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Rebel With a Plan 

Ed Reyes is angry. He wants the "zombies" in L.A.’s Planning Department out. He wants affordable-housing supporters in. And he wants his more polite colleagues on the City Council to help him pull it off.

Thursday, Nov 18 2004
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Photo by Gregory Bojorquez

"Reyes!" barked the planning supervisor. "In my office! Right now!"

The young urbanist’s hands shook as he entered the City Hall planning office. His teeth were clenched, his mind filled with the image of the pregnant woman, beaten and bloodied, he had spotted an hour before as his city car rounded a corner in South Los Angeles. He now walked past the "zombies" — his term — who pushed paper through a Planning Department that seemed to be sleepwalking instead of remaking the future of Los Angeles. His partner, who didn’t want to stop the car and help the beaten woman, didn’t want to wait for the police to arrive — he was already a city zombie. It made Ed Reyes mad.

"Reyes!" his supervisor repeated. "What the hell were you thinking?"

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The story tumbles out from Los Angeles City Councilman Ed Reyes as though it happened yesterday, and not some 16 years ago. The frustration feels fresh. The quiet ex-planner starts his standard speech. "L.A. today is a tale of two cities, with the haves protected by City Hall, the have-nots left to fend for themselves." But this time the conversation veers from Reyes’ plans to remake the city, and the Planning Department’s reluctance to sign on, to the sharp recollection of that day in the late 1980s when he knew he had to get out of there. His supervisor — a man who still works there — was yelling at him for getting involved.

"Dude was Captain Bligh!" Reyes says, flashing a half smile. "How can I say this? He gave importance to all the wrong things. He tells me I could have undermined the department for getting involved. That I shouldn’t have stopped. That I shouldn’t have helped this woman. I shouldn’t have argued with the dude who was beating her. I could have jeopardized the budget."

Back then, though, Reyes was too hot, or too dumb, to back down. Jeopardized the budget? How, exactly? If it were another part of the city, he demanded, would you respond the same way? If it were a white woman in the San Fernando Valley instead of a Latina south of the Santa Monica Freeway, what then? He was reminded that he was on probation. Still, he kept arguing.

And in the young urban planner’s anger the memories coalesced of other incidents that had been gnawing at him since he started working at the Los Angeles City Planning Department. The mocking of the new Latina councilwoman, Gloria Molina. His own desk, stuck in a closet. This place is racist, Reyes concluded. Racist in office politics, racist in planning policy. But what could he do? He could sulk, or become a zombie. Or he could plan.

And there was so much to plan. It was 1988, and Los Angeles was painting itself into a corner. After a decade of incredible commercial growth, a coalition of wealthy and middle-class homeowners and anti-sprawl environmentalists saw an L.A. lifestyle being swallowed up by rapacious developers. This city still was, as the name of a leading activist group put it, "Not Yet New York," and a Valley-and-Westside coalition led the charge to pass the stringent slow-growth Proposition U to keep it that way. Manhattanization had been put at bay.

But to Reyes, slow growth meant too few houses and apartments, which meant an inevitable jump in housing prices. Laborers and civil servants working here would have to drive for hours from more-affordable homes out in the desert or in San Bernardino County. Their rush-hour commutes would clog freeways and streets. The smog would get thicker. And the Valley and the Westside, once again, would win special protections for their neighborhoods, while South L.A., Pico-Union and Northeast communities like Reyes’ own Cypress Park would once again get the packed apartment houses and overburdened sewer lines and streets.

Reyes thought then and talks now about another way. Smart growth. Block sprawl by actually making housing denser. Put apartments on top of stores — and gardens on top of apartments. Make historic preservation as available to struggling Highland Park as it is to tony Hancock Park, as long as it doesn’t keep housing prices out of reach of working people. Declare that environmentalism is not just a Westside NIMBY sport, and claim the L.A. River and adjacent industrial yards as greenspace where Latino families can play soccer. Divert part of the river to form parks in rundown neighborhoods. Like Cypress Park.

Instead of piling even more restrictions on developers, Reyes thought, maybe loosen up a bit, to encourage them to build. Perhaps require only one parking space per unit instead of two, as long as the new apartment building is on a major public-transit thoroughfare. Let developers build more — as long as they devote a portion of every project to below-market affordable housing, and as long as those affordable units appear equally throughout the city, and are not just plunked in low-rent minority areas. Other cities are doing that. Inclusionary zoning, they call it.

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