Money Talks, and the City Council Listens

Hills on the west side of Coldwater Canyon

Hills on the west side of Coldwater Canyon


This post was updated on March 14, 2016.

I saw an article on CityWatch today about Harvard-Westlake School’s continuing efforts to expand their campus on Coldwater Canyon. I’ve posted about this crazy project before, but reading the article made me want to do a follow-up. For those of you who haven’t been following the controversy, here’s a brief summary….

Harvard-Westlake, an elite prep school located in the hills just above Ventura Blvd., wants to build a three story parking lot that would hold 750 cars just across the road from their campus on Coldwater Canyon. But that’s not all. The structure would be capped by an athletic field, with the perimeter ringed by powerful lighting to accommodate night games. And to facilitate access, they want to build a bridge across Coldwater to connect the structure to the campus.

There are a lot of reasons to oppose this. The fact that the project would mean the removal of over 100 protected trees and 100,000 cubic yards of soil from the hillside is scary enough. Plus the loss of habitat for wildlife that lives in the hills. But we should also ask why, at a time when the City of LA is constantly telling us we need to reduce our carbon footprint, is Harvard-Westlake building a parking lot that will make it easier for people to drive to their campus?

But the CityWatch article focusses on efforts by people associated with Harvard-Westlake to push this project through. According to the author, a number of these people have given generously to Councilmember Paul Krekorian’s campaign committee. Now, there’s no law against giving money to a candidate, and for anybody living in LA, it’s certainly no surprise to hear about rich power players throwing money at the City Council. But it’s important to remember that the school is a 501C3, and there are strict rules about non-profit groups engaging in political activities. Here’s a quote from the IRS Compliance Guide for 501C3 Public Charities.

Political Campaign Intervention

Public charities are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violation of this prohibition may result in revocation of tax-exempt status and/or imposition of certain excise taxes.

I took a look at the LA Ethics Commission web site, and found 14 people associated with Harvard-Westlake who all decided to throw something in Krekorian’s campaign coffers around the same time, from late October through late November 2014. That does seem a little suspicious. Especially since 9 of the 14 contributions are listed under the same date, November 3, 2014. Sure sounds like a coordinated effort to me. If that’s true, it would certainly be a violation of the law. The language in the IRS Compliance Guide is pretty clear. “Public charities are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office.”

Sounds to me like these people broke the law. Does Krekorian care? I guess not, since he kept the money.

If you want to learn more about the situation, here’s a link to Save Coldwater Canyon, a group that opposes the project.

Save Coldwater Canyon

Trading Trees for Astroturf

The hillside opposite Harvard Westlake school that will be removed if their planned project goes forward.

The hillside opposite Harvard Westlake school that will be removed if their planned project goes forward.

Isn’t traffic on Coldwater Canyon bad enough already? Because of LA’s unusual geography, there are only a few corridors that drivers can use to go from the city to the valley and vice-versa. Coldwater is one of those roads. Originally a quiet ride through a scenic canyon, in the last few decades Coldwater has become a major route for commuters going to and from work. Under ordinary circumstances, congestion is a problem during the work week. But for several months now the back-ups have been worse than usual because the DWP has been replacing an aging pipeline. Residents of Sherman Oaks and Studio City are understandably frustrated.

Now the Harvard Westlake School, which is located on Coldwater just a few hundred yards from Ventura Blvd., has decided it wants to expand. They have let the community know that they plan to build a three level parking structure on the hillside directly opposite the school. On top of the parking structure will be a playing field, illuminated by powerful lights during night games, and a pedestrian bridge to connect that structure to the school’s main campus.

As you might imagine, local residents are freaking out. Traffic is one concern, but just as important is the damage this project will do to the environment. In order to build the parking structure, the school will have to remove a large chunk of the hillside, including scores of trees. If you want more detailed information, follow the link below.

Save Coldwater Canyon

At this point the Draft Environmental Impact Report is being circulated. The City of LA will be accepting comments on the DEIR until Nomember twenty fifth. Also, the Studio City Neighborhood Council will be meeting on November seventh, and they will hear comments from the public at that time. But I would imagine that there are a number of people who live outside of the immediate area that might be concerned about the traffic and environmental impacts. If you think this plan is unacceptable, please contact your city council rep and tell them so. Click on the link to access the city council directory.

LA City Council

Traffic on Coldwater Canyon heading towards Ventura Blvd., just after six pm on a Wednesday evening.

Traffic on Coldwater Canyon heading towards Ventura Blvd., just after six pm on a Wednesday evening.