“It isn’t too late for the dream. We can get West Hollywood back to how we originally envisioned it. We need to get back to our progressive roots. We need to become more in touch with grass roots, it’s more empowering of neighborhoods.”
That’s City Council candidate Steve Martin talking to a group of voters, explaining how the city got off track and how it can get back on track. He’s one of the nine candidates running for the three City Council seats up for election on March 8.
Martin, who jokes he’s the only candidate with an AARP card (he’s in his early 50s), is also the only non-incumbent candidate who’s been involved with the city since the beginning.
Raised in the San Fernando Valley, he came over the mountain in 1979 to enjoy the freedom the area provided a young man coming out. By 1984, he was recruited to work on the cityhood movement. He had just gotten a 30 percent rent increase on his apartment on Westbourne and, like so many others, quickly got caught up in the idea of making the area a real city.
“It was such a wonderful grassroots movement. It was a real special moment in a lot of people’s lives,” Martin recalls fondly. “The idealism was running high; everything seemed possible. Frontiers was saying it could be the gay Camelot. People’s expectations were really, really high, maybe unrealistically so. We all thought we were going to change the world. And this place was going to be the model city where people participated. It would be like an old fashioned town-meeting government where people were really involved.”
And somehow over the ensuing years, the dream got derailed, badly, he says. So much so, that in 1994, he was elected to City Council as an anti-establishment candidate and in the process became the only person ever elected without the backing a seated council member.
His first order of business was cleaning up the city. Social services for residents were running well, but the city lacked a strong infrastructure. “We had a lot of crime,” he says shaking his head as he thinks back on it. “In 1994, Sunset was overrun with prostitution. Santa Monica Boulevard from La Brea to Curson had a huge problem with male and transgender prostitutes. The parks were a mess; the pool was only open six weeks out of the year. Santa Monica Boulevard looked like hell; it was pot holed and cracked.”
Martin got the parks cleaned up, extended the pool to a year-round schedule, pushed for the creation of . But his proudest achievement was getting Santa Monica Boulevard fixed.
“I chaired the Santa Monica Boulevard Redesign Committee,” Martin recalls. “We had 40 people on the committee. When you really empower 40 people to come up with something, we were really able to overcome by consensus where residents and business were conflicted.”
He contrasts that with the committee which convened in 2009 to come up with a new General Plan for buildings and zoning within the city. “It worked the exact opposite way. People dropped off the committee. They felt like they weren’t being listened too,” he says frustrated. “Unfortunately City Council and city staff try to impose their ideas onto the public by using phony processes and all it does is alienate people.”
Martin’s been speaking up about these types of issues for the past eight years, ever since he was defeated in his relection bid in 2003 ( took his seat when she decided to rejoin the council). For the past four years, he’s been writing an insightful weekly column on the Weho News website analyzing what’s going on in City Hall, contrasting that with what the residents are calling for. “Sometimes I feel like Toto pulling back the curtain on the all powerful Oz,” he laughs.
“Basically, people are looking for some real simple things like livable neighborhoods, parking, streets that aren’t gridlocked and little bit of tranquility in the neighborhood,” he says. “There’s ton of tenants who are concerned about their apartments being demolished and being replaced by luxury condos. I’ve been talking about that issue for at least the last four years. The City Council has refused to address it in any meaningful way.”
And that’s why he’s running for City Council again (he also ran in 2007 but was defeated by 333 votes). Martin says he wants to preserve the city’s urban village quality. He says he doesn’t want to see ubiquitous chain stores moving in, homogenizing the city to the point where you can’t distinguish West Hollywood from Reseda.
“There’s a ton of development that’s being encouraged by City Hall,” says Martin, a family law attorney. “Most of it is way out of proportion with to the size of the lots. And way more than our streets can carry. Certainly a lot more development that people think is possible for an urban village. The current General Plan is going to allow for seven-story buildings on Santa Monica. It’s a lot of development.”
While the current City Council talks about wanting to preserve affordable housing, he says that’s all lip service. He says if the City Council were really serious about it, they’d change policies in place which encourage developers to buy older buildings, evict the tenants and replace them with luxury condominiums.
Martin says that while the city does require developers to include a percentage of affordable housing in any new project, they also allow them to pay an in lieu fee which is a fraction of what it actually costs to build affordable housing on the site. “Say it costs $300,000 to build an affordable housing unit,” he says. “Instead of building that, they can pay $60,000 in and skip the affordable housing.” He would eliminate that.
The city also allows for lotline to lotline underground parking, which encourages bigger developments, and has gotten rid of height averaging, which requires that a project can’t be any taller than the rest of the buildings on the block. Finally, he says that builders get incentives (like less parking or additional heights) for complying with the city’s green ordinances. “In other places, green ordinances are mandatory,” he says. “In West Hollywood, it’s mandatory too, but they also give you a reward.” He’d change all that.
Additionally, he would require solar panels on any new building. He would push for larger set backs from the street, noting that trees need more than seven feet to take root. “If we were truly a green city, we would have smaller buildings with more green spaces around them and create a true urban forest.”
The six-foot, brown-haired Martin concedes it’s impossible to stop every demolition. “But we can sure slow it down,” he says. “If we are going to lose a building, we should get a better building to replace it. If we’re going to lose a rent-control building, then we should at least get a building that’s green and not as massive as the ones that we’re getting now. And actually get affordable housing.”
Critics have charged that while on City Council, Martin voted to approve the Gateway Center at La Brea and Santa Monica Boulevard (home of the store) as well as the still unbuilt Sunset Millennium project at Sunset and La Cienega. He now regrets those votes, saying they were the first big developments to come to the city. “At the time [of the votes], the additional [traffic] congestion was just a concept, but now that we’ve living with that additional congestion, we don’t need to be adding to it.”
He believes it’s fortunate that builders have so far been unable to get the financing for projects the City Council has approved such as the 10-story twin-towered mixed-use project at Movietown Plaza (Santa Monica at Poinsettia), a project he fought because of its massive size.
He points to the still empty Hancock Lofts in Boystown as the prime reason why that financing isn’t coming through. “The proof’s in the pudding,” he says. “You’ve got the empty Hancock Lofts and that should be sending a load and clear signal that these buildings are not financially viable. The city doesn’t care. They just keep approving more new buildings. And I’ll put a stop to it.”
There are nine candidates running for the three City Council seats up for election on March 8. The other candidates include Lindsey Horvath, Scott Schmidt, Mito Aviles, , Mark Gonzaga, , John D'Amico and Lucas John. We will continue to profile other candidates.
You can also check out other candidate profiles from Weho Daily and LAist online. Martin's profile on Weho Daily is available here and LAist's profile on Martin is not yet available. A video profile of the candidates is also available on YouTube courtesy of LGBTPOV and Frontiers. To view Martin's video and other candidates videos, click here (Martin's video is also embedded on the right hand side of this story).