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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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 annual snow melt. So “water is no longer an issue”

    I just don’t understand your point. Could you please clarify.


  3. 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.

  4. 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 City was founded, the movement to incorporate was inspired by a fierce desire to keep folks in their units and protect our unique neighborhoods. The City was incorporated for the residents; not developers. As a City we can and do have great differences on the approach to development and the right pace and balance. That is how it should be. There are good projects and bad one; there are bad developments that could be modified to be excellent developments. But that can only happen if we have people willing to debate the issue. Right now it seems that the momentum is toward a mindless rush to the future without any real contemplation on where we are going to wind up and what will happen to the place we love.

  5. 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.

  6. 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 but is simply for pedestrians. Right now, car traffic has no idea how many times they are going to need to stop, so traffic slows down to a crawl in this area. But if the pedestrians crossing were timed, cars would know whether they have the right of way or not. For sure, it would mean a lot of lights between Westbourne and La Cienega, but if they were timed and synchronized, fewer people would mind. All it would mean is that pedestrians instead of walking across at will, would need to wait, like they do at most other cross-walks. Having pedestrians modulate traffic is a recipe for congestion, frustration, and delays.

  7. 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 is the solution to our traffic problems. Once we have enough ride share vehicles on the road, and people are accepting of them, software will be able to optimize people’s routes (as Uber is doing), and take three drivers off the road for their morning commute at once, as an example. It just has to get to a level where people can afford to do it each day. For some people, that might already be the case. People want door-to-door convenience … they don’t want to wait for buses and trains, which make stops on the way. This can be especially time-consuming in Los Angeles, which takes up such a large geographic area. Also, ride-sharing doesn’t require any major changes to our infrastructure.

  8. 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!

  9. 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 many are doing exactly that. Hank I am glad you finally woke up, now when will the rest of you? There are plenty of excuses “its too hot to walk”, “its to dangerous to ride a bike”, “the buses smell”, “I’m in a hurry” blah blah blah.
    Better to just complain about traffic!

    FYI WeHo has the highest walk score (91) in California.

  10. 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.

  11. 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 major intersections like they have in Beverly Hills, they cut down on crossing time & reduce the foot traffic. Yes, pedestrians are part of the vehicle traffic problem, they usually occupy cross walks all the way across the street, bringing traffic to a stop through sometimes more than 1 light change & backing up traffic even more. I recall at one proposed development years ago at Sunset & La Cienega, one developer had proposed building pedestrian bridges at the intersection to help speed up the car traffic, but that idea was rejected by the council. In 2011 new Councilman John D’Amico said re traffic & parking: “We in West Hollywood haven’t figured it out yet, that even though we collect $10 million in parking fees & tickets every year, I think it’s been the undone thing & I hope to get some of that done.” Still waiting.
    I am a home owner & I don’t oppose new apartment buildings. I just don’t want to be suffocated or squeezed out by new mega developments, and one is planned directly across from me that will cut off the view & shadow my building. Do I have a right to object & complain about that? You bet I do. I quote candidate John D’Amico again in 2011: “Our city has begun to drift toward faster, bigger louder, turning into too much of L.A. & not staying enough of West Hollywood. We have to think of the next 24 years & do we want bigger, faster & louder or do we want to maintain the urban village that we all moved to?” Good questions with no definitive answers by the City Council or anyone else except maybe some suggestions by concerned residents. .
    Final point, I reject the implication that West Hollywood has to sacrifice the quality of life for it’s residents in order to maintain it’s reputation that it is a city of non-discrimination that is welcoming & open to everyone & at the same time realize that at 1.9 crowded square miles, West Hollywood cannot be all things to all people at all times & should stop claiming it can.

  12. 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.

  13. Uh, making SMB a fully fleshed out freeway would kill WeHo faster than you can say ‘Developers are greedy!!!”. BH and WeHo were right in opposing that vehemently back then. They saw how it destroyed many historically black/latino/minority/urban neighborhoods all over LA and other parts of the country.

    1. It was supposed to go down Santa Monica Bl. It was to replace the current Highway 2 with a new freeway to the south. What should happen now is the monies dedicated to the Highway 2 Freeway be reallocated to a Light Rail system fallowing Santa Monica Bl. from the City of Santa Monica to Downtown L.A.

      Being a former MTA employee I can attest to the fact the promise by the MTA to route the Crenshaw Line via San Vicente Bl to Santa Monica Bl. will never see the light of day. Besides not being the most direct route to Hollywood and Highland it would cross several streets twice and fail to connect with the Purple Line.

  14. Lets put the problem of grid lock where it squarely belongs. Governor “Moon Beam” Brown scrapped the Route 2 freeway back in the 60’s although it had been fully funded and the property acquired. Yes, Beverly Hills was against it put if had only gone as far as Deheny Dr. the problem would have been theirs. Century City and other Westside developments were constructed with the assurance of the Route 2 Freeway being built. And now the fools in West Hollywood voted to increase their taxes when the MTA promised to extend the Crenshaw Light Rail Line thru the city. Oh, it will pass thru West Hollywood but that route will be northbound on La Brea Ave. from Venice Bl.

    No one wants a high rise apartment building next to their home or their low rise apartment building but the city constantly approves them where said high rise skirts a commercial street like Santa Monica Bl. It’s time to re-evaluate our building zones lowering them so as any mandated exceptions only results in two stories in a residential zone and three stories in a zone disignated for multi-family development. Absolutely no exception should be made where a developer attempts to develop a property where they are using a commercial property and a residential property unless that portion of the residential property does not exceed the height or set backs.

  15. Thanks Hank, I was told about several countries and a couple of states that have or are adopting the ‘build for 100 years philosophy. Meaning treating housing as a right, and having surplus for a while that keeps space at an affordable rate for anyone needing or desiring housing. It allows developers to build their luxo-towers, because that doesn’t really effect the supply. It would require a sea-change of the mindset in America, but it has proven to make some countries more livable and eliminated their homeless crisis.

  16. Great reaction to the misleading article about WeHo’s people poll. However FOES OF DEVELOPMENT is an extreme just as FULL DEVELOPMENT is. What many of us residents just want MANAGED DEVELOPMENT, which means, NO WAIVERS to developers when it comes to parking, affordable housing, setback and other definitions that protect residents while encourage business and residential benefits of such developments. Sacrificing the village of WeHo appeal, the dangers of bad traffic management, the encouragement of long term residency just to build more mixed use buildings, hotels & other new structures is what is alarming. Portland, for instance REPURPOSES existing structures. Why can’t we? Exhibiting CARE for residents over the intrusion of developers’ interests needs to be top priority. PEOPLE count, GREED does not.

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