THEY SAY GROWTH IS inevitable, and that’s why elected officials are bent on making room by the year 2050 for what some officials estimate will be 9.4 million new residents in the county. But “inevitable” is a truth not necessarily because it’s true, but because it’s repeated so often.
Follow the river of money from multistory housing developers into the campaign coffers of the mayor and Los Angeles City Council, then listen to officials — from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to Council Member Ed Reyes to mayoral appointee and Planning Commissioner Mike Woo — speak of the “inevitability” that Angelenos will live in condos or apartments near bus and rail stations — and reduce their driving.
Yet there’s no guarantee that City Hall’s design for the Valley, based upon so-called smart-growth policies, will be anything short of a congestion disaster. Urban-growth expert Wendell Cox of Public Purpose pointed out in 2001 that cities that pursue smart-growth policies to promote higher density along transit lines see an increase in traffic, pollution and other urban ills.
Recent surveys by the Los Angeles Times, UC Berkeley and Cal Poly Pomona show that few Southern Californians living in the new high-density apartments and condos along transit corridors end up abandoning their cars to get to work — a measly 6 percent.
Smart growth’s powerful proponents, such as Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti, insist that commuting to work constitutes fewer than one-quarter or so of car trips made by Angelenos daily. It's all the other car trips — shopping, ferrying kids — that feed gridlock.
Garcetti speculates that in dense new communities with ground-floor shops and people living above, people will largely stay off the roads to shop locally. As Garcetti imagines things, “Maybe you’ve got a dry cleaner or a video store that you can take the elevator to.”
“Maybe” is a big word to hang on the city’s hurried frenzy of redevelopment. So far, smart growth has been a formula for worse traffic — the loudest complaint voiced by neighborhood councils opposing rezoning across the Valley.
In many cases, dense developments in the Valley crop up when neighbors either aren’t aware or don’t care. But recent history shows that when neighborhood councils have spoken up, there’s nothing inevitable about them.
Mitchell Englander, chief of staff for Councilman Greig Smith, whose district includes Arno’s egg farm, says: “Nobody knows more what’s going on block by block than the very people who live there… In 99 percent of the cases, we’ve upheld the neighborhood council decisions.”
Nonetheless, Arno harbors no illusions about the durability of his farm in the face of City Hall’s pro-density climate.
“That could be paranoia speaking,” Arno admits, “but I have a reason to be paranoid.”
KEN ARNO IS ATEDDY BEAR of a man with a big laugh, a short temper and a deep disdain for government corruption. (For decades, he refused to pay federal taxes to, he says, protest the wars and the war profiteers.) He has lived in the Valley since he was 2, and attended nearby Birmingham High School. “This is my neighborhood,” he says.
Around the time he started leasing the 3-acre property in 1988, Arno worked as a smog-check technician. His escape was gardening. Eventually, Arno and his partner, Doreen Radogna, got a few chickens. Explains Arno, “I ended up putting the chicken manure in my garden, which did wonders for the produce.”
In 1994, the county certified his farm, and he headed to the Encino farmers market with a single crate of eggs — selling them all in half an hour. But he began getting drawn into small scrapes with the city after a then-neighbor complained about the noise from a small gaggle of Arno’s geese. “I don’t really blame him for complaining,” Arno reflects. “I just wish he’d come to me.”
The city required him to move the geese farther than 100 feet from all human dwellings, and Arno had to get permits to maintain pigeons and rheas.
“I paid hundreds of dollars in permits,” Arno says. But city officials kept showing up, and he began to see the visits as harassment, if not extortion. Finally, one official told him to cease operating until he purchased a Conditional Use Permit, requiring a fee of several thousand dollars to keep “more than four chickens on 3 acres.”
His response was perhaps not the best choice for dealing with City Hall: Arno started barricading the property, and between 2001 and 2006, the city sporadically made surprise visits to his farm, even sending in an LAPD watch commander — a dustup that resulted in Arno being cited for failing to license his two dogs.
All of that served as a backdrop to Arno’s general antipathy toward the city and helped fan his anger when he learned last year that his next-door neighbor, Hadi M. Safa, had petitioned the city for permission to tear down his own home and subdivide his lot for a four-unit, two-story condo complex.
SIGNIFICANTLY, SAFA’S PETITION — to change the zoning of his property to allow condos — would create a single higher-density lot in the middle of four sprawling single-family parcels owned by his neighbors, including Arno.
In the residential-development game — a byzantine puzzle little understood by everyday Angelenos — Safa’s higher-density lot would create a cascading effect by setting an all-important “zoning precedent” that earmarks the entire block for an inevitable click-over from bucolic rural to multistory urban.
At the Planning Department desk at City Hall, counter supervisor Nelson Rodriguez stares at a report on the Vanowen case, saying, “They’re going to look at the General Plan and say, yes, a precedent for higher density has already been set.”
Arno’s view is more colorful: “The way the city thinks, somebody already took a shit in the pool, so it’s already polluted, so let’s throw a few more turds in there and let ’em all dissolve, and see how polluted we can really make it.”
Safa’s project began moving through the system in 2005. The following year, he reduced his plan from a four-unit condo to a more “community friendly” quartet of single-family houses.
His proposal was never discussed by the area’s West Van Nuys/Lake Balboa Neighborhood Council. It was far too consumed by a different anti-density battle: an ultimately successful bid to block a similar subdivision on Sherman Way. The Safa case slid off the West Van Nuys/Lake Balboa agenda in April 2006 when the meeting ran late. It fell off the agenda again in June last year, when Safa’s hired representative, developer Oscar Ensafi — paid to usher clients through City Hall’s tangled permitting process — failed to appear.
Ensafi may have had good reason to duck the neighborhood council: A report from a 2005 zoning meeting of the nearby Reseda Neighborhood Council describes another, unrelated Ensafi project like this: “Proponent wants to build 21 condos on 3 lots totaling 63,305 square feet… A large crowd came to show their opposition to this project… Oscar Ensafi presented the project and was affected by the outcry of the residents.”
The egg farm and little neighborhood along Vanowen didn’t have nearly that kind of neighborhood unity to resist an old development hand and “fixer” like Ensafi, who represents Safa. On June 1, city Hearing Officer Lynn Harper gave conditional approval to Safa’s proposal — with no recognition that in sometimes history-free Los Angeles, the Safa rezoning would likely doom one of the Valley’s last egg farms.
Now the zoning change goes to the 15-member Los Angeles City Council and South Valley Area Planning Commission, although no dates have been set.
West Van Nuys/Lake Balboa Neighborhood Council president Steve Leffert says of the walled development Safa plans to plop onto the laid-back egg-farm block, “They want to put in four single-family dwellings, with a road down the middle… If they’re going to put 200 feet of walls around it, it’s three blocks from the middle school. A lot of kids will walk by it. That’ll be a lot of graffiti.”
THE “FIXER” WORKING for Safa, architect Oscar Ensafi, runs a small office on Van Nuys Boulevard called Approved Plans and Permits. If you investigate the recent history of properties in once-rural areas of the Valley quietly rezoned for subdivisions and condos, chances are good you’ll find Ensafi’s name as the “representative.”
Ensafi is a smalltime king of Valley rezoning, appearing several times monthly at North Valley and South Valley area planning commission hearings and City Council meetings. And though both Safa and Ensafi declined to speak with the Weekly, many people were willing to discuss Ensafi’s impact.
“He makes me physically sick, he’s just a slimy scum ball… he’s out to make a buck,” says Peggy Burgess, a homeowner with the North Hills West Neighborhood Council who’s run up against Ensafi and his zone-change petitions many times.
Adds Arno’s neighbor Tom Riley, “He hasn’t presented himself as an honorable person who’s interested in the community.”
Over at City Planning, counter supervisor Rodriguez says Ensafi is a “smalltime operator who gets in over his head because he takes on too many projects, but, yeah, it’s obvious he’s doing it for the money.”
Robert Duenas, of the city’s Community Planning Bureau, South Valley Division, wouldn’t discuss Ensafi, but remarked, “Say you’re a businessman, you pull out the General Plan, then take out a zoning map. He looks for what’s ‘underzoned,’ circles it… That’s how you bank some land.”
For the feistier neighborhood councils in the Valley, this leads to pitched battles from angry residents shocked to learn the implications of the high-density-oriented General Plan. Many oppose the outsiders who want to build things out — and up.
Homeowner Burgess says Ensafi is “getting away with a lot of this because the local residents are unaware or can’t face a time-consuming fight… There were times when the North Valley Area Planning Commission did not want to approve these changes, but they had no opposition.”
Even some city officials agree with her. Says Duenas, “It’s tricker for us [to reject a subdivision or zone change] when neighbors don’t go to the meetings.”
Today, homeowner Tom Riley cringes at the sight of Ensafi’s two-story stucco McMansion on his own street, which is out of character with the neighborhood and possibly a harbinger of things to come. “I understand progress has to move forward, and things have to change, but there is a community, that’s why we have neighborhood councils,” Riley says.
If you look closely at the San Fernando Valley, you still see sights rarely imagined by people who don’t know it — open sod fields, a few lingering citrus groves and stands of cacti — remnants and signposts of a land that was. Today, Valley residents find themselves fighting for the essential character of the place they call home.
Meanwhile, Arno is counting his chickens — and counting on his neighbors to challenge City Hall’s vision of “inevitability.”
Lorinda Toledo contributed to this story.