A Battle for the High Ground

Times Staff Writer

The hills north and east of downtown Los Angeles are a mishmash of small homes, narrow streets, hidden valleys and long views. A few have streetlights; others go dark at night, quiet swatches of countryside less than 10 miles from City Hall. Some of the city’s last big undeveloped parcels -- places like Flat-Top, Mt. Olympus, Rose Hill, Paradise Hill -- frame the horizon.

Now those inviting green spaces have become the staging ground in a bitter, protracted dispute, with distinct class and racial overtones, that is a microcosm of the exploding development struggles across Los Angeles.

Each side has its devoted advocates. There is Clare Marter Kenyon, a librarian with a soft British accent and a keen determination to protect plants and wildlife from encroaching development; when she drives around El Sereno, she sees the stumps of felled California black walnuts and winces. There is James Rojas, an urban planner who lives downtown but covets the relief of the open spaces and is closely allied with Kenyon. “West L.A.,” he said, “has their ocean. We have our hillsides.” And there is Tomas Osinski, a Polish emigre and architect with a critical eye, an adamant belief in the rights of property owners and an intolerance for government hypocrisy.

The specifics of their fight are the hillside and building regulations of northeast Los Angeles. Some want emergency rules to slow development while the neighborhoods devise long-term guidelines for growth. Others contend those proposed rules represent a vast overreaction and threaten to rob homeowners of their investments for no good reason.


If the specifics are particular to these communities, however, the larger themes are universal in the city and region: In a period of housing shortages and shrinking open space, should hillsides be sacrificed for homes? Should homeowners who bought property and made plans under one set of rules be restricted by new limitations that could cost them return on their investment? Is it coincidence or design that wealthier areas of the city’s Westside are governed by zoning and building plans while the less well-off, predominantly Latino Eastside grows more pell-mell?

Standing on one of the contested hills, on a grassy slope where he used to sled on refrigerator boxes as a child, pointing out his grammar school and nodding to the tower that houses his city government office, Councilman Ed Reyes says the cresting emotions among his constituents are the tip of a very large controversy. “We are reaching a crisis point,” he said one recent afternoon. “I should be wearing a bullet-proof vest.”

The fight for the future of the northeast hills has a long history, and it reached a flashpoint in the fall of 2004, when environmentalists in the area pressed the City Council to adopt an interim control ordinance -- in effect, a directive to sharply reduce the number of building permits. The ordinance had the support of then-Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa and strong backing from the area’s environmental leadership.

But the proposal’s restrictions would have slowed development not just of the region’s major parcels but of all land in affected hillside areas. The result was a backlash from homeowners, including Osinski, who feared the ordinance would rob landowners and small developers of their investments.

That Osinski should emerge as such a vehement opponent of the restrictions is telling. He is, himself, a type of environmentalist. The glassed-in breakfast room of his home, which he designed, crawls with vines that have crept indoors. His house is nestled among trees, and he has designed homes specifically to protect the vegetation around them. But Osinski will tell you that he is an environmentalist because he chooses to be, not because the government orders him to be.

When he learned of the interim control ordinance, Osinski was infuriated by its sweep, by its strict limits on floor space and grading, by the proliferation of well-intentioned but clunky design rules. Those rules, he says, discourage innovative architecture and substitute the aesthetic preferences of City Hall politicians and bureaucrats for homeowners who invest in their land and property. City rules regulate retaining walls, setbacks and building height in ways that discourage some excesses but also limit creative design, he noted. Height limits, for instance, regulate the overall distance between the peak and foot of a home. That prevents the construction of buildings that block neighbors’ views but also discourages modest terracing by limiting how far down a hillside a home may extend.

“We are mandated to design ugly buildings,” he said.

So Osinski helped alert his neighbors to the ordinance and its implications for small parcels owned by modest people -- the ordinance, he warned, represented a way for a neighbor to " take another neighbor’s land and not pay for it. Neighbors showed up for meetings and signed petitions. It was then that the debate took on another dimension, as working-class people, many of them Latino, complained of the burden being placed on them by environmental activists and City Hall.

One complained that he had been waiting for 13 years to build his dream house, only now to lose heart. “I have already spent a lot of time, money and energy to achieve this dream,” he wrote on a petition to the council. And one woman, a Latina, complained that it had taken her 40 years to save up to buy a hilly lot at a tax auction, and she now worried that she would lose the chance to build a home on it. “I am very hurt by this,” she wrote.

Reyes and other politicians at first fought back, but their resolve melted in the face of opposition. The ordinance has failed to muster the support needed for passage.

But Kenyon was not finished. She is softer-spoken than Osinski but no less zealous. Thwarted in her attempt to win council approval for the interim ordinance, she instead has turned to lobbying for its components -- regulation of grading, restrictions on hillside development, the enactment of an ordinance making it more difficult to cut down certain types of trees.

And there, she is winning. Last week, the council passed a tree ordinance that will make it far more difficult for homeowners or developers to fell Southern California black walnuts, California bays and Western sycamores, adding those three trees to the oaks that the city already protects. Kenyon was thrilled at the council action; she had fretted about it for days before, and as she described her exhilaration at the council vote, she glanced up from the front porch of a neighbor’s home, and spotted three red-tailed hawks above the hillside a few hundred yards away.

“They need this open space to hunt,” she said. “They are part of why we’re here.”

The tree ordinance is a first step, she added, in protecting the open spaces she fears are fast evaporating from the northeast hills. If developers can be discouraged from cutting down trees -- and if the council can be persuaded to adopt strict, even if temporary, growth controls in these hills, then Kenyon hopes it will buy her time to find an organization that might purchase some of the hilltops and turn them into permanent fields.

There, too, the government’s machinations strike Osinski as the shallowest kind of hypocrisy. As council members moved to adopt the tree ordinance, they mused about the benefits to air quality in protecting Southern California trees. In fact, however, most trees in this area exist because they surround homes. Air quality is, in that sense, not a victim of development but rather a beneficiary, Osinski noted.

Having won the tree ordinance, Kenyon and her allies are turning to the enactment of other growth restrictions: limits on the “floor area ratio,” a way of zoning out large houses; constraints on grading; and ridgeline protection.

While the council and community debate those questions, the pace of development continues put pressure on the northeast hills, driven by a strong demand for housing and a dwindling number of unbuilt hilltops and ridges. Reyes said his office is working with 10 to 20 building proposals a week, with no end in sight.

That development of the northeast hills is occurring now reflects its sudden desirability. That it is happening piecemeal is a reflection, residents and officials say, of the city’s historic indifference to the oversight of eastern and southern neighborhoods compared to wealthier ones to the north and west.

“There is a difference in how these areas have been treated,” Reyes said. A colleague who represents South L.A., Bernard C. Parks, agrees. “For many years,” he said, “the energy and effort all went west and north.”

Elected officials insist that is changing and that they are committed to rational and fair building rules for the northeast hills.

It is, however, both curious and illuminating that in the fight for those hills, both sides have won victories and both, at the moment, feel they’re losing.

Kenyon and Rojas are appalled that the city has not approved the interim ordinance and worry that by the time the council acts, it will be too late. If the area needs to wait for a specific development plan along the lines of those that regulate growth in Westwood, Brentwood or other affluent parts of the Westside, it could take three to four years.

And Osinski worries that the city already has gone too far with its tree ordinance and its other hillside regulations. After the council voted last week to approve the restrictions on tree cutting, Kenyon allowed herself a moment of relief. Osinski seethed.

“It was a pretty dishonest show,” Osinski said of the council debate and vote. “It wasn’t a nice day. The steamroller is rolling.”