December 5, 2019 - From the November, 2019 issue

Newest LA City Councilmember John Lee Unpacks Northwest Valley BRT Concerns

Having recently won the CD 12  special election to represent much of the Norwest San Fernando Valley on the Los Angeles City Council, TPR spoke with Councilmember John Lee about his perspective as a lifelong resident of the district on transit, housing, and public safety.


John Lee

"Being someone that has lived [here]...for over 40 years, I understand this community." —John Lee

Councilmember Lee, the nexus of mobility and land use planning were integral to your recently successful campaign for city council. Now that you sit on the Council’s PLUM Committee, share with our readers the viewpoint of your district with respect to city and neighborhood land use and transportation policy. 

John Lee: Since CD12 is on the outskirts of Los Angeles and is the farthest district from Downtown Los Angeles, connectivity to other parts of the city, including major employment centers, is very important. We need to better link land use decisions and transportation facilities planning as we look to the future. I’m so glad that Metro is looking at transit projects to better connect the Northwest San Fernando Valley to other parts of Los Angeles, like the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line. As the population in the Valley continues to grow, we need to consider the best places to increase density and invest in transportation infrastructure to support overall growth in the region.

Regarding the BRT, I want to make it clear that I never opposed the line. This was a project that was added to Measure M at the last minute and unfortunately, while Measure M allowed for east-west transit, it never specified the street. The selection of Nordoff came as a surprise to everyone. I’m glad that Metro listened to the community and will be studying alternate routes for the BRT.

How do you respond to the viewpoint, endorsed by the LA Times Editorial Board and The New York Times, that state government has the ultimate authority over land use and might be best positioned to incentivize upzoning of neighborhoods by using adjacency to public transit investment as the determinant for housing density?

I think all land use is local. I understand that the state is concerned with what is best for all Californians, but sometimes our legislature enacts laws without understanding the implications to local communities. Who knows what makes the most sense in a community than its residents? The state needs to work hand in hand with local jurisdictions to get a better picture of what is happening in order to plan for the future in ways that will encourage smart growth and not create more pockets of congestion. Be planning together, I believe we will be better positioned to take advantage of opportunities when they arise.

As an example, I was very frustrated recently when we had a Costco shopping center sold—a perfect spot for more dense housing because its proximity to the Orange line. It ended up getting sold to a CarMax. What a wasted opportunity. 

In the days before this interview, the Metro board approved the next phase of the BRT project. Can you tell readers what that vote addressed and its impact to your district?

The vote was about moving the environmental study forward. We didn’t want to delay the study, as ultimately having more transit options, like this east-west line, is important. I just wanted to make sure alternative routes are studied so we don’t waste time with a new study if the Nordoff route doesn’t work out. I am glad Metro agreed to examine other major corridors as a part of this study.

Returning to the Costco shopping center sale you mentioned - an example of the fiscalization of landuse - what are the disincentives that make it such a challenge for cities to do the right thing’ with respect to building homeless housing ? 

Not all cases are the same, but too often I see the city put a lot of the burden to help resolve major issues on the business community. Take the affordable housing crisis as an example. We see so much market rate and luxury housing being built, but in reality, it's really the only thing that pencils out for developers. The City has added so many fees, taxes, and regulations, it doesn’t make business sense for a developer to build anything else. Plus, add to that the fact that in Los Angeles, you don’t have any guarantee how long the approval process will take. And time is money. Developers can go to Arizona and get entitlements within three months, whereas the same project might take two or three years to get entitled in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, it's hard to build affordable housing in this environment. If we want to build more affordable housing, then we need to provide certain incentives to make it more affordable to build.

What's it like to be one of only one or two councilmembers endorse offering greater incentives for building homeless and affordable housing?

It's tough. I think we're at a point in time where everything needs to be on the table. By early 2020, I hope to bring greater transparency to all the different fees and regulations that ultimately add to the building cost of supportive and affordable housing units. I hope that image will strike something in my colleagues.

There are so many fees that have nothing to do with housing. They serve to disincentivize developers because of the high costs that get added to projects. We’re in a housing crisis so we have to weigh what is more important at this point in time and perhaps consider reducing certain fees in order to get the housing we want built.

The council  just approved a permanent supportive housing project in your district. Can elaborate on that vote, that project, and the politics that allowed it to happen?

This was a project that I heard about during the campaign, and I had concerns with it from the start. The Councilmember at that time, Greig Smith, received assurances that the project was not going to be proposed at the Topanga Canyon Boulevard location. Then, the day before I took the oath of office, I found out through a report that the project would in fact be located there.

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The Chatsworth Specific Plan limits buildings to 45 feet, and maybe a little bit higher if you have a density bonus. Affirmed Housing originally proposed a six or seven story building on a 10,000 square foot lot that abuts single family homes. The property is zoned commercial, so you can build a few stories high there, but six or seven stories is out of scale for that area.

I know that CD12 has to be a part of the solution to the homeless crisis, and I think that we have done a pretty good job over the years. We get the unfortunate label of not building supportive housing under HHH. That's true, but people have to propose projects in the district to begin with. Regarding this particular project, I believe there are other sites that are better suited – closer to transportation and would allow for more parking – but the developer had HHH funds committed to that site, and so now we find ourselves trying to negotiate with them. I’m going to fight for this community because they deserve to be part of this process and not have a project forced down their throats.

For context, could you share with our readers your background and how it informs your connection with your constituents and the mobility and development issues that come before you on the City Council?

I’ve lived in this community for 41 years, and I've represented it under Councilmember Greig Smith and Councilmember Mitch Englander for about 14 or 15 years. I went from elementary school through Cal State Northridge and now my wife and I are here raising our two children.

I love this community and have gotten to know it since I began volunteering for community organizations at 13 years of age. Today, I remain very active with a number of community organizations. I currently sit on three different boards and one of them is the San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission. Before HHH, the Rescue Mission built a 90-bed transitional housing center right here in the middle of Northridge. Now, as you can imagine, people weren't excited about this shelter project, but the developer engaged with the community early and often and that made a huge difference. The City and the Rescue Mission listened to community concerns, and incorporated changes to the project based on community feedback. The Rescue Mission’s new family shelter opened in 2015 and since then, we have not had a single complaint from the community. The challenge with the Topanga Apartments is it was sprung on everyone. And now there is a lot of fear and misinformation about the project that the developer has to address since there was no proactive communication with the community.

What do our readers need to know about CD12? What are its unique characteristics and challenges?

We're the largest district in the city, because we're made up of a lot of single family residences. I like to say that we're the last slice of Mayberry in the City Los Angeles. We are the safest district in the city, not only because we have the best police division, but because so many people in the community give back in significant ways, such as volunteering or contributing to a community based organization. LAPD Devonshire Division has more volunteers than any other police division in the city. We have a surveillance team, a committee patrol team, a bike patrol team, and an equestrian patrol team. We have so many different programs because our entire community pitches in. That's what makes this community so special – the people who invest their time. I can't tell you how many different neighborhoods do a weekly or monthly cleanup of their streets and their sidewalks. They're out there like clockwork every week putting in hours because they care and they’re invested.

We do this interview in November, while fires are burning throughout California, fires that directly impact your district . Address how the City of LA ought to address both the current challenges and the future challenges of a new normal for our climate.

The wildfires have become a new normal here in Southern California. I don't know if we can turn the clock back on that, but it's something that we need to do a better job of here in the city of Los Angeles to ensure it doesn’t become a bigger issue. With some of the recent fires, the reason why some of the newer developments weren’t as affected as the older developments is because we now require a much larger buffer between the homes. This larger buffer provides better brush clearance and protection in the event of a wildfire. We need to continue to implement sound planning principles like this that can mitigate the impacts of wildfires. We also need to continue to support our first responders and educate our residents about what they can do to avoid the devastating impacts of these fires and even the mudslides and floods that ensue once the rains hit barren hillsides.

Lastly, having been elected to city council in a special election, you are up for reelection in March 2020. What do you believe the voters of CD12 will be looking for in a Council candidate to represent them for four more years in City Hall?  

I believe the voters of CD12 want someone who shares their commitment to public safety. CD12, per capita, has the smallest police force of any large city. I think we have an opportunity—just like we did in 1984 for the upcoming Olympics—to prioritize our budget to increase the police force. You can’t have healthy communities without having safe communities first.

I also believe the voters of CD12 want someone who will look beyond the “housing first” approach we have had toward addressing the homelessness crisis. While I agree with the rest of the council that we need to build more housing, we have to make sure we understand that housing isn’t the panacea. We need to consider how we’re providing resources and support to individuals with mental illness or drug addiction; to women fleeing abusive relationships and seniors who are on fixed incomes and families who are not just cost-burdened, but who are severely rent burdened. We have to pay attention to prevention, otherwise we’re putting a bandage on a gunshot wound. Different laws have been passed recently, like Prop 47, that have tied the hands of police officers. You don't have that choice of spending time in jail or going to rehabilitation, because you're not committing what used to be a felony. On the November ballot, we need to reform Prop 47. This time next year, I'm going to be part of that conversation to reform Prop 47.

I also believe this community wants a Councilmember who is committed to making this city more business friendly. We have lost so many businesses to other cities in recent years and I believe we need to start looking at every industry to see how we can make doing business in Los Angeles more attractive. I have a lot of experience in the City of L.A. and I know what works and what doesn’t. I have brought a lot of innovative programs to the Twelfth District and I know how to cut through the red tape. I think CD12 residents appreciate that.

I believe CD12 wants someone who will focus on issues that impact their quality of life – the delivery of basic city services from filling potholes to picking up trash. That is my goal – to make sure this City is working for the residents of the Twelfth District.

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.