Tuesday, December 21, 2010

CityWatchLA - All the World's a Stage

CityWatch, Dec 21, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 101

Several years ago, my wife and her theatre group participated in a Met Theatre fundraiser that consisted of staging Shakespeare's entire body of work in one continuous, non-stop performance that went around the clock for several days. "As good luck would have it," Enci's company took to the boards at 2 am and with enthusiasm that belied the late hour, delivered their leg of the Bard's marathon.

As the last line was spoken, I stood to my feet and rigorously applauded, offering up a one-man standing ovation. To my surprise, they responded by returning the applause and thanking me. They later explained that it's one thing to perform, but all is for naught if not for the most important element, an audience that connects and engages and responds.

As I look back over this past year and think about the many events and meetings, the projects and the protests, the victories and the losses, it all begins to blur.

There have been inspirational occasions such as Park[ing] Day LA and the Neighborhood Council Summit, there have been challenges to the status quo such as BudgetLA and the Safe Streets Campaign, and there have been the many incidents and tragedies that have brought us together in shock and outrage.

Through it all, members of the public write letters, make phone calls, file Community Impact Statements, and go to meeting after meeting, all in hopes that a couple of minutes of public comment will complement the work of others and add up to something that will improve the quality of life in their community.

There have been times that I have questioned the value of public participation in the civic process. Especially after waiting eight hours for 2 minutes of public comment, only to have the item tabled for another meeting.

Along the way, I've written articles, spoken at meetings, traveled to Sacramento, and appealed to reason, only to watch motions get rubber-stamped with a unanimous and unquestioning vote, bouncing from Commission to Committee to Council agenda without skipping a beat.

I've sat alone in Council Chambers and questioned the folly of the fight, only to experience an amazing and powActive Imageerful phenomenon, the participation of an engaged and enthusiastic audience.

It was during a long City Council agenda and I was about to give up and leave when I received a text message from someone who was listening to the proceedings on CityPhone. They offered some advice, they urged me on, and most importantly, they thanked me for speaking up.

As I walk precincts and talk to voters, I meet people who greet me as an old friend and refer to radio interviews with Kevin James and to Channel 35 broadcasts of City Council meetings. It's especially encouraging to know that at those moments when I'm filled with doubt, there are people listening and watching and counting on somebody to represent them.

Perhaps the most touching feedback I get is from the families of people who have died on our streets.

After Gwendolyn Coleman was tragically killed by a DASH operator as she crossed the street, I received this message from her son; "I'm writing you to just say thank you for giving my mother a voice when no one accountable for her death seems to really care. It means a lot to my sisters and I that even though you didn't know her you still took the time to speak for her."

When Julia Siegler was killed on Sunset Boulevard, her father wrote; "More tragedies like Julia’s are inevitable unless citizens rally to return Sunset Blvd – at least sections of it – into a neighborhood-compatible thoroughfare...Thank you for your thoughtful and upsetting piece."

As I look back over the events of this past year, I realize that the circumstances add up to some victories, some defeats, and a load of stalemates.

Some folks take me to task and sent a message of "There you go again!" Others have enjoyed the journey and written "This is the best editorial written about our city!!!!"

In looking back, I'm grateful that we've connected and in looking forward, I'm grateful for the role that you play and I hope you'll keep reading!

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

CityWatchLA - Los Angeles: A Crisis-Driven City

CityWatch, Dec 17, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 100

If those who run City Hall were to spend more time in the garden, they'd know that it's extremely dangerous to eat the seed corn, something the City of LA is attempting to do in LA's Community Gardens, in Hollywood's Farmers Market, and with the City's Parking Structures.

This past Tuesday, City Hall was inundated with gardeners, farmers, vendors, residents, and business leaders who all came together to demonstrate the delicate balance of connectivity found in our neighborhoods.

LA's Community Gardeners trekked to City Hall to urge the City Council's Arts, Parks, Health & Aging (APHA) Committee to rescind the impending City of LA community garden plot fee rental increase.

Department of Recreation and Parks management was on hand to offer their "turnip squeezing" theory for balancing the budget, one that consists of implementing "full cost recovery" fees without actually knowing the real costs, if any.

The gardeners countered that a simple cost/benefit audit would reveal that community gardens are responsible for many positive impacts that actually reduce expenses for the City of LA. In addition to serving as caretakers for the Wattles Orchards, the Wattles Farmers are responsible for reducing crime in the area. Solano Canyon Garden had a water reclamation impact on an eroding hill. Sepulveda Gardens has an educational component. Ocean View accepts waste product and returns compost to the neighborhood.

Gardeners charge that the Rec & Parks process was flawed, that the plan violates existing land deeds, and that charging fees that exceed costs is an act that is beyond the authority of the Department.

The public left the APHA Committee with this request, that the City of LA rescind the impending fees, impose a moratorium until July 1, 2011 on any fee or permit increases, conduct an evaluation of actual costs and benefits, and embrace community gardens as an asset, not a liability.

At the same time, farmers, vendors, and customers from the Hollywood Farmers Market rallied on the steps of City Hall and then took their case to the City Council, fighting for the survival of LA's oldest and biggest Farmers Market.

The Hollywood Farmers Market has grown over the last two decades, now drawing 10,000 customers each week. Its success allows the non-profit operator of the market to support other less profitable markets in neighborhoods such as Atwater Village, Canoga Park, Echo Park, East Hollywood, Central LA, Crenshaw, and Watts.

Also growing in success is neighboring Los Angeles Film School which now opposes the renewal of a street closure permit for Selma and Ivar Avenues because the market blocks one of the school's parking ramps for several hours every Sunday.

The tremendous irony here is that the Los Angeles Film School sells parking to the customers of the Hollywood Farmers Market, setting in motion a circular battle of dueling successes. The more customers there are at the Market, the greater the value of the LA Film School parking, resulting in a parking lot version of "The Scorpion and the Frog."

The farmers, vendors, and customers who spoke in favor of the Hollywood Farmers Market asked LA's City Council to look at the market as an asset, one that should be protected as the "front porch" for an intricate ecosystem of farmers, employees, and communities that includes the community gardeners at North Hollywood High School.

LA's City Council is faced with a crisis, one that didn't arrive unannounced or without warning. It was simply allowed to fester until it reached the point that 50 farmers and 120 employees approach the holidays not knowing if they would be working in Hollywood in 2011. All because of a debate over parking.

Joining in on the debate over parking, residents and business representatives from LA's Civic Centers stood in solidarity in Council Chambers, challenging the City Council to protect the City's parking assets as a vital component of a vibrant community. Business Associations, Chambers, Neighborhood Councils and Homeowners Groups all railed on the City of LA for its proposed "Parking Asset Restructuring" that would result in the type of conflict that is already jeopardizing the Hollywood Farmers Market.

The proposed "Parking Asset Restructuring" is a City of LA scheme to generate at least $53 million for the General Fund by selling off approximately 9,000 revenue producing parking spaces for the next 50 years.

The City of LA would then enter into a "no-compete" agreement that would prevent the City of LA from providing parking to those same communities. One of the impacted parking facilities is the Arclight, located on Sunset Blvd., just across the street from the LA Film School.

Two things became clear on Tuesday.

First, it's all connected, from Master Gardeners teaching senior citizens to grow fava beans, to high school students learning business in a pumpkin patch, to market vendors bringing life to the streets of a neighborhood, to city assets that support a vibrant economic environment.

Second, as the City of LA squeezes the turnips in LA's Community Gardens, prunes the roots in Hollywood's Farmers Market, and eats the seed corn in LA's Parking Structures, City Hall is demonstrating a short-sighted commitment to revenue at the expense of LA's future.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

CityWatchLA - The Mythology of "Full Cost Recovery"

CityWatch, Dec 14, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 99

To call the City of Los Angeles "Penny-Wise and Dollar-Foolish" would be an insult to those who are actually good with pennies.

The City's current assault on community gardens is the latest evidence that the Mayor's ongoing "Full Cost Recovery" marketing campaign falls far short of addressing the systemic economic problems that are responsible for LA's current and projected financial woes.

Community Gardeners are the latest victims of the "Full Cost Recovery" shakedown and their plight has prompted the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition to call on the Rec and Parks Commission to rescind a plot fee rental increase of 380% that is scheduled to take effect in January of 2011.

During the most recent Commission hearing, it became apparent that the Department of Recreation and Parks doesn't know what costs are involved in operating community gardens yet it has set its sights on the people of LA and is about to pull the "Full Cost Recovery" trigger. When a Charter Department is unable to account for its responsibilities, its areas of oversight, and its expenses, it becomes evident that all the talk of cost recovery is simply a smokescreen.

If the City of Los Angeles is going to have a discussion of cost recovery, it must start with an honest audit of the real costs of each department and of each service. Regardless of how the "Full Cost Recovery" debate plays out, the benefits of open and transparent operations are tremendous and would provide the first step to real accountability at City Hall.

It has also become apparent that the Department of Recreation and Parks doesn't know what costs would be incurred if LA did not have community gardens operating in different areas of the city. In some cases, the community gardeners provide services to the city by maintaining common space that would need to be serviced by the city if the gardeners were gone.

In other cases, blighted land was cleaned up by community gardeners and their presence results in a public safety savings. Another garden was built as a water reclamation project to save a hill that was eroding, resulting in a public works savings and demonstrating again that the presence of a garden can cost less that the absence of a garden.

If the Los Angeles is going to have a real discussion of cost recovery, it must include an honest evaluation of costs and benefits of LA's programs and services before bureaucrats are able to simply refer to everything as a liability and an opportunity to start dispensing invoices.

Through it all, it is apparent that the Mayor's "Full Cost Recovery" plan is responsible for generating false revenues as city departments charge each other and count as revenue the circular exchange of services and goods that all belong to the City of LA.

The plight of LA's Community Gardens remains to be resolved and the issue is working its way through City Hall. Through it all, the Rec and Parks Commission has directed staff to develop an inventory of assets, an accounting of real costs and benefits, a comparison to the expenses of other cities, and a real analysis of the economic impact of community gardens on the department and on the city.

Community Gardeners are simply fighting for their gardens but in doing so, they have triggered a process that could set a standard for City Hall access, transparency, and accountability that could have greater positive impact on LA's financial woes than any "Full Cost Recovery" invoice.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Friday, December 10, 2010

CityWatchLA - Breaking the Law and playing dumb

CityWatch, Pub: Dec 10, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 98

The laws that require the City of Los Angeles to conduct its business in an open and participatory manner are regularly trounced by people who don't know any better or who simply feign ignorance. Either way, it demonstrates a significant need for oversight and reform at City Hall.

The Brown Act, named after its author, Assemblyman Ralph M. Brown, and passed by the California State Legislature in 1953, guarantees the public the right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies that include neighborhood councils, City Commissions, and the City Council.

Unfortunately, the 57 year-old law is not required reading by the very people who are in the best position to violate it as demonstrated by the regularity with which it gets abused.

LA's City Hall is manned by a security detail that requires people to utter the phrase "The Brown Act" in order to invoke the State Law guaranteed rights, an odd approach to public participation, especially since it wasn't too long ago that those same officers were unaware of the phrase. It was the public that insisted that the Brown Act covered the public from the front door to the gavel.

LA's Police Commission is staffed by very polite people who seem completely unfazed by Ralph M. Brown's legacy, again offering the public an opportunity to educate those in charge of enforcing the law.

LA's Department of Water and Power Commission is staffed by City Attorneys who waste no time jumping on complaints and deflecting criticism, but who are completely unable to address the simple fact that the Brown Act requires a do-over if people are prevented from freely attending meetings.

If the Brown Act is violated at the front door, it is safe to say that those in charge are not diligent in enforcing compliance and the public should be diligent about agendas, reports, actions, and participation.

The upside to the tremendous burden that this puts on the public is the simple fact that legal fees are recoverable which means that the remedy or "cure" for the public is a do-over and any legal assistance is recoverable.

The California Public Records Act, (CPRA) also referred to as California Government Code Section 6250, guarantees the public the right to review documents, reports, and other records including digital files, as a fundamental and necessary right of every person in the state.

The CPRA is also not required reading by the very people who are in the best position to violate it as demonstrated by the inconsistencies within City Hall.

The LADOT lists instructions for records requests on its website, rules that are repeated by staff when requests are made. The problem is that they require payment in advance for information that has not yet been reviewed. It's the other way around. Requested information can be reviewed and if copies are requested, a reasonable fee may be charged. But, most importantly, simply reviewing documents does not come with a fee.

The LADOT also says "Please allow 10-14 working days to receive your requested documents. Absolutely no rush orders will be accepted."

The CPRA, by contrast, says "Each agency, upon a request for a copy of records, shall, within 10 days from receipt of the request, determine whether the request, in whole or in part, seeks copies of disclosable public records in the possession of the agency and shall promptly notify the person making the request of the determination and the reasons therefor."

City Planning doesn't accept verbal requests, and then when they are put in writing, they must be sent to the correct person or they simply languish in limbo, violating the 10 day window of required response. Apparently "I'm sorry, you've come to the wrong person!" is still an option at City Planning.

The City of LA is not alone in its unequal and illegal interpretation of the California Public Records Act. Both Metro and the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) are staffed by employees well-trained in the "I'm sorry, you've come to the wrong person!" approach to public service. Typically, locating the correct staffer is enough to make even the most intrepid member of the public simply give up and fade away.

By design? Regardless, it's illegal and once again, the remedy is to correct the situation and the legal fees are recoverable.

The 1st Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

LA's City Council recently engaged in a discussion of the 1st Amendment and an LADOT staffer pointed out that the 1st Amendment "came under federal purview" and was not the responsibility of the City of LA. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The City of Los Angeles has run afoul of the 1st Amendment on more than one occasion, costing the city significant amounts of money in legal fees and settlements. The City of LA deals with the 1st Amendment on a regular basis, from newspaper racks on the public right-of-way to tourist attractions such as the Venice Beach Boardwalk and Hollywood Boulevard.

A federal judge recently ruled that LA's lottery system for vendor permits on the Venice Boardwalk was a violation of the law and issued an injunction that paved the way for a 1st Amendment "Freedom of Speech" lawsuit by those who were cited by the LAPD.

Another federal judge ruled in favor of "superheroes" who dress up and pose for tourists on Hollywood Boulevard, defending their right to perform and ask for tips as a 1st Amendment guaranteed "Freedom of Speech" issue that was violated when the LAPD cited the characters.

Critics point to the City of LA's inability to train its staff on the Brown Act, the California Public Records Act, and the 1st Amendment as evidence that the public needs to have greater authority over City Hall and its adherence to the law.

Others claim that the City's bumbling over agendas and motions is a smokescreen that prevents the public from focusing on violations of California's prohibition against the gift of public goods, a charge that comes up with increasing regularity in land use issues, or from noticing Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) powerful deterrents to public participation.

Through it all, former Los Angeles councilwoman Ruth Galanter puts things in perspective by reminding us "I used to believe in conspiracies, until I discovered incompetence."

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

CityWatchLA - If City Hall Were Run by Gardeners

CityWatch, Dec 7, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 97

If the City of Los Angeles were run by gardeners we'd have a long term plan for survival, municipal departments would learn to share, we'd spend less money getting rid of water and we'd be a lot closer to becoming America's greenest big city. As the City of LA prepares to levy a 380% plot rental fee increase on its community gardeners, it's worth taking a look at our subtle urban farming ecosystem and considering the contrast in behavior between short sighted bureaucrats and gardeners with a vision beyond the harvest.

Silver Lake Farms touts the success of their long term vision, one that results in soil that needs no digging. Companion plants, crop rotation, composting, and other long term commitments to the soil, not just the immediate harvest, are all behavior that could inspire City Hall. Imagine if LA's departments worked together, looking for efficiencies, committed to the long-term, evaluating success based on the impact to the community, not just the short-term harvest.

The Holy Nativity Church in Westchester has a garden that grows food for churchmembers and the homeless, but most importantly, it is tended cooperatively and is maintained as a teaching garden to share the skills of how to grow food. Imagine if City Hall looked for opportunities to encourage and inspire community members, not frustrate and interfere. Harsh criticism echoed by insiders who acknowledge that the weeds of bureaucracy are choking the potential harvest of public participation.

Fallen Fruit creates one of the most powerful forces on earth, community, by engaging people and introducing them to each other, all as they source and map public fruit bounties. Along the way, a neighbor with abundant lemons will met a neighbor with loads of passion fruit and a community walk culminates with a "Public Fruit Jam". Imagine if City Hall were to get beyond the "either/or" approach to the delivery of services and look for synergies.

Edible Estates took underutilized and completely unappreciated land and removed the turf, reducing the need for water and fertilizer. The host replaced his lawn with a beautiful garden that became the pride of the neighborhood, producing a bounty that exceeded the needs of his family. Imagine if City Hall looked at underutilized assets as opportunities to invest in the future, not simply as short-sighted fire sale fodder.

Urban Homesteaders embarked on a journey that was motivated by a desire for a better life. Along the way they went from making their own bread to growing their own vegetables to raising their own chickens to writing a book on living the sustainable intentional life in an urban environment. For all the talk of municipal sustainability, the Urban Homesteaders have demonstrated that the real opportunity takes place one home at a time, a lesson that should resonate in City Hall as it continues to look for high-altitude solutions to street level problems.

Backwards Beekeepers rescue bees and remind us that bees are responsible for pollinating fully one third of California's agricultural output. Misplaced bee swarms are opportunities to find a win-win solution that is good for the bees and great for the community. Imagine if City Hall responded to "buzzing" with an honest and sincere desire to find a win-win solution instead of just limiting public comment and adjourning early.

Green Streets is one of LA's best kept secrets, one that will allow us to reclaim water and divert it to bioswales and gardens that will put the water to good use, slowing it down and cleaning it before it finally makes its way to the river and the ocean.

Andy Lipkis of Tree People reckons that LA spends a billion dollars getting water and then a half billion dollars getting rid of it. The City of LA could get out of the business of battling over water if it focused on putting its water to good use, an endeavor that would start with green streets and a partnership with local community gardeners.

Sustainable Gardening is an opportunity to teach "Mow & Blow" maintenance workers a marketable skill that is environmentally responsible and economically valuable. The City of LA can pass anti-leaf blower ordinances all day long but as long as homeowners maintain "Mow & Blow" turf, nothing will change. City Hall must support green education and set its sights on training urban farmers, not just planting trees.

Victory Gardens have generated as much as 40% of America's produce during times of crisis and today's economy should serve as a motivation to revisit the benefits of community gardens. The National Gardening Association estimates that a well-maintained vegetable garden yields a $500 average return per year and a study by Burpee Seeds claims that $50 spent on gardening supplies can multiply into $1,250 worth of produce annually.

California's State Capital has a Victory Garden, the White House has a Victory Garden, but LA's City Hall has turned its back on opportunities to embrace the community gardening.

If City Hall were run by Community Gardeners, Los Angeles would take an Urban Farmers approach to Public Safety, Public Health, Public Works, and Public Education. Solutions would last longer than the terms of the officeholders and short sighted plans would find no traction.

Most importantly, Los Angeles would look beyond the immediate harvest, nurturing complementary relationships and investing in a long-term commitment to the future for the people of Los Angeles.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Friday, December 03, 2010

CityWatchLA - Gardening and Other Criminal Activity

CityWatch, Dec 3, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 96

"God almighty first planted a garden. And indeed, it is the purest of human pleasures." ~ Francis Bacon

LA's Urban Gardeners are faced with a tough choice, work small plots on City of LA property and pay a 380% rental increase or work the soil on private property and risk taking the first step toward a life of crime.

The next time you're at Starbucks and you see those bags of used coffee grounds that can be used as fertilizer, stand back. Used improperly, those grounds could end up in a private compost pile, violating an old law that prevents individuals from gathering table scraps from restaurants to be used in a private compost pile. An obscure legal relic that has been enforced in Los Angeles against a private gardener.

The next time you're in your neighborhood and you see a talented gardener teaching community members, stand back. Passing on knowledge at a residence can be construed as running a home based business with guests that exceed the limit of one per hour. Tupperware parties are acceptable but teaching people to grow food that will go into the Tupperware containers violates another obscure legal relic. It has been enforced in Los Angeles against a private gardener.

The next time you're in your front yard and you look at the parkway strip between the sidewalk and the curb and imagine how beautiful it would look with some edible landscaping, get a lawyer. A grassroots "Food and Flowers Freedom Act" campaign prompted the City of LA to recently revise its parkway rules, resulting in the approval of turf alternatives that include strawberries, as long as they don't grow taller than 2 inches. Even if your only consideration is to simply plant drought resistant plants in lieu of traditional water-hogging turf, think twice. The permit process for doing the right thing is approximately $400.

The next time you're at the Farmers Market and you look at the wide variety of flowers, nuts, fruits and vegetables and wonder where it came from, it might be your neighborhood. The students at North Hollywood High School work the soil and then work the market, learning everything from composting to investing. Silver Lake Farms sells locally grown organic cut flowers, a callback to a time when flower production in Los Angeles was a backyard enterprise that allowed women to add to their household income. Keep in mind, laws passed in the 40's and 50's that were designed to aid the development of Los Angeles made it illegal to simply grow and sell flowers. Again, garden at your own risk and always consult a lawyer.

The next time you're at the grocery store, stop and give thanks. In many parts of LA, residents live within walking distance of dozens of liquor stores but no grocery stores. The City of LA's response to the food justice crisis is to loan liquor stores a refrigerator on the condition that they stock it with lettuce and tomatoes. Another option would be to have a Master Gardener take a bag of seeds and teach a class, perhaps on one of the many empty lots that litter the landscape, and give the gift of sustainable self-sufficiency to the community. Of course, gardens are the gateway to a life of crime, hence the liquor store partnership.

LA's most recent assault on Community Gardens is just the latest in a long list of municipal obstacles that prevent the people most in need from living sustainable lives of self sufficiency. It comes at a time when the City of LA should be doing the exact opposite, committing to more community gardens, supporting the urban farmers and rewarding them for their contribution, not gouging them with a 380% increase in rental fees.

Locally grown flowers, nuts, fruits and vegetables stimulate the local economy. That alone should end the debate and get the Mayor into a pair of overalls.

Local produce makes it to market without huge shipping and trucking costs, resulting in fresher food that is cheaper. The food in our markets typically travels more than the average Angeleno, a trend that comes with tremendous negative environmental impact. Locally produced food is an essential component of a sustainable big city.

Local "Distributed Agriculture" allows more people tending smaller plots to increase the variety of food within the community while breaking our dependency on large industrial agriculture which has proven its capacity for catastrophic collapse. The "Black Swans" of agriculture have resulted in Bee Colony Collapse Disorder, poultry recalls, e-coli deaths, and large scale Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) disasters that threaten the stability of our precariously balanced agricultural network.

The City of Los Angeles has an obligation to do the right thing for the people of LA and that means getting behind groups such as the Environmental Change-Makers and Liberty Hill as they address long-term solutions that will turn LA's food deserts into food oases. Most of all, it means treating LA's Community Gardeners and Urban Farmers like heroes, not like criminals.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

CityWatchLA - The Politics of Community Gardens

CityWatch, Nov 30, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 95

Cities in crisis tend to look at community gardens as a solution, an opportunity to feed those in need, particularly low-income and traditionally underrepresented families. In addition to improving nutrition by increasing access to fresh produce, community gardens have a positive economic, social, and educational impact on the neighborhood, resulting in stronger communities and a cleaner, greener city. But not in Los Angeles.

The City of Los Angeles tends to look at the seven community gardens operated by the Department of Rec and Parks as liabilities, prompting its shortsighted proposal to increase user fees that will take the rental of a 10-by-20-foot plot from $25 to $120 as of January 1, 2011.

The Sepulveda Garden Center in Encino is one of the largest community gardens operated on City of LA property with approximately 800 garden plots on 20 acres of land. Garden farmers recently turned out in mass to protest the rate hikes, arguing that the impact on the seniors citizens "is like trying to squeeze blood from a turnip."

The Wattles Farm in Hollywood is one of the oldest community gardens operated on City of LA property with approximately 300 garden plots on just over 4 acres of land. Farmers point out that in addition to maintaining over 200 varieties of fruit trees and a 100-year-old grove of avocado trees, they have improved public safety, bringing security to a neighborhood that was prone to vandalism and trespassing.

The 75 community gardens in the greater Los Angeles area vary dramatically in style, in purpose, and in impact on the surrounding neighborhood. "Guerrilla Gardens" sprout on orphaned public land, created anonymously by guerrilla gardeners who clean the area, cultivate the soil, plant low-maintenance ground cover and engage neighbors in an effort to create community.

"Educational Gardens" on school property are practical tools that engage students in real world lessons that range from science to sociology to economics to nutrition to administration. 200 students at North Hollywood High School work year-round on seven acres of urban farm, home to the Cocoxochitl Flower Farm, a vineyard, an orchard, rose gardens, chickens, rabbits, one 300 pound pig and over 5,000 dahlias. The students sell their harvest at the nearby Hollywood Farmer's Market.

"Public Safety Gardens" reclaim abandoned lots and bring the community together with a common purpose that results in a safer neighborhood. Property values go up when the chain link fencing comes down.

"Social Gardens" offer people of different walks and skills the opportunity to share in a common goal, resulting in a pollination of cultures and the establishment of relationships that transcend traditional boundaries. Good for the garden, great for the neighborhood.

"Victory Gardens" offer low-income neighborhoods an opportunity to put healthy food on the table during tough economic times in the same tradition as during WWII when America produced 40% of its produce in back yard gardens. A minimal investment in community gardens has a maximum economic impact on the community and contributes to self-reliance.

Community Gardens occur in neighborhoods throughout LA County, some rich, some poor, some edible, some decorative, some public, some private, some meditative, some celebrative. They vary as much as the people that farm them. The one thing they have in common is that they are dirt cheap do-it-yourself solutions that enrich the lives of everybody and require only minimal support from the city.

Community Gardens are the type of land-use phenomenon that the City of Los Angeles should be promoting, not discouraging. Any minimal financial benefit to be realized by increasing the community garden fees pales in comparison to the benefits that a community garden brings to the neighborhood and to the city.

The City of LA's current assault on community gardening is just the latest in a long series of shortsighted budget solutions that consist of increasing the cost of living in Los Angeles while simultaneously reducing the benefits.

Now is the time to support the people of Los Angeles as they reclaim land, grow food, educate youth, connect people, and encourage healthy lifestyles. The City of LA's "penny wise, dollar foolish" behavior must stop and its long term investment in the people of LA must start with the gardens that feed those with the greatest need.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Friday, November 19, 2010

CityWatchLA - When Politicians Die They Get Buildings Named After Them-- When Kids Die …

CityWatch, Nov 19, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 92

The City of Los Angeles honors civic leaders and local heroes by naming buildings in their honor, but crosswalks are reserved for the children who die trying to cross the street. This is hardly the mark of a Great City.

Marvin Braude served the City of Los Angeles as a City Councilman for thirty-two years, a significant contribution that was memorialized with the Marvin Braude Bike Trail, the Marvin Braude Mulholland Gateway Park and the Marvin Braude Constituent Service Center. John Ferraro served the City of Los Angeles for five decades and his thirty-five year tenure as a City Councilman is the longest of any member. His contribution to the City of Los Angeles was memorialized when the landmark Department of Water and Power's General Office Building was renamed the John Ferraro Building.

Demariya Grant was a nine-year-old who simply wanted to cross the street but was struck and killed by a hit-and-run motorist, prompting the City of Los Angeles to memorialize the incident with the "Demariya Grant Memorial Crosswalk" on Rodeo Road between Rodeo Lane and Farmdale Avenue near Dorsey High School.

Jason Quarker was struck and killed while crossing Jefferson on his way to the 6th Avenue Elementary School, prompting the City of Los Angeles to memorialize his sacrifice with the "Jason Quarker Memorial Crosswalk" at 6th and Jefferson.

Two weeks ago, Emely Aleman, 12, and Angela Rodriguez, 10, were struck by a motorist as they attempted to cross Laurel Canyon Boulevard, a tragedy that resulted in the death of Emely and critical injuries to Angela. The City of Los Angeles will memorialize the incident with the "expedited installation of a traffic signal" that was originally scheduled for 2012.

The City acknowledges municipal liability for the streets of Los Angeles if it knows of the dangerous conditions and does nothing to mitigate them. For example, the City Attorney pays out on vehicle damages caused by potholes if the claimant shows that the city had knowledge of the pothole and failed to act in a timely manner.

The "prior knowledge" and "timely manner" conditions would seem to apply comprehensively to the streets of Los Angeles citywide. It's no secret that the streets of Los Angeles are filled with fast and dangerous traffic, a simple fact that is supported by traffic statistics. The LAPD loses more police officers in vehicle crashes than to gunshots, yet the LAPD still wear bullet-proof vests instead of helmets.

Emely and Angela attempted to cross Laurel Canyon Boulevard at an intersection that has a long legacy as a dangerous location. Pedestrians have been struck three times this year and a cyclist was killed last year by a hit-and-run motorist, all at Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Archwood Street.

Speed limits that can't be enforced, streets that can't be crossed, and traffic signal improvements that are prioritized based on deaths are all symptoms of a systemic failure to prioritize public safety.

As the NoHo community petitions City Hall for help in managing the traffic in their neighborhood, the LA Department of Transportation drifts without a General Manager. Two Assistant General Managers grapple with five divisions that operate with silo independence, resulting in budget overruns, performance failures, and anticipated funding forfeitures.

LA's Department of Transportation has been taken to task for removing crosswalks in an attempt to reduce motorist/pedestrian conflict, a strategy that has been mocked as the equivalent of reducing forest fires by chopping down the trees. Critics claim that the LADOT's antiquated traffic strategies fail at every level and that the "bigger, wider, faster" strategy for moving motor vehicles has not only failed to relieve congestion but has also resulted in local neighborhood streets under siege.

It's time for the City of Los Angeles to honor civic leaders who champion public safety by confronting the dangerous conditions on the streets of Los Angeles.

It's time for the City of Los Angeles to honor the lost lives of the children who die on the streets by making it a priority to control the traffic that terrorizes our communities.

When the Mayor gets done with the press conferences celebrating LAPD Chief Charlie Beck's 1st anniversary as LA's top cop, it is imperative that he focus on the real opportunity to make Los Angeles a safer city, one where children can safely walk to school and then return home at night to their families. That is the mark of a Great City.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

CityWatchLA - The Politics of Speed

Emely Aleman, 12, and Angela Rodriguez, 10, were struck by a motorist as they attempted to cross Laurel Canyon Boulevard, a tragedy that resulted in the death of Emely and critical injuries to Angela.

The community immediately responded with outrage, calling the intersection of Laurel Canyon and Archwood a dangerous location with a long legacy of traffic collisions that include three other incidents this year where pedestrians attempting to cross the street were hit by motorists.

Community members immediately circulated a petition and demanded that the City of Los Angeles install a traffic signal. Councilman Paul Krekorian promptly responded and indicated that he will be working with LAUSD Boardmember Tamar Galatzan to expedite the installation process.

The rush to solve the problem of dangerous traffic on Laurel Canyon has resulted in a solution that fails to scratch the surface and, in fact, fails to correctly identify the underlying problems.

The local community is to be commended for taking responsibility for public safety but it is incumbent on the City of Los Angeles to support the community with the full spectrum of professional traffic safety and transportation engineering solutions, complemented by a vigorous funding campaign.

The speed limit on Laurel Canyon is completely unenforceable by the LAPD who use radar and laser for speed limit enforcement but are restricted from streets that have expired speed limit surveys. Laurel Canyon, from Ventura Boulevard to Hubbard Street, is 10 miles of open speedway, and motorists have been uncitable since October 21, 2009.

Traffic calming techniques such as a road diets, bulbouts, raised median strips, safety refuge islands, speed tables, and other traffic calming techniques would both increase capacity and throughput while managing speed and enhancing safety for all modes.

Yet, these strategies were never introduced into the conversation nor was the local community engaged in the process of embracing solutions that would impact the entire boulevard.

The Highway Safety Improvement Project (HSIP) funding program has $72 million available to communities such as NoHo, specifically to fund projects that will improve safety on the streets of local neighborhoods. The City of LA has proposed a list of 33 projects for the current funding cycle, the bulk of which are signal phasing projects and traffic signal installations.

The HSIP funding program is competitive and Los Angeles is up against other communities within the LA and Ventura County areas. LA's signal phasing and traffic lights will be competing against innovations such as in-pavement crosswalk illumination, road diets, traffic calming, speed feedback signs, traffic circles, mini-roundabouts, and pedestrian prioritized signal phasing. LA will probably fall back on its "fair share" claim to funding when the competition gets tough.

HSIP proposals must be made by municipal authorities such as the City of Los Angeles and the competition is tough. Many of the surrounding communities have proposed projects that come with robust community support. Neighborhood Councils, Homeowners Associations and Community Organizations could be proposing their own safety projects and partnering with the Bureau of Streets Services or their Council Office.

HSIP proposals don't need to be complicated or full of engineering complexities, but can be as simple as an overview of the current environment (sketchs or photographs), collision data which is available from the LAPD, a brief description of the concept or proposal and a pricetag of up to $900,000. The deadline for HSIP proposals is December 9, 2010.

The "rush to judgment" and the knee-jerk proposal to install a traffic signal on Laurel Canyon Boulevard is unfortunate for many reasons including the simple fact that signals can inadvertently cause greater speed differentials, with motorists speeding up to catch greens and then stopping rapidly when they miss them. This diminishes safety.

Moderate and consistent speeds are optimum for capacity, throughput, and safety for all road users. Traffic signals create a false sense of control and demonstrate an adherence to an antiquated paradigm of traffic control that has demonstratedly failed the people of Los Angeles.

Now is the time for LA to connect with robust transportation funding sources, with innovative traffic safety solutions, and with each other by working together to develop streets that are safe for everybody, regardless of the mode of travel.

For more information on the HSIP program and how your community can participate in developing and funding projects that will make the streets of Los Angeles safer, contact Dale Benson.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

CityWatchLA - The Politics of Liability

CityWatch, Nov 12, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 90

Community members working to improve the quality of life in their neighborhoods encounter many obstacles but none is as insurmountable as City Hall’s arbitrarily imposed threat of municipal liability.

City Council recently convened a joint meeting of the Rules & Elections Committee and the Energy & Environment Committee, opening itself up to concerns over a potential Brown Act violation which was handily sidestepped by issuing a public notice declaring the event a Special Meeting of the City Council. Liability? Protests were summarily dismissed. The single topic meeting addressed several topics including Charter Reform, Citizen Commissions, Representative Government, LADWP Oversight, LADWP Reform and Governance, LADWP Board composition, the creation of the LADWP Inspector General / Ratepayer Advocate position, and a budget to support the Office of Public Accountability.

Current City Council actions related to the upcoming DWP Reform Ballot Measure include stripping the original proposal of its budget commitment and any obligations to perform. The neutering of the Ballot Measure was justified with the explanation that “The City of Los Angeles might get sued! If a promise is made then the city is liable for its performance.”

When City Hall is committed to acting, liability is rarely a concern and legal standards are apparently negotiable.

But when City Hall wants to say “No!” but without the bitter aftertaste, they say yes and smile affirmatively then invoke the well-rehearsed “We’d love to help but concerns over liability prevent us from moving forward.”

When newspaper racks appear overnight and block access to the sidewalk or other street furniture, the public is told that to restrict the distribution of newspapers is to violate the 1st Amendment, opening the City of Los Angeles up to liability.

Community members advocating for traffic calming measures such as roundabouts, bulbouts, and refuge islands, are told that such innovations could confuse motorists, opening the City of Los Angeles up to liability.

Cyclists advocating for the Cyclists’ Bill of Rights experienced rejection, hearing from the LADOT that references to the 1st and 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution “fall under the federal purview” and that interfering with the federal government opens the City of Los Angeles up to liability.

Liability is no longer a legal standard in LA, it is simply a tool for imposing insurmountable obstacles on the public while liberating City Hall of a reciprocal commitment to performance.

Los Angeles will be well on its way to becoming a Great City when liability is no longer a political tool but an element of accountability that is used objectively and fairly to ensure the equitable and fair delivery of City Services to the people of Los Angeles.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Death Déjà Vu on Pacific Coast Highway

CityWatch, Nov 12, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 90

The City of Los Angeles is preparing to engage in a construction project on Pacific Coast Highway that has cyclists up in arms, claiming that the intermittent lane closure, K-rail placement, and prohibition on cyclists is a violation of the law and a demonstration of poor planning. The project in question is the Bureau of Engineering "Coastal Interseptor Relief Sewer" that runs from Will Rogers State Beach to the City of Santa Monica Border.

Cyclists claim that the proposed traffic mitigation plan violates the law by banning cyclists from PCH and is reminiscent of the Caltrans permitted construction site of five years ago that was the site of the tragic deaths of two cyclists.

At 10 am on October 31, 2005, Scott Bleifer, 41 and Stanislav Ionov, 46 were riding north in the shoulder of PCH when they encountered K-rail that blocked the shoulder, forcing them into the adjacent travel lane at a high speed.

They were then hit from behind and killed by the driver of a catering truck who ran over them and then continued without stopping until farther down the road.

The driver was charged with two counts of felony vehicular manslaughter and two counts of felony hit-and-run in their deaths. He told investigators that he didn't see the cyclists until it was too late to stop.

The flyer that the City released last week details a traffic mitigation plan that includes banning cyclists from PCH at Will Rogers State Beach, requiring them to exit through a construction site in the parking lot and then ride to Santa Monica before returning to PCH.

Cyclists have engaged in animated discussions with both the Pacific Coast Highway Task Force and at the Caltrans Bicycle Advisory Committee, protesting the permitting process of Caltrans and the traffic mitigation plans of the City of LA.

PCH has a long legacy as a congested and conflicted route, not just for cyclists but for pedestrians and for motorists.

In 2008 Caltrans created "Encroachment Permit Protocols" to address this conflict but detractors claim that it demonstrates a motor vehicular bias and fails to support the needs of pedestrians, mass transit passengers and cyclists on PCH.

On a per-mile basis, the fatal crash rate for motorists on the two-mile stretch of PCH running through West Los Angeles is considerably higher than on the twenty-one miles of PCH that runs through Malibu.

If the City of Los Angeles is serious about safety on the streets of LA, it will seize this opportunity and work with the community to make PCH safer for all road users.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

CityWatchLA - LANCC defends DWP Reform funding

CityWatch, Nov 9, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 89

The Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition (LANCC) entered the DWP Reform fray, voting unanimously to condemn last week's revision to the City Council’s proposed ballot measure, calling anything short of a fixed funding commitment "a poison pill" that will ensure failure.

At issue are the City Council’s parry-reposte moves that both advance a plan for governance and oversight of LA’s Department of Water and Power while pulling the funding rug out from underneath the yet-unformed Office of Public Accountability.

The Perry/Parks motion of last week would "delete the provision that requires the Office of Public Accountability (OPA) to be set at a minimum or one-tenth-of-one-percent of annual LADWP revenues, and instead require the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), in consultation with the LADWP and other departments necessary, to prepare the budget for the OPA...submitting it to the City Council for approval."

Chuck Ray, Vice-Chair of the Neighborhood Councils DWP Oversight Committee and a member of the DWP’s Ratepayer Advocate Advisory Panel, says "the last minute motion removes the fixed amount of funding...and substitutes the judgment of the CAO, a political appointee. Structured this way, the City Council is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory." Ray pointed out that the budget debate comes down to Independent Oversight vs. Political Oversight.

The LADWP is the largest municipal utility in the United States but it operates without the independent oversight that is common in both the public and private sector. Typically, utilities answer to agencies and regulatory powers that vary in structure but include stakeholders, stockholders, bondholders, ratepayers, and a variety of commissions, boards, committees, and authorities.

Critics contend that the LADWP and its politically appointed Commission operate independently and without oversight, resulting in a consolidation of power that works to advance the interests of the DWP at the expense of the ratepayers in the City of LA.

Efforts to advance LADWP governance and oversight have wide support from both the neighborhood council advocates and city hall insiders.

Jack Humphreville, President of the DWP Advocacy Committee and the Ratepayer Advocate for the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, has long advocated for "a well funded, empowered and truly independent RPA to oversee the operations, finances, and management of DWP on a timely and continuous basis."

Councilman Greig Smith called for an "Inspector General position to independently review and report on the operations, administrative and management actions of the Department of Water."

Council President Eric Garcetti joined in the call for DWP oversight and noted that the City of LA has spent over $1.5 million on consultants in the last year, simply investigating, researching and advising the City Council on specific LADWP issues, but with no comprehensive oversight role.

DWP Interim General Manager Austin Beutner acknowledges the need for oversight but says a Charter Amendment is unnecessary, arguing that "a rate informer, office of public accountability or whatever the vernacular used could actually be formed by actions of the department, together with this council."

City Council is wrapping a year-long discussion of LADWP reform, including Councilwoman Jan Perry's latest motion giving budget authority to the CAO, and moving forward with putting the creation of an Office of Public Accountability on the March 2011 ballot.

Concurrently, a City Hall discussion is taking place on the structure of the LADWP, including opportunities for the public to participate in the governance and oversight of the LADWP Commission and the General Manager.

Meanwhile, over on Hope Street, the LADWP General Manager and Commission are engaged in the development of a non-profit corporation that will operate under contract with the City of Los Angeles, offering oversight and governance, with a Board of Directors that has three business seats, three neighborhood council seats, one labor seat, one non-profit seat, and one environmental seat.

Humphreville compares the two independent RPA proposals by saying "There's no comparison. Anything short of a Charter Amendment with guaranteed funding levels for the RPA's office is a false start with built-in vulnerability."

The next step for the City Council sponsored Charter Amendment is the fine-tuning of the current document in a race to the November 17th deadline, at which point the pro and con arguments will be written.

The next step for the City Council sponsored revisions to the LADWP Commission structure is a vote at the Monday 8th joint meeting of the Rules & Elections committee and the Energy & Environment committee, then on to the City Council for a final recommendation. (the committee meeting may qualify as a full City Council meeting if enough members show up)

The next step for the LADWP sponsored "Corporation for the Office of the Ratepayers Advocate" is a presentation of the proposed by-laws, the model contract, and the names of the proposed directors at the December 7th meeting of the LADWP Commission.

The current board nominees are: Stuart Waldman and Carol Shatz - business seats, Kirsten Eberhard - environmental seat, Jack Humphreville, Chuck Ray, and Tony Wilkinson - neighborhood council seats. There are no current nominees for the open business, labor and non-profit seats.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Monday, November 08, 2010

We ARE Traffic!

Driver of 207 orange bus takes a break
in right turning lane to the 101 Fwy,
while traffic is backed up
for an entire block behind it. 
When Metro Bus Operators drive their buses on the busy streets of LA, they are governed by the same CVC rules as other road users plus some additional Metro policies plus the higher standards that come with holding a professional operator's license...EXCEPT when it's break time!

This bus operator stopped in a Hollywood Blvd. red-curbed travel lane on the approach to the 101 Freeway at 5 pm, stacking up right turning traffic for an entire block, all in order to pick up sustenance and nutrition at a 7-11 market.

"We ARE Traffic!"

One would think that the operator of the passing Rapid Bus would find the "break-time" conflict inconvenient. But the popularity of this Hollywood Blvd. break spot demonstrates that the "See Nothing, Say Nothing" code is still in effect.

Equally disturbing is the fact that this happens with such impunity. Does the LAPD have a "See Nothing, Cite Nothing" code in effect?

Most disturbing is the fact that Metro bus operators fend for themselves when it comes time to using the "facilities" or taking a lunch break. (DASH operators have it even worse, taking their breaks on the sidewalk of Hollywood Blvd. or in the back of an idling car.) If the mass transit authorities have no respect for their staff, it's small wonder that they have no respect for the public.

Perhaps its time to set aside the "We are traffic!" banner and remind Metro "We are People!" This applies to bus operators, cyclists, transit passengers, motorists, pedestrians and police officers.

That's when the quality of life on the streets of LA will improve for everybody.

Friday, November 05, 2010

CityWatchLA - Hire Local or Shop for an Import?

CityWatch, Nov 5, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 88

LA's Department of Transportation has been on auto-pilot since Rita Robinson resigned as General Manager, leaving in her wake two Assistant Managers who are both contenders for the open GM position.

City Hall is faced with three options as it prepares to deal with LADOT; hire from within and avoid the time and expense of a national search while pursuing familiarity, hire from the outside and go after a transportation "Rock Star" with a demonstrated track record for innovation, or seize the opportunity to pursue efficiency and fold the LADOT into other city departments.

The murmuring from City Hall reveals a bias in favor of the "inside job" approach to the GM search, focusing on the two LADOT Assistant Managers, one in charge of Operations and the other in charge of Parking.

John Fisher of Transportation Operations is a nationally recognized transportation engineer who began his career with the City of LA six years before the creation of LA's Department of Transportation. He is known as "the historian" and authored “Transportation Topics and Tales: Milestones in Transportation History in Southern California." (pdf link)

Amir Sedadi of Parking Management is a veteran of both Los Angeles and Pasadena parking operations and is the heir apparent, having spent significant time at Robinson's side as she visited the Transportation Commission, the Transportation Committee, and the City Council.

Both Fisher and Sedadi are veterans of LADOT controversy, leading some to favor a national search that would target people such as Janette Sadik-Khan of New York, Tim Papandreou of San Francisco, and Gil Peñalosa, of Bogotá, Colombia.

As the LADOT hot-seat sits empty, one thing is certain; the decision over whether to go with the sure thing, gamble on a long-shot, or simply fold 'em must be made with the input and participation of the community or the road rage will move from the streets of LA to City Hall. Again!

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Cyclists' Bill of Rights - Good News and Bad News

Friday, November the 5th, is a classic "Good News, Bad News" for cyclists.

It's Good News for cyclists who want the City Council to issue a resolution in support of the Cyclists' Bill of Rights along with a resolution establishing a Complete Streets policy for transportation projects.

The Cyclists' Bill of Rights was written by the Bike Writers Collective and it has gone around the world, sometimes imitated and often endorsed! It was featured in the Wall Street Journal and the London Telegraph, it was endorsed by LA's City Council, it was modified and adopted by LA's Equestrian Advisory Committee, LA's Horse Council, a local Harley Owners' Group, cyclists in Florida, and by a group of activists in the Philipines.

LA's Taxi Cab Riders have a Bill of Rights, Taxpayers have a Bill of Rights, Patients have a Bill of Rights, the Police have a Bill of Rights, Transit riders have a Bill of Rights, and cyclists are now one step closer to getting the City Council to issue a resolution in support of the Cyclists' Bill of Rights.

The Complete Streets policy initiative is a national, state, and local campaign that brings transportation planners and engineers together in the design, consruction and operation of streets that meet the needs of all users, including cyclists, pedestrians, transit passengers and motorists. The Complete Streets concept has a positive impact on the local economy, on public safety, and on the livability of local streets.

At the federal level, advocates are encouraged that funding and infrastructure discussions are now embracing the Complete Streets philosophy. At the state level, legislation is slowly moving into place that codifies the Complete Streets standard. But at the local level, Mayors and City Councils are capitalizing on the revitalizing power of Complete Streets policies, moving with great agility and agility to bring the vision to local streets.

November 5, 2010 is a Great Day for cyclists because the Cyclists' Bill of Rights and Complete Streets are both on the City Council agenda for endorsement by Resolution.

But it's Bad News for LA's cyclists because it's the City Council in Baltimore, not City Council in Los Angeles, that is holding up the Cyclists' Bill of Rights and Complete Streets as a commitment to supporting cycling as a transportation solution on city streets.

In Los Angeles, we have a City Council directive from 2008 that called on City Planning, the LADOT, Public Works, the LA Bicycle Advisory Committee to consult with the LAPD and the City Attorney on the inclusion of the CBR principles “into the City of Los Angeles Bicycle Master Plan and other relevant documents and practices.” That didn’t happen but it must.

In Los Angeles, we have a Bicycle Plan working its way through the Planning Commission and City Council, acknowledging the January 1, 2001 implementation of the California Complete Streets Act but arguing that Los Angeles is not legally required to consider the needs of all modes. LA must account for the needs of all roadway users, not look for loopholes.

It's Good News for cyclists because the Cyclists' Bill of Rights and Complete Streets are both gaining traction. It's Bad News for cyclists in Los Angeles because City Hall is looking for the legal minimum on the delivery of city services and on the support of cyclists on the streets of LA.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

City Planning Embellishes Reality

LA's Department of City Planning is filled with some of the most creative people in town, folks who regularly turn out innovative and imaginative work that entertains, inspires, and stirs passion.

Unfortunately, the work falls under the category of "fiction" because of its limited connection to reality. I offer as an example the Planning Department's staff report on the City of LA's proposed Bike Plan.

City Planning staff reports are like movie trailers, they offer a quick preview of the upcoming proposal so that the Commission can make an educated recommendation in advance of the actual "screening." Seasoned film audiences know that there are three types of trailers;

Teasers that offer a glimpse of what can be expected.

Spoilers that offer up the entire plot and leave nothing to be discovered.

Impostors that offer up an entertaining journey that bears no resemblance to the actual film.

City Planning's Bike Plan staff report falls into the Impostor category, offering the Planning Commission an entertaining and inspiring experience that bears no connection to reality.

1663 miles of Bikeways - the cameo: Planning Staff promise 1663 miles of Bikeways, a claim that includes Bike Paths, Bike Lanes, and Bike Routes. Bike Paths are very expensive off-road facilities that cost more per mile than what the Bureau of Street Services spends to resurface a mile of our streets. Bike Routes are the streets that get a little green sign that says "Bike Route" indicating that the Bikeway mileage has been pumped up. Bike Lanes get a commitment of 56 miles and an additional "speculative" 511 miles which indicates they will end up on the editor's floor. This Bike Plan relies on a cameo appearance by recognizable talent, and then surrounds it with 1663 miles of language that lacks substance and commitment.

Bicycle Boulevards - the knock-off: Planning Staff acknowledges that the public clamors for "innovative bicycle treatments" including Bicycle Boulevards. They are low-density local routes that give priority to cyclists by discouraging cut-through motor vehicle traffic, prioritizing right-of-way, and providing traffic control that supports cyclists at the arterial crossings. Rather than actually include Bicycle Boulevards in the proposed Bike Plan, City Planning offers up "Bike Friendly Streets" as a knock-off substitute, the equivalent of featuring "the other, other Baldwin brother" in Slap Shot IV.

Cyclists' Bill of Rights - the inspiration: Planning Staff acknowledge that the City Council directed the LADOT, Planning, Public Works, the LA Bicycle Advisory Committee, the City Attorney and the LAPD to report back on the Cyclists' Bill of Rights. This City Council directive was ignored. Instead Planning Staff dismisses some principles as redundant while claiming that others are included. This is true in the same sense that the works of Shakespeare are also in the Bike Plan, after all he used the same alphabet and if properly rearranged, one could find A Comedy of Errors.

Backbone Bikeway Network - the theme: Planning Staff acknowledge the work of the LA Bike Working Group in creating the Backbone Bikeway Network which is positioned as a commitment to connectivity. Rather than embrace this theme and use it to connect the City Family in the delivery of City Services, Planning Staff dilutes the Backbone and fails to support cyclists as they commute on the streets to the same destinations as pedestrians, mass transit passengers, and motorists. Instead, it proposes bike tunnels, bike trails, and other last-resort solutions that divide communities rather than connect them.

Complete Streets Act - the surprise ending: Planning Staff acknowledge the powerful cultural shift that has resulted in innovative multi-modal transportation funding and policy. This includes the Complete Streets Act which supports the rights of all those who use the streets, from pedestrians to cyclists to mass transit passengers to motorists. It's only in the small print of the staff report that City Planning reveals its claim of an exemption from the Complete Streets Act. Is there something wrong with the Complete Streets Act? Does City Planning find fault with the complete Streets Act?

The Department of City Planning's Bike Plan Staffing Report is a good read. It's interesting, it's informative, and it's a complete work of fiction.

In the grand scheme of things, LA's proposed Bike Plan is the equivalent of bad script turned into a bad film, supported by a great trailer that merely needs to get an opening night audience in order to recoup its investment. Then, it goes straight into the bargain bin at the 99¢ Store.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

CityWatchLA - The Politics of Asphalt

CityWatch, Nov 2, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 87

Those who encounter a pothole on the streets of Los Angeles are advised to call 311 and to report the pothole, as if the location of the pothole is critical information that will assist the City of LA in the delivery of City Services. Nothing could be further from the truth. The City of Los Angeles is well aware of the condition of the 6,500 centerline miles of streets and 800 centerline miles of alleys that make up the largest municipal street system in the nation.

The Bureau of Street Services (BOSS) employs sophisticated data collection to inventory all 69,000 pavement sections in its database. An automated vehicle equipped with a computerized work station collects digital imagery and uses lasers to capture roadway roughness and rutting data. This "pavement distress data" is used to prioritize the different layers of service, from emergency repairs to slurry seals to maintenance overlays to resurfacing to reconstruction.

Then the politicians take over, the asphalt is divided into 15 lots and allocated evenly to the council districts where local gatekeepers release it to his or her constituents, based on those 311 calls. "Thanks for voting! Your pothole is a winner!"

Pothole Politicians have cemented their careers based on their ability to fend off the scourge of the streets, bringing to power Wendy Greuel as the Pothole Queen, Councilmembers Garcetti and Krekorian as the high-tech 311 iPhone App pothole hunters, and the Mayor with his "Operation Pothole" and "Operation Smooth Ride" campaigns.

Through it all, Los Angeles has managed to avoid actually improving its streets and still leads the nation in deteriorated road conditions. Research  estimates that fully 64% of LA's streets are in poor condition, causing LA residents to pay an average of $746 per vehicle in repairs per year as the result of damages from potholes and road debris.

Meanwhile, the City Attorney pays out on claims  to those who can prove that road conditions caused the damages and/or injuries, but only if the victim can prove that the City knew of the road condition and failed to fix it in a timely manner. This is an odd threshold to overcome in light of the fact that LA's potholes have history, they have relationships, and they are as much a part of the community as many of the other landmarks.

Consider the pothole that resides at 4th and Hudson in Council District 4. The area is referred to as the Hudson River (Video) in recognition of the perpetually flooded intersection and the algae covered liability that has caused damages and injuries for years with no relief or remedy from the City of LA.

The Hudson River is caused by an underwater stream that floods the basement of a home on Hudson Avenue. The property owner pumps the water out of the basement and into the street, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

The water on Hudson Avenue runs south and pools in a large pothole at the intersection of 4th and Hudson where it brazenly collects victims with not a hint of interference from the City of LA. BOSS staff come and visit, LADOT staff survey the route, supervisors retire, the locals train new city staff, heads are collectively scratched, solutions are proposed, more staff retires, and the years go by.

The tremendous irony to the amazing fortitude of the Hudson River is the fact that 4th Street has long been a claimed by cycling advocates as an optimal location for a demonstration of the Bicycle Boulevard concept, a shared roadway optimized for bicycle traffic.

Bicycle Boulevards are low-density local routes such as 4th street that give priority to cyclists by discouraging cut-through motor vehicle traffic, providing free-flow travel by prioritizing right-of-way, and providing traffic control that supports cyclists at the arterial crossings. Traffic calming techniques are used to inhibit non-local motor vehicle traffic and include roundabouts, chicanes, chokers and diverters.

Advocates have organized bike tours to engage the community and drum up support for the 4th Street Boulevard, a project that has seen three of its advocates go down in the Hudson river. They typically slip on the algae in the submerged pothole, resulting in one shattered elbow, one fractured elbow and one bruised elbow. Still they ride!

Perhaps City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, who is responsible for handling the claims against the city for damages and injuries sustained as the result of poor road conditions, could pick up the phone and dial 311, calling in the pothole at the corner of 4th and Hudson.

Maybe the LAPD Officers who ride escort on the 4th Street Bicycle Boulevard Rides could pick up the phone and call 311, reporting the pothole at the corner of 4th and Hudson.

Surely the LADOT staffmembers who surveyed 4th Street time after time, all in an effort to feign commitment to the 4th Street Bicycle Boulevard (that's the one that failed to make it into the proposed Bike Plan) could at least pick up the phone and dial 311, voting for the pothole at the corner of 4th and Hudson.

If nothing else, the Building and Safety staff who periodically investigate the mystery of the water that appears on Hudson Avenue, rain or shine, could call their buddies at BOSS, tipping them to the pothole at the corner of 4th and Hudson.

While it's fair to suggest that repairing the streets of Los Angeles is a costly proposition, not repairing them can be even costlier. It's estimated that road conditions are a factor in 60% of traffic collisions, typically complementing or causing a failure in human behavior.

Calculate the cost of LAPD's Traffic Officers and the LAFD's Ambulances, and the budgetary impact of deferred street maintenance starts to appear. The cost of kicking the problem down the road is much greater than the cost of investing in LA's streets now.

A Great Streets commitment requires funding but the City of LA lacks the commitment to aggressively pursue the funds, falling short on applications and then failing to spend the money when it qualifies.

LA is currently in danger of losing funds that have already been awarded, $1.5 million in Safe Routes to School funding, $2.5 million in Highway Safety Improvement funding, and $10 million in Federal Surface Transportation Project funding.

For all of the talk from those who have been in charge for years, the Hudson River and the 4th Street Bicycle Boulevard remain the canaries in the mine, the indicator species that reveal LA's failure to perform and the flaws in the system.

Our streets are failing and asphalt is still dispensed as a political favor by those who lack a vision for connectivity and a commitment to a city that works.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Breakin' the law and proud of it!

One would think that those about to break the law would be discrete about it, but when law enforcement and municipal authorities get busy abusing rules and violating rights, some of them do it with bravado and confidence, announcing their actions with confidence.

The City of Los Angeles recently released a flyer and an accompanying email that informs the public "No bicyclists allowed within the construction zone along PCH" which violates the California Vehicle Code and the Caltrans standard for access and accommodation. It is incumbent on the City of LA to provide for all modes and taking one group off the street is not a solution, no matter how well-intentioned. It demonstrates that those in charge are either cavalier or uninformed. Either way, it's not only illegal, it's unsafe and the variable K-Rail traffic plan is a tragedy waiting to happen.

The City of Malibu takes a different approach to breaking the law, allowing the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (LASD), which is responsible for PCH through the City of Malibu, to enforce laws that don't exist. In response to a complaint that cyclists were not riding single file (not required to, no such law) the LASD incorrectly advised the City Manager that riding side-by-side was illegal. In response to a complaint that cyclists weren't riding on the shoulder (not required to, no such law) the LASD incorrectly advised the City Manager that cyclists are required to use the shoulder when one exists. This novel approach to law enforcement has further exacerbated an already tense environment by adding confusion and misinformation to the mix.

The City of Santa Monica has a unique style for breaking the law, taking valid laws and then cranking them up to the point of absurdity. Santa Monica, as permitted by state law, cites cyclists for not having bike licenses. But then Santa Monica goes on to exceed their authority by requiring anyone riding through the city to obtain a permit (state law limits bike license requirements to residents) and then applies a penalty that exceeds the state mandated $10 maximum with a threat of six months in jail and/or up to $1,000 in fines.

The City of Thousand Oaks finds California Vehicle Code very confusing and gets highways and roadways mixed up, applying both inappropriate and fictional standards to cyclists who ride bikes "the wrong way" on sidewalks, explaining that cyclists must ride to the right of vehicular traffic traveling in the same direction. (sidewalks are non-directional) The penalty for this offense is $180.

The City of Los Altos Hills is one of the proudest offenders, they actually took paint to the street and wrote "No Bikes" in very large letters on El Monte Road, a popular cycling route. To their credit, Los Altos Hills quickly reversed their ways and removed all the offending paint, disappointing the cyclist who pointed out that simply removing the "NO" would leave a nice affirmative on the streets.

The City of Pasadena chose the public hearing process as the venue of choice for their assault on the law, scheduling not one but two readings of their proposed restriction on cyclists, all as a result of congestion and conflict at the Rose Bowl. Invoking the non-existent rights of a municipality to restrict cyclists from riding side-by-side, the City Council twice weathered the storm of public outrage that ran into the late night hours before conceding defeat.

The City of Burbank adds a stern touch to the Chandler Bikeway with their "Walk Bike" signage at crossings, enforcing a non-existent law with white rectangular regulatory authority. While their stated intention is "safety" for the cyclists, perhaps it would be safer for all concerned if the motorists were instructed to exit their vehicles and push them through the intersection. Meanwhile, the conflict on the Chandler Bikeway can be found...on the path.

The City of Los Angeles took note of Burbank's misuse of regulatory signage and ordered yellow advisory "Walk Bike in Crosswalk" signage that they posted on Jefferson Avenue outside USC, apparently in an effort to support the estimated 15,000 cyclists who ride to school. While good advice is always appreciated, this advice is hardly good and it comes with the threat of a $250 ticket for violating a warning! The LADOT installed the signs and the LAPD supported the effort by working with USC's Department of Public Safety to enforce the mythological law. This dubious partnership has resulted in an empowered DPS which now operates with an inflated perception of their legal authority, to the dismay of those who know the law.

The City of Los Angeles is no stranger to the controversy over cyclists riding in the crosswalk. Last year a cyclist rode across the street in a crosswalk in a residential community, only to be struck by a right turning DWP truck and killed. The LAPD determined that the cyclist was the "primary cause" of the incident because "she was riding a bike in a crosswalk in violation of CVC 21200 which requires a cyclist to obey the rules of the road." the LAPD PIO went on to explain that "Cyclists must either dismount at crosswalks or ride on the right side of the road with traffic." The City Attorney's office continues to support this position, even when contradicted by CVC 21650. Meanwhile, the City of LA and the Metro continue to build bike paths such as the Orange Line that take cyclists across intersections in crosswalks.

The City of Los Angeles is in good company when it comes to misunderstanding crosswalks. Conor Lynch was recently killed while crossing the street midblock. The LAPD was quoted by the LA Times in pointing out that Conor was not crossing the street in a crosswalk. This may have been true, but it reflects a misconception that midblock crossings are "jaywalking" violations but they're not. Streets are for crossing unless between adjacent intersections controlled by traffic signal devices or law enforcement.


The City of Long Beach went beyond inappropriate flyers and signage, selecting YouTube as the appropriate venue for a demonstration of their creative law enforcement strategies. Some might cringe when hearing the LBPD Officer state "You know what, because you’re argumentative, I’m gonna give you another ticket. And then you can fight two tickets." A punitive ticket, clearly explained by the offending law enforcement officer!

The LBPD officer sets the tone for the interaction by informing the cyclist "You were impeding my traffic." In doing so he clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of CVC 21656 "On a two-lane highway...a slow-moving vehicle...behind which five or more vehicles are formed in line, shall turn off the roadway at the nearest place designated as a turnout by signs erected by the authority having jurisdiction over the highway..."

The LBPD officer goes on to misquote the law, telling the cyclist that the California Vehicle Code says "‘bicyclists must ride to the right side of the road." It doesn't. CVC 21654 says "...any vehicle proceeding upon a highway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at such time shall be driven in the right-hand lane for traffic or as close as practicable to the right-hand edge or curb... "Or" is a mighty big word.

Cyclists in the LA Area are acutely aware that the legal landscape is quite uneven. Different agencies, authorities, and departments vary greatly in their interpretation of the law and their enforcement strategies. LA County is home to 88 municipalities and the number of different law enforcement authorities is quite large. Within the City of Los Angeles, a cyclist may encounter officers from departments that include CHP Troopers, State Park Rangers, County Sheriffs, Harbor Police Airport Police, School Police, Library Police, General Services Police, City Park Rangers, and of course, the Los Angeles Police Department. Collectively, they enforce the law. Individually, they operate according to their own priorities and interpretations.

This is why the cyclists of LA need the Cyclists' Bill of Rights, a document that starts the conversation affirmatively, with a foundation of rights that are already codified in the constitution, the CVC, departmental directives, policies, and municipal codes.