Harbor Gateway Community Fights Toxic Project

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Site at Vermont and Redondo where Prologis wants to build a massive distribution center.

Back in February I was at a City Planning Commission (CPC) hearing.  I’d come to talk about one of the items on the agenda, but while I was waiting for that to come up, I noticed a group of people sitting together holding signs that said “NO on 7”.  These people wanted to voice their opposition to a new distribution center that had been proposed for their community.  Logistics REIT giant Prologis was seeking permission to build a 341,000 sq. ft. warehouse with 36 truck loading positions and parking for up to 71 trailers that would operate 24/7.  Amazingly, the site they had in mind was right across the street from a residential neighborhood in the Harbor Gateway area.

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The community shows their opposition at the City Planning Commission hearing.

A long list of speakers got up to talk.  First there were the applicants and their reps, all of whom boasted about what a great project this was.  There were also a number of union members who came forward to tell the Commissioners that the distribution center would create lots of jobs.  And staff from Councilmember Joe Buscaino’s office showed up to speak in support of the project.

But the people who actually live in the community were dead set against it, talking about impacts from diesel truck exhaust, and noise from a distribution center that was going to operate 24/7.  They explained to the Commissioners that the site was just across the street from apartments and houses.  They pointed out that a healthcare facility, a convalescent home and a public park were all within a few hundred feet of the proposed distribution center.  The CPC listened to all this, and then voted to approve the project.  While Commissioners Vahid Khorsand and Veronica Padilla-Campos voted against, everyone else gave the distribution center a thumps up, and it passed easily.  The final tally was 6-2.

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Residential neighborhood directly across the street from the project site.

Even though I’d never heard of the project before that morning, it was pretty easy to see that the approval process was a joke.  The applicant wants to build a 300,000+ sq.ft. warehouse right across the street from a residential neighborhood.  The warehouse will generate hundreds of diesel truck trips every day, and will operate all night long.  This is a project that will have major impacts on the surrounding community, but instead of doing a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR), the Department of City Planning (DCP) allowed the applicant to slide it through with a much less rigorous Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND).  In other words, the DCP is saying that even though there could be negative impacts, don’t worry about it, because we can mitigate them to the point where they won’t be a problem.

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Kei-Ai Healthcare Center sits just across the street from the project site.

It’s a familiar game.  The City of LA plays it all the time.  The DCP lets the applicant run the environmental review process without providing any meaningful oversight.  DCP staff will offer some suggestions, the CPC will set some conditions, but the project that gets approved generally gives the developers pretty much everything they were asking for.  These days most of the Commissioners on the CPC seem to believe their job is to approve projects.  No matter what’s being proposed, the routine is pretty much the same.  They listen to testimony, ask DCP staff a few questions, spend a little time haggling over conditions, and then give it a green light.  Occasionally, as with this distribution center, one or two of the Commissioners will dissent, but almost without exception the majority gives the proposed project a thumbs-up and the developers and their reps walk out smiling.

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Gardena Convalescent Center is just over a block away from the project site.

But the people who live in the neighborhood aren’t smiling.  And they’re not taking this lying down.  I contacted one of the residents, Rosalie Preston, to ask if the community was planning to fight the project.  She sent me a copy of the appeal they’d submitted.  Preston points out that the community is already considered disadvantaged by the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) because of its proximity to the 110.  The freeway carries hundreds of diesel trucks through the area every day, causing CalEPA to rank it in the highest percentile for pollution burden.

I really hope the appeal will be granted, because the community has already spent way too much time opposing this awful project.  But if the appeal is denied and this goes to court, I’ll be laughing my head off on the day the judge hands the City of LA another embarrassing defeat.  The City has lost a number of high-profile cases related to development and planning.  This will just be one more demonstration of how badly broken the approval process is.

But let’s take look at the appeal, and see why the community has a problem with the CPC’s decision to approve the project….

An EIR, Not an MND

There’s really no question about this.  According to State law, an EIR is required if “substantial evidence in the record supports a fair argument that the project may result in significant adverse impacts.”  The Prologis Distribution Center will bring hundreds of diesel trucks in and out of this residential community, all through the day and all through the night.  Prologis argues that they can mitigate air quality and noise impacts to the point where they’re not significant.  It’s not surprising to hear developers make idiotic claims like this, but it’s depressing that the City is happy to take their word for it.  The fact that the DCP allowed Prologis to get away with an MND shows just how little they care about how new development impacts LA’s communities.

Toxic Emissions

Diesel trucks emit a range of harmful substances, and the claim that hundreds of trucks will travel through this community every day without having significant impacts on the health of the residents is absurd.  Among the components of diesel exhaust are particulate emissions.  The California Air Resources Board (ARB) regulates two classes of particulate emissions.

PM2.5: Up to 2.5 microns in size.

PM10: Up to 10 microns in size.

The ARB web site offers this information….

“The ARB is concerned about Californians’ exposures to PM2.5- and PM10-sized particles because of the potential harmful health effects that can result.  PM 2.5 and PM10 particles easily penetrate into the airways and lungs where they may produce harmful health effects such as the worsening of heart and lung diseases. The risk of these health effects is greatest in the elderly and the very young. Exposure to elevated concentrations of PM is also associated with increased hospital and doctor visits and increased numbers of premature deaths.”

The consultants who wrote the MND claim that the PM levels residents will be exposed to fall within the limits set by ARB, but the appeal calls this into question.  To predict the emissions that will be generated by a proposed project, environmental consultants use a program developed by the State known as CalEEMod.  The appellants looked at the numbers used by the authors of the MND for these estimates, and then compared them to the numbers actually given in the MND.  “When we reviewed the Project’s CalEEMod output files, we found that several of the values inputted into the model were not consistent with information disclosed in the IS/MND.”  The appellants believe that the numbers used by Prologis’ consultants represent only about half of the truck trips the project would generate.  This means the actual levels of PM pollution would be double, and the health impacts to the community much more severe than Prologis has stated.

Site Clean-Up

It’s known that former industrial uses on the site left toxic chemicals in the soil, including tetrachloroethylene (a likely carcinogen), trichloroethene (a known carcinogen), total petroleum hydrocarbons and heavy metals.  A Phase I Environmental Site Assessment was done in 2016.  It concluded that the site was rife with contaminants and recommended additional investigation.  Anybody with common sense should understand that there’s no way to talk about mitigating the impacts until all the information is available.

The appeal covers a lot of other issues, but it all boils down to the fact that Prologis isn’t being honest about the impacts that will be caused by the project.  And as usual, the Department of City Planning and the City Planning Commission are letting the developer get away with it.  There’s certainly an argument to be made regarding the jobs the project will create, and the increase in economic activity throughout the area.  But even if the CPC believes the economic benefits outweigh the health concerns, they’re still required by law to fully assess the impacts and to make every reasonable effort to protect the health of the community.  They haven’t done that.  By allowing Prologis to use an MND instead of an EIR, they’ve let the developer off the hook and let the community down.

But that’s nothing new.  Anybody who’s been following development in LA over the years knows about the cozy relationship that business interests have with City Hall, and by extension, with the DCP.  Developers and real estate investors know it’s just a matter of working the machine, and if they play the game right, pretty much anything they ask for will be approved.

City Hall is supposed to protect us.  Instead they’re selling us out.  The people opposing this project are just the latest victims of the City’s disrespect for State-mandated environmental review.  By allowing Prologis to slide through this process without properly assessing the project’s impacts, the DCP is putting residents’ health at risk.

That’s not acceptable.  Unfortunately, once again the CPC has ignored the law, and once again residents have been forced to pursue an appeal and possibly a law suit just to protect their community.  Once again the City of LA has put the interests of developers over the rights of citizens.

 

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Rosecrans Recreation Center, directly north of the project site.   Photo by Carmelita Ibarra from Google Images.

The Feminine Sublime

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Last Friday I went to the Pasadena Museum of California Art to take in a show called The Feminine Sublime. It features works by five artists, and it explores different ways of perceiving landscapes and experiencing the environment. Up until the 20th century, men dominated painting, and they often viewed the natural world as something that needed to be tamed or transcended. These women have a different perspective, and are looking for different ways to engage with the environment.

The only artist whose work I was familiar with is Constance Mallinson. Her piece offered a panorama of the refuse that our culture produces. A vast, multi-colored mound made up of the stuff that we use and discard on a daily basis stretches out beneath a threatening, grey sky.

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Still Life in Landscape

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Still Life in Landscape (detail)

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Still Life in Landscape (detail)

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Still Life in Landscape (detail)

The name of this painting by Yvette Gellis is Oil, Earth, Fire, Wind and Water. The title says plenty.  The image is beautiful and violent. Harsh strokes of grey and black cut across the peaceful blues and reds that seem to float in the background.

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Oil, Earth, Fire, Wind and Water

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Oil, Earth, Fire, Wind and Water (detail)

Looking at Marie Thiebeault‘s web site I found out she lived near the Port of LA, which is probably the most heavily contaminated area in the city. She talks about “witnessing […] the continual growth and rebuilding of this industrial expanse” and references “radar dishes, abandoned spy stations, and relics of WWII”. In her view, “… landscape can best mirror our culture’s complex relationship with nature, as well as contain and unfold the expanse of one’s imagination.”

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Exposure

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Exposure (detail)

I like posting about art because it gives me a break from writing about all the awful stuff that’s going on in this city, but when it comes to photographing art, I have to admit I don’t have the equipment or the skill to do it properly. I’m bringing that up here because these images don’t begin to do justice to Virginia Katz‘ work. The surface of this piece is dense and complicated, and it has the effect of pulling you through the surface into something dark and mysterious.

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Land – Into the Abyss

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Land – Into the Abyss (detail)

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Land – Into the Abyss (detail)

The two pieces by Marion Estes are seductive and disturbing. The bright colors and vivid patterns immediately drew me in, but both paintings depict the catastrophic damage we’re doing to the environment. Looking at them was an unnerving experience. I was both fascinated and afraid.

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The Great Defrost

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The Great Defrost (detail)

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Burchfield’s Plea

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Burchfield’s Plea (detail)

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Burchfield’s Plea (detail)

My one complaint about the show? It was too small. I felt like it should have been three or four times larger. These are all gifted painters and they all have a lot to say.

The Feminine Sublime will be on view through June 3. You should go.

Pasadena Museum of California Art

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Predatory Development: Crossroads Hollywood

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New development is necessary. In order for a city to grow, in order for its economy to stay healthy, it’s important to have new construction to bring investment to communities and adapt to the city’s changing needs. But new development isn’t always a good thing. New projects bring new impacts, and the larger the project the more important it is to consider carefully how it will affect the surrounding community. Most large projects are a mixed bag. Pro-business groups will inevitably argue that they bring tax revenue and jobs, and both of these are important. But large projects can also have serious negative impacts, and we need to weigh those, too. Often it’s a matter of trying to figure out if the good will outweigh the bad, and in many cases it’s hard to say for sure.

On the other hand, in some cases it’s pretty easy to make the call. Crossroads Hollywood is a clear example of predatory development. While the backers of the project tout its benefits in terms of tax revenue, jobs and economic activity, they completely ignore the downside. And the downside is considerable.

First, let’s take a look at what this whole thing entails.

Crossroads Hollywood includes about 1,381,000 square feet of floor area, consisting of 950 residential units (of which 105 are for Very Low Income Households), 308 hotel rooms, and approximately 190,000 square feet of commercial space. The project does include the preservation and rehabilitation of the historic Crossroads of the World mall and the Hollywood Reporter building. All other buildings on the project site would be demolished, including 84 Rent Stabilized apartments. The developers are also asking for a Master Conditional Use Permit to allow the sale of a full line of alcoholic beverages at a total of 22 establishments, and another Master CUP to allow eight uses with public dancing and live entertainment.

I’ve gotta say, it’s pretty ambitious. The investors behind Crossroads, Harridge Development Group, are thinking big. They’re also thinking only of themselves and the massive profits they’ll reap from this project. They don’t really give a damn about the community. If approved, Crossroads Hollywood will be devastating for the environment, devastating for housing, and devastating to the health and well-being of the Hollywood community.

Let’s take a look at the project’s environmental impacts….

These days any developer is going to tell you their project is good for the planet. They learned long ago they need to play that angle to sell it to the public. But Harridge’s claims about Crossroads being environmentally friendly are mostly just hype.

The State of California has designated Crossroads Hollywood an Environmental Leadership Development Project. (ELDP). In order to qualify, the developer has to show that it won’t result in any net additional emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs). But a project on the scale of Crossroads represents a huge increase in square footage, so it’s to be expected that there will be a huge increase in energy use. The report by the California Air Resources Board (ARB) estimates the Crossroads project will produce 9,440 MTCO2e (Metric Tons of Carbon Dioxide Equivalent) during demolition and construction, and then 14,294 MTCO2e during the first year of operation, though they say that number will decline each year over the life of the project. This is a huge increase in emissions. So how can the State say it achieves a net reduction?

Simple. The developer buys carbon credits. Like many other states, California has an exchange where businesses that aren’t producing their maximum allowed CO2 emissions can sell what they don’t produce as “credits”. Other businesses that want to offset their own emissions can buy the credits to satisfy regulators. So while Crossroads Hollywood will be putting tens of thousands of tons of additional GHGs into the atmosphere, the State says that buying credits actually makes the project carbon neutral. There are people who have reservations about the carbon credit system, but it’s become widely accepted as a tool for reducing global warming, so let’s go along with the idea that this does represent a net reduction in CO2 emissions.

The problem is that this project isn’t just producing massive amounts of CO2. It’s also spewing out tons of ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter. This is bad news for the people who live in the area. The South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) has evaluated cancer risk from air pollution in its Multiple Air Toxics Exposure Study IV (MATES IV). You can see by the map below that Hollywood is near the top of the scale.

Crossroads Air Quality MATES IV from EIR

But it gets worse. After going through pages of boiler plate language about localized significance thresholds and standard methodologies, the Crossroads Environmental Impact Report (EIR) gets around to analyzing impacts during the construction phase of the project. After listing nearby sensitive uses, including Selma Elementary School/Larchmont Charter School (same campus), Hollywood High, and Blessed Sacrament School, and acknowledging that young people are at higher risk of chronic lung disease from air pollution, the EIR claims, “…, localized construction emissions resulting from the Project would result in a less-than-significant air quality impact.”

Give me a break. Four years of construction, including demolition and excavation, thousands of diesel truck trips and extensive use of heavy machinery will have “less-than-significant” impacts on the kids at these schools? And it’s also important to point out there have been projects under construction on Selma for years now, many of them within three blocks of Selma Elementary. These kids have been inhaling construction dust and diesel fumes since 2015, and the folks behind Crossroads want to keep that going til 2021. But don’t worry. It won’t harm the students a bit.

So let’s talk about transportation. I will give the authors of the EIR credit. Usually traffic assessments for projects like these are ridiculously dishonest. In this case, the EIR acknowledges that traffic is already bad in the area, and that the project will make it worse. Here are a few shots of what it looks like at rush hour.

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Northbound traffic on Highland, the western boundary of the project.

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Traffic heading west on Selma toward Highland.

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Traffic heading north on Las Palmas toward Selma.

The EIR does analyze existing weekday rush hour conditions as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The problem here is, Hollywood is a special case. In addition to really awful congestion at rush hour, you can also have heavy traffic at night and on weekends because of the constant parade of concerts, movie premieres, food fairs and other miscellaneous events. There are multiple happenings in Hollywood every month, many of them involving street closures. And don’t even ask what it’s like during the Hollywood Bowl season.

I wouldn’t expect the authors of the EIR to include all this, because they’re not required to. But they should at least talk about additional traffic generated by the eight live entertainment venues that are included in the project. Crossroads Hollywood isn’t just meant to be a place where people live and work. It’s intended to be a destination. While I’m sure some of the spaces offering entertainment will be fairly small, it seems likely that at least one of them will be a dance club offering live DJs. And I wouldn’t be surprised if popular singers and bands start showing up on a regular basis. Which means that a community already overwhelmed with events that draw tons of cars and disrupt transit will have to bear an even heavier load once Crossroads is up and running.

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Apartment building to be demolished if the project is approved.

And what about the impacts that eight places featuring live entertainment will have on the LAPD’s workload? Not to mention the 22 establishments selling alcohol. Incredibly, the EIR doesn’t even discuss these things in the section dealing with police protection. They conclude again that project impacts will be “less-than-significant”. Obviously the authors of the EIR haven’t seen the research indicating that high alcohol outlet density has been linked to higher rates of violent crime.  Back in 2014, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck wrote to the Department of City Planning (DCP) pointing out that the “oversaturation” of alcohol outlets in Hollywood was contributing to increased crime, including robbery, shootings, rape, and assault. The DCP obviously paid no attention, because they’ve gone on granting liquor permits, and violent crime in Hollywood has risen every year since then. LAPD stats for Hollywood as of April 21 show violent crime has gone up 28.9% over the same period last year. The LAPD is understaffed, and doing their best to cope with a difficult situation. Too bad the DCP has no interest in helping them out. Apparently the folks at City Planning have no concern for the safety of Hollywood residents, or for the people who visit the area. And it looks like Harridge shares their total indifference.

This same indifference extends to the project’s noise impacts. Remember, the developer is asking permits for live entertainment in 8 venues. It seems like at least some of these will be outdoors. Check out this table from the EIR that lists the spaces where they plan to have amplified sound.

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It’s hard to say how much overlap there will be, since they don’t distinguish between those spaces intended for live performances and and those that will just have recorded sounds. But it’s pretty clear that there’s going to be a lot of music, and a lot of it will be outdoors. The EIR acknowledges that there could be significant impacts from noise, but don’t worry, they have a plan to take care of that. What’s their plan? They’re going to build a 12-foot wall on the project’s eastern boundary, between Crossroads of the World and Blessed Sacrament Church. And according to the EIR, that fixes everything.

This is so ludicrous it’s hard to believe they expect people to buy it. A single 12-foot wall is going to addres any concerns about noise. Live outdoor performances have been a problem for years in Hollywood. Area residents can tolerate a lot, and nobody gets bent out of shape if someone puts on a show during the day. But in recent years more and more club owners have been pushing the limits at night. There have been a lot of complaints about DJs ripping it up on rooftop bars in the small hours. The EIR’s claim that amplified music will only be heard in the immediate vicinity is bull. People who live in the hills have told me they can hear late night noise from down on the boulevard, and they’re not happy about it.

But Crossroads Hollywood wasn’t meant to benefit the community. It was meant to benefit the investors who are hoping to reap huge profits. This project will put more cars on the road and more poison in the air. It will create more crime than the LAPD can handle and more headaches for residents trying to get a good night’s sleep. And what do we get in return? Yeah, there’s the tax revenue, but the City is already seeing record revenues and still can’t balance its budget. More housing? Yeah, the vast majority of it priced way beyond the reach of most people who live in Hollywood. When we put the 105 Very Low Income units gained against the 84 Rent Stabilized units lost, we see a net increase of 21 units that will be accessible to the low income families that really need housing. The gain of 21 units will quickly be erased by the project’s gentrifying impact. If Crossroads is built, you can expect to see a lot of other investors buying up apartments and kicking people out. And will the project create jobs? Sure, mostly low-paying jobs in bars, restaurants, and hotels. Most of the people who will work there could never afford to live there.

This is predatory development. A project designed by investors for investors. The reason the EIR doesn’t see any serious problems for the community is because the needs of the community were never considered in any meaningful way.

It’s just about money.

Next week the City will be holding a hearing on Crossroads Hollywood. If you want to show up and speak your mind, here’s the info.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018, 9:00 am

Los Angeles City Hall
200 North Spring St., Room 350

ENTER ON MAIN STREET.

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Crossroads of the World

 

Glendale Puts Hold on Grayson Repowering

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On Tuesday night protesters gathered in front of Glendale City Hall to oppose spending $500 million on rebuilding the Grayson Power Plant. Glendale Water and Power (GWP) has put forward a plan to replace obsolete generating units with newer ones, increasing the plant’s output significantly. The process is called repowering, and the GWP says it’s necessary to provide a reliable supply of electricity for the city.

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Speakers talked about the problems with the current plan for Grayson.

But there are many who feel that upping Grayson’s output is a bad idea, since it means a big increase in the plant’s fossil fuel consumption. Debate over Glendale’s plan has been intense, with environmentalists claiming that the GWP has failed to explore clean energy alternatives. They point out that repowering Grayson would mean significant increases in CO2, ozone and particulate emissions.

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The media showed up to cover the protest.

The Grayson plan was on the City Council’s agenda that night, and council members would be deciding whether or not to approve the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The rally broke up as the meeting was starting. I went home and watched the proceedings on my laptop. It was long night. I wanted to hang on until the Council voted, but at 10:00 pm they were still taking public comment, and I finally gave up.

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Volunteers manning the table.

The tone of the meeting was civil, but tense. Evan Gillespie spoke on behalf of the Sierra Club, and he questioned some of the claims made by GWP. The utility had initially said that Grayson needed to produce 250 megawatts or there was a danger of power shortages, but then later said they might be able to do with less. He also was skeptical of the claim that the cost of the current plan wouldn’t mean raising rates down he road.

Angela Johnson Meszaros, a staff attorney with Earth Justice, stated that the EIR had serious problems. The EIR says that the project’s emissions woudn’t be significant because of offsets provided by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD). How does this work? Polluters can bank credits for emissions they don’t produce, which in turn can be traded to polluters who produce more than they should. But wouldn’t Grayson still be pumping a lot of dirt into the sky over Glendale? You bet, and Johnson Meszaros pointed this out. The idea that emissions offsets will somehow even things out across the LA area sounds good in theory, but if you live anywhere near the power plant you’ll still be breathing a lot of dirty air. She also said that the biggest problem with the EIR was that it didn’t present enough viable alternatives, especially with respect to clean energy.

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Sometimes you just can’t find a sturdy surface to write on.

Like I said, I bailed before the end of the meeting, but this morning I sent a message to the folks at Stop Grayson Expansion. They responded with the news that the Council voted 4 to 1 to put a hold on things for 90 days and issue a Request for Information (RFI). This means they’re going to look for alternative solutions for Glendale’s energy needs, including clean energy options. Stop Grayson had been hoping for an independent study of possible alternatives, but they believe that if the RFI is prepared carefully it could be a step in the right direction.

Bottom line, we need to get away from fossil fuels. This isn’t going to happen right away, but it’s never going to happen if we don’t push aggressively for alternatives. Thanks to all those who showed up at the rally on Tuesday, and thanks to all the groups who worked so hard to change the discussion about Grayson. This isn’t over yet, but things are looking a whole lot better.

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We Need Trees, Not Fees

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The City has a problem. The Urban Forestry Division (UFD) has scores of trees sitting in boxes in storage that it can’t plant. Why is this? In large part it’s because when developers remove trees to build projects, they agree to replace them by purchasing new ones for the City to plant elsewhere. Unfortunately, due to budget cuts, the UFD has no staff to do the planting. And worse, when trees are stuck in boxes for long periods of time, their health declines, sometimes to the point where they’re not viable any more.

Actually, the City has an even bigger problem than this. We’re losing a huge chunk of our urban forest. Years of dry weather has already impacted the health of thousands of trees in the LA area, but now there’s a worse threat. A beetle called the shot hole borer has come to the region. It nests in trees and in the process often kills them. The die-off has already begun, and if it continues at its current pace we can expect to lose millions of trees throughout Southern California over the next several years. This isn’t just a matter of erasing pretty landscapes. As a result of this massive reduction of our urban forest, there will be impacts to our water resources, our air will be dirtier, and our cities will grow hotter than they are already.

So you’d think we’d be doing everything we can to protect the trees we’ve got. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Aside from the natural threats to our trees, development is taking a toll on the urban forest. City Hall is pushing hard to boost construction of housing and hotels, as well as office and commercial space. Which brings us back to the first point. Developers generally want to squeeze as much square footage as they can out of a project. Often they ask the City to reduce required setbacks, or even let them build right out to the property line. In many cases they also ask the City to reduce the requirements for open space. The Department of City Planning (DCP) is usually pretty generous in granting developers’ wishes, especially if it’s a housing project that includes some affordable units.

To give you an idea of how bad things have gotten, let’s talk about the City’s Protected Tree Ordinance (PTO). Some species are considered so important that we should afford them special protection. A while back the City Council approved the PTO in order to prevent their removal except under extraordinary circumstances. So how’s that working out? Not so good. In November of last year Councilmembers Paul Koretz and Mike Bonin introduced a motion to strengthen the ordinance. Here’s a quote.

”Unfortunately, trees are not being adequately protected and departments are not working well together to protect them. Trees are being cut before development permits are applied for, trees are not being protected during construction activities, and building permits are routinely issued without the Department of Building and Safety being aware of the presence of protected trees on the affected properties, all resulting in an accumulating net loss of trees, tree canopy and the accompanying ecosystem services across the City.”

This is serious. We need trees. Our water resources are increasingly stressed. LA’s air quality ranks among the worst in the nation. And temperatures in the city continue to rise. A robust urban forest would help us deal with all of those problems, but instead of enhancing our tree canopy we’re cutting it down.

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The reason I’m bringing all this up is that there’s a proposal before the City right now to allow developers to fulfill the requirement for replacing trees simply by paying a fee. For new projects that remove trees, the City would calculate the required number of replacements (usually at a ratio between 2 to 1 and 4 to 1), and then bill the developer for in-lieu fees of $2,612 per tree. This amount would cover the cost of procurement, planting and providing water for three years.

At first glance, this might look like a good deal. The UFD doesn’t have staff to plant the replacement trees it’s been receiving, and storing them for long periods of time impacts the trees’ health. There apparently has been talk of restoring some of the UDF’s funding in the City’s next budget, which could lead to the hiring of personnel to plant trees. But that’s definitely a roll of the dice, since LA is struggling with a structural deficit, and for years now its budgets have been held together with scotch tape and bubble gum. Many City departments suffered staff cuts during the recession, and they’re all lobbying to restore those positions. So without any certainty over staffing for the UFD, the in-lieu fee probably seems pretty attractive, since the cost of planting and watering is built in. The City is outsourcing a lot of work already, and it could just hire a contractor to do the job.

But really, there are a number of problems with just charging an in lieu-fee….

First, it makes it even easier for the DCP to allow developers to do away with trees. If, in theory, all the trees that are removed will be replaced at a 2 to 1 ratio or better, and if the money collected includes planting and watering, then why would they hesitate to reduce setbacks and open space? Let the developers do whatever they want! Problem solved. But in reality, we have no guarantee that this system will work as promised. Think about it. Supposedly the current system of requiring developers to replace trees was going to solve the problem. And what actually happened? We have a lot of trees sitting in City-owned storage areas. Some have been sitting in boxes so long that they’re no longer viable. And at the same time developers have been cutting down trees and putting hardscape in their place.

But the City would certainly spend the money they collect. Right? Not necessarily. You may recall that back in 2015 City Controller Ron Galperin did an audit of fees collected from developers. He found $54 million that had been sitting in City-controlled accounts for at least three years. This money had been collected, but it hadn’t been spent. Unfortunately, City Hall isn’t always great about following through.

Second, while charging the in-lieu fees may lead to a better replacement rate in the future, there’s no guarantee that the City will do anything about the trees the UFD currently has in stock. If the budget for the next fiscal year doesn’t include funds for additional staff, these trees could easily sit in storage until they die. It’s been suggested that non-profits could step in to do the planting. If that’s a possibility, why hasn’t it already happened?

Third, and most important, this is not a solution, it’s a quick fix. In order to find a solution, you have to first identify the problem, and the City hasn’t done that. It’s proposing in-lieu fees as a way of replacing trees that are cut down for development, but that’s really just one aspect of the situation.

The real problem is that we’re facing a potentially devastating loss of our urban forest.

If we fail to maintain our urban forest, our air quality will suffer, our water quality will be diminished, and LA will continue to grow hotter than it already is.

LA needs a comprehensive, holistic approach to managing our urban forest. We must do a complete inventory of the city’s tree canopy, and also an inventory of space available for planting trees. We then need to use this data to develop a unified policy based on actual science that will address all aspects of the problem. Rather than coming up with quick fixes to deal with tree loss caused by new development or sidewalk repair or insect infestation, we need an integrated approach that brings all these things together.

In other words, we need to gather the data, look at the science, and then develop an actual plan.

If we don’t do this, our urban forest will continue to decline, and we will suffer the consequences.

If you want to take a look at the proposed ordinance, here’s the link.

Tree Replacement In-Lieu Fee

If you want to contact your City Council rep about this issue, be sure to include this council file number in the subject line.

CF-16-0461

And to make sure your comments are included in the file, don’t forget to copy the City Clerk.

cityclerk@lacity.org

Finally, if you want to voice your comments in person, this issue will be considered by the Community Forest Advisory Committee (CFAC) later this week.

CFAC Meeting
Thursday, March 1, 1:00 pm
City Hall, 200 N. Spring St, Room 361
[USE MAIN ST. ENTRANCE.]

For more information, follow the link below.

CFAC Meetings

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The Poor People’s Campaign Comes to LA

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Last month the Poor People’s Campaign came to LA. Led by Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, the campaign has been travelling all over the country advocating “a national call for moral revival.” Can anyone deny it’s needed?

If the Poor People’s Campaign sounds familiar, it’s probably because Revs. Barber and Theoharis are building on the efforts of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King back in the 60s. After the Civil Rights Movement achieved important advances, Dr. King argued that it was time to turn to human rights, focussing on housing, jobs and health care.

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The sanctuary was packed.

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A close-up of the crowd.

On its stop in LA, the campaign landed at McCarty Memorial Christian Church in West Adams, where Rev. Eddie Anderson serves as pastor. The place was packed with people, and a number of different organizations were there representing labor, immigrants, and tenants. One speaker emphasized that the Poor People’s Campaign was happy to embrace people of all faiths, and even people who don’t belong to any faith tradition. They welcome everybody. A variety of speakers took turns at the pulpit, including some ordinary folks who talked about how hard they’re struggling just to survive.

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The crowd overflowed into the aisles.

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A close-up of the balcony.

Finally Rev. Barber stepped up to speak. He made it clear that he believes our country is in a moral crisis, citing rampant inequality and economic oppression. He talked about poverty in Los Angeles and California, decrying homelessness and lack of access to healthcare. In Rev. Barber’s view, our society is afflicted by four ills that we must challenge: racism, poverty, ecological devastation, and the war economy.

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Revs. William Barber, Liz Theoharis, and Eddie Anderson

It was an inspiring sermon, and the crowd ate it up. I have to admit I didn’t stay til the end, because I had a long bus ride home. But it was exciting to be in a room full of people who believe the country needs to change.

Interested in joining the Poor People’s Campaign? Here’s the link….

Poor People’s Campaign

During his sermon, Rev. Barber insisted, “It’s time for a breakthrough!”

I couldn’t agree more.

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It is definitely time for a breakthrough.

Farming on a Sliver of Land in the Suburbs

CUF 01 Truck Elliot

I know there are urban farms all over LA, but the last place I would’ve expected to find one was Panorama City. One of the many suburbs that sprang up in the Valley after WWII, the area is a wide, flat expanse of tract homes and strip malls. Initially built in the late 40s, Panorama City was an early experiment in creating a master-planned community, filled largely with pre-fab houses made by Kaiser Homes.

Elliott Kuhn bought this small piece of land near Roscoe Blvd. in 2011, and started Cottonwood Urban Farm (CUF) in 2013. The farm would never have existed had the previous owner done what his neighbors were doing and sold the parcel to developers. Roy Peterson had owned the land since the 60s, and lived in a small house that sat on the back of the lot. It would have been easy for him to take an offer from the investors who were buying up the neighborhood during the last decade, filling the surrounding lots with big, nondescript, stucco boxes. But Peterson didn’t want that to happen to his property, and so when Kuhn approached him about buying the parcel to create an urban farm, he took less than he could’ve gotten elsewhere. The idea appealed to him.

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The home formerly occupied by Roy Peterson.

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Right next door you can see houses built during the construction boom of the last decade.

Kuhn had worked for a while as a teacher, and finally decided it wasn’t for him. He put in some time on farms in Austin, and also did a stint with Tree People. Buying the property in Panorama City was the first step toward starting his own farm, but it took a while to get the land in shape. One of the biggest challenges was clearing the property, which involved hauling off 15 tons of trash.

The farm is small, and the layout is compact, so it didn’t take long for Elliott to walk me through it. Toward the back there’s a tiny grove of fruit trees that produce peaches, plums, and nectarines. As we moved toward the front we walked past patches of lettuce, kale, and chard. A crowd of noisy ducks were splashing around in a tiny water hole, and off to one side there were stacks of boxes that serve as bee hives.

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You can find all kinds of things growing on this farm.

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You can see bees gathered around the opening in the box toward the back.

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The ducks try to keep cool on a hot summer day.

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A grinning statue of Buddha surrounded by greenery.

The farm gets its name from the giant cottonwood tree that rises high above it. Elliott believes it’s at least a hundred years old. I took a number of photos of the tree, and didn’t get a single image that really captured its beauty, but maybe this one will give you some idea.

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Elliott explained that the produce is not certified organic, but he tries to rely on organic principles. Crop diversity and rotation help make the farm sustainable. I asked if he made his living just by farming, and he said no. He’s hoping to eventually make the farm economically self-sustaining by moving into specialty produce that he can sell for a higher profit. Right now he makes ends meet by patching together a few different gigs, including doing presentations for groups and also working as a gardener.

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Elliott tending the farm.

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Sunflowers are amazing.

When it was time for me to leave, Elliott opened the front gate and I stepped from the soft soil of the farm back onto the hard pavement that covers so much of suburbia. I walked back down to Roscoe Blvd. where rush hour traffic was speeding past in both directions.

I know there are a lot of good reasons to make farms a part of the urban fabric. They can foster a cleaner environment, reduce CO2 emissions and offer communities healthier food. But besides all that, it seems to me that in a sprawling metropolis like LA, it’s also important just to have a place that’s peaceful and green.

If you want to learn more about Cottonwood Urban Farm, here’s the link.

Cottonwood Urban Farm

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