August 22, 2016 - From the August, 2016 issue

Neighborhood Integrity Initiatives’s Letter to Mayor Garcetti: Either Lead on Planning or Voters Will

On Wednesday, August 17, leaders of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative and a representative array of community leaders met with Mayor Eric Garcetti in his office to present a letter with detailed demands for long-promised development reform. The demands came with an ultimatum: Agree to the entire list—with enforceability mechanisms—by August 24, or NII will submit its signatures to qualify for the March 2017 ballot. On the other hand, if the mayor agrees to the conditions of the letter, NII promises to halt their initiative campaign. In an exclusive interview, TPR spoke with the Coalition to Preserve Los Angeles's Campaign Director for the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, Jill Stewart, about the letter’s substance and reasoning. Stewart, a former editor at LA Weekly, also shares many of the lessons she’s learned while campaigning in city neighborhoods.


Jill Stewart

"We have far more than enough signatures to qualify for the March 2017 ballot, so this letter was a way to say: “this is the time to implement whatever major reforms you’ve been planning.” - Jill Stewart

Jill, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative campaign you are leading recently shared with the Mayor of LA an open letter, which media describe as an ultimatum, regarding the March ballot initiative. What did the campaign offer the mayor?

Jill Stewart: The letter you refer to was hand-delivered to Mayor Garcetti in his office on Wednesday, August 17. Gathered with me in his office were roughly 30 people who support the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, representing all socioeconomic, geographic, and ethnic groups in the city.

We have far more than enough signatures to qualify for the March 2017 ballot, so this letter was a way to say: “This is the time to implement whatever major reforms you’ve been planning.” Next week is the deadline to submit signatures, and we are ready to submit on behalf of the Coalition to Preserve LA.

The mayor had agreed to meet with us, and we handed over the letter to remind him that he agreed that the city’s planning process is broken and out of control. Our letter reminded him that this past spring, he publicly announced that he believed in some of what our letter entailed, specifically the need for a new general plan and community plans.

We have not seen any reform to date. The tweaks that have been implemented are not reform. The mayor has about 100 personal staffers, and the city council has about 200 staffers. Our message is: Let’s see what you’ve got.

Our letter serves as a minimum for what we want to see, and we think leaders should do their own reform within their own houses. If everyone wants to criticize ballot-box reform, then we want leaders to step up and clean up the mess from the inside-out. The August 24 deadline to submit signatures provides a chance for the mayor to announce his own plan, and we urge him to do so and transform this rigged system.

We ask in the letter for four different types of reforms at a minimum. First, we want an end to developer and special interest lobbyists being able to choose their consultants to write environmental impact reports (EIRs) for their own developments. As we know, those EIRs are filled with lies, especially when it comes to traffic impacts. Every one of these mega-projects and projects that are built out of character with the neighborhood are vastly underestimated in regards to their impact of increasing congestion. These consultants who write the EIRs underplay the health impacts, parking impacts, open-space impacts, and density impacts. The entire process needs to be reformed on who generates this EIR data.

Second, we want a clear and transparent process for fast-tracking a deadline for a new General Plan that will empower the people to determine the future of this city. We want to end the influence of these developers, especially when it comes to areas that under transformation like the LA River. We want citizens to make the decisions regarding neighborhood character, mansionaztion, small lot sub-divisions, and all of the other crucial public concerns driving debate today in Los Angeles.

Third, we need the end of spot-zoning exemption to the General Plan. This practice allows wildly inappropriate developments in many cherished and quiet neighborhoods. We see these examples today: skyscrapers proposed in two-story neighborhoods in Koreatown, skyscrapers proposed in four-story neighborhoods in South LA, and major high-rise development even proposed in Studio City along the LA River.

All of these projects are being discussed behind closed doors, which brings me to the final issue: ending ex-parte (closed door) communications and meetings between developers and city councilmembers, city planning commission members, or mayor’s appointees.

The original ballot measure did not include ending ex-parte communications, but we were inspired to add that after seeing similar development issues affecting the California Coastal Commission. As has been reported, developers have an all-access pass to  Coastal Commission members, and we see the same thing too often with our elected officials in LA. While everyday people are forced to wait in line at long meetings to make a one-minute public comment statement, developers get private meetings.

We aren’t going to end private meetings between homeowners groups and their city council members, because the members of homeowner groups are not receiving over $100,000 per quarter to lobby and pressure City Hall. These homeowner groups are regular people. They aren’t causing the problem of soft corruption.

Now, we urge the mayor to announce what he has been working on, and bring the City Council together to enact these reforms. We hope that is the case, but I have serious doubts that he has done much digging into the root of the problem. He was very polite in our meeting, and lavished the work of Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. He denigrated the Cumulus project in South LA and listened to us well, but did not propose any reforms.

If the mayor does not respond in a timely manner, what are the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative campaign's next steps?

If something is not done by City Hall, we plan to put forward our signatures to the City Clerk on August 24 and qualify for the March 2017 ballot.  

Some political observers are asserting that NII’s offer, by taking the two-year moratorium for development apparently off the table, eliminates the main motivation for the development community and the city council to initiate development reform. Is NII still calling for a spot zoning “time-out”?

Our letter includes an end to spot-zoning exemptions to the General Plan immediately. It is the third request in our letter to the mayor. So, it is stronger than just asking for a two-year moratorium.

We are expecting the mayor’s office to introduce some form of measure that would be an immediate end to exemptions. That would be tougher than our moratorium, which would not kick in until March 2017. We are pushing them into a tougher corner, and forcing them to come up with an immediate solution.

In our plan, they would have to present something that would satisfy our group and our needs right now.

Given NII’s time-sensitive ultimatum to the mayor, share what legally binding city reforms and planning actions would satisfy supporters of NII. How might such an agreement be enforced going forward?

Our attorneys will be the ones determining the validity of an agreement with the mayor. They will be the ones to determine how airtight an agreement or measure is by City Hall.

Concerns about how the council could go back on things agreed to this year are totally legitimate, and we will not agree to any agreement that does not include a way to ensure its permanency.

You’ve been involved with the NII campaign for over six months now. What have you learned about how the city’s planning process works, and about the political challenges and opportunities for accomplishing reform?

I had no idea about the level of anger and frustration throughout the entire region with the process.

I knew about the anger in the San Fernando Valley, where I’ve lived for the past 15 years. I always thought of it as a Valley thing—a remnant of the succession movement. I’ve spoken to more than 60 groups throughout the city, from very poor homes to mansions. I’ve spoken to groups through interpreters of all languages, and the anger toward City Hall and the City Council as a group is unbelievably high. People are serious about what is going on, and the shared belief is: “They can’t remake this city around us without our voice.”

They are angry at the arrogance of politicians abiding by this theoretical belief that we are all going to get on Metro and it's going to be great in 10 or 15 years, and residents just have to suffer through it. These residents don’t believe that. These residents feel like they can’t point to a single city that is more livable when pushing all of this development.

In a TPR interview in February, you said: “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.” Is that assertion consistent with what you learned campaigning for NII?

Absolutely. I think most people are realizing that it is another failed urban theory put together by academics that have zero proof that it works.

The new mantra in every big city feels the same, essentially being: “We are all going to change the way we live.” I’m from Seattle, and I was there for a recent vacation. My Seattle friends and I were dreaming about a more intelligent way to go if we weren’t caught up in the urban planning religion that has gripped so many people. It’s comforting that a majority of residents are not gripped by this mantra. They do not buy into it.

When I discussed with my friends, we talked about how people are going to start working at home more. People are also starting to take Uber and Lyft more. It is a completely different world that is not built around fixed rail lines and coming into a big city center to work. The big city center is very 1980s or 1990s.

We came up with a way to resolve this: by rewarding the way people really behave. As more people work at home and stay off the roads, they should get a massive tax rebate, as long as they can prove it. Staying off the streets and not using the infrastructure should be rewarded. Often, the city of LA adds taxes to people who work from home. That’s backwards.

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The urban planners are stuck in a different world. They are saying that everyone needs to move close together and cram their children into places where there is nowhere to play. The theory that people enjoy living around the noise and congestion is wrong, and we need to respond to how people really live.

Metro has put an evergreen, $100-billion sales-tax measure on the November ballot, which will fund investment in the county’s transportation infrastructure for the next half-century. You’ve alluded to your concerns with the model of urban planning that justifies such investment. Could you comment on the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative’s view on Measure M?

One reason the evergreen Metro sales tax is in trouble is people can physically see that Metro creates congestion.

Metro has become a development arm. When they open a station or create a bus stop, they encourage major development around it. They encourage this development, because there are not enough people already there to justify that station or bus stop when it gets going.

The fixed rail is the terrible burden that Metro has to carry right now, because people are not buying it. The massive development that goes into already congested areas is maddening. Metro’s old mission statement was that they are fighting congestion. Now, they say that even though fixed rail does not reduce congestion, it gives people options.

When I’ve gone through the region, I’ve seen the anger at Metro because so many areas are not getting congestion relief. The San Fernando Valley is not getting enough funding; the Southeast cities like Artesia are not getting enough. I look around and see that none of the areas are better, and in fact, the areas are more congested after the project is completed. I am not sure how much people will challenge Metro in November, but it is clear that the whole theory (and the measure) is in trouble.

Another ballot measure on the November ballot is the Build Better LA initiative, advanced by the LA County AFL-CIO and some affordable housing non-profits. What is your view on tge BBLA initiative, which has been labeled as an alternative to NII?

It is my understanding that the Build Better LA initiative was created and drafted by the labor unions and some city council members. However, I cannot prove or confirm that city council members were involved in writing it.

This initiative would give massive new powers to the city council to determine winners and losers in Los Angeles development. It would give the council the power to choose developers. It is being promoted as a housing measure, but if you take a really close look at it, there are some major loopholes.

My favorite loophole, coming from the world of a cynical journalist, regards spot-zoning through the city council. The council can agree to any project even if changes the zoning throughout the city. It would give them the power to ignore the rules and ignore the way the land is supposed to be used, as long as the developer agrees to include some affordable housing

The city council can then decide whether the developer is making enough profit, and if they decide that the developer is not making enough profit, they can forgive the agreement on affordable housing.

The fact that City Council, with no economic experience in profit levels, can make decisions like this is irresponsible, offensive, and wrong. This part of the measure is probably going to be challenged in court.

To be fair, some also challenge NII’s premise. They believe strongly that there is insufficient affordable housing in Los Angeles, and that NII will frustrate efforts to build more. How do your supporters suggest the city grapple with growth in this region?

Right now, LA is luckily only growing at about 1.2 or 1.3 percent. It is a big break from the tremendous growth we had.

Now that we have this break, it is time for the city council to do its job—the very unsexy job—of community and general plans that foresee and deal with what our communities look like right now. General Plans are for a short amount of time, but they create a vision for where we are heading. The city council is not doing that job.

Our campaign discovered an obscure law that was passed by the city council in 2005 with no debate and no serious public notice—the media completely missed it. In 2005, the city approved a municipal change that stated they do not have to update the General Plan. Since then, they’ve come back time and time again and said that since the General Plan is out of date, it's OK to put skyscrapers on busy, gridlocked intersections and in communities that have no capacity to take them.

The members of the city council are the ones who made the General Plan out of date, and who want to keep it out of date, because they are taking in so much money from developers. It is a sneaky, nasty move to avoid being the adult in the room and having a plan.

By the way, the General Plan should be comprehensive, intertwining infrastructure and safety services with housing and growth. We need to have a real conversation about where infrastructure and safety services are being overtaxed.

An updated General Plan also needs to discuss where the city needs downzoning, as many urban planners believe we need downzoning in many areas throughout LA. We also desperately need to discuss where the city is going to put needed parks. The council is not even discussing how far behind they are on parks.

The city council is behaving like children who want their dessert and won’t eat their vegetables. Except for David Ryu, every other council member has gotten caught up in this systemic problem. Our message is simple: Do your job.

General Plans are not about who is going to be in LA in 20 years; it is about who is here right now and who is going to be here in the immediate future. I continue to see wrong projections perpetrated by SCAG about how big LA is going to be, and we cannot rely on these lies. We need to find out what is happening on the ground. 

The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative states that the city council must start writing a General Plan within 90 days of approving the initiative.

In closing, you’ve asserted that there’s overwhelming citywide support for the NII initiative. But you’ve also simultaneously described a lack of attention to the problem by elected officials over the last decade from the mayor to council and the planning commission. How do you explain that gap from the intensity of the focus today to the absence of any attention for so long?

First, it is virtually impossible to remove an incumbent in Los Angeles. You need so many contacts and so much money to go after any one of them.

While at the LA Weekly, I wanted to look into how rare it is to find someone who upset the apple cart. David Ryu, for instance, was a relative outsider in terms of not having the majority of the support of labor unions and Democratic Party. During my research, I was shocked to find that the previous upset win like David's was Ruth Galanter in 1987. Ruth won as an environmentalist who worked to protect the Westside.

We have a Soviet-like system in Los Angeles where it takes 30 years to elect a relative outsider to our city council. It is incredibly difficult to get rid of incumbents.

Secondly, when people do get involved, they are faced with so many layers of pushback and bureaucracy. Often, city planning departments are putting up barriers and fighting with the local residents as if they are the enemy.

A few months ago, I read in a Planning Report article featuring new Planning Director Vince Bertoni and new Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan about how the customers they are basing their services around are the development community. It was a shocking statement, because their customers are always supposed to be the residents of Los Angeles. The city is not supposed to be holding the hands of developers and helping them get projects done at the expense of residents who cannot even understand the system.

Los Angeles gets it soul and its livability from the people. The city has the wrong customer in mind. Our group has been holding seminars to teach citizens how to write a comment against an Environmental Impact Report. We had a packed room in Silver Lake just to show people how to fight City Hall, in an attempt to remove some of the daunting barriers that prevent people from getting involved.

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© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.