February 16, 2016 - From the February, 2016 issue

Stewart: Neighborhood Integrity Initiative Is LA's Response to Unplanned Density and Insider Deals

Jill Stewart, formerly managing editor of LA Weekly, has left her position to head the Coalition to Preserve LA, the group behind the controversial Neighborhood Integrity Initiative that may appear on the November ballot. In this exclusive TPR interview, Stewart outlines the central arguments of the initiative—criticizing how development deals get made in the City of LA, questioning expansion of the county’s transit network and the move toward TOD, and calling for increased community participation in these processes.


Jill Stewart

"I have not been impressed by the new urban theory that very dense development through neighborhoods near bus stops, and so on, is going to reduce congestion. In fact, we’ve seen the opposite.” -Jill Stewart

You’ve announced that you’re leaving your position at LA Weekly to become the campaign director of the Coalition to Preserve LA, stating: “I’m incredibly proud to be joining a group that is fighting for community and a sense of place, without which this vast and wonderful city would be unlivable.” Elaborate on this coalition and what attracts you to this particular cause.

Jill Stewart: As a journalist, I’ve been writing about development for years. It’s one of my favorite topics, along with the disaster in public education, child abuse, and a few other things that I think are really important to a big city.

I have not been impressed at all by the city’s Department of Planning, which of course I call an oxymoron. I have not been impressed by the new urban theory that very dense development through neighborhoods near bus stops, and so on, is going to reduce congestion. In fact, we’ve seen the opposite. The key projects that have been created have increased congestion. I put that theory on par with the urban planning theory that crowding poor people together into high-rise public housing was a good idea. It was a social disaster. I put it up there with the notion that putting strip malls all over the city was a good idea—another planning disaster.

This is much more powerful because it’s got big environmental groups on its side that believe this is somehow going to cut down on driving. It does not. The Environmental Impact Reports show again and again that it is not going to get people out of their cars. It’s just going to be an option for those who don’t drive. Wonderful—but rebuilding the city based on that thin idea is taking away livability and community. That’s what I’ve seen as a journalist.

Tell us a bit about the coalition that is hiring you, and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which is behind this initiative.

The Coalition to Preserve LA is funded largely, although not totally, by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. Most people don’t know that AHF is an incredible $1-billion-a-year organization with thousands of doctors in 35 countries. They’ve turned around AIDS. In fact, they’ve stopped the spread of AIDS in South Africa and now they’re working on Uganda. They talk governments into doing it in an intelligent way; in fact, they talk governments into letting them do it in clinics. It’s working. I think their biggest challenges in the world right now are India and Russia. But Africa is turning around, and it’s largely because of the efforts of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. They are huge heroes of mine.

Secondly, they have separate business lines that make huge amounts of money. They make their own money. They take small amounts of donations, but they’re mostly self-funded. It’s all non-profit driven. A small portion of that money they spend on political efforts that they think are important. They’re fighting the Confederate flag in Mississippi on the ballot and they are fighting the price of all pharmaceutical drugs in Ohio on the ballot. They veer away from AIDS when they think something is important. They have the knowledge and the chops to be a big force against other big forces, like a racist in the South and pharmaceuticals in the Midwest.

In this case, Michael Weinstein thought: Developers are these incredible, huge, moneyed organizations. But we have fought big groups before. We have fought whole countries on issues. Let’s save LA as we know it. Let’s do smart, forward-thinking development. Let’s end this smoke-filled-room development—decisions made between councilmembers and developers and then forced upon areas. It’s straight out of the 1960s, when the zoning corruption trials hit Los Angeles, except that we don’t have any trials going right now. 

I suspect the counterattack to this effort will be: AHF is involved because they don’t want their views impacted by a major development planned next to them in Hollywood—in other words, this is a NIMBY reaction to a specific project, generalized as a citywide campaign. 

Of course it will be. Fine—bring it on. It’s absurd and I’m not terribly worried about it because it’s not going to stick. The group has had a citywide and region-wide focus for years. The whole condoms-in-porn issue was region-wide, statewide, and citywide. They’re not interested in little battles. They’re much bigger thinkers than that.

Weinstein has made a lot of enemies by being very outspoken. He’s also made a tremendous amount of friends and backers who like the fact that there’s someone who stands up, says unpopular things, and fights the powers that be.

I think the Coalition to Preserve LA hopes to move beyond LA, because there are a lot of cities screwing themselves up based on these theories of close, crowded living that reduces congestion. It’s just B.S.

Let’s get into the possible ballot measure itself, and its use of the term “neighborhood integrity.” For you and the people that have now retained you, what is the deeper meaning of “neighborhood integrity”? 

It goes back to the lack of a modern General Plan. The City Council does not want to do the work of creating a new General Plan. They’ve allowed the one from the 1980s to fester and be unworkable. At City Council meetings, they talk about how great they are, spend hours on irrelevant issues, and barely discuss the important ones. They still have a high percentage of unanimous votes with very little discussion on key issues. They’re not an admirable body.

The problem here is that they are doing what’s called spot zoning. If a developer comes forward with an idea that’s close enough to a bus stop or in their transit-oriented district program, they will approve it. Then the neighborhood must deal with an idea that’s being forced on them and radically changes the neighborhood.

I have talked to a number of hardcore transit advocates that openly discuss the idea that we have to do this to serve the transit line. We need more people on our transit lines, so therefore we’re going to go into a community that is happy with what it is—that is neighborly, friendly and livable. It might not be beautiful and brand new but it might be filled with older, affordable housing. East Hollywood is a great example of that. It’s not gorgeous. It’s working-class. People there love where they live and are huge fighters against the density plans.

Each neighborhood that sees this coming should have the right to be involved. But there’s no General Plan telling people what is coming. There is no General Plan discussion and debate—which would take years before the City Council, given how slow they go, but really should only take months. City Council is avoiding that overall debate. They have mired themselves in one fight after another after another. Then they blame local neighborhood as NIMBYs. This is so wrong, sneaky, underhanded, and unfair. The City Council has created these individual fights because they won’t do their job and just redo the General Plan.

So the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative forces the City Council to update the General Plan in the next two years and put a moratorium on all spot zoning for developers while that goes on.

In 2010, when Michael LoGrande was chosen by Mayor Villaraigosa to succeed Gail Goldberg as planning director, Mark Winogrond wrote a column for us in The Planning Report. He concluded that LoGrande was a planning facilitator, not even a planner, and that his appointment meant there was really no one in charge of the built environment of Los Angeles. His selection signified that the Council wanted no one to be the steward of the built environment, except for themselves in their own districts. Is that your take today?

I think that’s a brilliant description of what happened.

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Michael LoGrande was the yes-man for the City Council and the urban planning groups who are rah-rah behind what the City Council is doing. Individual councilmembers control development in their areas, through buddy-buddy relationships with developers, behind closed doors, and Michael LoGrande puts on the stamp of approval.

I believe we wrote in the LA Weekly that under Michael LoGrande, 90 percent of all exceptions, variancesm and changes to zoning were approved. It was a done deal once a developer came forward and said, “I want to build something that’s completely not allowed on this land.” 

In 2013, TPR carried a piece by Laurie Becklund regarding Millennium Hollywood, in which she wrote: “The city isn’t really acknowledging it, but there’s almost no way to read its own reports without worrying about the impact these projects will have on our public safety, air quality, and ability to penetrate the gridlock to get to work if you live in an area without public transit.” Was she right?

I agree in part with the wonderful Laurie Becklund, but I will differ a bit. Yes, it is virtually impossible to read reports. The art of obfuscation is City Council’s specialty and the City Department of Planning’s specialty, as well.

But I don’t agree that transit will help, or is helping. Metro’s had a major drop in riders, and the millennials are rejecting it. They’re using Uber. The big crowd that uses transit is the same crowd that’s always used transit—the working class. That will go on into the future. That’s why 50 percent of the riders are Latino. That will change as our working class changes—who knows what nationality and background our working class will have in 20 or 30 years?

People who can afford to own cars continue to drive their cars. This is true in Paris, in London, and every other city with a lot of transit. No amount of discussion will get people to give up that freedom. It’s a fantastic thing, to be able to drive your car. That’s not cool to say, but that’s what the vast majority of people are thinking. 

You referenced the outdated nature of Los Angeles’ General Plan. Some critics have said, for years, that there is no constituency for good planning in Los Angeles: Even folks who are upset with the current discretionary planning abuses have no interest in a community plan that would predict and drive development where it’s most needed, and investment in infrastructure to support that development. Is that a misplaced criticism? 

That’s a really good point. There’s never been a citywide vote on the issue of whether to create a well-thought-out, cohesive framework, which is what the General Plan is. We’ve been living with an old General Plan since the 1980s. We have two entire generations of people who don’t know anything about redoing the General Plan. To say that they don’t want to do it is  pure guesswork.

We need to bring it before them. We need to start the process. We’ll see who decides it’s of interest, jumps in, and wants to do it. It’s going to be people who are deeply involved in their communities—people who go to group meetings at night. It could be those from craft groups in Silverlake to the Audobon people out in the Valley.

I hope and believe that a lot of these different people will say, “This is a very cool thing. We don’t agree with urban planners and their snotty attitudes about how we should live and how they know best.” “Just leave it to the planners” is a terrible thing to say to people. They’ve been so wrong throughout the history of the planning industry. The people are smart and the people know what LA needs. I think a lot of people are going to step up.

The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative has already generated a coalition to oppose it, which includes affordable housing, labor, and some environmentalists. What is your tack going to be in response to assertions that this will reduce LA’s ability to build the housing it needs and to provide opportunities for those seeking housing—and to do it in a clean, creative, affordable way? 

I can’t talk about our plans because I’m not in the job yet. But I will talk about what I’ve seen as a journalist in Los Angeles for more than 30 years. The development of luxury housing in the last more-than-decade in Los Angeles has wiped out a net number of housing units that’s a scandal. The last report came from Laura Chick, and the city has avoided creating any new reports to my knowledge. I can’t find one.

There has been a net loss of 13,000 affordable housing units because the affordable-housing community is waiting and begging for luxury developments to add a few units here and there, and for the city to create a few projects here and there. Affordable housing is going to continue to die off in Los Angeles as long as the land game continues bidding up the land between developers through land-flipping and land speculation. Developers know that they can get a lot of amazing density on that property. They’re building the housing, as Laura Chick found, for an average person making $135,000 a year. That number is higher now because there’s more luxury housing going in and incomes have gone up.

You cannot have affordable housing ever on land that has been bid up by developers. The era of affordable housing has been wiped out by the very behavior that the affordable-housing groups are caught up in. They’re like hostages to it. I hope that some of them will break out. I don’t think it’s going to happen.

You referenced earlier your skepticism about public transportation. Would your group oppose a second sales tax initiative to further investment in public transit for Los Angeles County? 

I can’t speak for the organization. But I have been long opposed to additional taxes going into the next 60, 70 and 80 years for transit. They haven’t proved that it’s working. They’ve given us some nice lines that I enjoy—I’ve used the Red Line and Orange Line many times. But right now, their Environmental Impact Reports—especially the Purple Line’s—show that it will reduce congestion by less than one-half of one percent. People are going to continue to use their cars at the exact same rate between the Westside and Downtown after the Purple Line is done.

Let’s not live in a fantasy world. If I were the god of transportation in Los Angeles, I would give people who agree to work at home a $2,000 sales-tax rebate from the City of Los Angeles. I would not be asking them for more taxes.

But the city is caught up in what every city is caught up in. It’s like a religion. They don’t look to see if it works; they just talk about how they need more people. If they follow what people are actually doing now and reward it, they’ll get much more done.

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© 2016 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.