June 1, 2001 - From the June, 2001 issue

Boroughs May Be An Alternative To Valley Secession

With the City of LA's negative response to the idea of Valley secession now public, all parties involved may have forgotten what the driving force behind the secession movement is: the belief that 200 N. Main Street lacks public and neighborhood accountability. Valley leader and Latham & Watkins attorney David Fleming suggests our civic leaders consider again a Borough system for Los Angeles--not unlike what New York and London have. In this excerpt from his recent remarks to the National Academy of Public Administration, David urges Boroughs, which Mayor Riordan rejected, as the logical and most desirable solution to Los Angeles' governance conundrum.

In my way of thinking, perhaps the topic of this discussion "Is breaking up the City of Los Angeles a good idea?" might well be rephrased to read, "What are the underlining causes which have fomented the secession movement and how can we address them without breaking up the city of Los Angeles?"

San Fernando Valley voters now favor independent cityhood better than 2-1 as defined by no less than 5 voter surveys conducted over the past three years by proponents and opponents of Valley secession. The survey results have been amazingly uniform, 51-59-percent favor secession. 18-24-percent oppose secession and the rest are undecided. So there's little doubt that most valley voters now want to form their own city. The question is why?

Well for starters it's because of the shear size of Los Angeles compared with and coupled to the expanding population of this city and the ever-worsening traffic congestion. Within the city limits of Los Angeles lie 500 square miles-that's an area large enough to contain the cities of San Francisco, Minneapolis, Boston, St. Louis, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Manhattan Island all at the same time. And except for the Santa Monica Mountains and our city parks, every one of those 500 square miles is totally urbanized.

In the opinion of many, L.A.'s exploding population and ever-worsening traffic congestion have rendered the present structure of Los Angeles City government largely incapable of coping with the needs of many of its citizens. I'm talking about the people who live on the extremities of this city. It now takes from an hour and a half to as long as two hours to drive from the West Valley or from San Pedro to City Hall during peak traffic time. To them Los Angeles City government is no longer local-at least in the sense that most people define local. Certainly not when compared to smaller cities like Burbank, Pasadena, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Glendale. In those cities it takes residents about 10-15 minutes driving time to reach their city hall and transact city business or avail themselves of city services.

Population growth and traffic has made L.A. something of an anomaly. The City has grown too big to be local, yet it's not big enough to be truly regional. So no wonder the cries for independence and cityhood grow louder everyday in the Valley and in San Pedro and in lately in Hollywood.

The case of the valley in truth, the Valley has always been separate and apart from the rest of Los Angeles because geology made it that way. As a result, the Valley is a mountain range removed from the rest of the city. Fifty years ago a mountain range didn't make much difference. The valley's population in 1950 was 60,000-mostly white, mostly in their late 20s and 30s, families just getting started. The valley was a typical California bedroom community. Every morning 2,000 folks drove through the Cahuenga pass, or south on Sepulveda blvd. to go to work. Some drove over Laurel Canyon, Coldwater Canyon, or Beverly Glen. Some even rode the old red car to work, because back then L.A. had only one Downtown.

Ranches, orchards and farms, miles of open space made up the west valley. Tracts of new small homes with lots of grass and yards set back, small stores, movie drive-ins, and corner gas stations made up the east valley. There were small new commercial centers like Van Nuys, North Hollywood, Studio City and Sherman Oaks where people went to shop. The valley was the essence of a small town American suburbia. How things have changed.

For every 1 resident in the Valley in 1950, today there are 234. For every 1 car in the valley in 1950, today there are 200 cars. 1.4 million people now live in the San Fernando Valley's 225 square miles and just like the rest of Los Angeles there is no more open space. More than 80 languages are spoken daily, mostly Spanish and English. The Valley's social, economic and ethnic profiles now mirror the rest of Los Angeles. Everything has changed in the last half-century except for one thing, how to get from the Valley to the rest of the City or vice versa.

The 200 cars that replaced the 1 car of 1950 are still confined to the same three canyon streets winding over the mountains or to the 405 freeway and its tremendous gridlock or even the Cahuenga pass. Every morning, every evening, it's the same story.

In a survey conducted last year by the Valley Economic Alliance, we found that 80-percent of Valley residents who go to work everyday, do so north of Mullholland-that's the valley side. Many go west to work in Westlake Village, Thousand Oaks or along the 101 corridor. Others head to Burbank or Glendale, some going as far north as Santa Clarita in the Antelope Valley. Only about 20-percent now head south into Los Angeles and to points beyond. So whether it's morning or afternoon, traffic going west is now as heavy as traffic going east. Traffic going north as busy as traffic going south.

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What has this growth in population and traffic gridlock meant overall? It's been a disconnect from the rest of the City of Los Angeles. You won't find folks residing south of Mulholland as members of Valley organizations. And conversely, in social, civic and charitable organizations in the rest of Los Angeles south of Mulholland, virtually no one from the Valley is to be found. A geologic area coupled with a lack of convenient access has left the Valley more separate and more apart from the rest of Los Angeles than any other time in history. Now most Valley-ites occasionally travel out of the Valley to Los Angeles to see a ballgame or a show and people living south of Mulholland occasionally travel to the Valley to visit CityWalk, Universal Studios, Magic Mountain, etc. But that kind of sporadic interchange, is hardly the mark of a truly integrated, homogenous city.

No one is to blame for this situation. There has never been a conscious effort to exclude the Valley. There is no clandestine scheme favoring some kind of apartheid. But never the less defacto segregation of the Valley has become the unintended reality. So the question before us it seems to me is this: Can we continue to forget about it and hope it all goes away? Or are we going to deal with it and begin to solve it? In short, is breaking up Los Angeles going to become inevitable or is there an alternative?

I for one think there is an alternative. Let's first ask what are the desires that drive Valley City voting. Well, it's simple-the promise of better local services; more convenient access to city government; and smaller, streamlined less costly City bureaucracies. While the Valley has changed over the years, it has never forgotten over its love of strong, living identification-sidewalk shopping, neighborhood gathering, small town type governance.

[L]os Angeles should follow the leads of other even larger cities in the world, cities like London, Paris and New York. Mainly L.A. should consider breaking down local government into smaller more manageable bite-sized pieces, closer to the people they're supposed to serve. I'm talking about establishing a kind of Borough or District structure where city administration and issues effecting the entire city would remain on Spring Street. But issues that are local in nature could be handled at the District or Borough level. The number of Boroughs or Districts in Los Angeles, that's up for discussion. By way of example: New York has 5, Paris has 20, London has 32 and Tokyo over 50. The sort of symbiotic federal-state system would thereby evolve in L.A. with delineated powers of asset distribution and control residing at each level of city government. And, just like federal supremacy, the central municipal government would have the overriding jurisdiction in the case of disputes.

The other world-class cities I referred to each have larger populations than L.A., some have even larger land areas then L.A. And they've found that such systems are essential to keeping themselves intact and functioning efficiently for their citizens. Keeping local things local and regional things regional, that to me is the key.

In Los Angeles I foresee a central city government, preparing to run and manage the city's three proprietary departments, police, fire, transportation, sewers and other citywide activities. I see a delegation of power to these local districts for activities such as local zoning, land use, libraries, parks, signage, imposition of curfews, building permits, street repairs, tree trimming, trash collection, and all the other activities of a purely local nature effecting no other District or Borough.

Now, if we're going to break a city down and give power to the community, we've got to talk about NIMBYism. There's an antidote to NIMBYism and the antidote is this-the district's we create must handle and receive the tax revenue enhancements created by new development within that district. Giving local district governance the incentive to say, "Yes" to constructive regional development, rather then the present day, knee-jerk NIMBY reaction of forever saying no is key. Smaller cities have proven that revenue enhancements work. Look for example at Burbank and Glendale. They've attracted new businesses, sensible development. They're about 150,000 population each. The new sales taxes enrich those city's coffers and pay for expanded services for the residents-a win-win situation for all.

This revenue sharing helps balance the scales making good development accountable and acceptable in local settings. At the same time, we can take a page out of Tokyo's book, establishing a citywide Board of Equalization. The Board would redistribute a small portion of these new tax revenues created by development among those districts within the city that have low tax base, Districts where public needs are the greatest and home-grown revenues are inadequate to maintain essential services at high-levels.

I see this as L.A.'s new paradigm. It's an alternative to breaking up. For in adopting this new form of governance, we will come a long way to breaking local government down to truly local levels. This is the key to satisfying the legitimate desires on the part of the citizens throughout the city It empowers citizens. It engages people where they live. And it hands them ownership of local problems What happens to this great city depends on our willingness to think openly, to listen, to understand, to reach out and to act. The future of Los Angeles belongs to those who are willing to help shape it.

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© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.