Sending a stinging slap to Mayor Richard Riordan, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to override his veto and launch a major mixed-use development project on the riot-scarred corner of 81st Street and Vermont Avenue.
Riordan and his council allies tried to save face, saying the veto laid a platform for compromise and that he now supports the development plan as amended by the council Wednesday. But Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas used the occasion to hurl yet another barb at the mayor, his favorite political foe.
"What this man did gives a bad name to City Hall," said Ridley-Thomas, after celebrating the victory with his staff over sparkling cider and homemade cake in his office. "It makes it appear as though City Hall doesn't give a damn about some parts of the city and it'll make some parts of the city jump through hoops, while others get what they want for the asking. It's the politics of polarization and it comes at a very, very high cost."
But the mayor said he was forced to flex his executive muscle on the project because Ridley-Thomas, who represents the district that includes the Vermont corridor, refused to listen to nearby residents who opposed the housing component of the project.
"The bottom line is that I listened to the community in South Los Angeles. Mark didn't. I think that's a win for the community. It's the first time that a politician has really listened to their needs," Riordan said.
"The big lesson I learned from this is that people from all over the city of Los Angeles want to be heard about what's happening in their neighborhoods, and they now know that I'm a mayor who wants to listen to them."
Still, several council members, including traditional Riordan backers, expressed dismay over the divisiveness that has marked the debate over the South-Central project, which will provide 35 townhouses to first-time home buyers along with 25,000 square feet of commercial space on the original site of Pepperdine University.
"This isn't about who has more power," said Councilman Joel Wachs, who grew up in Vermont Knolls, a middle-class enclave adjacent to the site, but now represents part of the San Fernando Valley. "It's been one of the most unhealthy things to have the kind of debate we've had over this."
Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg echoed Wachs' concern, characterizing the discord at City Hall as "a kind of constitutional crisis" and the Riordan veto as "not understandable and shocking."
"I'm very disappointed that the mayor chose the last moment in the process to decide to do something different," said Councilwoman Ruth Galanter. "I'm glad he decided it might be a good idea to become partners with the City Council."
The council voted 10-0 last month to approve the project being financed by First Interstate Bank and to offer a $1.7-million city loan for acquiring the largely vacant lots. Riordan responded by signing a veto letter with a flourish in front of a group of Vermont Knolls homeowners.
Riordan's involvement fueled a longstanding feud between African American leaders Ridley-Thomas and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who owns a home in Vermont Knolls. Waters opposes the project. But Ridley-Thomas had already shored up the necessary 10 votes for a veto override, so Riordan and supportive council members Hal Bernson and John Ferraro set to work on a compromise.
By Wednesday, Riordan and Ridley-Thomas were circulating nearly identical memorandums suggesting amendments to the project, including an expansion of the commercial space and a reduction in the city subsidies for the homeowners from $90,000 per unit to $70,000.
Ridley-Thomas said "there were no concessions of any consequence," but the mayor's office said the amendments made the project palatable. Wednesday morning, Riordan chief operating officer Michael Keeley was on the council floor, huddling with Bernson about how to save face, and Deputy Mayor Rae James later spoke to the council, effectively withdrawing the mayor's veto.
"It is our understanding that council will be considering a compromise, which will address the mayor's concerns," James told the council members. "In many ways, the veto served its purpose. While we cannot procedurally withdraw our veto, we understand that in order for these changes to happen, council will move to override."
Ridley-Thomas said the mayor's public posture was that of a desperate politician "trying to cover up a ridiculous blunder."
And while Riordan embraced the compromise project, the residents he purported to represent remained unhappy Wednesday. Several homeowners made an eleventh-hour request for the council to abandon the project and replace it with an all commercial project, with resident Frank Morris calling it an "outlandish pork barrel."
"This project is still ill-advised," Waters said in a statement.
Although Waters said she will not attempt to block the project in Washington, she warned that she will continue to lobby against housing development on the Vermont corridor.
"We have opened the door to commercial development," she said. "This will be the last housing project attempted on Vermont between Manchester and Florence."
Council members expressed hope that the project would spur other economic development.
"This is a major step forward for the revitalization of the area," Bernson said. "This area of the city needs a lot of help. Just one step forward generates support for the next step."