When Larry Blackaller went out gathering signatures to protest a plan by Loyola Marymount University to develop a pristine section of the Westchester bluffs, he heard a common refrain from his neighbors: "I thought Ruth Galanter was supposed to slow down growth."
Blackaller's conservative, middle-class Westchester neighborhood was one that four years ago deserted longtime incumbent Pat Russell for Galanter, helping her ride into office as the city councilwoman from Los Angeles' 6th District on a wave of anti-development sentiment.
Now as Galanter seeks reelection against six challengers, her own development record is on display. A part of that record is a numbers game, a square-footage derby, with debates on the esoterica of traffic mitigation and trip generations on projects yet to break ground.
At least as important, however, are voters' perceptions of what Galanter has done. Shadowing the incumbent through the campaign are the unfulfilled expectations of constituents, like Blackaller's neighbors, who, reasonably or not, expected her to turn back the onslaught of development in Westchester, Venice and other parts of the district.
They are looking for a representative who will stand up with them to fight against a project close to their homes, looking for someone to do something about the steadily worsening traffic they are obliged to fight every day.
In terms of name recognition and fund-raising, Galanter's chief opponents in the April 9 primary are Mary Lee Gray, on leave from her job as deputy to county Supervisor Deane Dana, and Tavis Smiley, a former aide to Mayor Tom Bradley. While quick to assail Galanter, neither has staked out a more restrictive development policy than the incumbent's. The other challengers are: Salvatore Grammatico, J. Wilson Bowman, Charles A. Mattison and Mervin Evans.
What the candidates and others have criticized is not what Galanter espouses but what she has actually done. At times, in the opinion of critics, Galanter has appeared to be more of a deal-maker than a crusader, willing to trade her approval on large projects for community amenities paid for by the developer.
"As far as I can tell she's a great friend to great big developers," said Diana Hobson, a former member of Galanter's Venice community planning committee.
While Galanter's critics contend she has evolved in four years from a grass-roots developer-bashing activist into a business-as-usual downtown politician, the councilwoman and her supporters insist that she has not changed--that she has always stood for working within the system for managed growth, not none at all.
"The people who think she's deceived them don't, and never, understood who she was and what she was saying and what she intended to do in office," said longtime Venice activist Moe Stavnezer.
Los Angeles Planning Commissioner William Christopher noted that Galanter is in the unenviable position of trying to prove a negative. "What she has accomplished you don't see out there. It just doesn't get built," he said.
Christopher and two fellow commissioners, Ted Stein and William Luddy, praise Galanter, a professional planner before entering pol itics, for her planning acumen and reasonable approach. The three commissioners, part of a five-member panel that sets city planning policy and votes on projects, have contributed to Galanter's campaign.
And, finally, Galanter herself: "It's hard work cutting back development. You can't just say no. There is this impediment called the U.S. Constitution," she said, referring to the rights of property owners to build on their land.
Thus, the candidate who four years ago repeatedly noted that people were fed up with suddenly finding tall buildings in their neighborhood now says, "Development is inevitable." Galanter said she has sought to contain it with interim control ordinances covering about 45% of the district. These temporary measures serve to bridle growth until permanent zoning plans can be enacted.
The new plans will supplant now-outdated guidelines from the days when all development was considered positive. But given the understaffing of the Planning Department and the glacial pace of the process, Galanter said her vision has not been realized.
Because her long-range efforts, such as the Venice Local Coastal Plan, are incomplete, Galanter has adopted what might be called an "it could have been worse" strategy to show what she has accomplished.
Ask Galanter, for example, about the big Channel Gateway project that she supported--more than 500 condominiums in two 16-story towers, 544 apartments, and an office and retail complex at an already clogged section of Lincoln Boulevard near Marina del Rey--and she will say that it was zoned by her predecessor for a regional shopping center that "could have been worse."
Channel Gateway is expected to generate about 8,500 vehicle trips a day, 1,000 of them during afternoon rush hour. The traffic is supposed to be offset by road improvements paid by the developer, according to the project traffic consultant.
"Ruth has done the best she can do with the hand she was dealt," Stavnezer said.
Galanter shepherded the project through the city approval process in a remarkably fast 15 months, in part because developer Jerry Snyder agreed to build 109 units of affordable housing, construct a child-care center and set up a $1.25-million community improvement fund, to be controlled by Galanter.
But such bargaining for community amenities has gotten Galanter into trouble with the slow-growth forces.
"Whatever project comes along, she seems to have a mind set that the project is going to get built and we'll see what we can get from it," said Venice activist Nancy Kent, a former supporter critical of Galanter's way of doing business.
Plans for Playa Vista, the vast planned community proposed for the Howard Hughes property between Westchester and Marina del Rey, now call for more total square footage than was planned four years ago. It, too, however, could have been worse because a dramatic shift from commercial toward residential uses means substantially less traffic.
Even so, the multibillion-dollar development, if built as planned, would contain more than twice the office space of the Century City twin towers, as much commercial space as the Westside Pavilion, more housing units than in all of Hermosa Beach and as many parking places as Los Angeles International Airport.
The firm that is developing Playa Vista, Maguire Thomas Partners of Santa Monica, has also agreed to protect 260 acres of the Ballona Wetlands, the largest remaining wetlands preserve in the county, a coup Galanter has called her finest achievement in office.
Galanter has not, however, been able to deliver on a promise to scale back the development by 40%, though she suggests some reduction may be in the offing after the environmental impact report comes out (it is not due for release until after the election) and reveals the project's actual effects.
Of the three other massive projects she inherited from Russell and promised to cut back, there is progress on only one, LAX Northside, where Galanter is fighting to save the sand-dune habitat of the endangered El Segundo blue butterfly and reconfigure a planned golf course.
Galanter said she was advised after taking office that there was no viable legal issue to break the development agreements for Howard Hughes Center, a mini-Century City that will surround the Wang building at Sepulveda Boulevard and Centinela Avenue, or Continental City, a commercial development south of the airport that has not been started. Both were approved by the City Council before she took office.
To Galanter's critics, it has seemed that the only projects that have gotten her dander up were in other cities, where she became the creative interventionist-obstructionist some of her constituents had always hoped for.
At Galanter's request, the city of Los Angeles sued Culver City over Marina Place, a regional shopping mall proposed for a site at Culver City's western tip near Lincoln and Washington boulevards, one of Los Angeles' busiest intersections. Culver City won the first round of the suit, but an appeal has been filed, leaving the project in limbo.
Galanter also helped sink a big commercial project planned at Santa Monica Municipal Airport, bordering Los Angeles, by refusing to approve the curb cuts Santa Monica needed for access to the development from Bundy Drive.
In Crenshaw, the one area of her district needing an economic boost, Galanter points to an as yet unopened Lucky supermarket as an important achievement. Opponent Smiley, however, has criticized her for passing up the chance to have an Ikea furniture store on the current site of Santa Barbara Plaza. Galanter said she balked because developer Alexander Haagen wanted the city to condemn the 25 acres of land and give it to him for redevelopment, displacing small minority business owners.
Galanter concedes that the largest city redevelopment effort in the Crenshaw area, the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, has had its problems. The regional shopping mall, developed by Haagen as a Community Redevelopment Agency project, remains less than two-thirds leased, and business is sluggish at the existing stores. Galanter blames national chains for a reluctance to come into a mall in a minority area.
What she has done throughout the district, Galanter said, is pursue a policy of making certain that what is being proposed for a site is what the community needs there--and that the developer will mitigate its impacts. In practice, this means she often seeks to substitute residential for commercial development, because it has a significantly lighter impact, particularly in terms of traffic.
"Going to the community to find out what they want" is a cornerstone of Galanter's development approach that has turned out to be controversial, bringing charges of "cronyism" and selling the larger community short.
One such critic of the strategy, former Venice community planning committee member Hobson, says the advisory groups Galanter creates give her a place to hide if a project comes under attack. She can say the project was approved by her citizens' advisory group, and that therefore the community supported it, Hobson said.
The Channel Gateway community negotiators, all Galanter loyalists, have been accused by other activists of having their heads turned by the prospect of money for a beach shuttle and other developer exactions to benefit the community. Critics say the group's emphasis should have been on traffic management and scaling back density.
One Galanter ally, Arnold Springer, embarrassed the councilwoman by negotiating his own concessions from Channel Gateway developer Snyder, including $200,000 for the Ulan Bator foundation, named after the capital of Mongolia. Springer says he believes that aspects of Mongolian culture can be applied to help solve Venice's problems.
Snyder declined to be interviewed for this article.
If Galanter has alienated some formerly fervent supporters in Venice, she has picked up kudos from members of Los Angeles' Downtown Establishment. Expecting a spear-carrying Venice ideologue with a mandate to change the way business is done in City Hall, they instead have found her willing to listen and work with developers.
"She's been a moderate for managed growth," said Jeff Seymour, a City Hall lobbyist, a statement repeated by other City Hall insiders interviewed for this story.
Seymour was one of 37 developers, lobbyists and other political insiders who sponsored a recent $500-a-ticket fund-raiser at the Biltmore Hotel that was billed as a "Max-Out Party," in reference to the $500 limit on campaign contributions allowed per individual.
One sponsor was development attorney and lobbyist Dan Garcia, who four years earlier had publicly lamented Galanter's election, saying that the slow-growth movement she represented was composed of "white middle-class, affluent people who are out for themselves and their own neighborhoods." Now Garcia describes her as fair and responsible, though certainly not pro-growth.
At a similar downtown fund-raiser last year, City Council President John Ferraro noted that everyone at City Hall expected Galanter would try to stop all projects. "Well, you can't do that," he said. "You've got to work with the community, and she has done that very well."
Galanter offers no apologies for her newfound friends. "People sent me here to do two things: to take care of the district and to get things done," she said, acknowledging that she may have disappointed supporters who expected her to go to City Hall and "make people as angry as possible."
Galanter's opponents, all of whom trail far behind her in campaign funds, criticize her for accepting contributions from the development crowd. Challenger Gray contended recently that Galanter's campaign statements "read like the Who's Who of Developers."
Galanter's standard reply is that she has a policy of not accepting money from a developer with a controversial project pending in her district. Her reports show that she also has managed to maintain broad support among environmentalists.
Many who laud her moderation concede privately that some of her constituents may be disappointed that she has not taken a more swashbuckling approach.
One such unhappy group can be found in the Westchester neigh borhood near Loyola Marymount. There, residents gathered more than 600 signatures on petitions to try to persuade someone in city government to help them cut back the university's plans. The university wants to expand along the bluffs with eight 50-foot-high dormitory/apartments for 1,250 students, a five-story student center, a 600-seat theater and a parking garage for 850 cars.
Although Galanter said she interceded to get the neighbors talking to the university, the neighbors say they have been frustrated by her lack of interest and willingness to back them up in efforts to make the project more compatible with their single-family residential neighborhood. Terry Bryant-Wolloch said the group has gotten "nothing, nothing from Galanter" despite repeated pleas for her help.
Bryant-Wolloch joined a visitor on the Westchester bluffs across from her home on a recent afternoon. The sun shone high and warm over the marina, the sweet smell from the grassy plateau filled the air and a panoramic view of the city of Los Angeles stretched out across the horizon.
Next to Playa Vista, planned for the flatlands below, the LMU expansion plan is an anthill, but to the Westchester residents it looms like a mountain of overdevelopment. Slow-growth seemed like a good idea to this neighborhood four years ago and, if the petitions are any indication, it still does. The neighbors just wonder if Galanter can still hear them now that she is downtown.