Finally, the masses are roused by rampant development
March 2, 2008
Roy P. Disney, who has lived all his 50 years in Toluca Lake, didn't mince words about what he believes will be the fate of thousands of poor souls living in the southeast San Fernando Valley.
"Our neighborhood will be obliterated," he said as we pulled into the Holiday Inn parking lot in North Hollywood, where a crowd was gathering to speak up against several proposed mega-developments in Universal City and the area just to the north.
Disney, a private investor and a great-nephew of Walt Disney, tossed another dagger as he parked his car.
"Developers' money," he declared with an icy glare, "is like heroin to politicians."
When we walked into the hall, a greeter asked Disney, who was wearing a suit and tie, if he was a developer.
"No, I'm not," Disney answered glibly. "Why, because I'm dressed so well?"
In the rear of the room, developers had set up models of their projects, which include residential units, offices and retail. In all, seven developments are planned for a four-mile stretch on or near Lankershim Boulevard. Everything is still subject to review by local officials, but if approved as is, it adds up to 5,500 new homes, millions of square feet of commerce and tens of thousands of parking spaces.
To Disney, it sounds like a disaster in an area that's already a traffic mess.
I reminded him that California is expected to grow by 6 million people over the next 20 years, and they've got to live somewhere.
Of course they do, Disney said, insisting he's not against development. What annoys him, he said, is the historic lack of planning vision and the absence of a coherent transportation plan in Los Angeles.
He is not alone. In the latest sign that Angelenos have had it with traffic and the leadership vacuum, several hundred people turned out at the meeting. And most of them seemed to believe that their city officials are on course to alter the very look and feel of Los Angeles, that they've all bought into the idea of more density and taller buildings, even if nearby residential neighborhoods are transformed for the worse.
As Roy Disney asked:
"Who voted for this?"
The restless crowd at Thursday night's meeting was rallied by the neighborhood councils of Greater Toluca, Greater Valley Glen, Valley Village, Studio City and North Hollywood, and some of them couldn't resist sharing their thoughts on a large blank notepad that asked a simple question:
"What Is Your Vision?"
Gary Mogil of Studio City grabbed a Sharpie and gave it a workout.
"We don't need any 37-story buildings to block our sun and views," he wrote. "If you want this, move to New York."
Karen Beatton, also of Studio City, was next to grab a pen.
"Keep the personality of our neighborhood," she wrote. "Do not overflow our streets, parking lots, lines in stores. We're already gridlocked."
When the panel discussion began, Terry Davis of the Toluca Lake Neighborhood Assn. noted the absence at the meeting of anyone representing developers for two of the largest projects in the Universal City area.
I think I heard some hissing, and there should have been boos for the L.A. city Planning Department as well. Top officials invited by Davis blew off the meeting.
Two developers who did show, Allen Freeman of JSM Cos. and Cliff Goldstein of J.H. Snyder, looked a bit like captured soldiers brought before an inquisition. Each took pains to emphasize how thrilled they've been to work with the community in designing mutually beneficial projects
"We believe our community needs new housing, and we believe the best place to put it is near transit," Freeman said.
Few could argue with the concept, and I certainly don't. Some of these projects offer elements of exactly what's desperately needed in Los Angeles: jobs, homes, shopping and entertainment in walkable proximity, and built along major transit lines.
But this was a sophisticated audience, and people were quick to note that even "transit-oriented" development was certain to increase traffic. Why else would more than 30,000 parking spaces be built into the seven projects, and why aren't local officials demanding that developers do more to alleviate traffic?
Revved-up residents peppered developers -- and, later, public officials -- with questions about variances and "entitlements" that might be granted, allowing builders to exceed limits on height, square footage, etc.
"What is the cumulative effect on traffic?" demanded Diann Corral, who pointedly reminded developer Freeman that he has proposed three 27-story buildings and several other smaller buildings in one corner of North Hollywood.
"This is, in my opinion, 10 times what's allowed there," said Lisa Sarkin.
When MTA official Alexander Kalamaros described the agency as "master developer" of one of the projects, Deuk Perrin said maybe the MTA should just stick to transit. Did the agency really need to be a party to over-developing the neighborhood, someone else asked.
"Well, I don't know what you mean by over-development," Kalamaros said.
Howls and groans.
"That's cause for ridicule?" Kalamaros asked.
Maybe it is and maybe it isn't, but members of the audience insisted it's ridiculous to consider a cluster of humongous developments when there's virtually no money available for more transit or to update the poorly designed 134-101 freeway interchange.
What that means, of course, is that you don't have to live in the Universal City area to have a stake in this. If the projects all go through, what's now merely a traffic headache will become a full-fledged migraine.
Late in the evening, L.A. City Councilman Tom LaBonge and county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky rode in on white horses and played the audience like pros, telling people just what they wanted to hear.
The projects are too big, and with scant public money for transit and road improvements, they said. Developers are going to have to scale back on size.
Yaroslavsky accused City Hall of rolling over for developers, something he himself was often accused of in the days of mega-development on the Westside.
"Do you trust them?" I asked Roy Disney as he leaned against a wall near the back of the room, taking it all in.
Yes, he said. But not entirely.
It was all very refreshing, if you ask me.
For far too long, the masses napped while Los Angeles was plundered. They're awake now, grouchy and suspicious, and ready for a fight.