Mayor Garcetti talks about ballot box planning, the Lucas Museum and Gehry’s Sunset Project

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The proposed five-structure Sunset Towers development, to be located on Sunset Boulevard at Crescent Heights, bordering the City of West Hollywood, whose tallest tower, at 15 stories, would be the tallest building to be erected on the Sunset Strip in more than 30 years, was finally approved after Councilman David Ryu pushed the developer Townscape Partners to reduce the height, and add more affordable units and parking spaces.

The Sunset Boulevard project designed by Frank Gehry was given the go-ahead by the Los Angeles City Council after two years of fights and, finally, concessions. Does this demonstrate a path forward for consensus and compromise around development?

Angelenos are in the midst of an epic battle over which of two cities they want to live in — low-rise, spread-out, car-friendly, otherwise known as suburban; or high-rise, mixed-use residential and commercial, walkable and public transit-based, aka urban.

The battle is also over which of these two LA’s can keep the region’s housing affordable as the middle class is hollowed out. Both sides think their version of LA is a means to maintaining affordable housing.

Slow-growthers believe developers of market and luxury housing towers push out affordable, rent-stabilized properties and that if you slow their construction you can staunch the loss of affordable housing.

Pro-growthers believe that, without the old Community Redevelopment Agencies, cities have to encourage market rate development that contains a percentage of affordable units. Slow-growthers argue that elected officials are beholden to developers, because they are reliant on their campaign contributions, and give away too much height and density in return for too little by way of affordable housing and community benefits.

All this is happening as the region faces a massive shortfall in housing at every price point, evidenced in the region’s tight, very costly rental market, and a growing homeless population.

This complicated fight is playing out in the Southland over several important measures that voters will decide next week.

In LA County you have Measure M. That’s the L.A. Metro sales tax that would speed up the construction of mass transportation and alternative mobility. In the City of LA you have Measure HHH, the homelessness housing bond, as well as Measure JJJ, an affordable housing mandate.

Then, in Santa Monica, there is Measure LV, also known as LUVE (or Land Use Voter Empowerment). That’s a measure being watched with great interest all around the region, especially by the folks behind the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, a Los Angeles measure on the March 2017 ballot that, if it passes, puts a moratorium on any development that requires a zoning variance or General Plan amendment.

DnA spoke with Mayor Eric Garcetti about all this on a recent phone call. In the following Q and A he talks about the ballot measures, conflicts over growth as well as the prospect of having George Lucas’ museum in Exposition Park.

DnA: Is both the process and the outcome of the struggle over the Sunset Boulevard project an indicator about how it might be possible for the City and its voters to reach compromise on some of the more controversial development deals that have really caused a lot of friction in the region recently?

Mayor Garcetti: I believe so. I think that the approval of the Gehry project shows that when you listen to the community but also bring the great architecture and good developers together, Los Angeles can build its next chapter. We see that downtown, with soaring Wilshire Grand, which is the tallest building west of the Mississippi, which topped out just a few weeks ago. You see it you know in Koreatown, where there are new investments, and in Century City. I always told that to developers, “don’t be too greedy” and I say, “listen to neighborhoods.” And I think neighborhoods in Los Angeles are willing to say yes but they’re not willing to say yes to anything and anybody who thinks that it’s just a political deal that they can cut at City Hall.

Certainly I as mayor and I think members of the Council, like Councilmember David Ryu, who will listen to their constituents and stand up for them. So, this was I think this was a welcome coming together and shows that this is still a place that invites great development and great architecture. It’s done in the right scale and done the right way to inspire the City but also not over build it.

Measure LV supporters in Santa Monica. Photo courtesy KCAL 9.
Measure LV supporters in Santa Monica. Photo courtesy KCAL 9.

DnA: And yet Mayor, you know the elected officials, including yourself as well as developers, have been criticized by some of the slow growthers — those behind the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative or in Santa Monica behind LV — for making backroom deals, with campaign contributions going to elected officials, giving developers the advantage, leaving voters out of what they see as a compromised, borderline corrupt process. We’ve probably all read the article about the developer Samuel Leung, who funneled campaign donations to various acquaintances. Your name was there along with several council people. How do you fend off that perception that elected officials are compromised in the development process?

Mayor Garcetti: Well I’ve always had a very easy way of looking at developments: If it’s supported by people in the neighborhood, the neighborhood council and the residents, I’m inclined to support it. Not always, sometimes I’ll disagree and actually be opposed to some things that certain people are pushing but I think that’s the good test then and that’s what I did as a neighborhood council leader in Council District 13, and when I was a councilmember. We saw in Hollywood, we saw in Silver Lake, we saw in Echo Park, in Atwater Village, the revitalization of these neighborhoods. In the instance you were talking about I’m very proud my campaign accepted $0 from that. [Ed: According to the Los Angeles Times, a $60,000 contribution “went to an independent campaign committee that supported Garcetti, but was not controlled by him.”]

I am an Angeleno first and foremost before even being a mayor. I want to live in a neighborhood, in a city where the development is of a good scale, preserve the cultural heritage of our unique neighborhoods, and ultimately long after I’m mayor I’m going to have to live here and fight through whatever traffic or other things happen. So I take that citizen’s eye whenever I look at development, not just the City Hall eye.

DnA: You’ve said that you want to put a stop to these ex-parte meetings between planning commissioners and developers. And already there’s people on the slow growth side who say this is a fig leaf, it’s a Band-Aid, the contributions will keep on flowing, that it’s not going to make the process any more transparent. Tell us about what you think that can accomplish.

Mayor Garcetti: Oh, I’ve actually heard the opposite. I had a great meeting with folks that are from neighborhoods around the City who are concerned and who put The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative on the ballot and I said we agree on most things, and they actually were the ones who asked for us to ban ex-parte communications in other words private conversations that commissioners could have with developers; the commissioners themselves were happy not to do it. I think a lot of people and I remember being at city council my first week on the job and somebody was at the podium saying, “You guys are going to vote for this. You’re in the pocket of the developers. It’s a conspiracy.” And Ruth Galanter, the great councilwoman from the West Side, turned to me with her kind of great, gravelly voice and said, “You know what Eric? The problem with most conspiracies: we’re not smart enough to pull them off.”

I think some people you know do believe there’s a conspiracy behind everything but the reality is for me, I’m an Angeleno, I live here. Whatever I can do to make sure it is good development, Stop any perception or allowed conversations outside the public process, and then the rest of it is a public fight where people disagree. Some people in the neighborhood love a certain development or a certain store coming in. Other people hate it. But you’ve got to balance that, listen to it and then try to move forward with something that most people agree upon.

So I think that there’s a lot of common ground right now in the city between people who are concerned about overdevelopment and what we can do to make that process more transparent and more predictable. The last thing I’ll say is we’ve got to update our community plans and that’s been a mission of mine since I became mayor — to make sure that the rules that govern what goes where in our neighborhoods isn’t something negotiated between developers and City Hall. But it’s clear rules that come from the community. And once those community plans are updated we say if you want to build here this is what we’ve all decided as a city you can do. Otherwise, look someplace else.

Supporters of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. Photo courtesy Coalition to Preserve LA.
Supporters of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. Photo courtesy Coalition to Preserve LA.

DnA: We know folks who want to slow development in Los Angeles, who also want to slow the growth of mass transit. There are efforts to oppose Measure M which would bring in sales tax revenue to advance the expansion of mass transit. There are folks who are contributing in that way see an overlap between slowing growth and slowing transportation. And yet you’re urging Angelenos to build 100, 000 units of housing. How can you bring those competing forces together?

Garcetti: Well I think the reason there’s a historic coalition of business and labor, environmentalist, neighborhood groups, senior associations like AARP, that has never supported something at the local level, backing Measure M which is the most crucial traffic-relieving measure in the city’s history and the biggest in this nation’s history. That is because people do see those things tied together. When we don’t build rail lines to get to and from where we need to go more quickly, people just to live further and further out just to afford the housing. When we don’t build housing where we have those new lines, it makes it more and more difficult and people get displaced. So Metro has been very thoughtful. The polls are very high. There’s an overwhelming number of people even when these measures have gone down in the past it’s with a 66% vote so virtually two thirds of people are absolutely crying out for more help to get out of traffic, to move housing closer.

And Metro has adopted a policy under my leadership when I chaired it, to make sure that any new housing that’s built is at least 35% affordable to regular folks and working people so that it doesn’t have the impact of pushing people out.

Also Measure M isn’t just for people on public transportation, only 35% of it will be building new lines, the rest of it is going to be keeping fares low for our senior, our disabled, our students and also making sure that we improve our freeways and our local streets. So I think you know if you’re still in your car and that’s your preferred mode of transportation, Measure M is huge for you to fix those potholes you go over every day, to prepare those intersections that are such a pain. And to make sure that freeways like The 5 what to get out of Orange County coming north is suddenly a pinch point that drives you crazy. We actually listen to everybody and make sure all 88 cities in L.A. County get their fair share for those improvements and each sub region of the county does as well.

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DnA: How does Measure HHH fit into this picture?

Well you know for me, these are all tied together. We need to have better transportation to reduce traffic and we need more housing. Both from the top down, the 100,000 units but also from the bottom up – because people at the bottom are getting pushed out. We’ve told people, you’ve got to know you’re right, rent stabilization. I have a huge campaign to make sure that landlords are not legally pushing people out.

And too many people we find still on the streets today, 21,000 people sleep without a roof over their head on the streets of L.A. City tonight. And Measure HHH or as I like to remember it, “Housing helps the homeless” builds on the momentum that we’ve already generated this past year or two where we’ve have housed over 10,000 formerly homeless people, 7000 of them by the way formerly homeless veterans. And build 10,000 units of permanent supportive housing, which is a fancy way of saying an apartment with the health care and the services that people who are experiencing homelessness need to get well.

People who are out on the street just because they don’t have a home, they often have challenges or mental illness or they have substance abuse issues that they’re dealing with. They have trauma from war, veterans coming home or young men and women emancipated from our foster care system. So Measure HHH would help us permanently house them, with a 90% success rate, by the way, when you get them both apartments and then the services, the counselors, the medications the things they need to not go back on the streets in a month or two. You know it’s very difficult to wrap your head around a problem as big as homelessness because there’s you know because 21,000 just becomes a number.

I think of Natalia who has visited a couple of days ago, a woman I met in Hollywood, who came out here to be a singer. She was doing Michael Jackson imitation on Hollywood Boulevard. But because of some mental health challenges, she found herself on the streets getting beat up, was in and out of housing. We placed her now in housing with a whole program that gives her the counseling and the mental health care that she needs. And we brought her in and that’s much cheaper in the long term for us to do that by the way than keeping on the street and paying the cost of emergency room visits or the public safety expenditures that we have. So Measure HHH saves us money. But more importantly, it saves lives and it’s my number one focus as mayor to try to crack the back of homelessness and get people off the streets of Los Angeles.

DnA: Now there’s another measure organized by a coalition that sounds a little like the coalition you described, that is Measure JJJ.  Do you support JJJ and could that contribute to making a dent in the housing problem?

Mayor Garcetti: You know there’s great aspects of Measure JJJ, specifically something I do support that when people want a variance or an adjustment in a general plan and then it’s called to the zoning to build something that they should be building affordable housing. In other words, we’re giving them the ability to build something bigger; they should build some of the units of affordable housing. It has some hesitation because that could boost the cost of building housing. But I think, by and large, it’s something that adds some very positive things to our larger effort to build affordable housing. But whether it’s JJJ or a proposal in March, The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, remember these are addressing only a few of the properties that need a zoning adjustment. One of the reasons I support a linkage fee is that is something that would require all new housing at every level, whether it got an exception or not, to pay money to help us subsidize more affordable housing for working people. The barista at the Starbucks, the person who is the secretary, the middle class job that we need to ensure that people can forever be able to live in Los Angeles.

Ma Yansong design for George Lucas museum
Rendering of Ma Yansong’s design for George Lucas museum, located in Exposition Park, is competing against. . . a Ma Yansong design, located in San Francisco, after Lucas pulled the project out of Chicago.

DnA: Let’s talk about the exciting future for Exposition Park. Tell us tell us about this unusual competition for the George Lucas museum, to be designed by architect Ma Yansong. What are the chances of LA coming out on top of San Francisco?

Well, George Lucas and his wife Mellody Hobson’s museum is an extraordinary building a kind of visionary design from one of the top architects in the world with strong neighborhood support, and I think an opportunity for them to share their incredible art collection that spans Native American art all the way through Hollywood art, to be exposed to an audience that is at once global and local and has the opportunity to make sure that young people can dream just like a young George Lucas did when he started making stories that changed all of our lives.

So, I think it comes down to either us or San Francisco, obviously, but San Francisco is a beautiful location but it’s literally on an island where Los Angeles has ten local high schools within walking distance and Exposition Park is filled with the wonders of the mind. On one end could be the museum with ways that people have imagined going into space and on the other end of the park will be the only stack of a space shuttle that actually went into space with its booster rocket fuel. So that to me is very exciting and I think L.A. is a natural place to be, touching the world and touching those young children who otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to this kind of incredible art collection.

DnA: And what is the city offering by way of incentives to get this to get George Lucas to select L.A.?

Well, I think why we can win this is Los Angeles can provide predictability. We have land that it’s already controlled, it’s public land, it’s right now a parking lot. So this would be a welcome addition of new green space and replace the parking with an underground garage and have this soaring inspirational design. We also don’t need to do an Environmental Impact Report which may be the case up in San Francisco, and that allows us to be able to really have this museum up and running much more quickly than in the Bay Area which I think is so important to Lucases right now. They want to see a museum that George can enjoy while he is still here and one that can inspire the most people so it’s faster. It’s got universal community support; we control the land and the design has been you know embraced by people in the community from the first renderings. So that’s a pretty unique and special place to be.