Los Angeles is at a developmental crossroads, growing out of its callow youth as the capital of car culture and suburban sprawl and coming into its maturity as — well, as something else. What exactly that will be depends in large part on who guides its development. Will it be a place with more crippling congestion, or will it have fewer cars, cleaner air and safer streets? Will its densifying neighborhoods retain their economic and cultural diversity, or will the city continue down the road of ad hoc development until it resembles an urban nightmare with miles of high rises surrounded by traffic-clogged roads and shantytowns?
It’s impossible to know for sure, of course. But there’s a way to hedge our bets by electing city leaders who believe wholeheartedly in a more sustainable type of growth. For Council District 1 voters, that means picking Joe Bray-Ali for City Council on March 7. Developers and investment are already transforming some of the district’s river- and downtown-adjacent neighborhoods (Highland Park has become something of a poster child for gentrification), and to a lesser extent the communities of MacArthur Park and Pico-Union. Of the four candidates, including incumbent Councilman Gil Cedillo, we think Bray-Ali, a small business owner and community activist who lives in Lincoln Heights, would best lead this district and the city into a better future.
Many people in the district think of Bray-Ali, 37, as just a bike-shop owner and bike activist. Frustration over Cedillo’s part in stalling bike lanes on Figueroa Street propelled Bray-Ali into this race. But though he may be campaigning atop two wheels, he has educated himself way beyond bike and transit issues. In fact, his understanding of land-use policy is impressive for someone who has never worked in City Hall, and his experience running a small business in the city will make him a rare and important voice on the council.
It is no small thing to depose a sitting councilman, and Cedillo has a big fundraising advantage due in part to support from developers. But the personable Bray-Ali, whose father was an aide to a number of local Latino officials, is not a neophyte to City Hall or local politics. He has been involved in community issues for more than a decade since serving on the Arroyo Seco Neighborhood Council in 2005 and 2006. Indeed, Bray-Ali’s first job out of college was as a field deputy for a Latino state legislator, then-Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez (D-Norwalk).
Cedillo has a reputation among community activists as someone hell-bent on helping developers build market-rate housing while paying little regard for the more prosaic concerns of the neighborhoods. This disinterest in the community is troubling; even more so is his indifference to the displacement of low-income constituents. (He called displacement in his district an “urban myth” in a meeting with the editorial board. The city’s own data show it is not.) Building more housing is a virtue — the city is in a housing crunch, and more market-rate housing means more housing, period. But it shouldn’t come at the expense of a neighborhood’s affordability and quality of life. A councilman’s job is to balance the interests of neighborhoods with those of the population as a whole, and Cedillo doesn’t seem to be interested in that task.
There are two other candidates in the race: Jesse Rosas, a small businessman with deep community connections but no clear plan, and Giovany Hernandez, a young charter school parent organizer from Westlake who grew up in Pico-Union. Hernandez is someone worth watching in future races. He has an impressive grasp of local policy and politics for someone who hasn’t served on a city board or commission, but he needs more experience before taking on a council seat.
Cedillo hasn’t been a bad councilman, nor a particularly good one. Had he done more on the council’s housing and land use committees to build affordable housing, expedite new community plans and close loopholes used to evict low-income tenants, it’s possible that anger over development in Los Angeles wouldn’t have boiled over and produced Measure S, an initiative on the March ballot to slow the pace of growth. (Bray-Ali opposes the measure.) There’s a deep-seated frustration in this city about how development decisions are made, and Cedillo’s attitude toward his constituents only bolsters that discontent.
The winner of this race will have an extra long term (the recent change in city elections means the winner will hold office for 5½ years) during a building boom that could fundamentally change the district. It is imperative that the person making the decisions focus on the needs of the community, not just a personal vision. The candidate who is best prepared to do that for Council District 1 is Bray-Ali.