As West Hollywood barrels into 2019, we might take a quick look in the rear view mirror to get a quick glimpse of the events of 2018. The potholes of 2018 will undoubtedly be revisited in 2019.
Back in March I was downtown with my friends for the March Against Gun Violence. While there was something of a festive air reflecting the crowd’s solidarity, there was no doubt about our grim purpose. We joined a horde of newly minted youthful activists whose infectious enthusiasm was inspiring. Parents with children in strollers, old progressive foot soldiers and bright rainbow flags flashed color among the banners and Donald Trump effigies. While nobody was foolish enough to think a couple of marches would make a difference, it felt good to take the first steps in a long journey.
But this was soon followed by a cringe worthy event, the circus-like presentation of the key to the city to Stormy Daniels.
Sponsored by Mayor John Duran and Councilmember John D’Amico, with support of the City Manager’s office, this event represented the difference between principled Resistance to the Trump Administration and the opportunistic “resistance” by people trying to exploit our anger and frustration over the disaster in D.C. Many residents did not see the basis for proclaiming Daniels a “hero of the Resistance,” much less giving her sleazy attorney a platform. Embracing questionable figures simply because they are plaguing Donald Trump is similar to Trump’s embrace of authoritarian dictators who demean American values simply because it suits his agenda. Watching our elected officials fawning over Daniels, I could only imagine the consternation of local parents explaining to their children why West Hollywood thinks Daniels is some sort of a role model.
Ivy Bottini, the lesbian activist and a founder of NOW, lambasted the Daniels presentation at the next City Council meeting, saying she was embarrassed that Duran and D’Amico were “giddy” to be sharing the stage with a porn star. As she spoke Mayor Duran tried to interrupt her and finally called up the Sheriff to remove her from the podium. This high-handed attempt to limit a historic figure’s First Amendment rights by a self-proclaimed “civil rights” attorney sparked outrage in the community.
In 2018 the City Council accepted that its estimates regarding the bike share program were totally unrealistic, and it finally decided to revamp the program that was running at a deficit of over $400,000 annually.
After much posturing, the city announced that we would be banking with Wells Fargo for a while longer despite the bank’s history of predatory behavior. It appeared that the city placed so many politically correct conditions upon whom we would bank with that more credible institutions such as Bank of America or Chase decided they were not interested in our business.
Instead of voting to send out a new proposal to banks, the City Council tabled the matter, leaving a subcommittee made up of Duran and D’Amico to discuss how to proceed. So far they haven’t come back with a suggestion.
This was a victory for Wells Fargo and its strategic corporate giving and its ability to find people in the community who are willing to give legitimacy to bad corporate players. In this case it was our mayor, John Duran, who praised Wells Fargo for its giving to LGBT causes, which just happen to include the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. Coincidentally, Duran is chair of the GMCLA board of directors. While it was documented that Wells Fargo had defrauded over 1.1 million Americans, apparently the fact that at least 10% of these victims of corporate malfeasance would be gay or lesbian never occurred to our mayor. Once again West Hollywood proudly leads the progressive charge. As community activist Jeanne Dobrin once famously told the L.A .Weekly; “This city is for sale!”
2018 was also the year in which we lost Ed’s Café, a beloved institution on Robertson Blvd. If there was one constant in West Hollywood, it was change.
The Sunset Strip continued to be the focus of attention in 2018. The city approved the “Sunset Spectacular” whose only obvious reason to exist was to profit billboard companies. While the project will generate revenue for the city, it is not clear if residents will see any actual benefits such as lowering of parking meter rates or cleaner sidewalks.
In September the city confronted “AKA West Hollywood” over its conversion of 110 units of housing on Sunset and La Cienega boulevards into an “extended stay” hotel. By a 3 to 2 vote the city decided to enforce the development agreement that called for these units to be used as “residential house”. This led Councilmember John D’Amico to quip that West Hollywood has no shortage of luxury housing. Of course the same can be said about luxury hotel space. This vote was as much about honoring our development agreements with developers as it was about housing. It was an issue of keeping a semblance of integrity in our development process.
2018 was also the year when we saw developers engage in aggressive community outreach to build public support for projects that far exceed the General Plan. Faring led the way with its 11-story hotel project at the old Studio One site. It sold the project as a “preservation” of the architectural history of the site and found allies in the preservation community. That gave Unite Here Local 11 an opening to launch a campaign to “Save the Factory” to force the developer to actually preserve the structure rather than provide “homage” to it.
But that bush war was nothing compared to huge sales pitch made by the Arts Club, which intends to develop a club house for the 1% on the Hustler store site on the Strip. The Arts Club spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars doing outreach to generate support for this over-the-top, nine-story project. Nearly 40% of the project is being built on a residentially zoned area on the south side of the parcel that should have been developed as housing. We are losing both housing and the mandatory affordable housing units. John Heilman denounced the vote as a betrayal of the General Plan and a perversion of the Sunset Specific Plan. You know that when John Heilman and I both agree on an issue, something has to be wrong with the project.
Much of the support for the Arts Club was based upon disinformation, particularly about its supposed $13 million public benefit. Aside from a million in cash to the city and a $125,000 annual contribution to our public arts program for a decade, most of the rest of the value is based upon imaginary numbers concocted by the developer. This development, with its 11 luxury “guest” units, does little to help West Hollywood’s long term economic goals and demonstrates just how much deep pockets can skewer the city’s planning process. Fortunately sufficient signatures in opposition to this project were collected, so we will be voting on it in the upcoming March election.
As the year wound up, the two -ear effort by the city to develop a plan to deal with earthquake retro-fitting for rent-stabilized units by having tenants pay for half the costs came to a sudden end when the council voted not to allow a pass through of any of the costs to tenants.
This vote does not put low-income tenants in the clear; landlords can still apply to the city for rent increases which, if founded warranted, will be paid by tenants. This could actually put long term, low-income tenants at greater risk.
The year ended with Larry Block reciting his annual holiday poem where he tactlessly brought up the issue of John D’Amico’s promise not to run for a third term.
Aside from our March City Council election, in 2019 we can look forward to a spectacular celebration to commemorate the 35th anniversary of John Heilman’s accession to the Council dais. Incidentally it will also be the 35th anniversary of the incorporation of the City of West Hollywood.
But whatever happens in 2019 it is always easy to predict we live in interesting times in a very interesting city.