A little over a year ago, Los Angeles voters rejected a sweeping ballot measure that would have put a freeze on many of the city’s largest developments.
Critics of the anti-density initiative, called Measure S, argued that it would stifle new development needed to alleviate a citywide housing shortage, and the measure garnered only a little over half of the yes votes needed for it to pass.
Yet the fiery campaign launched by its supporters brought many of the most outdated elements of the city’s planning policies into the spotlight and helped accelerate the process by which the city updates community plans that guide development in specific neighborhoods.
The architect of that campaign was Jill Stewart, executive director of the Coalition to Preserve LA and former managing editor at LA Weekly. After the defeat of Measure S, the coalition continues to push for changes to LA’s planning system. Stewart gave us an hour to talk about what she’d like to change about the way development happens in Los Angeles. Here are some excerpts from the conversation.
What has the Coalition to Preserve LA been up to since the end of the Measure S Campaign?
Well, that was a campaign, and this is a nonprofit organization. We have basically four missions: government transparency, environmental stewardship, equitable housing, and what we call people-oriented planning.
People-oriented planning—what does that mean?
It has to do with making sure you hear from community members, particularly on the issue of equity in Los Angeles—hearing from people who have fewer voices and lesser voices, because they don’t have fancy attorneys. It has to do with finding out what communities want and need when you create your planning. It’s not commonly done by current urban planning, but we think it’s the way to go.
One result of the Measure S campaign was that the city agreed to update its community plans every six years. Has that been an adequate response?
Let’s go in a slightly different direction. Former planning director Gail Goldberg launched a heroic effort to update the community plans… and they got a couple community plans done. And then they did Hollywood. And the City Council and the city planning department lied about the growth rates. They wanted to put in skyscrapers, so they had an agenda in Hollywood that had nothing to do with what Hollywood was actually turning into.
Hollywood was turning into this cool historic zones area that needed cleanup. And at some point it was decided that skyscrapers should go there. A lot of people… think that’s a stupid idea, but it’s halfway there at this point. And of course you can’t move in and out of Hollywood now. The Red Line makes no difference—it’s losing traffic, just like all of Metro. Metro is backfiring.
I think one of the big problems in LA and other cities is that planners aren’t willing to feel uncomfortable, and neither are elected officials. They need to see that they’re not the lords of the manor. They have to deal with everyday people.
Is making them feel uncomfortable something you try to do?
We do. We think they wield closed-door power, which is inappropriate, in deciding what’s going to happen to thousands of people’s lives. It’s disgusting, as a matter of fact. And we think they need to accept that they are not perfection itself and start listening to what people are saying.
You mentioned that Metro is backfiring. Do you think it was a mistake to invest in the kind of infrastructure that Metro has built?
Metro is a huge disaster. Just unbelievable—billions and billions spent on routes people don’t want to take, and on massive amounts of luxury housing driving out the working class people who would be using the trains. And the complete lack of interest on what the bus system is capable of doing.
I think what we have here is a certain amount of penis envy of big cities in the east where really expensive fixed rail is the way to go. Obviously the unions prefer it because it’s union jobs. The bus system is not as cool. It’s for poor people, right? That’s the view.
We have a starved bus system that goes everywhere. And you’ve got a few hundred stops for rail. So rail can never ever match the bus system, and yet rail gets all the expenses; rail gets the kudos; and rail is failing in Los Angeles.
I think there’s a growing acknowledgement, behind closed doors anyway, that Metro is going horribly wrong. I think that fixed rail isn’t working. It’s being rejected wholesale by the middle class and certainly by the people that live in luxury housing around the stations. And at some point, Metro will be forced into rethinking how they’ve spent their money.
It seems like there’s a disconnect between the idea that people are rejecting the rail, but at the same time just recently passed ballot measures to spend more money building it.
How closely do you think voters follow how the money’s being spent, and how many voters do you think know that Metro is experiencing a ridership collapse? Do you think the average voter knows that?
We vote for things that we think are good, and we have pride in the city, and we want the city to work better. They spent a huge amount of money promoting [measures R and M], and they got the entire political structure behind them. It sounded good, and it looked good.
So you’re saying this is a question of people not realizing what they’re voting for?
This is an issue of huge money spent to sell a dream. There’s very little media left to explain what’s actually going on. So it’s not the voters. You can’t blame it on voters. It’s a leadership issue. They’re not trying to be innovative. They’re stuck in the ’80s, and they’re fine having a failure.
What does a more contemporary approach to planning and infrastructure look like?
I think it’s easy to get caught up in, well, we’re having the Olympics, therefore we’re a city of the future. That’s not going to do much. That’s not going to help. That’s going to be a distraction. So you have these side issues that I think people lock onto, especially in city hall, to illustrate that they’re being innovative and forward-thinking.
But really to be innovative and forward-thinking, they would have to sit down and rethink what they do. We know that they’re not planning at all for the movement of people into their homes to do their jobs. We know there’s no discussion. That’s really incredible.
Speaking of work, you’re a veteran journalist. What made you move into political advocacy?
I guess one day I decided I’d overseen my last assignment for a top 10 list. And I thought journalism wasn’t going in a positive, healthy direction in Los Angeles, or any other city. And it wasn’t the fantastic industry I loved so much. It was time to do something that was as meaningful as what I used to do when I was an investigative reporter, and try to open up the doors of city hall, so to speak.
Given the Coalition to Preserve LA’s focus on affordable housing, I was surprised to see you opposed the city’s Permanent Supportive Housing Ordinance to speed up delivery of homeless housing. What are your concerns with the measure?
We think they need to be much more innovative with the money. We think they need to accept the bad optics of, I’m not going to say tent cities, but giant tents like San Diego is adopting, where they can house several hundred people.
We understand—I get it—that the mayor does not want ugly optics for a city that’s heading toward the Olympics. He doesn’t want a lot of giant tents. He doesn’t want a lot of bad news before the Olympics. But this is our Katrina, and we have to act like it’s Katrina and see that the health aspects of keeping people on the streets for months and months on end—all these new homeless we have who aren’t used to being on the streets. The cost in the long run is going to be far worse than anything they are discussing right now.
So we’re saying: innovation. Shelters? A lot more shelters. We pressured and pressured and pressured. We put out a regular press release called the Daily Outrage in which we pressured the mayor and the city to stop focusing on this long-term, slow buildout of units that cost $430,000 to build.
So do you support the mayor’s plan to build more shelters? For instance, the one in Koreatown that they just announced?
We have been begging him to jump into shelters for months, and we couldn’t get him to listen all this time. So we think our press releases made a difference. We think our shaming made a difference. We hope it did. We hope they’re finally listening… you can’t just keep doing this one thing again and again. It’s not working.
Specific locations, I have no comment on that. It’s up to the community and the local political leaders to work it out. But they have to be put some place.
We think empty city property—existing buildings—should be used. We think Parker Center is the No. 1 best property they could possibly turn into homeless housing. We hired an architect who said that 730 could be housed there.
The retrofit would be very inexpensive. The city’s numbers are off the charts as to how much it would cost to retrofit—way, way off the charts. There’s a much cheaper way to do it, so we think they should look at the big empty city buildings and use them for homeless housing. We think they should stop being NIMBYs.