By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
You can’t blame most of Los Angeles ?for assuming that hazing in the Fire Department — spiked spaghetti, feces in inappropriate places, private parts lathered up with shaving cream — is the only thing occupying the minds of our politicians at City Hall. Certainly, nothing dominated the news like the black firefighter offered $2.7 million after he unwittingly ate dog food, the mayor’s veto of that offer, and the subsequent removal of the fire chief.
But plenty of other intrigue is swirling around the pointy building on Spring Street. For one thing, the City Council okayed the construction of two 47-story condominium towers in Century City, one of the most traffic-choked sections of the Westside. And City Controller Laura Chick, the woman who spent the previous week roasting the fire chief on a verbal spit, turned her sights toward another easy target: the city’s frequently hapless network of 80-plus neighborhood councils.
Now, those two topics, skyscrapers and neighborhood councils, are more connected than you’d think. Chick went hard after the weaknesses of the neighborhood-council system, saying the volunteer panels — groups now in effect for five years — have not gotten the help or the oversight they need. And the development fight over the Century City skyscrapers, one of the biggest to hit the Westside since Playa Vista, exposed the shortcomings of the neighborhood-council system even further. That’s because the real player in the fight wasn’t the neighborhood council at all, but a collection of unhappy homeowner groups.
Councilman Jack Weiss embraced the skyscraper project, saying it is a perfect example of “smart growth,” since it will put homes closer to Century City’s stores and offices. Ten homeowner groups disagreed, saying the skyscrapers will flood the neighborhood with additional traffic and tax the city’s infrastructure — roads, libraries, parks and so on.
To understand whyso many groups mobilized against the towers — a project that takes in 483 condos and includes a third, 12-story loft building — you have to know how bad traffic has gotten on the Westside. Sixteen of the 32 intersections that surround the proposed skyscrapers will soon suffer from what is known to bureaucrats as “Level of Service F,” the worst grade possible, even without the skyscrapers. Santa Monica Boulevard has so many lanes that it resembles a low-grade freeway, with sweeping left-turn lanes into Century City that feel like miniature offramps.
The 10 homeowner groups grew upset once the number crunchers in the city planning department concluded that the skyscrapers would generate less traffic than the things that were already there — a vacant lot, a sleepy drive-through bank and the Century Club, a fading nightclub/restaurant. The city said the skyscrapers proposed by Chicago-based JMB Realty will generate 1,636 fewer car trips per day. And once you assume the skyscrapers will actually reduce traffic, it’s a bit difficult to tell the developer to devote more money to traffic congestion.
“They’re going to build 106 combined stories and it’s going to improve traffic? That doesn’t pass the smell test,” declared Mike Eveloff, president of the Tract 7260 Association. “They do this for every project, and what you end up with is huge amounts of traffic.”
Weiss disagreed, saying he is relying on the city’s analysis. “The city kicked the tires on all of the developer’s submissions, and the city professionals told us that everything had been done appropriately,” he said.
The fact is, the planning department relies on a rigid, highly obscure formula to calculate car trips. And since the drive-through bank had offices a few feet away, planners said the entire first floor of those offices should be classified as a drive-through — triggering a higher number of trips.
Now this might sound like the moment when a neighborhood council would have stepped in, and in reality, the Westside Neighborhood Council did submit comments on the traffic numbers. But neighborhood councils can only advise, not coerce. They can’t challenge the city in court, because, well, the neighborhood councils are city government. And as Chick’s audit showed, the neighborhood councils function a lot like city government — they don’t have the proper resources and they’re not especially effective.
With their neighborhood council muted, the 10 Westside homeowner groups hired their own professional traffic consultant, counted the car trips and contested the city’s numbers. They argued, in effect, that the developer inflated the number of car trips currently occurring on the site by roughly 3,000 a day. Then they did what neighborhood councils can’t: They threatened to sue. The so-called Westside Coalition inaugurated months of talks with JMB Realty, which got plenty of assistance from its powerhouse lobbyist at City Hall, Latham & Watkins. Last month, JMB announced a “voluntary” contribution of $5 million toward the area’s traffic planning, libraries, parks, emergency services and schools.
JMB isn’t exactly unknown to City Hall’s politicians. The company’s corporate counterpart in Chicago gave $100,000 to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s campaign to seize power at the L.A. Unified School District. Villaraigosa supported JMB’s project, and just happens to count Weiss, the councilman who represents Century City, as one of his closest allies. Meanwhile, JMB’s lobbyist represents nearly every development project in Century City.
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