The revamping of the Los Angeles city charter in 1999 that created Neighborhood Councils has been hailed by political observers and analysts as a way to open up the political process to communities that had often felt disconnected from downtown policy making.
An innovative experiment into harnessing grassroots political activism and encouraging increased neighborhood empowerment, these local advisory bodies have been, for the most part, well-received in their communities, and local residents feel that they serve an important function in acting as an adjunct to the Los Angeles City Council.
“Neighborhood Councils are extremely vital in that they are working the process of democracy,” said Sharon Commins, a member of the board of directors of the Mar Vista Community Council.
Because of their value to their respective communities, where they often provide the Los Angeles City Council crucial feedback on local developments, there are those who feel that Neighborhood Councils should have a much stronger voice in land use policy.
“It’s something that has got to happen eventually,” said Mark Redick, president of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council. “It will be part of an evolving process.”
Some Westside advisory entities have been proactive in ensuring that they are well informed about ongoing projects in their communities and regularly meet with developers and city planning officials before a particular land use matter has gone very far.
“We’ve been dealing with our own land use problems for over 20 years,” said Challis Macpherson, who chairs the Venice Neighborhood Council Land Use and Planning Committee. Macpherson said that her committee receives a list of permits and variances to the Venice Specific Plan on a monthly basis. She believes that because Venice residents are typically very politically active and well aware of proj- ects that are ongoing, the Department of City Planning takes this into account.
“We have a very well-educated community,” said Macpherson. “We are often very well informed about a project before it appears before the area Planning Commission.”
City departments may at times disregard the opinions and findings of Neighborhood Councils because they are advisory, said James Ferro, chair of the Land Use and Planning Committee of the Westchester/Playa del Rey Neighborhood Council.
“We’re fortunate that [City Councilman] Bill Rosendahl and his field representatives have worked well with us,” said Ferro.
Rosendahl said that he is a big believer in community involvement in land use matters, and that he always requests that developers who have proposals in a particular neighborhood come before the respective Neighborhood Council.
“All interested groups, including homeowner associations and chambers of commerce, along with Neighborhood Councils should be involved,” he said. “I tell developers that a part of the process is to go before the Neighborhood Council before they approach me.”
While there have been a number of projects that residents have fully supported, others have met with strong opposition. Playa Vista, the planned community south of Jefferson Boulevard that spans hundreds of acres, was vigorously opposed by a number of conservation and environmental organizations. After a California Supreme Court ruling in December upheld an appellate decision that ordered Phase II of the development stopped and directed the City Council to address three portions of the its environmental impact report, representatives of the plaintiffs who filed the legal action against the developer called for a change in the city’s land use policies.
The director of the Ballona Ecosystem Education Project, Rex Frankel, feels that the concept of having a community body that could directly influence decisions affecting their lives was admirable.
“Neighborhood Councils had a lot of promise at the beginning,” said Frankel, whose organization was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that was filed against Playa Vista. “But the way that they were created was problematic.”
Frankel, an environmental law attorney, cited Mar Vista and Venice as two Neighborhood Councils as the most engaged, with the most community involvement and the least domination by developer interests on the Westside. The Westchester/Playa del Rey Neighborhood Council, however, “has been easy for development interests to control,” he says.
Because Neighborhood Councils are strictly advisory, “the public often has an illusion of power that doesn’t exist,” Frankel added.
Rosendahl said that due to the fact that there are members of the community boards who may not live in the area but have financial interests there does not make for an entirely grassroots political process. Like Frankel, Rosendahl named the Mar Vista and Venice councils as local community boards that are “truly grassroots-oriented councils,” and noted that “Del Rey is really moving forward also.”
Due to the immense size of Los Angeles and its diverse neighborhoods, Redick believes that it is in the best interests of citizens in the outer areas to have a stronger voice in land use decisions.
“Los Angeles has a 15-member [City] Council that presides over a large geographical area with distinct ethnic pluralities in some communities,” he said. “So you can’t take a cookie-cutter approach to every community.”
Redick, a hotel executive, feels that for these reasons, “This cries out for Neighborhood Councils to have a stronger role” in Los Angeles’s planning and land use policy.
One area that Commins would like to see evolve is for advisory councils to have the ability to appeal land use and transportation projects to the Planning Commission.
“Right now, only neighborhood associations or an individual citizen can appeal a planning decision,” she explained. “Neighborhood Councils should also have that power.
“It doesn’t make any sense for an individual or a neighborhood association to be able to file an appeal, but yet an elected Neighborhood Council can’t,” Commins noted.
In September, a city commission issued a series of recommendations that would benefit Neighborhood Councils, but the ability to register appeals of planning decisions was not on the list. Developers and business groups have also voiced opposition to giving Neighborhood Councils the right to appeal development projects.
“Neighborhood Councils, in order to be effective, should not only have full rights to appeal a project that the community does not support, but they should also have authority over any transportation and planning issues that directly affect them,” said Frankel.
Macpherson said that another reason Venice residents have been able to get projects that they approve of in their neighborhood is that the Neighborhood Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee is very proactive in researching each variance, proposed development or ordinance that pertains to Venice.
“So much of the work is done in the committee,” she said. “When an item gets to the entire board, everyone has all the information they need to make a decision. That’s how a well-run board operates.”
Sometimes Neighborhood Councils are in favor of developments that city agencies turn down. One project that many land use observers in Venice were somewhat dissatisfied with was the Ray Hotel, a 57-room hotel that had been proposed at 901 Abbot Kinney Blvd. The proposed hotel, which would have included a 2,750-square-foot spa and a restaurant, would also have required a variance to the Venice Specific Plan.
Although the Venice Neighborhood Council approved the proposal, the West Los Angeles Planning Department rejected it.
“That one didn’t turn out so well,” Macpherson admitted. “We should have had more discussions with the applicant.”
In the case of Playa Vista, Frankel believes that if surrounding Neighborhood Councils were designed differently, with only residents who live in the community eligible to be elected to the board, things might have turned out differently, given the public opposition to Playa Vista.
“I absolutely feel that way,” he said. “There were members of the Westchester council that had direct ties to Playa Vista, and they did not recuse themselves from the vote.”
Despite its limited authority, members of Neighborhood Councils and their supporters are very happy with their local advisory boards.
“I totally approve of the Neighborhood Council movement,” Macpherson said. “I feel that they are so valuable and necessary.”
Advocates of Neighborhood Councils are hoping the City Council will expand the September commission recommendations and allow them more say in determining land use policy, but few City Council members have indicated that they would support such an increase in power.
While he remains a fan of Neighborhood Councils, Rosendahl is not in favor of granting them the power to have a stronger voice in land use matters unless the makeup of the advisory boards is changed.
“The only way that I would grant them more power is if they are duly elected through the voters, like I am,” the councilman stated.
Commins also feels that it would be an uphill battle for the City Council to bestow more authority over land use decisions to Neighborhood Councils.
“Residents are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to special interests,” Commins said.