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That's how the Planning Department claims to be engaging the public. But a wall of silence between the public and the city is built into the incremental nature of the process.
Few residents know what to make of the strangely worded notifications they suddenly receive in the mail — just 10 days before a hearing. (Some notices, as in the Lake Balboa district in the Valley, arrived after a key hearing had occurred.) There's very rarely media interest, and in a city where few residents know the name of their city-council member (Los Angeles City Council districts contain about 280,000 people, the largest such districts — and many say the least responsive — in the U.S.), fighting City Hall is daunting.
Planning Commission hearings are held during business hours, handy for developers but not for residents. When no residents appear to oppose a developer's plan, the regional commissioners — often local residents, theoretically more invested in the area's welfare than downtown planners — usually go along with the developer. Usually, after the developer completes an environmental report and addresses a few problems, the zoning change or variance is granted.
The Woodland Hills-Warner Neighborhood Council's chairperson, Joyce Pearson, wrote this warning in a recent newsletter to her Valley area: "The public often waits until it's too late to do anything to enhance major developments or to impact any potential problems that may be caused."
Yet the public isn't "waiting," as Pearson puts it. The public is out of the loop — often until the demolition fence is already up.
That seems fine with City Hall. With a few pockets of 1980s-style activism developing at the feistier monthly neighborhood-council meetings in Los Angeles, City Hall has begun responding — by attacking the locals.
For example, the often-clamoring North Hills West Neighborhood Council, in a far-flung Valley area that was a hotbed of secession-movement sentiment, is so distrustful of City Hall that its members attend city Planning Commission hearings en masse. The North Hills group has defeated a series of high-density housing proposals on its rustic fields and meadows.
For their trouble, City Hall came down hard on these citizens. According to homeowner Peggy Burgess, the Neighborhood Council was subjected to an official barrage of blistering, trumped-up charges — even including racism — that originated from a cadre of pro-growthers. The accusers were allowed to file complaints anonymously with the city's somewhat ironically named Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE).
Burgess says that, during a vitriolic December meeting, Manuel Durazo, a city project coordinator for DONE, conceded that he simply forwarded the ugly charges to the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners, and official "decertification" proceedings of the Neighborhood Council got under way - with no city official bothering to investigate the accusations, or allowing the neighborhood council to refute them.
Durazo finally admitted the charges were unsubstantiated. He sent out a letter congratulating the Neighborhood Council on its victory - adding that he'd requested that the city transfer him to a different district.
Since 2005, Villaraigosa has been tirelessly cheerleading for a taller city. He has often pointed to the frenzied construction of mixed-use buildings (apartments, shops and offices) as proof that he is probusiness.
In fact, some counter that L.A. is antibusiness, a city that drives big and small companies to neighboring Pasadena, Calabasas, Glendale, Culver City and elsewhere, earning itself special attention each year in the Kosmont Report on urban areas with backward business policies.
Villaraigosa appears to believe that edifices equate with business, and that the buildings themselves will lure in an educated work force and quality companies. "If we're not creating wealth, if we're not bringing in investment, if the official bird of Los Angeles isn't the crane, then we won't be able to do all the good things we would like to do for our people," Villaraigosa told the Los Angeles Business Journal in 2006.
His narrow emphasis on high-density housing construction might cost L.A. if a recession has really arrived. "The burst housing bubble has hit us pretty hard," says Joseph Linton, policy associate for Livable Spaces, a nonprofit developer that's completed mixed-income, transit-oriented residences in Long Beach and Lincoln Heights. The affordable units are selling, "but our market-rate units are going very slowly." Adds Gary Toebben, president of the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce, "New market-rate housing is just not moving."
Nonetheless, Blumenfeld imagines dense urban villages built around subway stations, populated by the young and old, neighbors who shop on the ground floor and use rail or buses to get about.
Gail Goldberg looks out across the city and imagines residents and developers working side by side, with her department's firm leadership dedicated to the integrity of neighborhoods.