March 30, 1997 - From the March, 1997 issue

A Conversation about Priorities with L.A. City Councilman Mike Feuer

TPR is pleased to present an interview with Los Angeles City Councilman Michael Feuer, who will be uncontested for his bid for reelection to the City Council in April. As he prepares to begin his second term, Feuer outlines his vision for the Fifth District in 1997, including a number of major developments in West Los Angeles, Century City, the Fairfax District, as well as the implications of L.A. City charter reform.


Mike Feuer: “The bureaucracy is the hidden seat of power in any institutional government, the City included. We can do much to streamline at that level.”

Mike, let's begin with your vision for Westwood. 

Westwood needs to be, first of all, a pedestrian-oriented village with neighborhood-serving uses that would bring back the surrounding community to shop and dine and be entertained. With all the cultural resources in and surrounding Westwood—from the movie theaters to the Getty and the Hammer to the Wadsworth, the Geffen and UCLA—Westwood is also well-positioned to be a real center for arts and culture.

An enhanced pedestrian orientation, a new Village-wide streetscape plan about to be implemented, the Police Community Service Center and a new 400-car public parking structure now under construction will help ensure that retail and restaurant uses brought into the village are of high quality. 

Obviously Westwood has other issues imbedded in it, as well. Its relationship with UCLA, from both a planning and a commercial standpoint, is very complex. And, because of Westwood's situation on the border of Wilshire Boulevard, revitalization raises many transportation and traffic issues. But Westwood can be a jewel again; and I am committed to making that happen. 

What tools are at your disposal, as Councilman, to implement this vision? 

There are many. Westwood's Business Improvement District (BID), now in place, can do a great deal, even beyond the nuts and bolts of revitalization. The BID has been helping gain approval for a street improvement project; working on a universal parking validation system; and facilitating the Farmers' Market, the Summer Jazz Festival and Classic Film Festival to further enliven the Village. The Police Community Service Center is another example of teamwork. Artistic and cultural enhancement has, and will continue to be, a collaborative effort involving the BID, the museums, UCLA the Cultural Affairs Department, the community and my office. 

I also have access to ad hoc tools as a Council member. For example, Macy’s is considering leaving the Village. The Council, of course, has limited control over that sort of private business decision. But I have been in very frequent contact with top officials from Federated and Macy's about the future of that store and what the City can bring to bear on that decision. 

Interestingly, some of the typical tools for redevelopment that are available in other parts of the City are not at my disposal in Westwood. It is not in an Empowerment Zone. It is not in an area in which Community Development Bank money would be available. It is not in a CRA Redevelopment Area. So one has to be especially innovative, and it takes a lot of energy and creativity. 

I have been meeting with the BID director and major restaurant owners hoping to come into the Village. That sort of involvement is part of my job; I do not believe in simply letting market forces dictate the results of what kinds of uses go into a place like Westwood. I need to be an active participant to ensure that the Village is all it can be.

Should city government be spending money on affluent areas like Westwood? 

Government allocates scarce public dollars to the areas identified as needing them most. Many standard indicators of need—economic blight, the incomes of neighborhood residents and the pattern of retail success—suggest we direct public money areas more challenged than Westwood.

On the other hand, we must seriously ask: Ought we not to intervene in deteriorating neighborhoods sooner, rather than trying to play catch-up once there is already serious decay? That is an extremely important public policy question to consider. Westwood's needs are evidenced by the dramatic decline of business revenues in recent years, a situation similar to other parts of my district including the Fairfax and Melrose areas. 

If we want to reverse downward trends in neighborhoods with enormous, clearly demonstrated potential before they fall into real disrepair, new tools are needed. At the moment, though, most of the City's resources are allocated to more economically blighted areas. Clearly I cannot bring the same resources to the table in Westwood that might be brought to Crenshaw. But if we let any neighborhood decline past a certain point, it can become irreparable and perhaps impossible to reclaim. 

What sort of framework for revitalization does the Westwood Specific Plan provide? 

The Specific Plan is the product of much community involvement and hard work. But even after being amended five times, the Plan is far from perfect in its application to Westwood Village. It does not necessarily reflect the current state of business and retailing, nor has it provided the incentives to meet the residential and business community's shared goals for revitalizing a pedestrian-oriented village. 

"The Village Center Westwood," a proposed development just south of Macy's is one of the most controversial projects to come along in a while. Almost everybody agrees that it would be good to bring a few charming restaurants to that part of the Village. Yet the current Specific Plan would prohibit that, even though it is something the community wants. 

The Specific Plan offers important guidelines that ought to be taken seriously, but it should not be considered the Ten Commandments for Westwood. Its last revision is now ten years old and was written for a retail and commercial environment that no longer exists today. 

You have been engaged in some innovative approaches to consensus building in Westwood. Please comment on how that has affected the planning process to date. 

Projects in Los Angeles typically do not get much public evaluation until a draft environmental impact report is circulated for public comment. But Westwood is so important and the issues so complex that it was vital that the community be involved much earlier on. 

Even when the Village Center Westwood was first proposed more than a year ago, public meetings began to be held and were very well attended. I sought volunteers at those meetings to participate in an innovative consensus-building process. We assembled representatives from every stakeholder group in the area—all the homeowners' groups, the commercial property owners, merchants, UCLA, the Police Department, the arts community—to hold intensive discussions with the developer and me, to arrive at a project that would be both good for the Village and economically viable for the developer. 

That process, now in almost its seventh month, is reaching a very exciting stage. There have been 11 labor-intensive meetings so far. At the next meeting in late March, the developer is set to present alternate designs in response to working group members' critiques of the project. 

This very public process offers some really exciting possibilities and, hopefully, will culminate in a consensus. 

We in Los Angeles should relegate to the past the idea that development decisions should be made behind closed doors and public comment considered only after an EIR is submitted. We have to break the cycle of tremendous public cynicism toward decisions about development. The only way to do that is to open up the process and give people an opportunity to participate in a meaningful way. Together we should be able to shape new development proposals into projects that will be assets to our communities, instead of automatically just saying "no".

What other competitive development projects have been proposed in Westwood? 

Cinamerica Theatres has been contemplating for five or six months a project for the west side of the Village. It is, however, not as clearly defined as the Village Center Westwood. They still have yet to produce a formally accepted submission to the City. If such a submission is accepted, I will structure an evaluation process modeled on that of the Village Center Westwood. 

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Let's move on to Century City, Fairfax and the Melrose. What are the key issues in these Fifth District planning areas? 

In Century City, we worked closely with Federated Stores to bring Bloomingdale's and Macy's to the shopping center, and to make that transition work. There is still some fine tuning to be done, particularly with regard to parking. 

A new high-rise office building was proposed on the site just across the street from the Century City Marketplace. The almost-800,000 s.f., 38-story high rise tower would portend enormous negative consequences for the very fragile transportation network and circulation system throughout the Westside. It would impact at least 56 intersections, 36 of which could not be mitigated. Even if you cul the project in half, well over 20 intersections would have severe, unmitigable impacts. That project ought not to be built, and said so early on in the process. The final EIR is still being prepared for comment, but I have made very clear to the community where I stand on the current proposal.

As to Fairfax and Melrose, there are significant opportunities for revitalization. If we had not begun to intervene early, they would risk falling into tremendous disrepair, particularly Fairfax. We cannot let that happen. Fairfax is one of the most unique neighborhoods in Southern California and even the country. Yet it has declined over almost two decades. 

With excellent community teamwork on our side, however, the community is looking at a number of revitalization options. We have been awarded a Los Angeles Neighborhoods Initiative grant, and the community is evaluating the possible benefits of setting up a BID. 

Some physical improvements in the Fairfax area have already begun. The Rosewood Mini-Park at Fairfax and Rosewood, next to a bus stop, has become a magnet for homelessness and crime. Starting this month it will be completely redesigned. The entire corner is going to be radically transformed into a very beautiful gateway into Fairfax. The parking lot, rather than being a magnet for crime, will become a well-lit, landscaped, shaded park that will be well used by seniors and others in the community.

Parking has been a huge issue for the small businesses on Fairfax and Melrose because of inadequate off-street parking. Validations in private parking lots are too expensive for the small bakeries and grocery stores that rely on relatively small purchases. Continuing as we are would drive those businesses out of the Fairfax area. I have been working very closely with the Department of Transportation to negotiate a City lease of a private parking lot on Fairfax, as well as the purchase of land on Melrose to construct public parking. 

At another location, I have taken the initiative to hold meetings with a series of developers to propose ideas of how Fairfax might be rejuvenated and ask what they can offer to the community. I am talking very seriously with one property owner about replacing the structures on his property with street-front retail and a multi-level parking structure. We are working with City staff on a proposal to pre-lease the parking spaces, providing sufficient cash flow for the development to move forward, and, at the same time, providing inexpensive public parking lo the City.

We are working with the School District, as well. Every developer I talk to has said that if you don't bookend the west side of Fairfax with a commercial strip on the east side, you are consigning the west side to failure forever. That is the way commercial districts function. In response, we have reached a tentative agreement with the head of real estate for the Los Angeles Unified School District and the principal of Fairfax High School to prepare and release an RFQ to develop one- or two-story commercial space on the Fairfax High School property in exchange for public parking, providing a funding source for the school and future commercial revitalization efforts. 

We are pursuing these innovations simultaneously with some very prosaic, fundamental things, too. The neighborhood has to be clean and safe. So I found funds in the City budget to make the streets sparkle again. Every piece of two-decade-old gum on the sidewalks of Fairfax and Melrose has now been cleaned up. In partnership with the LAPD, there are additional police patrols in the area, and we are working on the possibility of a police sub-station on Melrose. 

Again, the neighborhood has to be clean, safe and attractive. It has to offer something new and provide adequate parking. All of these things are beginning to come together on Fairfax and Melrose. My office strongly believes that we must intervene now to prevent the neighborhood from falling into disrepair for the next generation of Angelenos. 

To change directions, calls for charter reform send an implicit message that the City, itself, is not working—that it is not governable under its current structure. What changes in government need to be made? 

There are several dimensions to your question. First, the City is governable now if we choose to govern it. There are structural improvements to be made, but that is not tantamount to saying it is not governable. Certainly, the Council could work better as a team, as could the Mayor and the Council. 

Other local governments sometimes do a belier job of identifying the key issues and reconfiguring their work agendas for the next year or two to address them. I wish the City would follow that lead. The fact that we have not is a significant impediment to our public decisions being truly relevant to most Angelenos. It requires teamwork and leadership; and all of us share some blame that we have not had enough. I hope we can transform that in the future. 

There have been times when the Council has identified an issue, gangs, for instance, and formed a consensus to begin to address the problem. We created a unique, community-based committee that worked for about a year to identify new solutions. We courageously dismantled ineffective programs when we needed to and started new ones from scratch. We should build on that kind of model for other major issues in the City.

There is a lot the charter can address, even beyond the Mayor/Council balance of power. The bureaucracy is the hidden seal of power in any institutional government, the City included. We can do much to streamline at that level. And, as neighborhood councils in my district have begun to do, we can give communities more of a say in the shape their government takes, some aspects of which require charter change, others do not. 

If we could, as a City Council, identify the most significant issues in the City, prioritize them, and then set about attacking them within specific time frames, that would be a good start. It would raise the level of accountability to our constituents. 

And, as Marvin Braude has been saying for a long time, we would do well to jettison much of the ministerial work of the Council, allocate that work to City staff, and focus our attention on the most important public policy issues in the City. 

If for the next two years all of us are going to be looking at the architecture of our governing institutions, what must we do to lift the public debate to a meaningful level? 

First of all, we need to recognize that City government can function belier than it does today. Those who say reform is unnecessary are wrong. We need commitments from the media, the public, the government, and reform commission members to deescalate the tension. 

We have a challenge, though, in that charter reform is a very ethereal concept for most people. There is a great danger or the debate reducing to the level of a discussion that look place in front of supermarkets when the petitions were being circulated initially. A friend of my family quoted one petitioner: 'This is a way to get rid of your City Council." That is not a high level, informed discussion. 

Even in government, there is a risk of the debate being reduced to the Mayor's saying "the City Council is doing a bad job of governing," and the Council's casting equal aspersions on him. If that happens, we will have done a great disservice and hurt our chances for meaningful reform. 

We need the media to practice true civic journalism and commit to cover the debate effectively and really inform the public about the issues. One could imagine, for example, a series of L.A. Times articles addressing specific components of the charter—a couple of articles on the Mayor/Council relationship; and another discussion about how the bureaucracy works and some suggestions to streamline it. You could envision a series about neighborhood involvement in the City, and models that have worked elsewhere. 

Anyone in government who is serious about charter reform knows it cannot happen unless we approach it earnestly, intelligently and with an informed public.

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