Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo set off a small political firestorm in his district last summer, putting off plans for a Figueroa Street bike lane and enraging a potent group of advocates.
Cycling activists were fierce in their criticism of the councilman, stressing that he promised two years ago to install bike lanes on the north-south corridor. They nicknamed him “Road Kill Gil” on social media. They showed up uninvited at events to denounce him. They held a “Die-In” outside his downtown apartment building.
Behind the scenes, however, a different exchange of ideas has been taking place. Cedillo aides have met twice in recent days with representatives of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition to discuss ways of making Figueroa safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. The coalition, which had been at odds with Cedillo most of last year, now sounds optimistic.
“We’re pretty confident that when a discussion of the merits takes place, the [proposal] with the bike lanes will win out,” said Eric Bruins, the coalition’s planning and policy director.
The thaw in the cold war between Cedillo and some prominent bicycle advocates raises larger and intriguing questions: Did Cedillo engage in talks because of the pressure, much of it unpleasant, from activists? Or did angry rhetoric and personal attacks make it harder for the two sides to reach common ground?
The answers hold wider meaning for L.A. residents, businesses and nonprofit groups. To take on a sitting politician and lose is to risk four, eight, even 12 years in the political wilderness, depending on how many terms that politician serves. “This is political strategy 101,” Bruins said. “It isn’t just about bikes. This is anybody who’s trying to change policy in this city.”
At City Hall, where personal relationships and high-powered lobbying frequently carry the day, some groups work quietly and politely behind the scenes to achieve their goals. Others, however, favor loud protests and public shaming, saying it’s the only way to seriously move the needle.
Becky Dennison, who works with the nonprofit group Community Action Network, is in the latter camp. Her group, which fights for impoverished renters, has had its members hold “Die-Ins,” wear papier-mache masks and march to politicians’ homes. The group won passage of an ordinance several years ago barring the city’s low-income hotels from being demolished or converted into condominium units.
Dennison believes those regulations would not have been approved without protests and guerrilla theater, such as performances at downtown’s art walk, in former Councilwoman Jan Perry’s district.
“Some of these council members take things very personally and are very vindictive, so certainly you can go too far,” Dennison said. “But generally, these types of things are necessary. Most [City Hall] decisions happen behind closed doors and people make promises all the time that they don’t keep.”
Simply mobilizing huge numbers of neighbors can sometimes be enough, said Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. One hundred phone calls to a council office, he said, “can get almost anything done.”
“As long as it’s legal and moral, we’ll do anything,” Close said.
How far a group should go to make a case at City Hall depends in large part on whether it is already involved in discussions, said Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, a preservation group. The conservancy has filed lawsuits, staged colorful protests, put up at least one billboard and pressed politicians to stake out clear positions during election season. In recent years, the group has worked to make sure it is “brought to the table early and often” by developers and decision makers, Dishman said.
“You usually go gonzo when you’re not at the table,” she said.
In northeast Los Angeles, bicycle shop owner Josef Bray-Ali says he believes last year’s loud and boisterous activism spurred Cedillo’s recent dialogue with the bicycle coalition. Cedillo’s office spent much of last year dismissing the Figueroa bike lane proposal and at times, worked actively to sabotage it, he said.
“I realize I have a role to play in this political drama, and it’s not to be a nice person to these politicians,” said Bray-Ali, who once called Cedillo “a turd” on Twitter. “We have never gained a thing from these guys by being nice to them.”
Cedillo would not agree to an interview. But spokesman Louis Reyes, who has blocked Bray-Ali on Twitter, said outside criticism hasn’t influenced the discussions on the Figueroa Street improvements.
Cedillo is weighing three alternatives for Figueroa between Avenue 55 and Avenue 60 in Highland Park, two of which involve the addition of bicycle lanes and the loss of a car lane, Reyes said. The proposals also include plans for extending curbs into the street at key intersections, making it easier and less dangerous for pedestrians to cross.
“If someone’s saying that the pressure made us get to the table, that’s not true,” he said. “We were in a process with all stakeholders and trying to bring people together.”
Plans for bike lanes on Figueroa have been kicking around for years. Cedillo was videotaped as a council candidate in 2013 saying he favored the idea. But once in office, he began warning that police and fire emergency response times could worsen if bike and pedestrian projects reduced vehicle lanes. He dismissed bicycle activists as a tiny share of the population and said at one point that the city had until 2035 to act on the Figueroa proposal.
Last month, bicycle advocates spoke out at a City Council meeting against Cedillo’s request for a $3-million grant to pay for new crosswalks, streets trees and other improvements on Figueroa. Opponents took aim at the application’s plan for diagonal parking, saying such a change would leave no room for bike lanes. Reyes says opponents misunderstood the process.
Cedillo moved ahead with the grant application, telling his colleagues the city would not be “bullied.” Two weeks later, activists held the “Die-In” outside his apartment complex.
Bruins, the bike coalition’s policy director, says the debate over Figueroa has led to some “extreme tactics” that wound up being “less than productive.” Cedillo recently extended an olive branch, he said, by moving to rescind the controversial grant application. Reyes said Cedillo has dropped the plan for diagonal parking and is trying to find consensus on Figueroa’s future.
Whether all this will lead to a Kumbaya moment is uncertain. Bray-Ali is not happy that the discussions have focused on spending more than $3 million to redesign roughly five blocks. The city’s original plan, he said, called for three miles of Figueroa bike lanes in Cedillo’s district for a tiny fraction of that cost.
“If Gil wanted to mend fences, and the bicycle coalition had a spine, they would not say ‘Give us less project for more money,’” Bray-Ali said. “That’s an abdication.”