Editor’s note: In early December, we asked each of the candidates running in the March 2013 election for West Hollywood City Council to address four key questions that are either on the public agenda or relevant to the city’s future. For each of the next nine weekdays, we will publish answers from the candidates.
Raised in the San Fernando Valley, Steve Martin moved to West Hollywood in 1979 to be an openly gay man.
“West Hollywood was one of the few places you could lively openly in those days,” said Martin. “It was hugely attractive for gays. The rents were cheap, the bars were crazy and the gym was nearby.”
Actively involved in the 1984 cityhood movement and many other causes since then, Martin served two terms on the City Council (1994-2003). An attorney practicing family law, the 58-year-old Martin got his bachelor’s degree at UCLA, and his law degree at Southwestern Law School. He and his partner, John Mulcrone, have been registered domestic partners since 1994, and married since 2008.
Question: This is a very fraught issue, with some residents claiming the city is willing to tear down buildings that they see as an integral part of its past and important to quality of life today in favor of dense development. On the other side are those who argue that “old” doesn’t equal “important,” and that the city must strike a balance between preserving historic West Hollywood and building for the present and future. Does the city’s current process for designating cultural and historic landmarks strike the right balance? And if not, what needs to be changed?
Answer: We need to preserve the many architectural landmarks that grace our city. Doing that is not always easy but it needs to be one of our priorities. The craftsman cottages and art deco buildings remind us of our rich past and give the community character and beauty.
But preservation can also be about saving our homes and local businesses. It should be about protecting the unique character that makes West Hollywood so special. We need to be committed to preserving our stock of rent-controlled housing. We need to end the developer incentives that actually encourage the demolition of our rental housing.
The character of our community is not “preserved” by out of place, super-sized developments that often are approved with inadequate parking. Our “urban village” would be best served by limiting new construction along Santa Monica to two to three stories rather than the five to seven stories allowed under our new General Plan.
The city’s notion of “preservation” is exemplified by the ill-conceived plan to re-design Plummer Park. Destroying trees and heritage buildings hardly reflects a commitment to “preservation.”
Some of the council members have said we need to “Save Boystown,” their personal play ground, yet they have voted to make parking more expensive, taken away parking meters in the area and imposed strict limits on outdoor smoking that run counter to the area’s free-spirited reputation. But you can’t save Boystown if you are destroying the apartments where the “boys” live and driving off the businesses that they patronize. We need a strong commitment to save all of West Hollywood’s unique neighborhoods. Saving a few buildings is simply not enough.
Question: This is another issue that, like most on the political agenda, involves development. Some residents see West Hollywood as an “urban village,” words that evoke an image of moderate density, low-scale buildings, easy walk-ability, and little traffic. People have moved here because of what West Hollywood is, they argue. So why change it? Others see the value of urban density — with an increase in apartment buildings meaning an increase in population and business revenues and, perhaps, a more competitive market for renters. Some also hope that increased use of mass transit and the walk-ability of the city will offset an increase in automobiles. Many press for construction of more parking garages, like those proposed for behind City Hall and underneath Plummer Park. City planners have devoted a lot of attention to this question and have produced some impressive reports. Now we need to know where our council candidates stand. Should we be happy with West Hollywood as it is, in terms of density and population? Or should we be pushing for growth? And if we are going to grow, what are we going to do with all those cars?
Answer: West Hollywood is already one of the most densely populated areas in California. Much of the development that has been approved over the last seven years has been far too massive and it appears that the goal is to turn Santa Monica Boulevard into a canyon of five- to seven-story buildings. It is time to put on the brakes and re-think the “bigger is better” philosophy.
West Hollywood does not need any more density. We are already straining the capacities of our streets, sewers and outdated electrical grid. We were a “walkable” City before we were even incorporated as a city and much of what we see being proposed in new developments does little to improve the quality of life.
Our City Council is beholden to developer dollars and we have seen how that has influenced their votes. Last year, the city council approved an 11-story hotel on Sunset with 100 less parking spaces than staff recommended. The City recently eliminated 340 parking spaces from the Sunset Millennium project that had been previously required. The Council approved a 10-story project at Movie Town Plaza even though our own traffic reports said it would create gridlock and push huge amounts of traffic on residential streets. These actions are simply irresponsible given the problem we have with inadequate parking. No one likes to hear the word “corrupt” but how do you describe a council that takes actions that are not in the best interest of the city?
This discussion about greater density is a false one that is driven by the influence of developer money. We are told that unless the city approves massive development we cannot pay for our social services. This is a false fear tactic as our city has never been more flush with cash. If large-scale development is necessary to sustain our municipal budget, then we are on an unsustainable course as we are only 1.9 square miles.
We need to slow the pace of demolition of rent-controlled housing that is displacing many long-term residents and making West Hollywood unaffordable to the very people who make this town unique. We can do that by eliminating existing developer incentives, demanding adequate parking in new construction and imposing higher environmental standards, such as requiring solar panels on all new construction.
We need rational development that fits our needs and enhances the quality of life in our community. We should hold ourselves to higher standards of design and environmental standards. We can have good development that renews our city without sacrificing our unique character. Developers want to be here so we don’t need to sell our community short. Instead of being given false choices, we need leadership that will foster a frank and honest discussion about the kind of development we want for our city. After all, we created this city for the good of the residents, not for the good of the developers or the politicians.
Question: Also on the March ballot will be a proposal to limit city council members to three four-year terms. The proposal, which won’t be retroactive, is championed by residents who argue that some council incumbents, having always won their re-election races, aren’t responsive to the community. Another issue is civic engagement. In 1984, 17,000 people voted in the election that gave birth to West Hollywood. Last year, only a little more than a third as many voters turned out for the municipal election. Obviously we’d like to know where the council candidates stand on the term limits issue. But we’d also like to know what they think the city can do to engage more residents in civic life. Should municipal elections be shifted to the same date as national elections, when there’s much larger turnout? Should the city sponsor a campaign on the sidewalks to register voters? There’s little incentive to increase voter turnout for politicians who don’t want voters looking over their shoulders. But it’s the only way to guarantee the good government that West Hollywood deserves.
Answer: You only have to hear the hysterical accusations made by Mayor Jeff Prang or read about Councilmember John Duran threatening the supporters of term limits and rival candidates to know that term limits are long overdue.
While the incumbents claim that term limits are undemocratic because they limit a voter’s choice, they had no problem limiting our choice when they appointed their friend Lindsey Horvath to city council to complete the last two years of the late Sal Guariello’s term.
It is ironic that we are hearing term limits will “destroy” rent control in West Hollywood. Jeff Prang and John Duran are doing a pretty good job of that already. They voted to allow the El Mirador to be converted to luxury condos and have done nothing to stop the demolition of rent-controlled buildings. Both endorsed Betsy Butler for the California Assembly even though she was endorsed by the Apartment Owners of Greater Los Angeles, an anti-rent control group. That group never endorses anyone who believes in rent control
In 1984 I was part of the grassroots movement to incorporate West Hollywood. We were going to create a new, participatory form of urban government. Our city hall was going to be a model of responsive and inclusive government. No one envisioned people clinging to office for twenty or thirty years.
Obviously something went wrong. In the mid-90s there was a surge in developer interest in West Hollywood. Big campaign contributions to incumbents followed. Incumbents regularly raise $80,000 to $100,000 to get re-elected, most of it from developers, making them immune to challengers.
City Council has thus become more interested in large-scale growth than protecting our urban village. Jeff Prang and John Duran’s re-election campaign is being run by a powerful land use lobbyist who represents West Hollywood developers. The relationship between council and developers could not be clearer.
Term limits will increase public participation as the city council members will not have life seats that lock them into power and make them unaccountable to the public.
Incumbents would mentor potential leaders and more people would participate in public debate. You never know when a neighborhood leader might leverage his or her grassroots involvement into a winning office. That is what we had in mind in 1984.
Simply shifting elections to November will only help keep the incumbents in power as the voting base is larger and more expensive to reach. If people believe we have competitive elections they will vote in March.
As president of Stonewall Democratic Club in the mid 1990s when term limits began to take affect in the City of Los Angeles and the state legislature, I saw that gays and lesbians were suddenly winning office and the number of women and minorities in elected office soared. While State term limits were too short, that problem was recently addressed to add more time to the terms. Democracy works.
Question: West Hollywood promotes itself as “The Creative City.” Urban development theorists such as Richard Florida argue that fostering a “creative class” of knowledge workers is essential to the economic health and well-being of a city. Should the City of West Hollywood invest in making the city a more attractive place for residents and businesses engaged in the knowledge economy as opposed to the service economy of restaurants, bars and hotels? If so, what can the city do?
Answer: The last thing we need is city hall engaging in social engineering. City hall is already doing its best to push out working people in West Hollywood through the demolition of rent-controlled housing.
West Hollywood is in fact one of the best educated and creatively bent communities in the nation. Not only do we have a huge number of people who are professionally in the arts or design business or the entertainment industry. I only need to walk down my street to see an incredibly rich fabric. My neighbors include set designers, writers, museum curators, a furniture maker, a location manger, a restaurant owner, realtors and people in the design industry. How much more of a creative class do you want?
Cedar Sinai is probably the biggest and most diverse employer in West Hollywood. The motion picture industry has a huge imprint here. We have grips, caterers, hair and makeup artists, set designers, camera operators, fluffers and directors living within our town along with countless aspiring actors/actress and models.
We don’t want the city to engage in policies that push out retirees, personal trainers, people in retail, struggling actors and all those folks who wait tables while working on their screenplays. They are part of the nuanced fabric of West Hollywood. We need policies that keep people in place rather than chasing after some ivory tower theory about fostering a “creative class.” We already have one.
The most important thing is to protect our neighborhoods and our stock of rental housing that provides home for such an incredible array of creative talents. Re-casting West Hollywood as a clone of Westwood is not going to have a positive impact on our creative population. We are losing the soul of our city. We need to protect our funky businesses and our way of life. Much of the city’s regulations, such as extending parking meter times and rates, severe limits on outside smoking and similar bans, only tend to burden our unique businesses and make West Hollywood look and feel like the rest of Los Angeles.