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
Goldberg's halfhearted recommendations have now become a forgotten, and possibly lost, public document.
City Planning Department Deputy Director Vincent Bertoni could not find the year-old "first steps" report for the Weekly after repeated requests in January, according to Bertoni's aide. And although that list of recommendations is clearly a public document, another staffer said it's something that the Los Angeles City planning department would not keep for future reference — a claim that drew an incredulous response from former commissioner Usher.
The Weekly finally obtained a copy of the forgotten Gail Goldberg plan from an environmental activist. It contains no suggestions that families or others be warned before renting or buying housing within a block of an L.A. freeway.
Today, years after scientistswarned City Hall leaders, Woo says the planning commission has "no legal tools to prevent a developer from building" family housing right next to a freeway. And environmentalist Logan backs this up, saying that the problems of "planning near freeways has been ignored."
Developers of the "vast majority" of housing in L.A. don't need permission from Villaraigosa's planning commissioners because the developers are not seeking special variances to get around height or density rules, Woo says. As a result, the planning commission has limited chances to challenge freeway-adjacent housing. "We don't have a very good process for at least questioning housing projects near freeways," he says.
One developer who would oppose a freeway buffer zone is Jeremy Byk, vice president of real estate development at Sherman Oaks–based IMT Residential. IMT builds apartments near the 101 and 405 freeways in the San Fernando Valley, with literature promoting "easy freeway access." One luxury project in Encino, with a towering lobby and grape-arbor façade still under construction, will soon offer two- and three-bedroom, mostly market-rate apartments 70 feet from the humming roadbed of the Ventura Freeway.
For IMT, if it can place an apartment building on land directly adjacent to a busy freeway, it can advertise, without paying a penny, to thousands of motorists every day. The complex in Encino, at 5501 Newcastle Ave., had for months a banner festooned across the front reading "Multi-Family Housing," which could be seen by the roughly 291,000 cars and trucks that pass that stretch daily.
"We like to be near as highly trafficked and high-visibility roadways as possible," says Byk. "It drives our sales that way."
He says he hasn't read the USC studies and didn't know about the push by scientists for the 500-foot buffers or a disclosure statement warning parents. He says he's fine with the idea of a health-hazard disclosure statement, but not a buffer zone. "It's ridiculous."
The developer says he is "always concerned" about the health of his tenants. But he is apparently unaware that some scientists don't believe current mitigation measures sufficiently keep out the pervasive toxic particles. He explains, "We're building modern buildings with air filters and dual-paned windows. We mitigate as much as possible."
Byk argues that in the future, vehicles will be far cleaner, and that current levels of lung damage will be reduced. "Emissions from cars and diesel trucks are ever diminishing ... I don't see it as a long-term, significant issue."
But, as Lyou of AQMD points out, California is many years from attaining lower, federally mandated emissions standards — and the volume of traffic is not decreasing but increasing. Even if radically lower tailpipe emissions were achieved in the next decade, Lyou says, cars and trucks will continue to produce vast amonts of hazardous freeway particulate matter from tire rubber and brake dust.
If leading scientists are shocked that their years of effort researching the health of thousands of children in Southern California produced zero action from L.A.'s mayor and 15 council members, many are unwilling to say so — or even to discuss their disappointment — publicly.
Andrea Hricko, director of community outreach at USC's Keck School of Medicine, though not a scientist, is charged with educating elected officials about important studies conducted by scientists like Rob McConnell and Jim Gauderman. But she doesn't play the kind of political hardball needed to get City Council members and the Mayor's Office involved in a controversial issue that would almost certainly infuriate developers — who are big campaign contributors to many City Hall politicians.
"This particular issue about buffer zones and freeways is a difficult one for city policy," Hricko says politely.
Although researcher McConnell strongly and very publicly supported 500-foot buffer zones in 2008, and Hricko backed him up and firmly put forth the idea of a health-hazard disclosure statement, she backtracked recently, telling the Weekly that she and McConnell "haven't advocated for a particular thing." The city of Los Angeles, she now says, has "plans to develop" regulations to address the problem of new housing next to freeways.
In fact, city leaders have no such plan. Officials in the Planning Department can't even find the old ideas from Gail Goldberg's January 2009 "first-steps" list. Comments from Councilman LaBonge, commissioner Woo, and acting deputy mayor Pascual make clear that no elected City Hall politician is taking up the cause.
Yet Los Angeles City Council members do approve headline-grabbing environmental policies that tend to portray them as benevolent guardians of human health.
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