A Sense of Community — and Fury Toward City Hall — Helped Elect Underdog David Ryu
Illustration by PJ McQuade
Last week, some in the Los Angeles political establishment weren't certain how to pronounce David Ryu's name. They are now, thanks to neighborhood activists such as Helen Berman, Sarajane Schwartz and Richard Close, who rallied around Ryu to protest what they see as City Hall's special relationship with developers over neighborhoods.
Ryu (pronounced "roo") upended the status quo in a rare L.A. election upset, soundly defeating Carolyn Ramsay, longtime aide to outgoing District 4 City Councilman Tom LaBonge.
Outsiders hardly ever beat political insiders in L.A. In 1987, environmentalist Ruth Galanter beat incumbent Pat Russell, and in 2012 police officer Joe Buscaino trounced lifelong politician Warren Furutani for an open seat. Not many other such cases exist.
Ryu's election has unsettled City Hall, where relations among the mayor, City Council and private developers are cozier than at perhaps any time in memory.
There's no Joel Wachs, Ernani Bernardi or Zev Yaroslavsky on the City Council today — they fought tax subsidies and special height, size and parking-space exemptions and variances sought by private developers. Sometimes, they won.
Ryu appealed to voters in six key areas outside his base of Koreatown, all packed with well-educated, well-organized residents fed up with local plans for skyscrapers, tourist destinations, mansionization and failed or nonexistent traffic mitigation. One widespread joke in these areas: "Los Angeles city planning is an oxymoron."
Among other unusual moves, Ryu is insisting that developers meet with neighbors to learn their concerns — before meeting him. He refused all developer campaign contributions.
Many voters saw Ramsay as being in lockstep with LaBonge. But more than that, Ryu personally contacted opinion leaders in these neighborhoods. He won definitive, sometimes huge victories in the six districts.
"There's a new sheriff in town to protect the citizens' interests," says Helen Berman, a prime player in the antidevelopment movement in Hollywood. "Tom LaBonge never did."
Berman, a Hollywood resident since 1981, says Save Residential Hollywood endorsed Ryu because he was anti-LaBonge and anti–Eric Garcetti. Berman says the tide turned against LaBonge, and by default Ramsay, when the City Council voted to throw out longtime zoning that restricts the land beneath the three-story Mosaic Church — formerly Christian Science — at Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue. A developer and the City Council want to erect a 27-story skyscraper one block from low apartments and homes a block or two beyond that.
It would be the tallest building in Hollywood, casting many around it in deep shadow much of the day; some would lose whatever privacy they had.
Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association, says the eight-story apartment-plus-retail complex Il Villaggio Toscano, near the 405/101 intersection, was the deal breaker.
Ramsay, LaBonge's chief of staff at the time, was sent into the community to sell the idea. The homeowners association told her traffic would explode around Sepulveda and Ventura boulevards because LaBonge and city planners were not making the developer improve the roads.
"She kept selling the IVT project," Close says of Ramsay, "and the community kept saying, 'No. No. No.' IVT was the only major project in Sherman Oaks during Tom LaBonge's tenure, and Tom let us down by allowing developers to get approval even though it violated the Ventura Boulevard Specific Plan. Tom and the City Council gave exceptions and variances. ... In part, that led to the defeat of his handpicked successor."
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For 40 years, Sarajane Schwartz has lived quietly in Hollywood, just below L.A.'s iconic sign. She's mad at LaBonge and Ramsay for overseeing the clearing and opening of a nearby horse trail leading to the Hollywood Sign. That act has encouraged tourists who once peered at the sign from many blocks away to approach the landmark on foot.
The subsequent placement of that cleared trail on some maps without any hearings — or serious thought, some say — has inundated the neighborhood with day-trippers from as far away as Europe, trekking up to see the big letters.
The first time Schwartz heard Ryu, she decided to back him. He said that all tourist activity on her street should be stopped because it has become a serious safety issue: There are no sidewalks on North Beachwood Drive, so people walk up with small children or push strollers as cars whiz by searching for extremely rare parking.
In reaction, City Hall has restricted parking on weekends and holidays, but the chaotic scenes continue. "City Hall has its own agenda and the council is unwilling to listen to people. ... There's no accountability," Schwartz says. "We need more David Ryus. We have great hope for him."
In Studio City, the plan that drew the ire of residents was an exit ramp proposed for the 101.
Cliff Reston is a retired urban planner who lives near the Barham Boulevard exit, not far from Universal Studios. The entertainment giant wants to close the southbound 101 Barham exit so it can build its own ramp at Universal Studios Boulevard, giving Universal guests better access. Caltrans won't allow two ramps, so it has to be one or the other.
Reston tried to tell LaBonge and the City Council that if Universal gets its way, residents who live near the Barham exit would have to enter Cahuenga Pass at Lankershim Boulevard well to the north, or drive south two miles to Highland Avenue — which is gridlocked whenever the Hollywood Bowl has a performance.
Reston says he was informed that the closing of Barham was a done deal. "Universal pushed this late in the game, and no one picked up on it," he says.
"[Ramsay] told me it was too late to change this," Reston says. Then LaBonge voted to close the ramp. "In the runoff [with Ryu], [Ramsay] softened her approach and said she would revisit the issue. But she's aligned with the old guard and her positions are no different than Tom LaBonge. I think people believe Mr. Ryu will value the concerns of the neighborhood."
Miracle Mile Residential Association president James O'Sullivan put an "Elect David Ryu" sign in his yard, figuring Ryu was his only hope of stopping a 1,000-seat, glass-domed theater at the planned Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Museum in the old May Company building that's part of LACMA.
"David Ryu understands he has to follow the law," O'Sullivan says. "The rest of the City Council doesn't understand that. Just look at the number of [successful] development lawsuits against the city."
O'Sullivan's Miracle Mile group is furious about LaBonge's vote in favor of a cinema designed to become a destination venue. The theater will feature digital signs illuminated by hundreds of thousands of LED lights visible up to four miles away.
Ramsay "blithely blew us off and said the project was good," O'Sullivan says. "For her to walk in and agree to this plan was egregious, because the neighborhood councils had already said they were against it. That was enough for me. People are fed up with how the council operates. ... David Ryu is intelligent and trustworthy."
Craig Strong, a real estate agent who's on the Greater Toluca Lake Neighborhood Council, says he and his neighbors backed Ryu because they're seeing one of the city's most architecturally interesting, community-oriented old neighborhoods threatened with mansionization.
The homes range in style from Tudor to Paul Williams to California ranch, in a well-preserved area near the studios that's popular with the entertainment industry. Built in the 1920s and '30s, many homes now are threatened with demolition.
Strong says a small home on a 6,500-square-foot lot on Tikita Place was torn down and the new owner built a 4,200-square-foot mansion. "These big homes destroy the makeup of the neighborhood," Strong says. "There's a lot of character in these old homes, and when you start knocking them down, you destroy these neighborhoods. We hope David Ryu leads the way on this issue."
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