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The War to Save the Neighborhood : Behind Proposition U Is a Tough New Generation of Community Groups That Has Begun Working to Preserve the L.A. Dream Before It Disappears Amid High-Rises and Traffic

<i> Sam Hall Kaplan is The Times' design critic and author of the forthcoming book "L.A. Lost & Found." </i>

Waking up in Westchester to the buzz of power saws cutting down a row of graceful shade trees so a street can be widened; wandering out in Studio City to buy milk and getting stuck in traffic; watching oversized office buildings balloon up over Burbank; wanting to go to Westwood for a movie, or to the Redondo Beach Pier, but deciding not to because of the hassle of parking; wondering while stuck on the Santa Monica Freeway what happened to the dream of a low-key, low-scale, lush Los Angeles with the ocean, the mountains, shopping, work and play never more than 20 minutes away from wherever--these concerns are ricocheting across the diverse Los Angeles landscape, generating confusion, anger and protests.

But the same concerns have prompted a new spirit that is making residents ponder what they value about living in and around Los Angeles and how they can protect it. In recent years, the number of resident associations in the city of Los Angeles alone has doubled to about 300, say community activists and campaign consultants who monitor such trends. And, they add, the groups are not simply one-time, one-issue committees but seem to be digging in to prompt major changes in the city politic.

“No question about it,” observes Dan Garcia, who for the last 10 years has presided over the city Planning Commission, “communities are more organized, more likely to oppose projects, more likely to file a lawsuit than ever before. It is no phenomenon anymore. It’s a fact--the most dramatic thing occurring in the city today. And while some of it is parochial and negative and some of it reasonable and well intentioned, the total is getting louder and more forceful.”

From San Pedro to Sunland, from Boyle Heights to Venice, across dinner tables and back fences, at supermarkets, shopping centers and gas pumps, on the job and at the beach, the weather is no longer the prime topic. It has been replaced by such issues as traffic, planning and zoning, and whether Lotus Land is disappearing in a cloud of exhaust fumes or in the shadow of a high-rise.

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A direct result of this apprehension is Proposition U on the Nov. 4 Los Angeles city ballot, the so-called slow-growth initiative, which, if approved as expected and not diluted by political manipulations, would cut by half the size of commercial buildings in Los Angeles. The measure would restrict growth in areas covering about 85% of the city’s commercial properties, most of them bordering single-family neighborhoods. As Election Day nears, the City Council has been trying to exempt select properties from the restrictions, to the chagrin of neighborhood activists.

Though some would have preferred that the initiative be more radical and sweeping, it was embraced by most of the city’s resident groups, who gathered 105,000 signatures, substantially more than needed to qualify it for the ballot. Reflected in support for the measure is the fact that discontent with the shaping and misshaping of the city is taking on an increasingly militant tone.

“It is a very frustrating and also exciting time, for we have finally realized if we don’t take some control of the growth, it will very shortly overwhelm us,” says Charles Rosin of the Carthay Circle Homeowners Assn. At a recent meeting in the living room of Rosin’s Spanish Colonial bungalow, neighbors echoed his determination, ticking off their particular peeves, which included crass billboards and the destruction and defacement of landmark buildings.

For the Carthay Circle group, taking control has meant devising traffic-management programs and lobbying for their implementation, pressuring developers to pay for community improvements such as street landscaping, monitoring requests for zoning changes, testifying at Metro Rail hearings, and generally looking closely over the shoulders of their elected representatives. Recent victories include designation of some local streets as one-way and installation of barriers to discourage through traffic. Rosin says that it took nearly two years of badgering the city to get the changes approved and to persuade the developer of a nearby office tower to pay for them “as a gesture to the community.” But, he adds, it was worth it. “The streets are so much more quiet now, and safer. And they are a wonderful demonstration of what a community can do if it organizes.”

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Increasingly heavy traffic spilling off congested Wilshire Boulevard is a concern for the neighboring Miracle Mile Residential Assn. For homeowner and resident associations in San Pedro, Wilmington, Highland Park, North Hollywood, Van Nuys, Sunland and Tujunga, the major worry is a rash of uncongenial apartment houses.

According to Peter Mendoza of the Wilmington Home Owners Assn., who has lived in that South Bay community all of his 45 years, “it seems everywhere you look in L.A. the quantity is going up and the quality is going down.” What the Wilmington association has done, as have groups in Westwood and in the Valley, is to pressure their City Council representatives to get the city to impose a limited building moratorium on apartment projects. “It is not that we are against growth,” Mendoza says. “We just want to get a handle on it.”

“I’ve been in Los Angeles since 1937, worked in real estate in the 1940s and 1950s, and have lived almost everywhere in the Valley, and loved it,” says Sylvia Gross, a guiding force in the Sunland-Tujunga Area Residents Assn. “There were problems back then, too. But what I am seeing now--the trees coming down, the hills bulldozed and the cheap apartment houses and stores going up, with no regard for the surrounding neighborhood--breaks my heart. That is why we are organizing and getting more members. While the developers and politicians may not care what they are doing to Los Angeles, we do. We live here and will be living here long after they are gone.”

For Diane Alexander of Highland Park, what moved her community to action was “the bulldozers knocking down the fine old California Craftsman-styled bungalows here to put up those cheap, three-story, ticky-tacky stucco apartment houses, as if this community didn’t have enough problems as it is.” So last year Alexander and her neighbors formed a group known as Residents and Others for Highland Park to protest what they consider “over-scaled” development.

“In 1776 it was taxation without representation that stirred the population. In 1986, in Los Angeles, it is development without representation,” says Patrick McCartney of the Westchester-based Coalition of Concerned Communities. An umbrella group for 19 resident associations in areas between Santa Monica and the airport, the coalition’s main worry these days is the impact of commercial growth on neighborhoods. “We need housing and we’re getting offices,” McCartney says.

The coalition sends representatives to almost every city meeting or hearing at which matters that might affect the area are brought up. It also is quick to issue statements to the press, criticize the votes of local representatives and file lawsuits to block or at least frustrate proposed developments. In addition, the coalition puts out a newsletter to keep members informed and fired up.

Such efforts command attention. Among the proposed projects the coalition has had a part in altering is the ambitious $1-billion Playa Vista, a combined commercial, retail and residential development between Westchester and Marina del Rey. The project subsequently has gone through numerous revisions to meet local objections.

Proposed developments in Westwood are also being monitored by resident groups. “When we moved here from New York (in the 1970s), Westwood was a pleasant college town,” says Laura Lake of Not Yet New York, a citywide coalition of the more ardent resident groups. “But every time we’d go away on a trip and come back, there was some landmark being ripped down, a crane out in the middle of the street blocking traffic, and another office tower going up. Now, Westwood is a place to be avoided, ringed by high-rises that do not contribute to the community. Our quality of life, everybody’s quality of life, just the things that made L.A. so attractive, is being ruined. And then some politician asks why we are so angry, why we want to change the system so it can work for residents as well as it works for developers.”

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t is a lament that has been heard for a century, ever since immigrants tired of the cold and crowded cities of the East and Midwest started flocking to Los Angeles to make growth the city’s biggest industry.

Los Angeles is not expanding as voraciously as it did in the boom years of the 1880s and 1920s or the 1950s and ‘60s. But it is growing--steadily in population, sporadically in residential and commercial development, and haphazardly in location. At last count, the city’s population was about 3 million, the county’s nearly 8 million. According to studies by the Southern California Assn. of Governments, the population of the six-county L.A. metropolitan area could, if its current rate of growth continues, reach 18.3 million in 2010.

The nature of the growth is changing too, observes Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, whose Westside district is a ferment of community action. “The actual increase in the population in my district has been slight. For the last 11 years, the district has remained at about 200,000. What has changed dramatically is life styles. L.A. used to be more private, with people entertaining at home, living more modestly. Now people are going out more--to restaurants, to shop, to theaters. Businesses and services also have increased, with the result that the city has become more urban, and that means congestion. The growth can’t be stopped. It’s what makes the city tick. But it can be controlled and shaped better.”

He adds: “It’s like L.A. was a popcorn maker with a couple of cups of kernels in it. After slowly being heated up, all of a sudden the kernels have begun to pop--a few at first and now all of them--like crazy.”

The explosion in part prompted Yaroslavsky, along with Planning Commission President Garcia, Councilman Marvin Braude, architect Mark Hall and former Tarzana Property Owners Assn. President Irma Dobbyn, to sponsor Proposition U. “We are just trying to give some direction to a very strong neighborhood sentiment,” says Braude, who started his political career as head of a homeowners association in the 1960s. “Back then, the groups were relatively unsophisticated,” he adds. “Today they are much sharper and stronger.”

The initiative is seen by many of the community groups as the first ringing volley in a war over the future shape and style of Los Angeles. “The system now is stacked for developers in a way that forces communities into an adversary position,” Laura Lake explains. “Not Yet New York is not anti-growth. We are for reasonable growth that takes the affected community into consideration, lets it play a responsible role in the development process. As it is now, residents are frozen out.” While supporting the initiative, the coalition is also pursuing legal action to contain development and is studying with others the establishment of community planning boards.

The tone of the resident groups worries the city’s development community, which is concerned that slow-growth efforts will turn into no-growth efforts. “Citizen involvement is essential to the planning process, but it has to be in concert with the political leadership and professional urban planners,” says Edward Helfeld, former director of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency and now a private developer and professor of architecture and urban planning at USC. “You cannot expect good planning by election initiatives, such as Proposition U. You may prevent the worst, but you cannot get desirable, livable communities out of the ballot box. That must come from a more reasonable and less emotional process, with all involved over a period of time, than what is happening in many communities today.”

But citizen groups argue that they are shunted aside in the planning process. “Trying to keep up with the proposals now is like being the proverbial boy with a finger in the dike,” says Alexander Man of Pacific Palisades. For the last 12 years, Man, as head of the Federation of Organizations for Conserving Urban Space (FOCUS), has monitored city projects that he feels threaten the ambiance and ecology of neighborhoods.

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On occasion, he has gone door to door, like Paul Revere, to alert residents about, among other things, proposed street-widening projects that would destroy trees. The last-minute actions of Man and others saved the rows of magnificent, mature palms that had been planted along Highland and Hollywood boulevards to commemorate the 1932 Olympics. Man says that the trees were to come down for a street widening, proposed in part, ironically, to ease traffic that was expected for the 1984 Olympics. The tactics included threats by residents to chain themselves to trees, appeals to the news media for coverage, gathering signatures on petitions, and letter-writing campaigns.

Victories are rare, Man says, because it is hard to get information. “The administrators, bureaucrats, engineers and architects all have vested interest in the developments and look upon citizens as an annoyance.” He contends that, time and again, residents have learned about projects too late to do anything except become more frustrated and alienated. “And if you take off a day (from work) to go to a meeting,” he says, “it is the bureaucrats and lobbyists that get all the courtesies and are allowed to speak on and on, and the poor, affected citizens are made to wait. Yet, it is the residents who actually own the streets and for whom the bureaucrats work.”

“Downtown just takes us for granted,” complains Sheila Cannon, who recently organized the Concerned Citizens for South-Central Los Angeles to protest the location of an incinerator in her neighborhood. “Just because we are a low-income, minority community, the city thinks it can use us as a dumping ground. Well, it is time for us as a community to play a role in our own future and stop being treated like a plantation.”

Though frustrating, the increasing confrontations with “downtown” have actually stiffened the resolve of communities to grab hold of planning policies. “We have by necessity become tougher,” says Brian Moore, head of the Federation of Hillside and Canyon Assns., a coalition of 49 homeowner groups.

“I was not a joiner. But one morning in 1978 I woke up to witness the landmark house next to mine, which had been owned by Francis X. Bushman, being bulldozed without a permit. It made me so angry that I am still feeding on it after all these years. For me it was the Bushman house; for others it is the views, the hills, the ambiance that they see being destroyed. People are waking up to what is happening.”


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