Manufacturing the Facts

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At a hearing last week, the City Planning Commission gave a green light to the proposed Ivar Gardens Hotel, which is planned for the intersection of Sunset and Cahuenga. But like a lot of projects planned for Hollywood in recent years, it wasn’t a smooth path to approval.

The hearing room was crowded with people. Most of those who were there to speak about the hotel were against, but there were also those who wanted to support it. A representative of the Central Hollywood Neighborhood Council gave it a thumbs up, and a woman from the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce went through the usual spiel about how the hotel will bring jobs and revenue.

Let me say up front, I can see good reasons for making something happen at the corner of Sunset and Cahuenga. The Jack in the Box that ‘s been sitting there for years isn’t exactly an architectural jewel. Sure, the block is underutilized. Could it be a good place for a hotel? Maybe. But a twenty one story hotel? At one of the busiest intersections in the city? I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. Still, I should try to keep an open mind. I should think about the possible benefits. And I should trust that the City of Los Angeles would only approve such a project after the most rigorous review. I should have faith that the City would never approve such a project unless it was absolutely certain that the positive would outweigh the negative.

Yeah, right.

Before I start talking about the Department of City Planning, let me say that I believe that most of the folks who work there are smart and capable. In most of my dealings with them I’ve been impressed by how friendly and helpful they are. But I also believe the culture at the DCP has been warped by outside pressures, and I often get the impression that the state-mandated environmental review process is seen as a pointless waste of time. The documents that are supposed to assess the pros and cons of a project often seem like they’ve been slapped together as quickly as possible. In some cases the data is presented in misleading ways, and in other cases it’s clearly wrong.

Like with this hotel. To begin with, a project of this size really needs the highest level of environmental review, in other words, an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). But the folks at the DCP disagreed, and they went ahead with a much lower level of review, a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND). By making this choice they’re basically saying that all of the impacts caused by this project can be mitigated to the point where they’re insignificant. Whether or not that’s true is not important to the City. What’s important here is that the MND is much easier to prepare and makes the approval process much faster.

So let’s get back to the hearing. Like I said, there were a few people who supported the project, but a solid majority came out against it, and the speakers represented a wide variety of interests. Many of them belonged to various unions, and they raised a number of issues, but the biggest one was jobs. They couldn’t believe the City was going to approve this project without any requirement for local hire. A woman representing the Los Angeles Film School came to the mike to say they were concerned about impacts during the construction phase. The LAFS is right across the street from the site, and their programs could be severely affected by the project, but apparently the developer has shown little interest in meeting to discuss these issues so far. A number of people expressed concern over increased traffic from the hotel. One group talked about the importance of properly assessing hazardous wastes at the site. Others asked why the City was ready to hand the developer entitlements worth millions, while the developer was offering a pathetically small package of benefits to the community. And yes, the Commission was asked why an MND was being used for a project that clearly required an EIR.

That’s what I wanted to know. And I also wanted to know why the MND being considered was such an inaccurate, dishonest piece of work. I know that’s a strong statement. But let’s take a look together.

The MND supposedly assesses greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced by the project. Honestly, I think the numbers are questionable, and the reductions promised by mitigation measures are pretty optimistic. There’s a lot of talk about building clean, green structures these days, but environmentalists are starting to realize that developers don’t always deliver what they promise. Still, let’s pretend the GHG numbers are accurate. The MND offers a table to show how small the impacts are.

sh-ghg

In assessing the production of CO2 emissions, the bottom line says the “project net total” will be 1,921.34 metric tons per year (MTY). But what it should actually say is “project net total increase”. If you look at the table carefully, you can see that the actual total is 3,102.31 MTY. They came up with the 1,921.34 figure by subtracting the estimated emissions produced by the existing fast food restaurant. In reality, the proposed hotel will be spewing out CO2 at a rate of 3,102.31 MTY, or over two and a half times what the site produces now. At a time when the state is struggling to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and traffic in LA is getting steadily worse, can the DCP really claim that this is not a significant impact?

Under Public Services the MND talks about police protection. Now, the LAPD has been pretty up front in admitting that it’s struggling to deal with increases in crime across the city. The MND includes a table showing that crime has been steadily rising in Hollywood since 2013. In light of the fact that the LAPD has said they don’t have enough staff to deal with current levels of crime, how can the DCP claim this hotel, along with a number of other projects under construction in Hollywood, won’t put an even greater strain on law enforcement? In addition to the hotel’s security lighting and secure parking facilities, the MND claims that, “the continuous visible and non-visible presence of guests staying at the hotel at all times of the day would provide a sense of security during evening and early morning hours.” Actually, there are already plenty of people on the street in this area, and it doesn’t seem to be doing much to discourage crime.

To demonstrate how little the DCP cares about facts, under Population and Housing they say, “The Hollywood Community Plan (HCP) projected a 2010 population of approximately 219,000 persons….” This is true. The HCP did make that projection. What the MND doesn’t say is that the Plan was written back in the 1980s, and that according to the US Census, Hollywood’s actual population in 2010 was 198,228, about 20,000 people less than the figure they reference. The DCP surely knows that the projection was mistaken, because a judge threw out their HCP Update in 2011, largely because the population figures were wildly off base.

One of the biggest problems with the MND is its cavalier approach to cumulative impacts. This project is just one of more than sixty planned for the Hollywood area, but I haven’t seen a single environmental document come out of the DCP in the last five years that sees any significant cumulative impacts. The DCP always inserts endless bureaucratic double-speak citing regional planning reports and state guidelines. And they always find ways to ignore anyone who produces real data to call their conclusions into question. CalTrans has made numerous attempts to get the DCP to do a serious analysis of traffic impacts from all these projects. The DCP’s response is to pretend that CalTrans doesn’t exist.

I’ve saved the best for last, because it’s such a classic example of the City’s shameless dishonesty. Under Transportation/Traffic, a study included in the MND states that PM rush hour traffic at the intersections of Cahuenga/DeLongpre, Cahuenga/Sunset and Cahuenga/Hollywood flows at Level of Service A, in other words that there’s no congestion at all. Here’s a table from the MND.

sh-traffic-pm

This is so absurd it’s laughable. Anyone who’s travelled north on Cahuenga during evening rush hour knows it’s a parking lot. And in case you don’t live in the area, here are a few photos of what traffic really looks like on Cahuenga after working hours are over.

Rush hour on Cahuenga, July 2014.

Rush hour on Cahuenga, July 2014.

Rush hour on Cahuenga, same day as above.

Rush hour on Cahuenga, same day as above.

Rush hour on Cahuenga, July 2016.

Rush hour on Cahuenga, July 2016.

Rush hour on Cahuenga, same day as above.

Rush hour on Cahuenga, same day as above.

A lot of the people who spoke at the CPC hearing complained that traffic was bad enough and that this project would only make things worse. Knowing that this was a hot topic, Commission President David Ambroz realized he had to do something to prop up the MND’s ridiculous claim that rush hour traffic flowed smoothly. So he called on a guy from the DCP to get up and talk about the traffic study. And this guy rambled on for a few minutes about how the analysis was done in accordance with LA Department of Transportation standards, and that LADOT had approved the analysis, and that any variation may have been due to the fact that counts were taken during a holiday week. In other words, he didn’t claim that the traffic study actually reflected reality. Just that the people who compiled it followed the rules.

But it gets better. At the hearing, Commission President Ambroz mentioned that he lives in Hollywood, and that he’s familiar with the site for the proposed hotel, which means that he must know how bad the traffic is on Cahuenga at rush hour. And that means he also knows that the traffic report in the MND is substantially incorrect. But of course, he would never acknowledge that, because then he’d have to ask for the report to be done again, and done correctly. Instead, Ambroz sat there, somehow keeping a straight face, while the bureaucrat from the DCP went through his routine, trying to legitimize a traffic study that most of the people in the room knew was rubbish.

And then the Commission voted to adopt the MND and send the project on to the City Council. Interestingly, some of the Commissioners did vote no, not because of the MND, but because they felt the community benefits being offered by the developer were totally inadequate. This in spite of the fact that a last minute deal was cobbled together where the developer committed to 50% local hire.

So is the hotel a done deal? Not quite yet. It still has to go before the Planning & Land Use Management Committee (PLUM), and then on to the full City Council. Many of the people in the room were disappointed in the CPC’s decision. Afterwards I wrote to Elle Farmer of Unite Here, a labor group that spoke against the project, to ask how they felt about the outcome. Here’s a quote from their response.

We are still in this, and we still oppose the project as it currently stands, with no real community benefits, and no care for the environmental protection process.

And Unite Here is not satisfied with the last minute promise of local hire, as they feel it’s impossible to enforce.

I also asked for a statement from the Los Angeles Film School. Here’s an excerpt.

We support a vibrant Hollywood community and believe we played a major role in kickstarting the current renaissance. We are also the largest and most impacted stakeholder of this proposed project. Although the Commission did not grant a continuance, representatives for the developer did convey their willingness to sit down with us and discuss the project and its impacts to our campus after the hearing. We look forward to that opportunity.

And what am I looking forward to? The day when the DCP can put together an MND that actually reflects reality. And in the process shows a willingness to put the interests of the community ahead the interests of developers.

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