Opinion: Foes of Development Need to Remember What WeHo Was Founded On

The urban “village” that is West Hollywood.

Gobsmacked. That English word, which means “utterly astonished, astounded”, was what I felt when I read the summary of a recent survey commissioned by the city that says a majority of West Hollywood residents don’t want more apartment buildings in our city.

Yes, they want more affordable apartments (what else would one have the nerve to say in a city built on protecting renters’ rights?) Just don’t build them in our neighborhood, please.

A deep read into the survey’s findings shows that those who own their homes (that’s 20% of the population) are more likely to oppose new apartment buildings than are those who rent. Old folks also are more likely to oppose new apartment buildings. And so are those who have lived here a long time.

A major reason offered by the opponents is fear of more traffic. Yes, traffic is a bitch in WeHo, as it is in every one of the four other major metropolitan areas where I have lived or worked. But we need to recognize that it’s not the fault of those who build apartment buildings here. It’s largely because West Hollywood is a drive-through city, with what we call Santa Monica Boulevard now listed on Google Maps as California Route 2. That designation signals that those who don’t live here see us less as an “urban village” and more as an annoying slowdown in their morning and evening commutes.

We also need to recognize that 80% of the people who work here don’t live here (most can’t afford to), so they drive into WeHo for their jobs. And 80% of the people who live here don’t work here (if you can afford a house, condo or apartment in WeHo, then odds are you aren’t making your living pouring drinks at a local bar or making beds at a Sunset Strip hotel). So residents leaving town for work, and workers coming to WeHo for their jobs, are another major factor in rush hour traffic.

Another concern of those opposed to new construction is that it will make worse the city’s lack of parking, which may be what people in WeHo (myself included) bitch about most. However, new apartment buildings must include parking, with most of it underground. And why would someone who lives here need to constantly drive in the one of the smallest and most densely populated cities in the United States? I have come to realize the idiocy of my driving from my apartment building on Hacienda Place, where I have a basement parking spot, to the Starbucks on Santa Monica Boulevard at Westmount, where I can spend 10 minutes circling around looking for a spot to park the car, and then have to feed the meter. I now realize that it’s a very healthy eight-minute walk, no gas or parking fees required. And I recently bought a bicycle.

A radical thought is that maybe an actual reduction in parking would make West Hollywood more of a walkable city. New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg shut down several lanes of Broadway in Times Square a few years ago, replacing the constant stream of cars with tiny tables and chairs. It was Bloomberg’s way of saying that people needed to get out of their cars and take the subway (which we don’t have in WeHo, yet) and the bus (which we do have, with some of them for free). We also have the opportunity to walk (safely, if we focus on the cars in the street instead of text messages and taking selfies).

And finally there’s the fear that more construction, especially of taller buildings, will erode the “urban village” atmosphere that some treasure. First, let’s acknowledge the inherent contradiction is calling West Hollywood both urban and a village. West Hollywood clearly is urban — it is the 17th most densely populated city in the United States (we beat San Francisco and Boston in that measure). That’s a position WeHo has occupied, with some wavering on the list year to year, since the city was incorporated in 1984. As for being a village? We aren’t that physically, but we are that in the sense that we have a common sense of values, a willingness to accept people for who they are, to help them establish their careers and age in place here. If anything is eroding WeHo’s reputation as an urban village, it is the opposition of so many property-owning residents to letting more renters live here.

There are some things that give me hope. One is that the survey isn’t as representative as one might think, given that those surveyed were pulled from the city’s voter registration list. That list tilts heavily toward older people (like me), who are (unlike me) more likely to own their homes and be resistant to the inevitable changes that life brings. Another is the quiet work by some of our residents to form an alliance to represent renters at meetings before the City Council and the Planning Commission and other public forums. A group like that has been formed in San Francisco. It has, surprisingly, allied itself with developers in the realization that growth that is well managed, as is that in WeHo, is the best way to keep slow the inevitable rise in rents.

Finally, being a journalist, I do have a hope that ultimately facts will matter:

— Despite the claims by challengers in the last City Council election, we haven’t Ellis’ed out masses of local residents from their rent-stabilized apartments (we have lost only 5% of those over the past 30 some years, and more low-income apartments have been built since then).

— Building more apartments won’t have an impact on our water supply, unless, of course, those new apartments are occupied solely by newborn children who are still breastfeeding and haven’t yet sipped a drop. Those who move in presumably have already been drinking water. And residents of apartment buildings use, on average, less water than those living in private homes.

— The surge in new apartments in WeHo, many with ridiculously high rents, means an increase in supply. If that supply starts to keep up with, and ideally surpass, demand, the increase in rents will slow. (If the owner of the Avalon West Hollywood can’t rent that 720 square foot studio for $3,200 a month, for example, I’m betting that the rent will go down or the occupant will get a few months for free).

— Another recession is inevitable, although let’s pray it isn’t like the “Great” one provoked by George W. Bush’s poor management of this country. We have one every 10 years or so, and the result is a slowdown in housing price increases, if not an actual decline.

So, as we bemoan the changes in L.A. Pride that don’t reflect what some see as its original mission, and as we decry the erosion of the quality of life in our “urban village,” let’s not forget that there is a bigger thing at stake. That is West Hollywood’s reputation as a city that is open and welcoming to all, a city whose diversity includes people of different sexual orientations and ethnic backgrounds and also should include an acceptance of people from all economic classes who want to live here.

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guyprivaton
3 years ago

The endless tension between development and culture retention in city politics is inherent by nature of a city. Growth is needed to keep property owners and commerce happy. Retaining local culture is also needed to retain any aspect of community. The solution is always smart and limited growth. Not Pro-growth. Not No-Growth.

Rose
Rose
3 years ago

I’m not clear. There is a huge difference in “apartment buildings” Traditional, max 4 story or less ON RESIDENTIAL STREETS are nothing like …. The enormous entire lot or block ON MAJOR BOULEVARDS Poll numbers don’t mean anything about whatever argument you write about ALSO since you wrote this a few weeks back WATER IN CA IS NO LONGER A SHORTAGE ISSUE …. In fact the mainstream evening news says CA is facing a DISASTER with TOO MUCH WATER COMING FROM THE MASSIVE SNOW PACK we got so quickly. The CA acquaduct is already a max, long before the major… Read more »

Frank
Frank
3 years ago

I get that evictions suck for those affected but trying to solve it at a city level is all but almost useless especially for a city of WeHo’s size. Time and time again, rent control and its various forms have been shown to actually make things worse in the long run as market-based realities catch up. Artificially limiting supply will, not surprisingly, increase demand, thus increasing prices for everyone else. Its goals are noble and all, but what really needs to happen is a metro and statewide solution to this issue. A national improvement on safety net is even better.

Steve Martin
Steve Martin
3 years ago

The figure of 5% of our rent controlled units being subject to Ellis evictions may be a bit misleading. But using your figure 900 units have been lost. Maybe that is not a big deal if you were not one of those tenants. For the record, only a tiny fraction of those subject to Ellis have received a WeHo affordable unit. Perhaps the more honest figure to discuss is the number of rent controlled units lost to development. Change is inevitable and tenants don’t have a life time right to their units. But since you were not here when the… Read more »

Mary G in West Hollywood
Mary G in West Hollywood
3 years ago

Walk/No Walk farce can be blamed on only group, the totally incompetent group that runs WEHO City Hall. None of them could survive if they weren’t on the civil servant public dole aka the WEHO swamp headed by the Duran and Heilman tradition.

Bill G Skywatcher
3 years ago

There’s a solution to a significant part of the traffic problem along Santa Monica Blvd (and by extension some of the other E-W routes) but it might not be popular at first, but in time people would simply be used to them. A LOT of the congestion along Santa Monica Blvd is caused by the pedestrian crosswalks between Westbourne and La Cienega. Traveling through that area is a disaster the way it is current managed, and it’s managed BETTER than it was in the past. What these cross walks need is a Walk/No Walk light that mimics a traffic light… Read more »

kab1200
kab1200
3 years ago

Bill,you are spot on, I have been saying this for years!

Randy
Randy
3 years ago

mts, agreed. No offense, Hank, but it took you that long to realize that? I have lived in this neighborhood for almost 18 years, and its walkability is one of the things I value more than anything else. I can’t believe how many people will get in their cars to drive a distance that could be walked to in 10 to 15 minutes. As an alternate, if I’m drinking, or in a hurry, I usually just take Uber Pool. It is usually not more than $3-$4 each way, and it takes me door to door. I think that ride sharing… Read more »

Larry Block
Larry Block
3 years ago

Excellent read and many thanks to this publication for pointing out issues and correcting other issues. Wehoville is an important part of the fabric that helps our village continue to have a sense of community. Thanks Hank!

mts
mts
3 years ago

A problem and solution to the traffic/parking problem is written in the article – “I have come to realize the idiocy of my driving from my apartment on Hacienda Place, where I have a basement parking spot, to the Starbucks on Santa Monica Boulevard at Westmount, where I can spend 10 minutes circling around looking for a spot to park the car, and then have to feed the meter. I now realize that it’s a very healthy eight-minute walk, no gas or parking fees required. And I recently bought a bicycle.” An 8 min walk and he was driving?! So… Read more »

Franz
Franz
3 years ago

Guess what, the solution to traffic in urban cities and neighborhood is already well known and well-proven the world over: dense developments coupled with transit and pedestrian investments and improvements. It’s not more cars, not wider streets, not less development, not patchworks solutions here and there but a total committal to transit oriented and dense development.

The thread that binds that all together is building more, not NIMBYism, not opposition to any and all developments. Anything else is just muddying the waters to the actual problems and actual solution.

Woody McBreairty
Woody McBreairty
3 years ago

Saying that the traffic mess in West Hollywood is the fault of pass through cars is a moot point. It’s like saying that over development in West Hollywood cannot be curtailed because most of the developers come from outside the city. Irrelevant. The fact remains that traffic is a growing & worsening problem that has never been addressed in 33 years. At the time the Santa Monica median strip was redone would have been an ideal time to incorporate some both vehicle & pedestrian traffic problem remedies into the construction work. There should be those cross-cross pedestrian cross walks at… Read more »

kab1200
kab1200
3 years ago

Aside from traffic, I think the more pressing issue is taking away the older, less expensive apts to build shiny new buildings with outrageous rents, that few can afford. Even if they put in some affordable housing, that is not enough to cover those who will be kicked out and then priced out. If I was a younger person coming here to live for the first time, I doubt I could afford it, the way things are now. I agree with the things Don Azars said.