Friday, March 25, 2011

CityWatchLA - After Years of Budget Rehearsal, Time Now for LA’s Mayor and Council to Act

CityWatch, Mar 25, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 24

It’s Budget Season in the City of LA and the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) has fired the first shot, declaring this the “age of permanent fiscal crisis" and subtly shifting blame for the city’s budget crisis from the captain and crew of the good ship Los Angeles and placing it firmly on the turbulent seas that lead us to the iceberg. (Link) Miguel Santana’s 219 page report acknowledges LA’s 14.4% unemployment rate and a projected budget deficit for 2011-12 of $350 million, but softens the message by pointing out that the federal, state, county and surrounding municipalities are also in dire straits, “struggling to find ways to fund even the most basic programs and services the public expects.”

This message of normalcy may be diplomatic but it’s not quite accurate. While the economic storm is turbulent for everybody, the City of LA is faring worse than the others that sail the same seas. It is imperative that the CAO address the emergency with the sense of urgency that it deserves or the City Council will simply continue to hide crew and pet projects in the DWP’s stateroom.

To Santana’s credit, his message has been and is consistent with his goal of a long term balanced budget based on a framework of four strategies: Responsible Management and Fiscal Practices, Focus on Core Services, Alternative Service Delivery Models, and Maintaining a Sustainable Workforce.

Complementing the CAO’s report and call to action comes the Neighborhood Council Budget Advocates and their recommendations for the Mayor as he prepares to release the Mayor’s Budget on April 20 to the City Council. The NCBA’s presentation also consisted of four strategies: Increasing Efficiency, Generating Revenues, Structural Changes, and Reducing Expenses. (Link) [[[

Both the CAO and the NCBA’s agree that escalating pension and health care costs are responsible for driving the city’s budget up by more than 50% over the last decade, a period of time in which the size of the actual workforce has declined.

This unsustainable business model has reached the crisis point and it is incumbent on the Mayor and the City Council to forgo the “Wait it out!” strategy of past years and to address the situation as an actual crisis that demands a comprehensive and systemic commitment to a long term solution.

Missing from the CAO’s report and the NCBA’s recommendations is any mention of the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) and the $1.3 Billion that was just shuffled from one stateroom to another. The Budget Advocates addressed the CRA last year but apparently the CRA is off the radar this year. This is hardly consistent with the “Everything is on the table!” mantra the public hears when the budget scythe comes whacking at the community gardens.

Through it all, there appears to be movement in the ongoing discussions between City Hall and the unions, at least some of them. As of yesterday, the Coalition of LA City Unions has reached a tentative agreement that is touted as “a major deal that could save LA $400 million over the next four years, resulting in the suspension of furloughs and the need to lay off 600 employees.”

The Coalition of LA City Unions represents about ⅓ of LA’s union workforce and as they take the deal back to membership for a vote, the potential for this Mayoral press conference victory party to resonate throughout the City of LA workforce is significant.

Meanwhile, there is much budget balancing work to be done.

This is the fourth year in a row that the Mayor and City Council have allowed LA to drift through the budget crisis.

Santana’s recommendations are painful, they offer highs and lows of projected impacts, all of which are dependent on some hard commitments and some even harder choices. At the end of the day, they offer a choice between barely balancing the budget for the short term to balancing for the long term and replenishing the reserve. All that’s missing is the resolve to do it.

The Mayor and City Council don’t need to hunt any further for budget solutions, they have the CAO’s report, they have the Budget Advocate recommendations, and they have grassroots support for decisive action.

What they lack is the ability to let go of the ill-conceived hope that the economy will flourish, the seas will go calm, the iceberg will melt, and we’ll all sail off into the sunset.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at:

Friday, March 04, 2011

What a Difference a Few Years Make: A Journey to Relevance

LA’s Bike Plan has already caused traffic congestion, clogging the steps of City Hall as the Mayor, the City Controller, and a full peloton of Councilmembers stood before the press on Wednesday to declare “Los Angeles is on the path to becoming a world-class city for bicycling.”

What a difference a few years make! It has been ages since I innocently visited City Planning Publications to purchase a copy of the General Plan’s Transportation Element ($15) in an effort to locate the current Bike Plan. As I flipped the pages, I found a placeholder that indicated where the Bike Plan would be if it were worth printing. (It wasn’t) Thus began the journey to relevance.

Three years ago, the LADOT hired a consultant from Portland to guide the City of LA in the process of developing a new Bike Plan. At the first meeting, before a standing-room-only crowd, the consultant opened by stating, “We’re gonna have to move fast, we have a lot of ground to cover and we don’t have much time.”

It was at this point that Alex Thompson, President of Bikeside, jumped to his feet and interrupted the consultant with the simple challenge “Why not?”

That became the battle cry of the community as LA’s Department of “No!” led the Bike Plan development process.

“Why not?”

Along the way, the LADOT spent $400,000 on the consultant’s Bike Plan, one that was eventually scrapped.

Meanwhile, the community banded together under the banner of the LA Bike Working Group and developed a crowd-sourced vision for connectivity, one that transitioned into a City Planning process that involved people from all walks, er ...rides.

LA’s current Bike Plan is a victory because of its content, most significantly the Backbone Bikeway Network that will bring together greater synchronicity of basic city services on the big streets that already move people of all modes.

The Bike Plan is also a victory because it is the result of a community driven process, one where people of all modes and perspectives had a voice in the process. In fact, the City Hall peloton also included folks from the Bikesiders, the LACBCers, Midnight Ridazz, the city’s Bicycle Advisory Committee, C.I.C.L.E., the Valley Bikery, the Bicycle Kitchen, and Pacoima Beautiful demonstrating the power of a common ground approach to planning.

Most important, the Bike Plan is a victory because it offers the City of LA an opportunity to pursue funding that will make our streets work for everybody, whether they walk, ride a bike, take mass transit or use a personal vehicle.

After all, streets that are good for cyclists are good for everybody.

Cyclists favor well-maintained streets free of potholes and debris. They prefer streets with moderate vehicle volumes and speeds, an environment that is likewise safer and more hospitable for both motorists and pedestrians.

Surveys in San Francisco found that local businesses benefited from "traffic calming" through their districts, which included accommodations for cyclists.

Finally, an increase in the number of cyclists in a neighborhood -- which means more eyes on the street -- has a direct relationship to a reduction in crime.

In other words, what's good for cyclists is good for your community and LA’s Bike Plan has the capacity to do something that no other plan has ever done, connect the plans.

LA has a General Plan, it has Community Plans, it has Specific Plans, it has Master Plans, it has Vision Plans, it has a River is a City of Plans! They compete, they contradict, they confuse and now is the time to connect them!

Imagine if the Bike Plan were to be used as a model for engaging the community in the process, for bringing some connectivity to the many plans, for preserving the character and personality of our neighborhoods and for providing a toolbox of transportation solutions that blend with our local land-use priorities so that neighborhoods are empowered, not overpowered.

The long and arduous journey to the finish line for LA’s Bike Plan has clearly demonstrated that a group of outsiders can move City Hall. News of this success story has resonated throughout the country, but what’s most important is what happens on the streets of LA.

Now is the time to work with neighborhood councils, community groups, homeowners associations and Angelenos of all modes so that the spirit of connectivity can resonate through Los Angeles.

While the City Hall peloton stands at the finish line press conference, our greatest opportunity is to establish this as the beginning, not the end, of a significant journey that will continue to connect Los Angeles.

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

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

CityWatchLA - NBC Universal Project: Example of All that’s Wrong with LA Planning Process

CityWatch, Mar 1, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 17

NBC Universal’s Evolution project is moving forward in a City of LA planning process that is a clear demonstration of all that is wrong with planning and land use policy in the City of Los Angeles. The developer driven process starts with an attack on the already low standards that purportedly protect the people of LA and then continue with exceptions and variances that result in a full assault on the local community.

Developer funded Environmental Impact Reports (EIR), traffic mitigation plans, and community benefit proposals all create a Kumbaya message that is in stark contrast to the simple reality; our infrastructure is collapsing, our streets are congested, emergency services are already challenged, and our environment is choking.

Through it all, the people we send to City Hall stand by and when pressured are only able to come up with one objection, “We need more time!”

NBC Universal’s Evolution project is positioned as an upgrade to existing film production facilities while the simple reality is this, it is the creation of a new residential community on a 391-acre property bordered by the LA River and the Hollywood Hills.

In support of the project comes a 39,000 page EIR, a document so large that it serves to highlight the implausible “hugeness” of the project that is being shoehorned into a patch of land, “all without expanding the current property.”

As Councilmember Tom LaBonge stood before the Planning Commission and asked for an extension of the hearing process until after the March 8 election, organizations from all directions stood by with well reasoned and researched commentary that falls on deaf ears.

The Studio City Neighborhood Council submitted a 98 page review (download pdf) of the Evolution project that comprehensively reviewed the project and concluded “The DEIR does not adequately address the impacts on the community from the proposed Project.” Anyone who has tried to navigate Barham during rush hour knows that the impact on the surrounding communities is already beyond capacity.

The Transit Coalition submitted an analysis (download pdf) of the Evolution project’s transit, bike, and pedestrian accessibility. It challenged the project’s claim of a modal shift away from private vehicles and called for “important modifications to meet the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) standard for less than significant impacts.” Anyone who has tried to walk up the Universal hill or navigate the incomplete river bike path knows that the projected mode shift is simply wishful thinking unsubstantiated by reality.

The Friends of Griffith Park analyzed the Evolution project’s impact on the surrounding environment, including the Santa Monica Mountains Range and the Los Angeles River Corridor, and concluded by stating “the scope of the project must be reduced dramatically in order to fully comply with CEQA mitigation requirements.”

Anyone who has ever stood on top of the Mt. Lee knows that the existing ecosystem is incompatible with any further development assault.

This cry for help is an indictment of the process for three reasons:

1) City Planning’s current cost-recovery process simply allows developers to shop for the solutions and decisions that serve them, forcing residents to fight an uphill battle against a ticking clock as LA’s soft City Plan fails protecting the character and personality of our neighborhoods.

2) The Mayor and the City Council’s laissez-faire attitude to development run amok is a complete abdication of their mandate to develop, implement, and enforce a comprehensive, long range General Plan that establishes purposes, policies and programs for the development of the City of Los Angeles.

3) Neighborhood councils, advocacy organizations, and community groups have risen to the occasion, demonstrating with their comprehensive and professional analysis of the Evolution project that LA has become a DIY city, one where our commitment to the future of LA comes from the neighborhood, not from City Hall.

The people of LA have the right to expect a well-planned, well-funded city that operates based on standards that the people of LA can depend on.

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