Back in the early 90’s the Eastside of West Hollywood was truly blighted, overrun with street prostitution and plagued with dilapidated storefronts. The City’s failure to address these issues in any sort of systematic away fostered a sense of distrust from the area’s alienated residents and business owners.
The city then proposed a strategy to attract development to the area. It was suggested that the municipal zoning code be amended to allow for the demolition of a swath of residential buildings that abutted Santa Monica Boulevard from Fairfax to La Brea to allow new developers to create commercial parking on these residential sites.
The “Eastside parking overlay” was enthusiastically endorsed by the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, developers and land-use consultants, but was viewed with suspicion by the local residents. Neighborhood leaders of the Eastside took a dim view of the proposal. It seemed counter intuitive that in order to enhance the quality of life on the Eastside that the city would propose the demolition of scores of residential buildings and displace hundreds of tenants. After all, West Hollywood was founded on the notion of protecting neighborhoods and tenant rights.
In 1993 the city appointed a task force of Eastside residents to conduct public hearings and make recommendations to the City Council on the issue of the proposed parking overlay.
When I joined the City Council in early 1994, one of the first issues I had to confront was the parking overlay.
The issue was presented to the City Council in a written report that fully endorsed the idea and touted all of the purported benefits. I thought the recommendation was strange as I had heard that the Eastside Task Force was skeptical of the plan. So I kept reading, figuring that at some point the report would indicate that the Task Force had made a recommendation in favor of the plan.
The staff report recommended adoption of the Eastside Parking Overlay. But buried in the back of the staff report was an attachment that contained the report of the Eastside Task Force. The recommendation of the Task Force was to reject the Parking Over Lay.
I was outraged as the Task Force was charged with the duty of making a recommendation to the City Council yet city staff was clearly attempting to thwart that recommendation. The politics became obvious when council members John Heilman and Abbe Land started defending staff and the staff recommendation.
The City Council rejected the staff recommendation on a 3 to 2 vote; it was my introduction to how city staff manipulates the public process.
The upside to the rejection of the Parking Overlay was that the neighborhood leadership of the Eastside became receptive to the idea of creating an Eastside Redevelopment Zone, which would enable the city to actually make millions of dollars in improvements to the area. The redevelopment agency was responsible for creating the La Brea Gateway project and affordable housing projects on the Eastside. It was one of West Hollywood’s most spectacular success stories.
Fast forward to early 2012. The state abolished redevelopment agencies and the City Council debated as to whether to retain the Eastside Project Area Committee, an appointed group of residents and businesses that was established at the time the redevelopment agency was created to advise the Council on a wide range of redevelopment issues.
While a number of Eastside PAC members requested that the city retain the group, the City Council ultimately voted to dissolve the PAC. The City Council went on record saying it felt that it wanted Eastside groups to evolve organically within the community rather than create an artificial leadership for the area. The idea was that the Eastside had reach a point where it could create its own neighborhood organizations and find its own leadership.
Six months and a shooting in Plummer Park later, the City Council reversed itself. It adopted a recommendation by Mayor Jeff Prang to create an appointed Eastside advisory group. So much for letting neighborhood leadership evolve organically.
This is more than just a pre-election ploy to pander to certain Eastside activists; it is simply another opportunity for the city to again reassert control over the Eastside. The creation of an Eastside Advisory Committee will overshadow any of the budding groups now forming in the area. But I am sure that is the idea.
The controversy over the Plummer Park master plan is still simmering. But the shooting in Plummer Park arising over a transgender drug deal gone bad became a focal point for the area’s long standing grievance about inadequate law enforcement. Currently the Eastside is in an uproar over the city’s recommendation to relocate a recycling center that was a magnet for crime and homeless issues to an alley abutting residential buildings. The Eastside is no longer willing to play the role of docile stepchild.
Obviously I don’t have a problem with the city bringing residents into the process of creating policy except that the reality is that the city has a long history of manipulation of these sorts of committees that makes a mockery of the reasons such groups were created in the first place.
A great example came up during the public objections to the Plummer Park master plan. Staff made a point of stressing that the master plan had been reviewed by the then existing Eastside Project Area Committee. But that representation was less than truthful.
It was true that staff presented the park master plan to the group. But it simply was a report of what the city planned to do. Members complained that there was no opportunity for the Project Area Committee to discuss or make its own recommendations on the plan. Rather than using the group as a forum to have a meaningful discussion of the master plan, staff was merely using the group to get a stamp of approval for the exiting plan. It was hardly an exercise in democracy.
The nine member appointed task force will ultimately be exploited in the same way that the city used the appointed 40-member General Plan Advisory Committee. Nearly two thirds of the General Plan Advisory Committee stopped participating before finishing the process as staff made it clear that their input was not going to be particularly relevant to the ultimate drafting of the General Plan.
If we are going to have an Eastside advisory committee, why not create advisory bodies for the Westside and Center City? All areas of the city have their unique issues. Why is the Eastside being giving preferential treatment?
I would love to see at least three neighborhood advisory areas be created but with a major difference. Why should City Council appoint the members to represent our neighborhoods? Why not have members elected at a neighborhood caucus? If the groups are to have business representatives, let them be elected or appointed by the Chamber of Commerce. Why should neighborhood “leaders” be created by the City Council?
Electing our own neighborhood council members would make for more meaningful discussions of controversial issues. When you appoint, members are often more concerned about offending staff or City Council rather than being advocates for their neighborhoods. Indeed, encumbered by loyalties to those that appointed them creates an immediate brake on any member being too vehement of a neighborhood tribune.
If the city wants to hear the voices of the residents, why do we need to create artificial groups? Neighborhood groups have evolved all over the city. We have more active groups than ever. Why not simply rely upon the exiting leadership than create “advisory” committees that are not particularly representative?
While I don’t begrudge the Eastside an opportunity to bend the City Council’s ear, I don’ t understand why other parts of the city won’t have the same opportunity. Perhaps having three neighborhood advisory councils would be a bit more local democracy than the City Council can handle.