The official race for mayor is still months away, but Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley already is courting development-wary homeowners in the Westside, a constituency his expected challenger, Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, will need to knock out the 4-term incumbent in April.
Bradley, who has a pro-growth reputation that his aides say is undeserved, has taken on highly visible development issues in the area in recent weeks. He has named a prominent Westside homeowner leader to the city's Planning Commission, has criticized the developers of the Ma Maison Sofitel hotel over parking problems and, this week, intervened in a sticky dispute over the size of a proposed expansion of the Westside Pavilion shopping mall.
On Monday, Bradley's office released a letter the mayor wrote to the City Council that calls for a one-third reduction in the size of the mall's expansion. It is highly unusual for Bradley to become involved in local development disputes, but he said in the letter that he had no choice because the existing mall "has created such significant neighborhood problems."
By jumping into the debate over the controversial expansion, Bradley has come down firmly on the side of homeowners as well as Yaroslavsky, who represents the area. Ironically, the mayor's letter asks the council to partially undo what his own Planning Commission approved over the objection of the homeowners and Yaroslavsky.
Congestion Cited at Pavilion
The Planning Commission unanimously approved a 160,000-square-foot expansion of the mall in August after Westfield Inc., the developer, agreed to set aside 30,000 square feet for office space, which traffic engineers say creates less traffic and congestion than retail stores. Yaroslavsky and nearby homeowners had pushed for a 105,000-square-foot addition, regardless of the office space provision.
"We are delighted the mayor has finally come forward and spoken out on behalf of the community," said Sandy Brown, who heads the Westside Home Owners Alliance, a coalition of homeowner groups near the mall. "He came out here for a meeting and he certainly heard from us that day. Anybody that goes to the Westside Pavilion will see the congestion that exists."
Richard Green, president of Westfield, said the company could not afford to build a smaller expansion and still meet the various conditions imposed on the project. Among other things, the commission has required the developer to provide an extra 456 parking spaces to make up for a shortage of spaces at the existing mall.
"It was our hope to be able to provide those things that the city wanted. . . . You cannot have a $50-million project with 105,000 square feet," Green said.
Yaroslavsky, who hopes to defeat Bradley in April by painting him as a pro-growth mayor insensitive to local concerns over development, described the mayor's intervention in the Westside Pavilion case as "an incredibly hypocritical act." Yaroslavsky said Bradley was attempting to distance himself from the commission's unpopular decision.
"I think the mayor has been stung by criticism that his Planning Commission approved a grossly inflated project," Yaroslavsky said. "He has essentially embraced my recommendations for the Pavilion. . . . But if there is one message I want to send to Tom Bradley, it is: 'Your actions speak louder than your words. I am more interested in what your commissioners do than what your press releases say.' "
Bradley acknowledges that he has favored high-rise development in places like downtown Los Angeles, but he describes his development stance as one of "controlled growth" that encourages projects in undeveloped areas where city services can support them. Deputy Mayor Mike Gage said Bradley does not dictate votes to the Planning Commission.
"This is hardly the first time that the mayor has differed with his Planning Commission," Gage said. "The reality is that the commissioners are appointed to represent the cultural, ethnic and sexual diversity of this city, and to bring their own talents and expertise to these positions. They are never appointed to be a mirror image of . . . the mayor."
Although Gage dismissed suggestions that Bradley's involvement in the Westside Pavilion issue was politically motivated, he did not hesitate to take a pre-campaign shot at Yaroslavsky.
"Generally speaking, the council member is the primary determinant of what happens in council districts, and generally speaking, council members get what they want in their districts," Gage said. "However, poor Councilman Yaroslavsky seems to have more trouble than most controlling the destiny of his own district. So we thought we could lend him a hand."
Views Differ on Bridge
In his letter, Bradley also asked the City Council to support the construction of a vehicular bridge over Westwood Boulevard that would connect the mall and the expansion. In this regard, he differs with several neighborhood groups that have supported a pedestrian bridge only.
The neighbors argue that a vehicular bridge, which under the commission's action would include retail shops, would effectively create one enormous shopping mall. The mall, they argue, would violate density limitations imposed in 1986 under Proposition U.
Other nearby homeowners, however, have supported the bridge because they believe it will keep more traffic in the mall's parking areas and off area streets. Yaroslavsky, who originally opposed a vehicular bridge, said he is reconsidering his position.
City Council consideration of the proposed expansion project could be weeks if not months away because of an unexpected problem involving Planning Commissioner William Christopher. The city attorney's office determined this week that Christopher, the Westside homeowner leader appointed in August, should be disqualified from voting on matters involving the mall because he opposed it when he served as head of the Westside Civic Federation.
As a result, the entire commission is prohibited under the city charter from acting on the matter, meaning it must be transferred to the Board of Referred Powers, an ad-hoc panel of five City Council members. Christopher was not on the commission when it approved the expansion, but the group is scheduled today to consider several technical additions to its approval. If the commission is disqualified from acting on those changes, the entire issue will have to be reconsidered by the Board of Referred Powers before it goes to the City Council.