By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Under the current crop of politicians, developers have marketed, or “green-washed,” huge buildings to the Los Angeles public as “sustainable” — meaning healthy for the environment over the long term — when critics say they actually create more traffic congestion, more pollution and a plainly lower quality of life.
In Hollywood, the political turf of green-friendly City Council President Eric Garcetti and 4th District City Councilman Tom LaBonge, Bob Blue saw one proposed skyscraper or giant condo complex after another come before the community group he chaired, the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council. Outsize projects that ignore local zoning restrictions are now peddled by developers as good because they are “LEED” buildings, meaning they offer such features as low-flush toilets, on-site renewable energy and improved indoor-air-quality standards.
Lost in the push for LEED certification has been the pressing question of whether the environmental benefits of these buildings outweigh the negatives. Do these big structures cause more emissions by attracting increased traffic and encouraging congested streets filled with idling cars, for example, than they claim to reduce? In truth, nobody knows — including the many cities such as L.A. whose development approvals now require LEED standards. “But if you have a project that would normally be four stories high and now it has 20 stories,” says Blue, who supports the concept of LEED design, “it still adds enormous weight to the infrastructure.” There is a “net increase in power, water, sewer, traffic, pollution and impact to the immediate surrounding area.” The community activist adds, “I think that this is being missed by everybody.”
Blue’s hardly alone in his criticism. Rex Frankel, a widely respected independent voice in L.A.’s environmental movement and director of the think tank ConnectingCalifornia.org, says, “If you’re using LEED to justify greater density, it’s a false tradeoff ... we’ll still face more time in traffic, increased smog and other impacts. It’s just another example of green-washing.”
LEED is little-known to the public, but among many L.A. greens it’s an all-but-closed debate — and represents a profound shift. Greens like Hanscom, Frankel, Bruce Robertson, Kathy Knight, Sabrina Venskus, Patricia McPherson and Wendy Wendlandt directly took on City Hall in the 1990s, preventing the City Council and Mayor Richard Riordan from wiping out big chunks of the Ballona Wetlands and very publicly exposing the politicians and their land-speculator friends over absurd “sustainability” claims. Playa Vista’s proponents actually attempted, for example, to call the green median strips at Playa Vista “open space.”
Yet today, Los Angeles enviros are sliding toward the argument that big development is good for the air, land and water, and that tiny bits of green are enough. Bob Blue goes to six to 10 city planning-department meetings a year to keep an eye on these kinds of projects, but he’s rarely seen an environmentalist in attendance. “Maybe one time an environmentalist showed up,” Blue says, “but it was on behalf of the developer.”
Many neighborhood activists believe that environmental leaders need to connect with ordinary citizens like Bob Blue, and learn to play hardball in a city where the political and business establishments take no prisoners. “L.A. is a rough town,” says John White, a longtime environmental lobbyist based in Sacramento. “Like one City Hall insider told me, ‘We don’t cut off noses anymore, but Los Angeles is still like Chinatown.’”
Within the green movement, Andy Lipkis, founder of Tree People, and Mark Gold, executive director of Heal the Bay, have reputations as longtime, heavyweight environmentalists with privileged access to the city’s and state’s top politicians. Neither of them, though, want to jump into the rough-and-tumble games of California politics, like the Hanscoms and Frankels of the world.
Lipkis, a likable and dedicated activist, proudly describes himself as politically “naive,” adding that he doesn’t “have a lot of understanding or patience for politics.” Gold, a smart and equally dedicated environmentalist, says that what some see as the hijacking of green issues by politicians, labor unions, developers or speculators doesn’t concern him. “Not even a little,” he says. “That’s not what I worry about. I worry about the economy. I worry about cleaning up the environment.”
This laissez faire attitude toward politics, though, has increasingly left the L.A. greens in the position of followers, not leaders. The River Project’s Melanie Winter, for example, visited New York City not too long ago. The veteran environmentalist saw recycling, open spaces and great parks. When Winter returned home, she found herself literally depressed. “We’re 12 years behind New York in making L.A. a green city!” she says.
One example can be seen in the new trend of land speculators and developers proposing apartment and condo complexes near freeways, in many cases arguing that the buildings are “sustainable” because they bring workers closer to jobs. The developments often get the blessing of L.A. City Council — to the horror of health experts. The University of Southern California and other research institutions now know for certain that children living in these projects are burdened with serious, often lifelong lung and respiratory illnesses caused by a relentless stream of traffic nearby. “They are putting individuals at risk,” says USC professor of preventive medicine Jim Gauderman, of the politicians, developers and greens. His 2007 study made that clear.