March 19, 2008
Ordinarily I don't get carsick, but Zev Yaroslavsky was behind the wheel, and the L.A. County supervisor was in a lather as he zoomed from one neighborhood to another.
Hollywood, Encino, Sherman Oaks, Studio City and Mid-City all went by in a flash.
"Look at this," he said, turning off Wilshire Boulevard and shooting up La Brea. The one-story buildings are likely to become four- or five-story buildings if City Hall planners keep giving developers everything they want, Yaroslavsky griped.
"What is the reason?" he asked incredulously, pointing out a view of the Hollywood Hills that would be obliterated. "What is the reason?"
He'd already told me the reason earlier, when he gave me a quick primer in his living room.
"The planners in this city are bamboozling people, including some of the members of City Council," he said, tossing one cluster bomb after another on an otherwise quiet Sunday morning.
He drew diagrams on my note pad, explained how protections against overdevelopment are being plundered, charged that claims of new affordable housing are bogus and predicted that quiet neighborhoods of single-family homes will be thrown into permanent shadows by towering behemoths.
It's an apocalyptic view, but is he right that city officials have handed over control to developers?
Zev is an ambitious guy, after all. Might this criticism be the start of a run for mayor as the crowd-pleasing populist who speaks up for beleaguered citizens?
City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who represents a part of the San Fernando Valley that Zev pointed to as ripe for abuse by developers, thinks some of Yaroslavsky's concerns are valid, but she disagreed with the notion that city officials are not listening to residents and trying to protect their interests.
Don't worry, she said, trying to reassure me that Zev and the rest of us don't have to worry about developers pulling the strings at City Hall.
Don't worry? With all their talk of "infill" and creating a denser core, city officials have done little to allay the fears of those who believe, as Yaroslavsky does, that developers are enjoying one heck of an orgy these days and that it's now easier than ever to get approval for larger buildings and fewer parking spaces.
Hundreds of residents showed up three weeks ago at a meeting to register complaints about seven proposed mega-projects in the North Hollywood/Universal City area. And even city Planning Commission President Jane Ellison Usher has warned that the density-promoting housing rules approved by the city in February are "ripe for litigation."
Yaroslavsky said planners are using a "one size fits all" philosophy that ignores the uniqueness of each neighborhood. He wasn't even aware this was happening until an 86-year-old neighbor named Sam Frank called two years ago to say the height limit was about to be doubled on a two-story section of La Brea just a block to the east of him, robbing homeowners of sunlight and privacy.
Yaroslavsky told Frank he must be wrong, because a 45-foot height limit was in force. But he later learned that the property owner had applied to switch from commercial zoning to what's called RAS, or Residential and Accessory Services.
That would mean ground-floor businesses with residences upstairs, lots more traffic and the height limit could shoot up to 75 feet. The owner has since agreed to a 50-foot height limit, and the project is still being reviewed.
Frank is determined to keep fighting. "We were here first," Frank told me, saying that he's lived in his duplex for 48 years. "You can't run roughshod over the citizenry."
But the city is sure trying to, Yaroslavsky says. At La Brea and Willoughby, he pointed to the old Channel 13 building and said: "There's a proposal to double or even triple the height, with neighbors up in arms."
He cruised through the area near 6th Street and Detroit, home to some gorgeous two- and three-story apartment buildings that he feared could get bulldozed. Under the so-called density bonus in a recently approved city ordinance, new buildings can be 35% larger than currently allowed if as little as 11% of the new units are "affordable."
But this isn't really about affordable housing, Yaroslavsky said, it's about throwing bones to developers. He used a project on Sepulveda in Westwood to make his point. There, he said, 31 rent-controlled apartments were approved for demolition to make way for 59 condos, five of which will be "affordable." That's "a net loss of affordable housing," Yaroslavsky snarled.
As a councilman many years ago, Yaroslavsky created more than a few enemies of his own for not stopping rampant development in his Westside district. Some still hold him responsible for the traffic-generating Westside Pavilion, the Fox studios expansion on Pico and his supporting role in derailing a Westside subway plan.
There were no protections in place at the time, Yaroslavsky argues, and there was only so much he could do. But he takes credit for following up with some of the zoning restrictions that are now being lifted.
In Encino, the supervisor showed me a six-story building on Ventura that was built in the 1980s and ruined the ambience of the residential homes behind it, homes that were later bulldozed. That kind of outrage led to a density-limiting measure, Proposition U, pushed by Yaroslavsky and approved by voters in 1987.
Now, the supervisor said, Proposition U is being eviscerated.
Yaroslavsky agreed that if population growth projections are to be believed, a lot more housing will be needed in years to come. But what's being planned is way too expensive for most of that new population, he said, and there won't be nearly enough new transportation services to prevent even worse traffic.
"There are places in the city where density is more appropriate, and places in the city where density is less appropriate," said Yaroslavsky, showing me an example of the former along Riverside Drive just north of the Ventura Freeway in the Valley.
We drove along a commercial stretch of smallish buildings that could go much higher and include businesses and apartments or condos without affecting single-family neighborhoods, he said.
There are spots like that throughout the city, he said, and that's where to grow.
Pay attention, he warned. The look and feel of the city could become drastically transformed for the worse if people don't wake up, keep an eye on their neighborhood and shake a fist at City Hall.
And by the way, if anyone at City Hall has an issue with how Zev and his colleagues at the county handle development matters, you know where to reach me.
From the Los Angeles Times