Watkins and Sugerman Communications to lobby City Hall officials and influence their decision-making.

Initially, the city vigorously opposed full public disclosure of the contents of 173 emails sought by the Sunset Coalition and its plaintiff-partners, the Brentwood Residents Coalition, the Brentwood Hills Homeowners Assn. and the Wrights. The 173 emails were among thousands of City Hall documents initially delivered to Archer’s opponents in November. 

During their inspection of these documents, the opponents found these 173 emails that were heavily redacted or otherwise obscured without a valid reason. The coalition filed a motion to gain full disclosure of their contents. 

Superior Court Judge Robert H. O’Brien agreed there was a problem and ruled that 146 of the 173 documents contained information that should be fully released without being censored. 

O’Brien noted that “many [of the emails] reflect public commitments, efforts for compromise, evaluation of community interests, balancing interests, and frustration and venting regarding efforts at compromise apparently overseen by the councilman’s office….Also many reflect internal on-going negotiations.” 

O’Brien observed that some of the email comments were so frank and revealing that it is clear the authors “never meant [them] for general circulation.” 

“This ruling could have a major impact on the way the city does business in the future,” predicted Coalition attorney Doug Carstens, a partner in the the law firm of Chatten-Brown & Carstens. “Public employees, including elected officials, must realize that their emails can be open to the public. After all, these officials work for the public, not the other way around.” 

Proposition 59, passed by voters in 2004, unequivocally established the public’s right of access to the writings of public officials.  Proposition 59 amended the state Constitution to provide: “The people have the right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people's business, and therefore, the meetings of public bodies and the writings of public officials and agencies shall be open to public scrutiny.” 

“The public's right to access records of public agencies is enshrined in our state Constitution,” said Carstens. “Despite this, the City sought to keep documents from being disclosed. That attempt has been resoundingly rejected by the Court.” 

Carstens and Coalition members plan to soon begin a comprehensive review of the controversial emails. 

The coalition’s review of the mountain of documents released earlier by the city has already produced surprises. 

For example, early on in the Archer controversy, Bonin appeared to be an ally of the many Brentwood neighbors deeply concerned about the project’s impact on the community and on Sunset Boulevard traffic. But in the spring of 2015, only weeks before Archer’s project was scheduled for a council vote, project critics were blindsided by Bonin when he abruptly and publicly endorsed the school’s plan. 

Now, however, after reviewing the trove of documents and emails that were previously released, the Coalition has learned that Bonin in 2014 had already reached a private deal to support Archer’s plan even though he continued to falsely represent himself as an ally of concerned critics until the spring of 2015. 

“We had to sue,” said Zofia Wright. “It is the only way we can obtain the protections for the community that our elected leaders failed to provide in the first place.”


(John Schwada is a former investigative reporter for Fox 11 in Los Angeles, the LA Times and the late Herald Examiner and is the Communications Director for the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. He is a contributor to CityWatch. His consulting firm is MediaFix Associates.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

GUEST WORDS--Why do people think of Los Angeles as ugly? Does it have to do with its scale? Its inconsistent architecture? Its departure from classical city forms? Or is it something deeper: a sense of apocalypse, of meaninglessness, a confrontation with the void?

“There are three great cities in the United States: there’s Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York — in that order,” wrote no less an authority on the built environment than BLDGBLOG author Geoff Manaugh in a much-sent-around reflection on the city. “I love Boston; I even love Denver; I like Miami; I think Washington DC is habitable; but Los Angeles is Los Angeles. You can’t compare it to Paris, or to London, or to Rome, or to Shanghai. You can interestingly contrast it to those cities, sure, and Los Angeles even comes out lacking; but Los Angeles is still Los Angeles.”

Manaugh posted that piece in 2007, less than a decade ago but still a time when Los Angeles' detractors as well as its boosters could argue, in all seriousness, that it may not, strictly speaking, count as a “city” at all. But what, then, to call it? I've heard “constellation of villages.” I've heard “megaregional core.” I've even heard varying numbers — six, seventeen, 72, 88 — “suburbs in search of a city.” In Manaugh's starker view, “LA is the apocalypse: it’s you and a bunch of parking lots. No one’s going to save you; no one’s looking out for you. It’s the only city I know where that’s the explicit premise of living there – that’s the deal you make when you move to L.A. The city, ironically, is emotionally authentic. It says: no one loves you; you’re the least important person in the room; get over it. What matters is what you do there.”

I once put Los Angeles with the internet and the United States of America in a group of things people hate if they can't filter. By that I meant that these wide experiential spaces offer no one experience in particular — or, more accurately, they offer a greater infinity of possible experiences than most spaces, leaving it to you to perceive and navigate your way to a satisfying one.

If you go to America or on the internet thinking you'll find nothing but base, meaningless, brain-deadening expanses, you'll find nothing but base, meaningless, brain-deadening expanses. If you go into Los Angeles thinking you'll find nothing but a bunch of parking lots, you'll find nothing but a bunch of parking lots.

Of course, in Manaugh's eyes or those of an observer like him — Reyner Banham, the famous celebrator of 1960s and 70s Los Angeles in the book The Architecture of Four Ecologies and elsewhere certainly counts as an antecedent — you could do worse than a bunch of parking lots and the liberation from surrounding expectations that attend them. “If you can’t handle a huge landscape made entirely from concrete, interspersed with 24-hour drugstores stocked with medications you don’t need, then don’t move there,” for “Los Angeles is where you confront the objective fact that you mean nothing; the desert, the ocean, the tectonic plates, the clear skies, the sun itself, the Hollywood Walk of Fame – even the parking lots: everything there somehow precedes you, even new construction sites, and it’s bigger than you and more abstract than you and indifferent to you. You don’t matter. You’re free.”

Today, those parking lots have begun to disappear. As anyone who's sought permission to put up a tall building or waited the years (or more likely decades) for a new train line to open there knows, Los Angeles doesn't change quickly, at least not by the standards of the world capitals of Asia of even much of Europe. But some decisive shift has happened, some tipping point crossed, in the almost nine years since Manaugh wrote his optimistically nihilistic ode to the city. Some of the areas formerly occupied by cars or simply awaiting the arrival of cars have turned into sites of activity: parks, businesses, places to live and work, construction sites signaling the imminent arrival of the foregoing and much more besides.

But some still believe in the eternal nature of all those Los Angeles parking lots, that landscape made entirely from concrete. Manaugh may have written that in a clearly hyperbolic register, but many others will, if you tell them so, unquestioningly swallow any preposterous yet apparently, er, concrete figure you give them: that 90 percent of Los Angeles' surface is covered with the stuff, for instance, a “fact” of mysterious origin that once got passed around the urban planning journals unchecked for a period of years. It must have jibed with the harsh ideas on which people — outsiders and insiders alike — still fall back when thinking about the southern Californian metropolis, or village constellation, or megaregional core: That it's all paved over. That you can't breathe its air. That it has no public space but its filled-to-solidity freeways. That it's ugly.

That last one has demonstrated special resilience. “I was driving down Sunset and I turned down one of the roads that leads up into the hills, and I stopped at this place that overlooks the whole city,” says the troubled young architect protagonist of Model Shop, Jacques Demy's 1969 cinematic venture into Los Angeles. “It was fantastic. I suddenly felt exhilarated here. I was really moved by the geometry of the place. Its conception, its Baroque geometry. It's a fabulous city. To think some people claim it's an ugly city when it's really pure poetry — it just kills me.” They claimed it then, they claimed it before, and they continue to claim it now.

But why? We might begin to understand by looking at the cities to which Los Angeles' detractors usually make their aesthetically damning comparisons: New York, Chicago, San Francisco, London, Paris — the more classically “beautiful” cities, all of which adhere more closely to the traditional city forms seen throughout centuries of history and across the rest of the world. So perhaps this sense of ugliness springs from Los Angeles' unfamiliarity, from its departure from established forms: a fine hypothesis, so far as it goes, but it breaks down when applied to places that depart even farther. Nobody would think to mount an argument for the ugliness of newer, far-flung strip-mall-and-office-park suburbs like Irvine or Calabasas, which nowhere even try to replicate anything traditionally urban.

Look at Los Angeles piece by piece, though, and you'll find that it actually possesses most of the elements we've learned to take as the signs of a proper city, such as a downtown core with old buildings on gridded streets from which development grew outward along railroad tracks. There are broad boulevards and residential lanes, there are some urban parks (more now than there used to be, with others in the planning stages), there are industrial zones, there are currently or historically ethnic neighborhoods like Little Tokyo, Koreatown, Little Armenia, and Thai Town. Not does it take that much searching to turn up the usual volume of monuments and tourist traps.

But in other respects, Los Angeles looks — or more relevantly here, feels — different indeed than other cities, in large part because it grew fast and alongside America's widespread adoption of the automobile and whose construction thus necessitated an unprecedentedly large scale mechanical replication. Hence the equally persistent perception of the city as America's most car-oriented, of which you'd think a trip to the likes of Phoenix or Atlanta or Orlando would instantly disabuse anyone, but perhaps places like those don't raise the expectations of a capital-C City the way Los Angeles does (even if those entertaining the expectations do so expressly to feel them dashed). The aesthetic discomfort must arise from uncanniness: people find Los Angeles ugly for the same reason they find a face with features not quite the right size in not quite the right places ugly.

And in many eyes, those features also clash with each other. The archetypal reaction comes out of the mouth of Woody Allen's character in Annie Hall on a drive through Beverly Hills: “Yeah, the architecture is really consistent, isn’t it? French next to Spanish next to Tudor next to Japanese.” That thoroughly sarcastic line surprised me the first time I heard it, not because I believed Los Angeles had consistent architecture, but because I'd never before thought of architectural consistency as a naturally desirable quality. “There is no reward for aesthetic virtue here, no punishment for aesthetic crime,” wrote hard-boiled crime novelist James M. Cain in 1933, more than forty years before Allen's assessment, of the houses people had built. “Nothing but a vast cosmic indifference, and that is the one thing the human imagination cannot stand.”

And so we find ourselves back in Geoff Manaugh's Los Angeles, which “is the confrontation with the void. It is the void. It’s the confrontation with astronomy through near-constant sunlight and the inhuman radiative cancers that result. It’s the confrontation with geology through plate tectonics and buried oil, methane, gravel, tar, and whatever other weird deposits of unknown ancient remains are sitting around down there in the dry and fractured subsurface. It’s a confrontation with the oceanic; with anonymity; with desert time; with endless parking lots.”

But as Reyner Banham argued, “the fact that these parking-lots, freeways, drive-ins, and other facilities have not wrecked the city-form is due chiefly to the fact that Los Angeles has no urban form at all in the commonly accepted sense.” Or rather, it has no urban form — and certainly had no urban form in 1971 — legible to the average urbanite. Observers like Banham and his intellectual descendants have made a solid start on teaching us how to read what we'd previously considered unreadable cities, but work remains to be done, not least because the form of these cities themselves keeps shifting. It also holds true for cities like Toronto (reflexively considered Canada's New York, but on a deeper level its Los Angeles) and Seoul (where I live now), both of which also routinely get called ugly, and both of which also rank among the urban places I enjoy most in the world.

The aspiring appreciator of any of these cities must, in a sense, learn to read their languages — not the languages of their road signs and advertisements, but the grammar, vocabulary, and vernacular of their built environments. Banham, born and raised in Norwich, famously declared that, “like earlier generations of English intellectuals who taught themselves Italian in order to read Dante in the original, I learned to drive to read Los Angeles in the original.”

That may have sufficed 45 years ago, but the urban language of Los Angles has greatly expanded since then, and now we must read it differently. The city itself may still not strike you as beautiful, and you may find yourself face to face with the void there, but at least you don't really have to drive anymore.

(Colin Marshall blogs and writes about world cities for the Guardian. He also produces the video essay series The City in Cinema and hosted the world-traveling interview podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. He's currently at work on the book A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City. This perspective first appeared on byline.com.)  Photo: Colin Marshall. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.


TRANSPORTATION PRICE TAG--The headline reads “Metro details bold plan.” Of course, that’s the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority tooting its own horn on its own website.

No doubt, the plans for Metro’s sales tax increase are indeed bold, but perhaps the boldest thing about the plan is the extent to which it would tax county residents to the tune of more than $130 billion dollars over five decades. In other words, Metro’s plan is bold as in “chutzpah” rather than bold as in “visionary.”

That price tag is a lot of loot and should buy a lot of multimodal mobility.

One would think that in deciding how to spend $130 billion Metro could solve most of the county’s transportation problems. The problem is that Metro’s plan has been cobbled together with another objective in mind: getting the tax itself passed, rather than maximizing value for money, transportation-wise. That’s why we see various transportation incentive bones strategically thrown about the county, even though the individual projects might not all represent the best bang for our collective bucks.

While Phil Washington, Metro’s chief executive, is talking about using the money to build a transportation infrastructure “for the next 100 years,” the truth is that the upcoming ballot measure has been framed to deal with today’s political realities. Quite naturally, that means it is not necessarily the best plan for the next 100 years, though it might be the boldest, chutzpah-wise. The “bold plan” focuses heavily on — surprise, surprise — rail projects, described by the director of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies, Brian Taylor, as “shiny new things,” including an $8.5 billion tunnel through the Sepulveda Pass.

Of course, in the course of 100 years, shiny new things can easily become dull old things or even shiny obsolete things. Our children and grandchildren might very well be paying off Metro’s front-loaded spend-fest long after more efficient forms of transportation have transformed how we look at public transportation.

To avoid such an outcome, Metro should not focus on the technologies of the past hundred years. The proposal for spending the $130 billion is backwards-looking rather than forward-thinking and has very little funding set aside for new and developing technologies such as autonomous vehicles, which have the potential to revolutionize public transportation.

The City of Beverly Hills, with the unanimous approval of our Council, passed a resolution earlier this month to develop our own municipal autonomous shuttle system, which would provide on demand, point-to-point transportation within our City, thereby also solving the “first/last mile challenge.” We expect to have this system deployed before the first Purple Line station in Beverly Hills opens at La Cienega and Wilshire in 2023. As excited as we ourselves are about the potential of autonomous vehicles to transform public transportation into a first choice for mobility, it’s disappointing that Metro just doesn’t seem to get it. I’m not sure whether it’s simply a singular lack of vision, Metro’s single-minded focus on “Show me the money!” or a combination of the two.

Additionally, there is not a little irony baked into Metro’s “bold” proposal’s funding source. Sales taxes are notoriously regressive. Of the three main forms of state taxes, according to a recent report by the Institute of Tax and Economic Policy, sales tax hurts the poor the most. Poor people, who might benefit from the technological advances slighted by the Metro plan, tend to rely on buses, which themselves are given short shrift by the expenditure proposal. If Metro was really interested in social justice, one wonders why they wouldn’t have tried to figure out a financing mechanism, such as a tax on higher earners, which could fund a sensible transportation infrastructure buildout.

What, though, should one expect from a plan that bizarrely changes existing carpool lanes into toll lanes? Those billions in regressive tax money aren’t enough?

Despite the numerous flaws, Metro’s tax stands a good chance to pass. When one uses buzzwords such as “transportation upgrades,” the lesser informed tend to be rah-rah when they hear the outline of Metro’s proposal (something Metro is obviously counting on to get the ballot measure passed in a presidential election year).

Yet not everyone is drinking the Kool-Aid. Metro board member and County Supervisor Don Knabe has pointed out that the proposal heavily advantages the city of Los Angeles, to the detriment of the other 87 cities and unincorporated areas of the county. This, of course, should come as no surprise to anyone who has studied the makeup of the Metro board, which gives Los Angeles outsize voting power and disproportionately turns the rest of the county into second-class transit citizens.

It’s time to finally make Metro accountable to the transit needs of the entire county — not just the most powerful part of it — through a fair recalibration of its board. It’s time to stop allowing Metro to treat the residents of the county like ATMs, and if Metro really wants to build multimodal infrastructure for the next 100 years, then it’s time for Metro to stop looking at the past and to start looking to the technologies of the next 100 years. Until all of that happens, the residents of the entire county should simply say “No” to Metro’s bold and brazen plan.

(John Mirisch is the Mayor of Beverly Hills. He has, among other things, created the Sunshine Task Force to increase transparency, ethics and public participation in local government. Mayor Mirisch is a CityWatch contributor. This piece was posted earlier at the Los Angeles Business Journal and Huffington Post.)  

POT AND THE LAW-- “Marijuana is practically legal in California already.” Every time I hear this, which is often, I cringe. You certainly wouldn’t hear this in any urban center from the people, largely black or brown, who bear the weight of our prohibitionist laws. You wouldn’t hear this from the patient with a debilitating illness who lives in a city that has banned medical cannabis and risks a federal felony charge by having his medicine delivered through the US postal service. You also wouldn’t hear that from the marijuana farmer in Humboldt who had her children taken away last year. 

Despite medical marijuana being legal in California since 1996, and an ounce or less decriminalized since 2011, we still make over 13,000 felony arrests every year, with a total of 154,547 marijuana arrests for felonies and misdemeanors between 2010 and 2014. Of those, 90% are male, and with a statewide population of 7%, African Americans comprised 22% and 18% of those arrested for felonies and misdemeanors respectively, despite the fact that black Americans use and sell drugs at approximately the same rates as white Americans. 

Fortunately, Californians will have the opportunity to support the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), based on key lessons and guidance from Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, DC, and Uruguay, and is consequently the most advanced marijuana legalization measure to date. 

AUMA establishes a clear line between personal use and commercial activity. If you are 21 or older, you can use, share, store, transport up to one ounce of dried flowers (8 grams of concentrate), and you can have up to six plants growing in your home. If you have any more product than that on your person you need to have a license, it’s that simple. And there are 19 different license types under AUMA, everything from indoor cultivator license to an outdoor cultivator, a manufacturer, tester, retailer, and the list goes on to a special micro license for small shops that can do it all, similar to a microbrewery or a boutique winery. 

AUMA eliminates or reduces most marijuana offenses, proactively and retroactively, only maintaining sales to a minor, transfer across state lines, growing on public lands, and home butane extraction as felony offenses. This is going to vastly reduce the hundreds of thousands of people caught up in California’s criminal justice system every year. As we have seen in Colorado and Washington, D.C., cumulative marijuana arrests rates dropped by over 80%, and 85%, respectively, in the first year after legalization. 

AUMA also has a smart bold formula for allocating the tax revenue it will generate when fully implemented, estimated by the nonpartisan LAO office to reach up to $1 billion. After ensuring the new law is adequately funded and evaluated, hundreds of millions of dollars will be invested in the prevention of alcohol and other drug misuse, and the treatment of substance abuse disorders, with most of the money earmarked for youth. 

Funds will also be provided to a Community Reinvestment Fund that will grow to $50 million annually to support diversion and reentry programs supporting economic development, education, housing, and legal services in communities disproportionately harmed by drug war policies. Also a first, revenue will be dedicated to a special Environmental Restoration and Protection Account to fund cleanup, remediation and restoration of environmental damage to our state’s public lands and watersheds. Additionally, funds will be used to staff and improve state parks. As with other recent measures, AUMA dedicates significant revenue to law enforcement, who will finally have both clear directives and sufficient funding to address those who continue to operate outside of the licensed market.

AUMA allows people harmed by the war on drugs to fully participate in the legal market. While a well-regulated legal market is certainly necessary to reduce the illegal market, as California’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy chaired by the Lieutenant Governor noted, there must be opportunities for those who have operated in the illicit market to enter the legal market. Under AUMA, a prior conviction for possession, possession for sale, sale, manufacturing, transportation, or cultivation of any controlled substance shall not be the sole basis for the denial of a license. 

While AUMA is relatively prescriptive, there is also a good deal of flexibility masterfully woven throughout the law. 

For example, it currently includes a ban on large cultivator licenses (22,000 sq. ft.), as a way to give the small farmers a head start for the first five years. After which, the state legislature can decide whether they want to extend that ban by a simple majority vote or move to a fully open market. State and local tax rates can also change, subject to voter approval requirements imposed by state law. In addition, marijuana criminal penalties may be further reduced by a majority vote the state legislature, but they cannot increase them without a vote of the people. 

And importantly, AUMA prohibits the marketing and advertising of marijuana to minors and near schools or youth centers and establishes strict packaging and labeling standards, including warning labels and child- resistant packaging, to keep marijuana products out of the hands of children. Bringing an ensconced underground economy under the rule of law is no simple task but I believe we have designed the best model for our unique California landscape, a system that reflects the wide array of community stakeholders. 

Let’s get it right for California, and let’s make the Golden state the gold standard for marijuana policy and ending prohibition.


(Lynne Lyman is California state director for Drug Policy Action, one of five backers of the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA). This piece first appeared in Huffington Post.) Photo: Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

LA’S INCREDIBLE ZONING SOLUTIONS-A recent LA Times editorial, “LA’s broken planning system,” described how the City is now seeking support for its planning and zoning “reform package,” by proposing, once more, simply to update the City’s 35 community plans. Ostensibly, the promised updated plans will “head off” a proposed ballot initiative that would impose a moratorium on major construction projects. 

This proposed “solution” overlooks the City’s fundamental credibility problem: an ever-widening gulf between what’s promised and what’s actually delivered. In a recent example, Los Angeles Neighbors in Action prevailed against the City when the Superior Court found that, based on repeated mistaken City Attorney advice, LA’s building officials have been routinely ignoring the City’s adopted zoning standards for development of second units (“granny flats”) in single family residential zones. 

The City’s response? Not to follow its existing adopted standards designed to protect surrounding neighborhoods. Not to await the long-promised zoning reforms of its re:code LA study founded on extensive community input and customized for LA’s diverse neighborhoods.  Rather, the City proposes to “fast track” a proposed repeal of its adopted standards (which strictly regulate a proposed second unit’s size, location and visibility from the street), while replacing them with a very weak “one size fits all” standard that ignores any consideration of the surrounding neighborhood. Without any prior community input and study, the proposal is now scheduled to be heard by the Planning Commission on May 12. 

When a similar proposal was broached in 2009 under the tenure of former Planning Director Gail Goldberg, community meetings were swamped with homeowners wanting a voice in potentially major density changes to their neighborhoods. 

Under state law, second units must be approved on a ministerial basis if they meet the locality’s adopted standards. No public hearings can be held, no conditions of approval may be imposed to mitigate adverse impacts on the surrounding neighborhood, and no second unit permit can be rejected, no matter how negative the ensuing traffic and infrastructure impacts. 

These state law procedural requirements are bad enough, but, if a locality does not have its own adopted standards, it must ministerially approve any second unit application that meets the lenient state ”default” standard. The Legislature specifically designed the “default” standard to be so utterly weak that any rational city would prefer to adopt and enforce its own local standards, rather than follow that lenient state standard. 

In light of the strong outpouring of citizen opposition to the Department’s 2009 effort, then Planning Director Gail Goldberg “pulled the plug” on the study and refused to send any repealing ordinance to the City Council. Most citizens assumed the issue had been put to bed at that point. But that was only the beginning. 

In 2010, in response to the City Attorney’s mistaken legal advice, the Planning Department issued a behind-closed-doors administrative memo (ZA 120) ordering the Building and Safety Department (LADBS) to stop following the City’s adopted second units standards. Instead, ZA120 ordered LADBS to follow the weak state “default” standard for second units. 

In 2014, Los Angeles Neighbors in Action brought its lawsuit demanding that the City set aside ZA120 and resume following its adopted local standards. After almost two years of litigation, the Superior Court recently ruled that, since 2010, based on the City Attorney’s mistaken legal advice, the City has unlawfully been ignoring its adopted protective standards on a routine basis -- about 40 percent of the second unit permits issued by LADBS since 2010 have violated those adopted standards -- and ordering the City to stop using ZA 120 (and the state “default” standard) as the criteria for second unit permits.  

Perversely, however, as noted above, the City has recently proposed repealing its adopted second unit standards, and, in their place, implementing the very weak state “default” standard. The City has put this repeal proposal on a “fast track” as an urgency ordinance and noticed a Planning Commission public hearing for Thursday, May 12.  

As the proposed second unit repeal ordinance comes to hearing, we must put LA’s planning establishment on notice that we will not tolerate the continuing broken planning system. The City’s repeal proposal is bad public policy:  

  • It would allow second units to be built anywhere in any single family residential zone with virtually no protective standards for the surrounding neighborhood, without any public hearings, and without any discretion for LA’s decision-makers to condition or reject inappropriate increased density. 
  • Contrary to the rhetoric behind the much-heralded re:code LA study (which is supposed to include customized zoning standards to take into account the diverse topography, density and character of LA’s neighborhoods), the City’s repeal proposal would replace the existing strict second unit standards with a weak “one size fits all” “default” standard. 
  • The proposed “default” standard is so lacking in protection for surrounding single family neighborhoods that Los Angeles, as a rational municipality, should not want to be required to implement its extremely weak provisions and should instead prefer continuing to enforce its own protective local second unit ordinances. 

As the City begins formulating its defense against the upcoming ballot initiative, we need to signal to the City that this kind of bad planning proposal -- at wide variance from its promised good planning goals -- is completely unacceptable.  

Please join me and many other citizens, homeowner groups and neighborhood councils in investigating and writing about the City’s proposed second unit ordinance repeal. Call or email your City Council representative (and any other Council members or Planning Commissioners you know) to ascertain their commitment to, or distance from, this repeal proposal. Inquire whether they believe that the City should retain its existing adopted second unit standards until such time as a better, customized second unit zoning reform proposal is recommended by the re:code LA study. 

Plan to attend the May 12, 2016 Planning Commission public hearing at 8:30 AM at City Hall, Board of Public Works, Room 350, 200 N. Spring Street, LA 90012.


(Carlyle Hall is an environmental and land use lawyer in Los Angeles who founded the Center for Law in the Public Interest and litigated the well-known AB 283 litigation, in which the Superior Court ordered the City to rezone about one third of the properties within its territorial boundaries (an area the size of Chicago) to bring them into consistency with its 35 community plans. He alsol co-founded LA Neighbors in Action, which has recently been litigating with the City over its second dwelling unit policies and practices.) Photo credit: Beverly Press. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

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