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 why so 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.
Latham lawyers have given Weiss more than $10,000 in contributions since the 2001 campaign. After JMB made progress in its talks with the homeowner groups, Latham & Watkins pointed out that Weiss had veto power over any deal. Weiss fought the homeowner coalition’s bid for control over JMB’s $5 million fund, saying that arrangement wouldn’t provide sufficient transparency and accountability.
JMB is not the only Latham client ?to argue that its development projects will actually reduce traffic. The development firm Trammell Crow made the same argument before it won approval of a 12-story office building in Century City. And why shouldn’t it? The city has been doing the same thing for years, employing the strategy at LAX and the Port of Los Angeles.
One activist sick of that strategy was Noel Park, who in 2001 challenged the harbor department in court on its environmental review. Again, it wasn’t the neighborhood council that filed the lawsuit, but a coalition of San Pedro homeowner groups, working in tandem with environmental organizations. Buoyed by the legal prowess of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Park’s group convinced three judges that the port cooked the traffic-impact and air-quality numbers on a terminal expansion project. Then they got the port to pay for a staggering $50 million in environmental improvements.
That settlement was bigger than anything accomplished by the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council, Park said. After four years on that panel, Park has called it quits. “It’s a waste of time,” Park said. “The mayor and the City Council don’t care what they have to say.”
Eveloff, who serves on the Westside Neighborhood Council, isn’t ready to throw in the towel yet. But he contends that homeowner groups, not the neighborhood council, were the relevant force in the talks with JMB, simply by doing the work the city should be doing: hiring traffic consultants, counting real-life car trips and pressing the developer to address negative impacts of its project. That work, Eveloff argued, is expensive — and the reason why the neighborhood groups unsuccessfully sought for themselves a direct cut of the $5 million public fund.
By now, JMB, Weiss and the Westside Coalition have devolved into bickering over the $5 million. In an October 7 e-mail, Latham lobbyist George Mihlsten told Weiss’ staff that the homeowner groups “went nuts” over JMB’s refusal to pay administrative costs for the Westside Coalition. Latham lawyer Francis Y. Park ripped into the homeowners’ groups for seeking to control the fund, which will be placed under the supervision of the California Community Foundation.
Neither Mihlsten nor Park responded to a combined five requests for comment. Weiss, for his part, argued that Century City’s success is the reason why the average Westside home cost exceeds $1 million. But he refused to say what motivated JMB to give the money. “It’s not my job to speculate on what other folks do,” he said.
Still, Weiss couldn’t resist taking credit for the coalition’s work, sending an e-mail on November 22 saying he had obtained the $5 million package from JMB. Although a follow-up e-mail acknowledged the work of community groups, Weiss continued to use the first-person singular this week when asked about the fund. “Are you asking me, am I pleased that I helped secure a $5 million investment in schools, parks, police and traffic improvements in neighborhoods that I represent? Yes,” Weiss said.
Eveloff argued that Weiss is taking credit for the hard work of the homeowner groups. And despite his own involvement, Eveloff argued that the $5 million is peanuts compared to the size of the project — and its impacts.
“If the entitlement process was not entirely in the control of developers, lawyers and lobbyists — and had something to do with reality — we would not have sought a settlement, because we would not have had to,” he said. “The community would never have had to spend thousands and thousands of dollars and hundreds and hundreds of hours analyzing the project. The city would have done that.”