Tuesday, September 22, 2009

CityWatchLA - A Tale of Two Hollywoods

CityWatch, Sept 22, 2009
Vol l7 Issue 78

Hollywood's leadership has made commitments to "stimulating development" and "ending homelessness forever" but a simple glance at the construction sites for the W Hotel and the Villas at Gower reveals that the commitment is uneven.

The W Hollywood Hotel & Residences is a massive mixed use project at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard & Argyle, spread over five acres and in the final stages of completion.

The project has relied on public funds to get off the ground, CRA use of Eminent Domain and incredible amounts of LA's political muscle in order to navigate and overcome the significant objections and concerns of the community.

The rapid construction and the abundant integration of huge, lucrative billboards in the structures exoskeleton bear witness to the simple fact that when the leadership of this city want something done, it gets done.

Two blocks away, on Gower Avenue just north of Hollywood Boulevard, sits a large empty dirt lot that was the former home to apartments, affordable housing and the local Traveler's Aid office, all razed in order to make way for the ambitious Villas at Gower, a permanent supportive housing complex that uses an innovative "housing first" approach to addressing the needs of the chronic homeless.

The failure to break ground at this site and the absence of progress in addressing homelessness in Hollywood, in spite of the infusion of public funds, CRA use of Eminent Domain and incredible amounts of LA's political talk, the project lies dormant with nothing but dirt clods, sandbags and a chainlink fence. Witness to the fact that when the leadership of this city doesn't care, nothing gets done.

Both projects have been in play for years. Both projects came with a great deal of controversy and both projects had significant interaction with the community in order to engage the local residents and to purportedly pursue solutions that were robust and came with significant neighborhood support.

Both projects came with support from LA's leadership and yet, at the end of the day, it is evident that when it comes to developing luxury housing for the "haves" and supportive housing for the "have-nots" Councilman Eric Garcetti's enthusiasm is uneven and inconsistent, in spite of the tough talk and in spite of the strong verbal commitments.

Based on results, often harsh but always fair, it's safe to say that when it comes to revitalizing the community of Hollywood, developers will always have a partner within the city of Los Angeles. The homeless are on their own.

This imbalance in priorities leaves local residents to fend for themselves as they deal with issues such as blighted properties, homelessness and public safety.

Conspiracy theorists might propose that the cumbersome public process is designed to wear out the community opposition and to cause the public to simply exhaust themselves before wandering off to howl at the moon over some other civic issue, leaving the politicos and their development partners to play hard and fast with the public funds that serve as redevelopment seed money for ongoing revitalization shell game.

Countering that argument is a quote attributed to former City Councilmember Ruth Galanter "Whenever I hear rumors of a conspiracy, I simply attribute it to incompetence."

Four years ago, a rumor of the CRA's proposed Gower homeless facility rippled through the community. Quick research was done and the Hollywood United Neighborhood Council convened a community meeting to address the proposed site, the facility, the services and the concerns of the community.

As in most cases, the lack of information allowed rumor and fear to run rampant and to generate a great deal of misinformation, resulting in hundreds of people all worked up and yelling and ready to fight, not knowing what the fight was but committed to protecting the status quo from the unknown.

I naively invited the local City Council staff, thinking this was something that would interest them, unaware that they were behind it. Three CD staff members attended the meeting, silently, and it wasn't until later that I discovered that one of them was engaged to a board member of the neighborhood council who served as co-chair of the PLUM committee. What a small world. What a learning experience!

As a member of the Villas at Gower Community Advisory Committee, I've been there through thick and thin, jumping at short notice to participate in meetings that address everything from the project scope to the selection of development partners to the selection of the architect to, hopefully the development of the project.

Four years is quite a long time for volunteers and life has a way of taking over. The local CD staff has turned twice and the CRA's project manager retired and we're on our second architect. Through it all I think I've learned a few things.

1) The community engagement process might not really be a charade, but it looks like one, it feels like one and it acts like one. If it's not a charade, it's simply incompetence.

Sadly this demonstrates that the CRA is either unable or unwilling to engage the neighborhood, to develop community support and to involve locals in the revitalization of Hollywood, an endeavor that is fueled with our money.

Community meetings seem designed to exhaust the community, giving everybody the opportunity to sound off and to relieve themselves of any objections.

If that's the case, the potential partnership and the contributions of the community are lost on the final project and the ultimate result is a disengaged community, less likely to come to the aid of the CRA when it needs help. (Such as last month when Mayor Villaraigosa staged a press conference on top of the Music Box with the W Hotel in the background, fighting to salvage the CRA's funds from the State budget brouhaha.)

2) The development process is ripe for abuse and the rewards go to those who work the system best, not those who are best qualified.

The first architect on the Gower project, Michael Maltzan, was referred to in a review as possessing a "bedside manner that exceeded his body of work." He lived up to that evaluation, charming the CRA, the community, the development partners. The guy was a rock star. He was also a better negotiator than the CRA, demonstrating that bedside manner trumps architectural talent but that the ability to manipulate the system trumps all.

We were well on our way down the concept and design path when the CRA discovered that their contracts had never actually been executed. Much work had been completed and yet there was no binding contract. It was at this point, that Maltzan upped the ante and claimed he couldn't do the work without a significant increase in his fee. The guy is good! He worked the CRA, squeezed them and proved to be a formidable negotiator. Then he walked, unable to get his fee. A long waste of time journey that could have been avoided if the CRA was motivated or skilled enough to negotiate at the same level as those who do this for a living.

3) The partnership process seems based on a pursuit of low-maintenance rather than high-performance relationships.

The CRA worked with McCormack Baron to develop and manage Metro Hollywood, a mixed-use project at Hollywood & Western. Two of the four ground floor spaces have never seen a tenant, the property manager seems unaware of the homeless encampment just to the west of the building's front door, the open space serves as a public restroom for the squatters, and overall perception of the community is that the facility contributes to the blight in the neighborhood. Yet the CRA just entered into a $15 million relationship with McCormack Barron for another TOD project, based on the success of Metro Hollywood. How are these relationships reviewed?

How is performance measured?

Is it simply based on the applicant's ability to navigate the system or is it because of the robust and successful projects and the relationships with the community?

4) The success of the CRA's projects is based on the completion of brick and mortar construction but rarely evaluates any sense of connectivity with the community.

Along the journey on the development of the W Hotel, the community pushed for innovations such as a Bike-Share facility in the W, a Car-Share facility in the W, all-walk phases (ped-scrambles) at the intersections surrounding the W, delivery services for local shoppers, all small elements in the grand scheme of things but enhancements that speak to the commitment to integrate with the local community. Those improvements may be coming, there may be better ones on the way, we just don't know about them.

What we do hear is abstract information that doesn't impact the individual on a personal level nor does it engage the individual in a relationship. Five acres, $500 million, 400 jobs, 400 rooms, 150 condos, all high-altitude stats that sound great but that fail to address real quality of life metrics.

How does one cross the street?

What does the street feel like from the pedestrian’s perspective? What's it like to walk down Argyle at night?

Can the occupants of the fortress see the people on the street or is it another "two worlds" concept?

Are there amenities for the Metro passengers or is this the clash of cultures? What's the impact of all of those billboards on the community?

How does the W circumvent the moratorium on billboards?

How can the community respect authority if the W manipulates the system?

5) The mandate of the CRA, to revitalize blighted communities using public money, seems to be lacking a clear standard of blight and a clear standard for performance.

For all of the zestful enthusiasm for employing large numbers of construction workers to build large fortresses, there seems to be little effort to pursue the softer and more difficult elements of blight, the human elements.

First, what is being done to reduce homelessness? There is no simpler definition of blight than to simply ask, "Are people living on the streets?" If so, get to work. But get them off the street, don't simply move them over two blocks to a different site!

Second, are the quotidian needs of the locals being met on the boulevard?

If the CRA keeps investing in facilities that don't connect with the communities, one might try to call it commerce, one might try to call it economic revitalization but the street comes alive when the locals have a reason to shop there.

The streets are safer and more attractive when people have a reason come to walk down the sidewalk and visit the bakery, grab a coffee, buy a book, pick up some flowers, visit with friends in the hospitable public space.

The projects must be evaluated on their contribution to the economic mix of the community and their ability to stir activity on the streets. "Bigger is better" is the mantra of cancer, not of development from the perspective of the individual human who must live and work and walk in the shadows of the fortresses that fail to engage the neighborhood on a personal level.

6) The final stage of development, one that the CRA and Legacy Partners is currently engaged in, is to negotiate the "Community Benefit." This is so odd. The project itself is supposed to be a community benefit so why is it getting shoehorned in as the red carpet is getting unrolled and the Chamber is preparing to cut the ribbon? Wouldn't "Community Benefit" be the foundation of the project, driving all actions, decisions, partnerships and results from that point on?

Apparently not.

The W Hollywood Hotel & Residences is in the process of committing to a "Community Benefit" that consists of an agreement to hiring local. Those local hires will be paid a living wage, obviously qualifying for accommodations at the W Residences and giving new meaning to "local.

As for the folks who are waiting to go "local" over at the Villas at Gower, no word yet on the groundbreaking, no word yet on housing options for the homeless, no word. Simply no word.

Hollywood, from the residents to the merchants to the tourists to the homeless, deserves better, and it's up to us to raise the standard.

(Stephen Box is a planning and transportation advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at Stephen@ThirdEyeCreative.net)

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