What makes West Hollywood so special is the people who live here and the neighborhoods we live in. Our City is comprised of seven distinct neighborhoods, each with their own unique character. From the Russian-speaking community on the Eastside, mid-city and Boystown, to the Norma Triangle, Sunset Boulevard, and the beautiful homes of West Hollywood West, every area has its own landmarks and tells its own story. We must protect the historical integrity and significance of neighborhoods all over the City while embracing innovative ideas and new solutions to old problems as we evolve. But moving forward should not mean erasing the past. Yet that’s exactly the philosophy which has been standard in City Hall for the last three decades.
While West Hollywood has only been an incorporated city for 30 years, the area in which the city is situated has been there much, much longer. As a longtime Eastside resident, I take a special pride in Plummer Park, which sits just blocks from my home. I often take the brief walk over, bringing along a book and my dogs and stop under one of the large old-growth trees to sit and read. I see young families playing with their children while the strains of older men and women speaking Russian as they play chess or share the news of their lives fills my ears.
When the City Council was determined to raze Plummer Park to the ground to make room for a more “modern” facility, I worked with a small group of activists, including Cathy Blavis and Stephanie Harker, to save the park, and we came up with a legal strategy which provided a stay at the 11th hour. Fiesta Hall and Great Hall/Long Hall are some of the last and best remaining examples of the Spanish architecture that used to dot the landscape before the area was even known as West Hollywood, and they provide character and historical context to this vital Eastside community resource. Equally important to the history it represents is the community that loves the park as is and uses it in its current form. That alone is cause to preserve it.
Across town, as a Planning Commissioner, I helped the residents of West Hollywood West create the city’s first Neighborhood Overlay Zone. This allowed the residents to decide how they wanted their neighborhood to evolve, and they now had a way to actually dictate terms to developers, rather than the other way around. I am very proud of this outcome, and I believe that we need to replicate this success in every neighborhood in the City. The needs of mid-city are not the needs of the Norma Triangle or the Eastside Russian-speaking community; Neighborhood overlay zones recognize that and provide a mechanism for neighborhoods to determine their own future.
But more than just historic preservation, fighting for our neighborhoods means fighting for our neighbors. As our affordable housing stock dwindles and some property owners abuse the Ellis Act as a way to evict rent-controlled tenants, we need to ensure that our aging population and our entire community of renters are protected and have a strong voice in City Council. While the Ellis Act is state law and, as such, cannot be changed by West Hollywood City Hall, we can create more robust local ordinances that apply to the administration of the Ellis Act within our city to protect vulnerable communities. I would also call for a six-month to one-year moratorium on evictions while the City Council comes up with concrete solutions to better protect renters from being Ellised out of their homes.
Just as importantly, we need to incentivize property owners to retain and refurbish existing buildings rather than simply sell them off by offering low-interest capital improvement loans through the city. By preserving buildings, rather than continually tearing down and re-constructing – as City Hall has done for the last 30 years – we not only keep people in the affordable housing that they have enjoyed for years, but we keep traffic interruptions caused by construction to a minimum as well as shrink our environmental impact.
Make no mistake – cur City needs to forge a path into the future, and we cannot remain mired in the status quo as we have in many areas. We need to start utilizing the modern 21st Century tools that cities around the country are already using to combat traffic and parking issues. We also need to maintain and grow our social services programs which reflect the core values that this city was founded on.
We must continually strive to safeguard the architectural integrity of our neighborhoods. Does this mean an end to future building? Of course not. But it does mean that we cannot continue to sacrifice the unique charms of this city to the concrete and glass behemoths whose only purpose is to provide high-dollar townhouses and condominium sales rather than contributing to the character of our neighborhoods and serving the needs of its residents, who are 80 percent renters.
The successes we’ve had in protecting our neighborhoods on the Eastside and on the Westside didn’t happen because of one person. They worked because the community spoke up in one voice and demanded that City Hall hear what it had to say, but we’re quickly losing ground to the bulldozers and cranes that seem to be on every block across the City.
We can and should protect both our neighborhoods and our neighbors while we move our city forward into the future.
Heidi Shink, a writer and activist, is a candidate in the June 2 election for West Hollywood City Council.