Nine of the 11 candidates in the March 5 race for West Hollywood City Council participated in a forum hosted by the Chamber of Commerce tonight that was relatively staid until the end, when a young friend of Gemmel Moore loudly berated them for not addressing the deaths of Moore and another black man in the Laurel Avenue apartment of Ed Buck, the white political campaign donor.
Jerome Kitchen, who has identified himself as a friend of the 26-year-old Moore, stood up from his seat in the City Council Chambers along with other young black men and interrupted Chamber President Genevieve Morrill’s closing remarks by loudly questioning why none of the candidates had addressed the deaths. Moore was found dead in Buck’s apartment on July 27, 2017, in what the coroner’s office has ruled was an accidental drug overdose. Timothy Dean, 55, was found dead in Buck’s apartment on Jan. 7. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department has barred the coroner from disclosing the cause of death while it is under investigation. But Buck’s lawyer, Seymour Amster, said that Dean was a friend of Buck’s who was under the influence when he visited his apartment that night. The deaths have been the subject of several rallies outside Buck’s apartment building and have been covered by media across the world because of Buck’s reputation as a political donor, the implication that drugs were involved and evidence that Buck has paid young black men for sex.
Morrill shouted down Kitchen, who then walked with his friends into the lobby of the Council Chambers where he was interviewed by a news film crew. At that point, a young white man who had been attending the forum stepped into the lobby and began verbally attacking Kitchen, calling him a “monkey” and using the “n word.” As the shouting escalated, a security officer escorted the young white man out of the lobby.
The two-and-a-half hour forum, moderated by NBC4 News reporter Robert Kovacik, covered a variety of issues including ways to revitalize the Sunset Strip, supporting local businesses, the city’s shortage of affordable housing, homelessness, the routing of and ways to pay for Metro’s Crenshaw line extension, public safety and the development of cannabis businesses. The questions were developed by the Chamber with input from its members and community members. Some questions were put forth by members of tonight’s audience.
Several of the challengers took similar positions on issues, one of which was the lack of affordable housing in West Hollywood. The city, which has strong regulations governing rent increases for apartments in buildings built before July 1, 1979, requires developers of new projects with 10 or more units to make 20% of them affordable. However it also offers developers another option — to donate money to a housing trust fund which the city can use to support construction of housing by non-profit groups such as the West Hollywood Community Housing Corp.
Candidate Sepi Shyne called out the City of Santa Monica for requiring that developers of buildings of a certain size ensure that 30% of the units are affordable. Shyne said West Hollywood should increase its percentage requirement. Brendan Hood, another challenger in the race, stood out as a strong supporter of building more housing in West Hollywood as a way to address the rise in housing costs and the shortage of housing units. Another advocate for more affordable housing was candidate Duke Mason, who also argued for construction of more housing, and particularly mixed-use housing, which would consist of buildings that also include commercial space. Mason also said he supported construction of so-called “micro units,” which are small studio apartments that typically rent for less than a one-bedroom.
Shyne and Hood also said they supported permitting construction of more dense buildings along transit corridors. A proposal by State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, to dramatically increase the density of projects near subway stops and major bus stops was defeated in the state legislature and was opposed by West Hollywood City Council members John D’Amico and Lauren Meister, in part because it would have taken away some of a city’s ability to regulate its own development.
Meister, however, acknowledged that the city faces an affordable housing problem. “We have become the city of haves and have nots,” she said, noting the construction in recent years of a large number of expensive apartments, “luxury housing that isn’t even filled.” Meister said the city needs to do more to encourage moderately priced development and should look at the zoning code to see if changes need to be made.
Marquita Thomas, another challenger, who has lived in West Hollywood for 23 years and is in a rent-stabilized apartment, said another issue is making sure those older buildings are well maintained.
Duke Mason argued that construction of more housing is crucial to dealing with the issue of homelessness. When asked what they proposed for the empty former Walgreens lot on the southwest corner of Santa Monica and Crescent Heights boulevards, Mason recommended housing for the homeless.
Councilmember Lindsey Horvath said the city needs to consult with community members as to how to use that property. But she noted that it could be used for affordable housing and as a place where social services can be provided to those in need.
Brendan Hood recommended it be used for an assisted living facility or a building that facilitates aging in place by seniors. Shawn Davis Mooney said it would be a good location for a non-profit continuing care facility. Meister suggested it could be the site for housing for moderate-income or low-income people managed by a non-profit group, with retail and other commercial businesses included on the Santa Monica Boulevard side.
Thomas said that since the city already meets it annual state goal for affordable housing, she would like to see the land used as a parking lot, which is the temporary use the city is planning while it considers other options. D’Amico noted that parking could be built under a building on the lot.
All of the candidates said they supported an extension of the L.A. Metro Crenshaw line through West Hollywood, although Meister said she is concerned about supporting the project until the details are ironed out. “ I do feel that we need to know what we’re getting into,” she said. “What’s the alignment? Above ground or underground? We cannot just rubber stamp what Metro throws our way.”
All but one of the candidates supported extending the Crenshaw line along La Cienega Boulevard, one of five options Metro is considered, noting that it is a more commercial corridor than San Vicente Boulevard. Mooney said he supported running the line up Fairfax Avenue because it also is a commercial corridor.
Cannabis was called out by several incumbents and challengers as an important new area of business for West Hollywood, which recently released the names of applicants for a total of 40 cannabis licenses covering retail, medical use, lounges and delivery.
But Horvath, Meister, Hood and Mason also said the city should do more to support existing local businesses, which have seen a lot of turnover in recent years because of increasing rents and competition from online services like Amazon. Mason said he wants to create a small business advisory board that would work to streamline the business permit process and reduce city fees and regulations. Meister said the city should offer free WiFi and reduce parking requirements to make it easier for small businesses to open in West Hollywood, particularly those looking to occupy office space.
Shawn Davis Mooney recommended investing more in the city’s tourism industry, with a focus on the Sunset Strip. Revitalizing that famous corridor has been a priority of Mayor John Duran.
“Travel and tourism are the engines of West Hollywood’s economy,” said Marquita Thomas.
Challengers Eric Jon Schmidt and Jack Cline did not participate in the forum. Schmidt had said earlier that he objected to it because it was hosted by the Chamber of Commerce, which advocates for the interests of local businesses. It is not clear why Cline, who lives with Schmidt, did not attend.
The City Council election is on March 5.