UCLA professor Laura Lake is undertaking a wholesale rewriting of Westwood's community plan in an attempt to scale down what she sees as "helter-skelter" growth in the congested district.
Planning consultant Ruth Galanter, who lives in Venice, is trying to unseat City Councilwoman Pat Russell in the 6th District and dreams of slowing development in that populous Westside area.
Urban planner Madelyn Glickfeld is keeping a vigil over a new coastal plan for Malibu, which she and others fear could allow the County Board of Supervisors to more than double the population of that quiet community.
Los Angeles Valley College professor David Brown is lobbying landowners, trying to persuade them to join an effort to double the 56,000 acres of parkland that has been saved from developers' bulldozers in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Meet a few of the city's self-declared "quality-of-lifers."
They are a loose collection of planners, professors, environmentalists, attorneys and politicians who share a belief that densely packed areas such as the Westside and the San Fernando Valley are facing neighborhood ruin and that rural oases like Malibu and the mountains could be the next casualties of overbuilding.
What drives them is a belief that they can alter decades-old practices that have granted developers a liberal hand in creating the city.
Last November's landslide voter approval of Proposition U, which limits commercial growth in many areas, was cheered by the activists as proof that people are primed for change.
"If it goes too far and too many people are crowded in here, people are going to take power into their own hands, and Proposition U is that message," Glickfeld said.
"I hope the County Board of Supervisors is listening up, too, because it hardly ends at City Hall," she said. "We'll tackle a statewide initiative, we'll do it in the courts, we'll do it by running for office . . . we will stop this incessant chant of build, build, build."
Politicians who support environmental issues say the quality-of-lifers wield more political clout than the slow-growth advocates of the 1970s, who were often viewed as elitists and radicals.
"They aren't somebody who hung out at Stanford, is named Muff and wears button-downs," Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) said. "They aren't that kind of environmentalist.
"A quality-of-lifer is somebody who may live in a tract home or on a well-traveled street rather than among the redwoods or the trees of Marin. The activists are the voice, and standing behind them are millions who believe the same things."
City Councilman Marvin Braude, who with Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky has proposed major development reforms, said a wide spectrum of residents "believe that the development industry has got Los Angeles and the City Council by the throat, and they are absolutely right.
"What we're seeing now is the fantastic reaction to that. The big shift has begun."
Emboldened by voter sentiment on Proposition U, Westside activists are taking aim at local government.
They say one big victory was the recently approved amendment to the state's Brown Act, requiring local governmental bodies to notify the public 72 hours before they vote on a development project or other non-emergency issue.
Members of the coalition dubbed Not Yet New York, including Lake and Beverly Hills attorney Barbara Blinderman, were among the leaders of a lobbying effort at state and city levels supporting the 72-hour notice.
"Now," said Lake, who is president of Friends of Westwood, "we can be there in force to fight things that used to slip through our fingers."
Seen by other activists as a savvy strategist, Lake gained a citywide reputation for helping bring together diverse groups from poor and rich neighborhoods when she co-founded Not Yet New York with several other community leaders.
The coalition's groups have effectively questioned the safety of LANCER, the city's controversial trash-to-energy incinerator plant proposed in the South-Central Los Angeles. Giving a nod to those concerns, Mayor Tom Bradley recently said the project will not proceed unless its emissions are shown to pose no health hazard.
(If the first LANCER is given the go-ahead, a second is envisioned on the Westside. A third is contemplated in the San Fernando Valley.)
Despite her clashes with city government, Lake has earned grudging respect for her detailed knowledge of planning issues.
Yaroslavsky, whose district includes Westwood, said Lake is known in City Hall as someone who "does her homework, knows the problems, and is certainly not a gadfly."
However, Yaroslavsky said Lake's approach is unsettling. "On a scale of 1 to 10, Laura views everything as a 10, and that's a problem," Yaroslavsky said.
Refusal to Compromise
As a result, he said, Lake refused to compromise on what Yaroslavsky called "some good projects," like the embattled 14-story Murdoch Hotel in Westwood that he backed.
Lake said the city's troubles demand a hard-line attitude.
"The problems we're seeing are the result of premeditated, calculated decisions on the part of several elected officials not to obey laws, not to protect the public health and welfare but to close their eyes," said Lake, shaking her head.
"The result? Sewage in the bay, gridlock at noon, smog alerts, LANCER. It's like counting the plagues that pass over us."
Lake and her allies plan to seek changes in Westwood's community plan that would dramatically cut future building. Such changes would require approval from the City Council.
And, they are working to oust City Council President Pat Russell.
Russell opposed Proposition U and played a central role in pushing developments that are opposed by some Westside community groups.
Two of the most controversial are the massive Howard Hughes Center in Westchester and Summa Corp.'s huge residential and office community proposed at Playa Vista near Marina del Rey.
As a member of the Sierra Club, Russell said she thinks of herself as an environmentalist and is angered by critics' portrayal of her as being highly pro-development.
"I was an early environmentalist, before it was popular . . . and I still have that approach to things," she said. "The Hughes land, for instance, became available after being vacant many years, and we've really had an opportunity to master-plan it wisely."
She said she has tried to soften the effects of development by fighting helicopter noise and pushing a traffic ordinance that requires developers to pay into a fund to relieve street congestion.
But Lake said Russell's traffic ordinance, which does not limit growth but charges developers a fee, "shows the fundamental nightmare of what's going on here.
"We've seen similar fees applied in Westwood, where they're using money for computerized traffic signals that get the traffic to the freeway faster. But when the traffic gets there, the freeway is filled."
From among the Westside activists who agree with Lake, one has emerged as a leading challenger to Russell.
Ruth Galanter, a planning consultant, was among the first last year to enter the race, which now includes six candidates.
The four other challengers are Rimmon C. Fay, a well-known environmentalist and marine biologist; Salvatore Grammatico, a Mar Vista real-estate broker; Virginia Taylor Hughes, a Crenshaw area activist, and Patrick McCartney, a Venice community activist.
Disparity in Funds
Galanter is generally viewed as the biggest threat to Russell but has only about $45,000 in campaign funds to Russell's $293,000.
Galanter, former chairwoman of the defunct Regional Coastal Commission and a former leader of the League of Conservation Voters, is also known to environmentalists for her work on behalf of the state Coastal Conservancy, the agency charged with restoring damaged coastal lands. Galanter worked to preserve wetlands threatened by development in Long Beach and Huntington Beach.
A political neophyte, Galanter said she decided to make the leap from activist to candidate because "my thinking and the thinking of people on the Westside are the same."
"This movement is no longer backed by just the stereotypically rich hillside types, but by people . . . who buy a house to raise their kids in," Galanter said.
"Suddenly, they find out that there's an old landfill next door, or there's an office tower going in nearby. At that point, they've had enough."
Remembers First Fight
Galanter remembers the first time she had had enough in Los Angeles.
In 1973 she was the first California resident to file an appeal objecting to a project, under provisions of the fledgling state Coastal Act. She fought Santa Monica's Ocean Park Redevelopment Project, originally planned as 1,480 luxury residential units inside a gated community on the beach.
Ultimately the project was built with 340 condominiums and 160 units for seniors--and with no gate.
"When I feel really angry about what is happening in Los Angeles because of Pat Russell and others, I drive by there and I think to myself: 'I helped make this a better place; it can be done,' " Galanter said.
In her work to restore the wetlands, she became known as a deft negotiator. Peter Grenell, executive officer of the Coastal Conservancy, said she worked out delicate compromises that allowed some construction by private landowners but saved key ecological sites.
Galanter displayed "a vital talent," Grenell said. "She can talk straight to people but also gain a modicum of trust from them. If you can't get their trust, you don't have anything."
Russell said Galanter is distorting the picture in the 6th District.
"There is overdevelopment in Zev's and Marvin's districts, and that's why they came up with Prop. U and I respect that," Russell said. "But in my district we have not had overdevelopment, and I'm angered by what Ruth is saying."
Russell attributed her troubles to a small group of residents who were upset when several big projects came up at nearly the same time, proposed on long-vacant land.
"But most Westchester residents have good common sense, and they aren't saying, 'Please leave these places for parks,' " Russell said. "They always knew the vacant areas would be developed."
Support for Galanter
Nevertheless, the California League of Conservation Voters, which generally involves itself in statewide environment issues, has launched an independent campaign backing Galanter. It has brought in canvassers from offices across the state to campaign door to door.
Dorothy Green, president of the league's Southern California division, said the league is "pulling out all the stops in this race, because Los Angeles is going down the tubes, thanks to the leadership of Pat Russell."
But the quality-of-lifers do not, by any means, place all the blame upon Pat Russell and the Los Angeles City Council.
The County Board of Supervisors--and more recently the state Coastal Commission--are also facing angry opposition to their plans for the Westside and mountains.
For nearly every major development envisioned by the state or county, there is a Westside resident who has read all the reports, seen all the maps and is asking a lot of questions.
'Difficult to Contradict'
One of the most persistent is Malibu urban planner Madelyn Glickfeld.
Glickfeld, said Malibu Township Council President Leon Cooper, "scares the hell out of county officials because she's so smart. She puts things in a framework that's difficult for them to contradict."
An alternate member of the Coastal Commission and a longtime activist for the Township Council, Glickfeld has a reputation as something of a land-use guerrilla. She does not mince words with county officials and believes that a populist revolution is stirring that one day may strip some of the board's powers.
Last year, a county planning official summed up the anxiety Glickfeld inspires, asking whether "that woman from Malibu" was scheduled to speak against Supervisor Deane Dana's proposal to put a major hotel in Malibu.
When Glickfeld's name was spotted on the list of speakers, the official sighed audibly. "Let's get to it, then," he said.
The hotel was approved, but not without a pointed lecture from Glickfeld.
Peter Ireland, Dana's Malibu deputy, said Dana shares local concern about overdeveloping Malibu. For that reason, Ireland said, Dana has rejected many proposals, including one to build condos in Zuma Canyon and another to build homes on steep slopes in Topanga Canyon.
"But in Malibu there are some groups that will not be pleased unless they are successful in getting 100% of what they wanted originally, and compromise is virtually impossible," Ireland said.
However, Glickfeld said, Dana rarely meets with angry residents, does not respond to letter-writing campaigns and is out of touch with the community.
"We don't have a supervisor; we have a king," she said. "Malibu is crying out for government reform and for land-use reform."
She said she would like to see an end to the board's practice of allowing individual supervisors to vote on projects whose developers have contributed campaign money to the supervisor.
"Now that would be a very quiet Board of Supervisors' meeting, wouldn't it?" Glickfeld said.
One of her pet peeves is a plan by the Los Angeles Athletic Club that could forever alter scenic lower Topanga Creek.
The club, which owns the land, has proposed rerouting the creek through a pipe or cement channel to control it during flood season, then building condominiums nearby. Glickfeld said the Coastal Commission did not reject the proposal in the Local Coastal Plan.
"Never mind that it's one of the few remaining natural brooks that spills into the ocean in this county," said the sometimes-sarcastic Glickfeld. "Let's pave it over."
The activists are unhappy with the state Coastal Commission for giving Malibu's Local Coastal Plan its first round of approval and keeping such projects intact.
Margo Feuer, a longtime environmentalist, said she and others sought a plan that would minimize commercial growth and protect Malibu's rural ambiance.
"We saw the erosion of everything we have fought for," Feuer said.
But Ireland said the county offered to limit new homes and apartments to 2,100 until overburdened Pacific Coast Highway is modernized and agreed to limit new homes in Malibu to a total of 6,500.
"I think that shows our concern," he said.
Despite that, Glickfeld and others said the plan is "a potential disaster." The land-use map accompanying the plan includes proposals for 10,000 homes, Glickfeld said, and there is no guarantee the county will honor the 6,500 limit.
Glickfeld said the provision for 10,000 additional homes would more than double the size of Malibu, which now has about 8,500 homes. "Oh, shall I go on with these dismal statistics?" she said.
Instead, she tells a favorite anecdote, about an inner-city child who once joined a field trip to Malibu that Glickfeld had helped to organize.
During a hike, the streetwise young girl was thrilled to find sparkling, gurgling Malibu Creek.
"The little girl was looking at the stream and she asked me: 'Where is the pipe that this water comes from?' " Glickfeld said.
"She couldn't visualize a natural stream without a pipe, even though she was looking straight at it. That symbolizes why I'm so passionate about saving this coast."
The question of what may happen to Malibu, Westchester, Westwood and other communities takes on crucial importance in light of recent reports by the Southern California Assn. of Governments.
The association has predicted that unless growth is curtailed, traffic, smog and crime will turn the Westside, Valley and other populous areas into a gridlocked jumble of cars and buildings.
The report has been pooh-poohed by many pro-development elected officials. Supervisor Pete Schabarum said he would like to "ask SCAG how they're going to stop growth--build a wall around the city or just impose mandatory birth control?"
But the government association's alarming picture of the future is taken seriously by many. It drives a mild-mannered guy like David Brown to cuss under his breath.
Brown is a large, lumbering man who wears an English driving cap and struts through the outdoors as confidently as if he were Big Foot.
To his friends, he is known as "the ultimate guru" of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Creating a Park
A resident of Calabasas, Brown dedicates almost every free moment outside his job as a history professor at Los Angeles Valley College to helping state and national agencies create a massive park within half an hour's drive of most of the city.
The proposed park, which would extend from near Brentwood into Ventura County in the Santa Monica Mountains, has been on the drawing boards for years. Brown said creating the huge park "is the most profound thing I can think of doing for the children who are being born in Los Angeles in the '80s."
There are dozens of activists and parks officials involved in the effort, but Joseph Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, said Brown "is an invaluable resource for us. He knows every highway and byway in those mountains better than anyone I've ever met."
Brown is chairman of the Sierra Club's Santa Monica Mountains task force and is on the conservancy's citizen advisory committee.
But his best-known role is that of private unpaid lobbyist.
"One of the main things I do is respond to a crisis, like a piece of land about to be lost," he said. "I rush off a letter to the appropriate people and let them know something's got to be done. I guess I'm the guy in the trenches, the lookout."
Several times a month, Brown is on the phone, keeping tabs on each move made on the massive chessboard of land that blankets the mountains.
He knows when a parcel has finally been offered for sale to the parklands by a reluctant landowner or when a landowner is shopping for a developer.
On a recent tour of the lush green ridges that jut up from Malibu Canyon, Brown pointed out distant peaks and knolls, saying the name of each as if it were an old friend.
"Do you see Saddle Mountain there?" he called out to a visitor. "Isn't that magnificent? We saved it, one of our few major victories. You can see it from Chatsworth, Torrance, you name it."
Brown dreams that far in the future, Los Angeles residents will still be able to leave the city, drive to Malibu Canyon, step out, and, for miles in every direction, find not a single home or structure marring the beauty of the mountains.
'Puncture the Bubble'
"As soon as you bring in any development, you puncture the bubble, you break the spell," he said.
Planners call such an unspoiled environment a "view shed." Many environmentalists feel it is as important to a nature park as having grass and squirrels.
"Only perhaps Sydney, Australia, is similar, with its glorious mountain range in its backyard," said activist Feuer, one of many others working to create the park.
Brown tugs nervously at the brim of cap when he talks about the forces who want to carve out some areas for other uses.
"This Mediterranean environment is so different from most peoples' idea of a park, because of its strange bushes, rattlesnakes," Brown said. "Our (political) leaders don't know how to use and respect a place like this."
Loss of Farmland
One big blow that Brown said he "is still getting over" was the loss to developers of 520 acres of farmland in the softly curving valley at the northern entrance to Malibu Canyon.
Park officials had hoped the mostly flat area could be bought for a park headquarters--a destination point for the buses and cars of city folk who could park there, picnic, or head out for nearby trails. But federal funds they had hoped to use for the purchase were withdrawn.
Today, a 600-unit residential complex is being built on 31 acres in the center of the valley, and more construction has been approved by county planners.
"It's a damn shame," Brown said.
With the exception of people like Braude, Hayden and Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara), Brown said, many local politicians "are still stuck in a time warp. The county still talks about stuff like making Mulholland Highway a four-laner and filling canyons with municipal garbage."
But, Brown, Glickfeld, Galanter, Lake and many other activists say there is a driving force that keeps the quality-of-lifers chipping away at entities like the Board of Supervisors and City Council.
"There's a hunger, a hunger for the open spaces in our neighborhoods and in our mountains, and every time an open space gets filled up, the hunger gets more intense," Brown said.
"We're going to win because we can't bear to lose."
Next Sunday: Westside activists fighting the city's smog blanket have discovered newfound grass-roots support and political clout.