Opinion: Why Not Envision a Different West Hollywood?

It was not going to be a good day. I slept rather late and woke to more than the usual physical discomfort that has been my constant companion for so long. I knew I could not marshal the energy I would need to get to the panel discussion on housing in West Hollywood to be held Saturday morning. West Hollywood City Councilmember Lindsey Horvath’s bright idea was to bring out into the open a frank discussion of needs and wants in the area of housing for all in the city. I truly wanted to be there, but….

On other pages, other times – for several years, in fact – I had thrown out my thoughts on this subject. I was never alone in proposing certain considerations for a truly livable “urban village” or a “walking city.” But, the authorities we (some of us) had elected to manage our burg had their own ideas and those ideas were to provide income for a growing number of social services, eventually surpassing any other municipality in the county. For many residents the price of that outreach was constant battle with the city and the developers it had encouraged. It has now reached a point where, I feel, that residents are no longer needed – in the sense that we are impediments to the process of “growth” as seen by the city.

Carleton Cronin
Carleton Cronin
Recently the Los Angeles Times’ op-ed page published a piece by Mark Vallianatos, a founder of Abundant Housing LA, and Mott Smith, a principal with Civic Enterprise Development, that argues that L.A.’s zoning doesn’t work for a growing city. Finally, someone has stepped forward to challenge a format for living spaces that no longer works. Seriously. Think about it and consider that “this isn’t Kansas anymore, Dorothy.”

In 1972 we purchased a small house on a quiet, tree-lined street in a county backwater called West Hollywood. Its charms disguised its many faults, and we spent quite a bit of time and money in repairing and retrofitting. While I had been a homeowner previously, I was still a “city boy,” having lived many years amongst the red brick and stone structures of an eastern metropolis with an excellent transit system and many amenities only a block or two away. This op-ed piece laid out a future possibility for many, not just those who can afford a million-dollar house in WeHo.

Consider: How long will those people who must travel an hour or so each way to a minimum wage job (in our hotels and restaurants, for example) be willing to do that. A New York Times article a few years back covered the Los Angeles MTA’s abandonment of its line #305 from Willowbrook to Beverly Hills because the ridership of 3000 daily was not enough to support its cost. That MTA line brought many of the minimum wage earners to WeHo and the housekeepers to the manors in Beverly Hills. How do they get to work now? Suppose there was housing they could afford? Would our sensibilities be offended by their proximity? I believe so. But, fear not, very few can afford to buy or even live in the Westside and WeHo. So much for democracy’s promise of equality.

Back to the op-ed mentioned above. Consider some of its proposals: Changes in the laws governing land use and elimination of the old idea of “zoning” as criteria for establishing residences and commercial structures. Two of my neighbors are “abandoning” (their words) West Hollywood because its original promise had been discarded. A specific claim was that they would have had to live next door to a large commercial building. Another was that the traffic had become too difficult to manage for aging guys. Their new digs will be in a small city with tree-lined streets in a state far away. Perhaps not quite utopian, but more reminiscent of what WeHo used to offer. But that sentiment is in the same vein as the questions recently put forth by cultural critics: “what happened to ‘high culture’?” “What happened to ‘oblesse oblige’?” – Zev Yaroslavsky. These are now considered old fashioned concerns, and their absence is indicative of a changing culture. So, why not envision a different West Hollywood?

Nearly every house on my short city block has either been torn down or completely remodeled by newer owners – some who are speculators. (What future do they see?) When writing out the latest codicil to my will, I entered some guidelines of future use for the property we currently own in WeHo. I see that it could provide some income as a rental space or, perhaps, one of the boys would prefer to live here – but that it should never be sold until the last best time, since I truly believe that the city will finally consider the need for more density and different forms of living spaces.

I see the possibility of a return to the time of small “variety” stores, which carried only essentials of groceries, beer and wine, some hardware items and daily newspapers (if they still exist) within walking distance of the apartment (not condo) buildings, establishing a neighborhood where residents would have to speak to each other because they could not avoid doing so. The cultural aspects of a denser city can be quite positive.

All that is speculation, yet it needs to be addressed as we must look beyond immediate needs and begin to plan for a future which will thrust itself upon us whether we like it or not. We need a future where residents do matter and are not dismissed as “Oh, you people!” We who are voters who must use our hard-won franchise to make sure our city authorities act for our – and the city’s – best interests.

Current needs, in my mind, are for really affordable housing. A federal guideline states that “affordable housing” is based upon or at 30% of a person or family’s income. By my quick calculations a one-bedroom apartment found locally at average of $2,056 per month ($24,672 for the year), would require an annual income of more than $82,000. The line forms on the right. Our housing stock is quite depleted, it appears, and only density (well-conceived) will increase it. There’s only so much land for us to contend with. Attitudes toward change must alter as change is inevitable and requires clear thinking and good management. I recommend once again the thoughts expressed in the op-ed I mention above.

Further, we should look abroad – and most certainly in this country – for ideas that work. An open mind is a necessity. I do regret not being able to be at the forum Saturday. I hope that much will be brought out for vigorous discussion and ideas put forth for our City Council to consider and not to table.

By the way, in the works from me is a short series called “A Tale of Two Cities,” which examines the efforts of two very similar cities (one is WeHo) and how they cope with the present and prepare for the future.

  1. John Heilman has been On the Council, since the City’s inception. He along with Abby Land, made sure that a third person to their liking would be elected, so they could control deciaions made by the city. Helen Albert, who usually fell asleep at the meetings, was one of them, and now has a Farmer’s market in her name. Their deputies and Department heads, and commissioner’s, all had to be “In cahouts” with said Council members. That is how this whole mess started. The Coalition for Economic Survival, made up of mostly Russian refugee’s, was a big part of the control of who won the elections. Most of them have died off over the years, and CES is no longer. The powers that be in WeHo, don’t care about affordable housing or being a village. They want our 1.9 sq. miles of city hood to reflect NYC, and can bring the rich to WeHo and can afford these overpriced poorly built dwellings. MONEY is what drives out City Council and the commissioners. If you can afford your little space here, where rent control and hatred of landlords were once a a big issuef, stay in your little space. There is nowhere else to go, anywhere.

  2. This is really a thoughtful, well-written piece. Mr. Cronin doesn’t seem to propose any specific approaches or fixes to the problem (other than to keep studying it), but overall his tone is informative, authoritative and measured, and gives the sense of the utopia WeHo could be as a small, well-managed city, compared to the out-of-control, over-developed mess it is becoming. I enjoyed the read. Kudos, Sir! I think you should be put in charge of WeHo’s housing and development issue – a “Housing Czar” if you will – with overriding power to call the shots, over the heads of the ineffective City Council which is well into the politics and process of over-developing and ruining the city. You could do the job fairly, effectively and pragmatically, the way the Council can’t. No developers could buy you off – again, unlike the Council. Excellent article!

  3. The ebb and flow that affects cities is basically caused by financial matters. No secret there. When banks & developers decide to change and cities allow it, usually for their own financial reasons, the people who live there are affected. Rents increase, houses are sold a huge increases, businesses must adapt to increased rents or fail. The answer to the squeeze that constant change is change itself. Relocation is usually the answer. So one goes to where one can afford to go and eventually that area will be infected by the same evolutionary insects. So once again relocation is the answer. In a society where MUST HAVE is combined with BOTTOM LINE GREED, there is no other solution other then disastrous end to the entire financial circle. We must adapt and change to endure the inevitable shroud of the fuel of our economy aka greed. Thus West Hollywood is changing and no longer the “village” we once knew and ignorantly hoped would stay the same.

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