Let’s Stop the Madness

20 Trfc FINAL Hlnd Crowd 2 w Pink Yellow Text

According to an October 2016 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 48% of US adults believe climate change is caused by human activity.  And yet millions of those same people get into their car every morning and head off for a commute that often involves a fair amount of time spent sitting in traffic.  We know that climate change threatens the planet, we know we need to reduce emissions, and yet we’re still locked into the same behavior that got us into this mess in the first place.

In the same poll people were asked what would make a big difference in addressing climate change.  Out of six possible responses, the first four were….

> restrictions on power plant emissions

> international agreements

> higher fuel efficiency for cars

> corporate tax incentives

The interesting thing here is that all of these steps would require the government to take action.  And let’s face it, the current administration isn’t gonna do a damn thing about climate change.  So let’s look at the last two responses….

> more people driving hybrids

> people reducing carbon footprints

The people who chose these steps were the people who were ready to take action themselves.  Switching to a hybrid is great, and getting an electric vehicle is even better, but a lot of people can’t afford to buy new car.  So what can they do?

How about cutting your driving by 20%?  Think about how you might reduce the amount of driving you do, either by taking transit, riding a bike, or walking.  Maybe you could find ways to car pool with your friends.

How many times have you been stuck sitting in traffic, staring at an endless line of brake lights, and thought to yourself, “This is crazy!”  And you’re right.  We say we want to fight climate change, but we’re stuck in the same bad habits that created this crisis.

So let’s change our habits.  Let’s stop the madness.

 

 

The Climate Is Changing. Can You?

20 Trfc FINAL SD Valley Sized w Yel Text

If you’re waiting for the White House to change its stance on climate change, you’ll be waiting a long time.  And whatever the oil companies say publicly, they’ll do whatever it takes to keep the crude and the profits flowing.

So it’s down to you.

Can you cut your driving by 20%?  If every American citizen who believes climate change is a threat were to spend 20% less time on the road, it would cause a huge reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.  It would also send a message to Big Oil that we want a faster transition to renewable energy.  When their profits start falling, they’ll start listening.

So could you take public transit to work one day a week?  Or car pool with someone you know?  Instead of driving to the park this weekend could you ride your bike?  Instead of taking that epic road trip this summer, could you scale it back a little and go some place closer to home?

You can wait for the government or Big Oil take action, or you can take matters into your own hands.

Stopping climate change starts with you.

Pipelines Making You See Red?

20 Trfc FINAL Fig Red

In spite of years of protests, the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines are both moving forward.  It’s obvious big oil isn’t listening, and neither is the White House.

So what can we do?

Use less oil.  It’s that simple.  Oil companies build infrastructure based on how much money they think they can make off it.  When oil prices started diving a couple of years ago, the industry cancelled or postponed construction of over 20 major projects.  There’s no point spending money on infrastructure if it’s not going to pay off.

What if everybody cut their driving by 20%?  The oil market is already shaky, with soft prices making investors nervous.  If we use less, supply will increase, and that will drive prices lower.  And it will also make oil companies think twice about plowing billions into building new pipelines.

So how about it?  Can you cut the amount of time you spend behind the wheel by 20%?  Not only would you be helping move the country toward clean energy, but you wouldn’t spend so much time stuck in traffic.  It’s win win.

Start Your Own Paris Agreement

20 Trfc FINAL Wstd w Red Yel Text

Millions of Americans are angry about the White House’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, and certainly their anger is justified. But just because our government won’t take action on climate change doesn’t mean we can’t.

Cut your driving by 20%. If every American who supports the Paris Agreement were to drive 20% less, it would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There are a number of steps you can take….

Take transit to work, or try car pooling, one day a week.

Ask your boss if you can work from home one day a week.

Walk to the market instead of driving. Or share the trip with a friend who’s also shopping.

Think about taking local outings instead of longer trips.

Use your imagination. Everybody’s lifestyle is different, but ask yourself if you can change your driving habits to spend 20% less time on the road.

If Americans cut their driving by 20%, it would not only send a powerful message to the White House, but also to the oil companies. As long as we keep using fossil fuels, they’ll keep selling them. A 20% drop in their profits would let them know we want a faster transition to renewable energy.

Start your own Paris Agreement. Commit to cutting your driving by 20%.

Tenants Kicked Out as Landlords Cash In

lp-01-notice

Ellis Act evictions are so common in LA these days that I’ve gotten used to hearing reports of landlords kicking their tenants out. It happens all the time. As speculative development continues to push property values higher, property owners are eager to cash in. Over 20,000 units have been removed from the rental market through the Ellis Act since 2000. And in addition to the thousands of tenants who’ve been kicked out under Ellis, it’s likely that thousands more have lost their apartments because they were bamboozled by unscrupulous landlords using cash-for-keys scams.

In the course of writing this blog I’ve met a number of people who’ve either already been evicted or are facing eviction. So when I went to meet a group of tenants who live in a small building on Las Palmas it seemed like a familiar scenario. The owner plans to demolish the existing structure in order to build a 7-story mixed-use project, and so the people currently living there have got to go. The breadwinners in these families are working hard to make ends meet, and odds are they’re getting by on paychecks that add up to well below LA’s median income. While I’m sure they’re worried about getting evicted, one thing that encouraged me is that they seemed much more angry than scared. They’re not going to take this lying down.

lp-02-tenants-int

Some of the tenants facing eviction.

The tenants are paying much less than the area’s median rent, but they’re also getting next to nothing in terms of repairs and maintenance. I could see walking into the building that the owner wasn’t taking care of it properly. The tenants told me a number of stories about problems with their units that the landlord was either slow to fix or didn’t fix at all. My guess is that he’s been sitting on the property, waiting for the right deal to come along, and didn’t see any point in spending money on upkeep. I should mention that he has laid out some cash to fix up a few of the units, just not the ones that are occupied by the current tenants. You may be asking, why would he do that? The answer is simple. He’s posting the refurbished units on the net as short-term rentals. This is a pretty common practice. Landlords are doing it all over the city, and it’s more or less legal unless the tenants were evicted under the Ellis Act. So when we talk about a shortage of apartments in LA, we have to remember that there are probably thousands of units that are actually being used as unofficial hotel rooms.

lp-03-mtg-sylvie-cu-2

Council District 13 Candidate Sylvie Shain.

My friend Sylvie Shain came by to talk with the tenants. Sylvie is running for the CD 13 council seat, in large part because of her concern over LA’s affordable housing crisis. She knows first-hand what it’s like to be evicted, having been forced out of her apartment by owners who planned to turn the building into a boutique hotel. Sylvie spent over an hour with the tenants, giving them info on what protections they had under the law and helping them figure out their next steps.

Several days later I went to a neighborhood council meeting on the proposed project. The purpose of the meeting was to talk about the impacts of the new structure, not the eviction of the current tenants, but it’s hard to separate the two. The owner has said that he will reserve seven units in the new building to replace the seven units that are currently occupied in the old building, and that he will offer them to the current tenants at the price they’re now paying. This may sound like a good deal, but there are a few problems with it. First, the owner hasn’t actually signed an agreement, which means he’s under no obligation to honor these terms. Second, while the owner is offering to replace seven units, there are actually fifteen units in the existing building that are covered by the rent stabilization ordinance (RSO). His deal would mean the loss of eight more RSO units. This may not sound like a lot by itself, but thousands of RSO units have been taken off the market in recent years, which is one of the reasons affordable housing is so scarce these days. Third, the owner knows that the new structure will probably take a couple of years to complete. If the current tenants get forced out, there’s a good chance they won’t find anything they can afford in LA. It’s entirely possible that by the time the proposed project is completed, none of them will still be living in the area, and he won’t have to offer them anything.

lp-04-nc-mtg

Neighborhood Council meeting on the proposed project.

Then there’s the way the Department of City Planning (DCP) is trying to push this project through. They’re trying to approve it with a categorical exemption, which means they’re arguing that because it’s in-fill development and conforms to the current zoning, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) doesn’t require an environmental assessment. And to make that argument, they cite CEQA Guidelines, Section 15332. But CEQA requires that the project meet a number of conditions in order to grant the exemption, including the following….

Approval of the project would not result in any significant effects relating to traffic, noise, air quality, or water quality.

Traffic is already getting to be a problem on Las Palmas. Formerly a quiet residential street with one lane going each direction, in recent years it’s become a short cut for drivers looking to avoid congestion on Highland during rush hour. And traffic on Las Palmas is going to get a lot worse, because in addition to this project there are two others about the same size that are currently under construction, one just to the north and one just to the south of the existing building. But wait, there’s more. At the corner of Las Palmas and Franklin work recently began on a complex that wil contain over 100 units. In other words, if this project is approved, the neighborhood will gain about 300 units, which will definitely have a significant impact on traffic.*

lp-05-las-palmas-traffic

Traffic northbound on Las Palmas at rush hour.

What’s more, the proposed project is about 500 feet away from the facility that houses both the Canyon Pre-School and the Las Palmas Sr. Center. Children and seniors are known to be sensitive receptors, and to say that there will be no significant impacts to air quality or noise levels during construction is ridiculous. The kids and seniors at this small facility already suffered an onslaught of construction dust and noise when work on the project at Las Palmas and Franklin began last year. But the DCP apparently just doesn’t give a damn, and so they’re trying to rush this project through with no environmental review whatsoever.

After the neighborhood council meeting, I contacted the DCP hearing officer to find out what the timetable was for the project’s approval. It’s tentatively scheduled to go before the City Planning Commission on April 13, though it could get pushed back. Meanwhile, the tenants wait and wonder whether they’ll have to find a new place to live, in a city where rents are spiralling higher every year.

*
Some housing advocates may be cheered by this news, but don’t get too excited. The vast majority of these units will be well beyond the reach of those making the area’s median income, $34,807 a year. [Source: LA Times, Measuring income along L.A.’s Metro stations by Kyle Kim and Sandra Poindexter, March 4, 2016]

lp-06-1840-highland-billboard

View of construction site from Highland.

Traffic-Oriented Development

traffic-hlwd-video-1

For over a decade people at City Hall have been talking about transit-oriented development (TOD). In theory, if we create high-density residential and commercial developments near transit centers, people will be encouraged to take busses and trains instead of driving their cars. Makes sense, right? So for years the City has been telling us we have to build up instead of out, that we need to go vertical instead of horizontal. And they’ve approved a slew of high-rises, all the while insisting that this will get people out of cars and onto transit.

Before I go any further, I’d like you to watch a video. It lasts about twelve minutes, and it was shot during rush hour not too far from Hollywood and Vine.

I hope the video makes my point clear.* The City keeps approving high-rises, and when communities complain that congestion will get worse, planners and politicians invariably say that the people who live and/or work in these buildings will surely take transit. But they’ve been saying that for over a decade now, and it ain’t working. The MTA station at Hollywood and Vine is a hub for a number of bus lines, as well as the subway. But these people are all driving right past it.

I’m not against TOD, but to make it work, you’ve got to do some planning. Instead of creating a well thought out framework for all this development, the City keeps dumping project after project in the Hollywood area. Mayor Garcetti will tell you that the City did produce the Hollywood Community Plan Update (HCPU), and residents sued to overturn it. That’s true. Among the HCPU’s many shortcomings, the population figure it was based on was inflated by about 10%, in spite of the fact that US Census numbers were readily available. The judge who threw the plan out called it “fatally flawed”.

To give you an idea of how little City Hall cares about planning, let’s go back to those two buildings in the video. The residential high-rise on the southwest corner is just getting started, and the hotel on the northeast corner isn’t quite finished. But look at how bad traffic is already, long before these projects are completed. Unbelievably, the City is considering approval of a third high-rise at the very same intersection. How clueless can you get?!

As I said in the video, I don’t own a car and depend on transit to get around. I support planning to encourage transit use. But TOD isn’t working in LA. Why? I think primarily it’s because that’s not really what the City is building. If our elected officials were really interested in building TOD, they’d be pushing high-density housing made up mostly of affordable units. But instead, the City has been encouraging developers to build high-priced housing by offering them generous entitlements.

I got on the Department of City Planning web site and took a look at multi-family projects in Hollywood and North Hollywood that have been built near Red Line stations since the subway was completed. The Lofts and The Gallery at Noho Commons combined contain 724 units. Eastown, when the second phase is completed, will have over 1,000. The Jefferson has 270, and is the only one that offers any affordable housing, 27 units. So out of about 2,000 apartments, only 27 are accessible to people in lower income brackets. And if you’re not one of the lucky few to snag one of low cost units, you can expect to spend at least $2,000 a month for a one bedroom. Let’s not even talk about what it might cost to live at The Vermont, which sits just across from the Vermont/Wilshire station. And call it a hunch, but I don’t think the massive Wilshire Grand Tower, which is rising up next to the 7th/Figueroa station, will be offering any affordable units at all.

According to a story published by the LA Times earlier this year (Measuring Income along LA’s Metro Stations, March 4, 2016), the median income in almost all communities served by the Red Line is well below the County median of $55,870, ranging roughly from $22,000 to $46,000 a year. (Universal City is the lone exception, with residents there making well above the County median.) For the people in the lowest income bracket, renting an apartment at the newer “TOD” buildings would consume pretty much all their earnings, and even at the higher end of the scale it would mean spending over half what they make in a year. The City says these high-density projects encourage transit use, but most transit riders couldn’t afford to live in them.

Could this be one of the reasons that transit ridership is lower now than it was back in 1985? There may be many reasons for the decline, but you’ve got to wonder why the MTA is serving fewer people than it did three decades ago. The drop in ridership is even more disturbing when you realize that the population of LA County (the area served by the MTA) has grown by over a million since 1985. Does anyone see a problem here? City Hall has been telling us for years that their policies will get people off the road and onto transit. Instead, we’ve seen a net loss in transit ridership since the eighties, in spite of the fact that the population has continued to climb. And the traffic that used to just clog the main thoroughfares is now spilling over onto side streets.

The City’s claim that they’re promoting transit-oriented density is bogus. What they’re really doing is allowing developers who spend a fortune lobbying City Hall to cash in on projects that don’t serve the majority of Angelenos. They’re backing projects geared towards the affluent, which is what developers want because that’s where the highest profits are. Meanwhile lines of cars sit on our streets and freeways at rush hour, burning fossil fuels and spewing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

You call this transit-oriented development? I call it a disgusting sham.

————————————————–

*
Just in case you’re thinking traffic is bad because it’s a Hollywood Bowl night, it’s not. The video was shot on Tuesday, October 25. Nothing was on the schedule that evening. But I can tell you the back-up on these streets can get way worse when something is happening at the Bowl.

traffic-hlwd-video-2

Manufacturing the Facts

dsc02694

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.