NC Congress Report: ‘Developers have City Council’s Ear,’ ‘Nobody at City Hall is Listening to the People’

‘GOTTA PULL SOME LEVERS TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE’--Following the Planning and Land Use workshop at the Congress of Neighborhoods led by Cindy Cleghorn, Chair of PlanCheckNC, neighborhood council members and stakeholders spoke further about development taking place in their communities. They painted similar pictures as they shared personal experiences and perspectives. 

According to Elysian Valley NC member, Carrie Sutkin, who is trained as an urban planner and worked 14 years for former Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, there is no community planning going on in terms of land use. This is creating a big gap with new development. She says that City Planning does not send the Neighborhood Councils all documents that are in the Department’s file, such as entitlement and density bonus applications. Also, Sutkin finds that developers sometimes write incomplete answers in their applications, causing gaps in the submitted information. “I write a letter for the file as soon as I can as a caring citizen,” she said. 

Park Mesa NC stakeholder Kim Yergin shared that METRO has misled the community by running the train at grade level on Crenshaw for eleven blocks from 48th Street to Slauson Avenue. Initially, METRO claimed Crenshaw Boulevard was wide enough to add train tracks. However, at no time was the existing street wide enough until METRO eliminated frontage roads (side roads along the boulevard with public parking spaces and pedestrian walkability.) She said that METRO could have placed the train by the 405 Freeway or dug underground, but claimed there were no resources for a subway or for a cut and cover. 

Similarly, a board member from Park Mesa NC, who did not state a name, said that what really bothers the community “is not that developers are coming in and doing as they please, but that developers go first to Marqueece [City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson] and he tells them ‘do what you want.’” This NC member believes the Councilmember should instead send developers to the NCs to collaborate and gain support first, and then have them return to the Councilmember for his support. But Harris-Dawson does not do that, this board member said. 

The Board Member also pointed out that the major train construction going down Crenshaw has limited street parking for the area’s businesses. Such a loss of public parking has resulted in the loss of clientele. Businesses have been interrupted and are closing down. 

A stakeholder listening to this interview weighed in. On Crenshaw, a senior citizens’ residential building with 70 units, 35 parking spaces, and 40 bicycle spaces is being proposed for near the train station. The stakeholder protested, “We don’t have seniors riding bicycles. What are they going to do, cross the street on their bike and get their a-- run over by the train?” Riding bicycles is what yuppies do in Santa Monica, she further elaborated. 

Lunch at the Congress of Neighborhoods consisted of a nicely catered Mediterranean meal. For this writer, lunch offered a further opportunity to talk with stakeholders. 

Priscilla Anchondo from Reseda NC described Reseda as a bedroom community: “People sleep and live there, but work somewhere else.” While Reseda is a predominantly suburban area, the commercial center at Reseda and Sherman Way has become depressed with demolitions resulting in vacant lots. These streets have been re-zoned for six-story buildings, retail on the ground floor and four or five floors of apartments above, said Anchondo. 

Councilmember Blumenfield once told the NC that in order for the city to save up to 90% of Reseda’s single-family homes, higher density buildings would need to be built on these major downtown Reseda streets. Metro also is setting its eyes on Reseda, she said. 

Anchondo finds it interesting that some developers who had worked fairly with the community, later said they couldn’t get a loan because they weren’t building to the maximum of what the current law allows. On the other hand, developers who did not need a loan to build and welcomed the community’s input in the shaping of their projects came up with nice buildings, she revealed. 

On a political note, Jason Hector from Porter Ranch NC advises that city officials need to listen more “to the people who live here.” The planning department sends out letters and posts some material online with the result of a few community members showing up to the hearings. Importantly, Hector said, it’s the city officials’ job to listen to the people, but it seems like they’re representing the needs and wants of the developers only. 

In addition, Hector sees it as a problem when city officials receive campaign contributions from developers and don’t recuse themselves at hearings for those particular developments. 

From an environmental perspective, Susan Gorman from Porter Ranch NC describes the terrain surrounding Porter Ranch back in the 1970’s as a working cattle ranch. The area is still pretty with lots of hills, nature, and horse trails. “Since the gas blowout a couple of years ago, I’ve become an environmentalist focusing on sustainability,” said Gorman. 

Gorman speaks enthusiastically of having taken the introductory course of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) at UCLA extension downtown Los Angeles. She found the history of that Act to be motivating: In the 1970’s, a homeowner from Mammoth Lakes requested an environmental impact report (EIR) for a proposed condo to be built next to his home. His local government told him that such a report was only issued for government buildings. “The homeowner took them to court and won,” Gorman said. “Now everything needs to have an environmental report [review].”  

Under CEQA we have more power than we are aware of but people need to educate themselves on what’s covered by the Act. If people understood CEQA there would be more activism and committees would be stronger because there would be that give and take, she believes. 

Gorman became involved with land use when she learned of a proposal for a major shopping center about two miles from her house. “I had concerns about what it would look like,” she said. The proposed project would cover a whole square-block with over 200 units, 30 restaurants, a large theatre and a Whole Foods. She gave testimony for her NC at the City Council Planning and Land Use Management Committee (PLUM), then appealed the project as an individual and even went to court, she said. “We reached an agreement. Too bad we had to go the legal route.” With this experience, Gorman realized that “it can be done” if developers and community are willing to work together. 

August Steurer from Woodland Hills Warner Center NC indicated there are many major residential projects with retail and commercial requirements in Warner Center as well as major developments along Ventura Blvd. Residents want to keep density at Warner Center and away from the Woodland Hills residential community that is primarily single-family homes. Residents are worried about traffic. Steurer recognizes many changes pertaining to density will be coming over the next 10 years. He emphasized additional density would not be beneficial in hillside areas. “There are not many good lots left for development,” he concluded. 

Tony Wilkinson from Panorama City NC said there are a good number of land use committees among the Neighborhood Councils that do an excellent job. In contrast, he said, “Mine is a world of chaos.” He chairs two NC land use committees in the San Fernando Valley. Committee members try not to act like zoning administrators; they are honest with the people about their limitations as an advisory group “as to what we can do and cannot do,” he said. We can tell the difference between good and bad projects and together with the community “we go to pull all those chains and levers that we need to make a difference in the system the way,”


(Connie Acosta is an independent journalist and occasional contributor to CityWatch. She is a board member of the Echo Park Neighborhood Council and its Planning and Land Use Committee co-chair.