Ballot initiatives by Santa Monica’s Residocracy and L.A.’s Michael Weinstein would hurt everyone

By Charles Rappleye

Michael Weinstein is a loudmouth iconoclast who has made much money — and many enemies — as the leader of the world’s largest private gay-health advocacy agency. “He’s a thug,” former L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky once told the L.A. Times after
a wrangle over county policy. “He is just a megalomaniac,” Steve Schulte, a former employee at Weinstein’s agency, told LA Weekly.

Now Weinstein has turned his attention to the problem of housing in Los Angeles.

Too bad.

It’s one thing to have Weinstein roiling the world of AIDS and sex. His drive to require condom use for all sexual activity, including those sex acts staged by producers in the porn-mecca San Fernando Valley, has generated backlash and loud controversy for years. But it was hard to impute Weinstein’s motives, and while prophylactics may be annoying, they do no harm.

That is not the case, however, when it comes to housing. Here Weinstein’s life experience qualifies him to be a first-class complainer but offers zero guidance on questions of urban policy and equity.

Weinstein is the moving force behind the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, a measure he’s seeking to qualify for the ballot in 2017. It’s a classic case of NIMBY — Not In My Back Yard — where policy is shaped by narrow, parochial interests that thwart the considered goals of the larger community.

How does that work?

Take Weinstein’s most recent initiative as an example: a lawsuit filed by the Friends of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative to block a new residential, office and retail building slated for construction at the intersection of La Cienega and Jefferson boulevards.

Located close by a stop on the new Expo light rail line, the 30-story project represented a breakthrough for the neighborhood, a predominantly black area that has long sought major development that might bring jobs and growth.

“We have been redlined,” Denise Edwards, president of the Baldwin Hills Village Garden Homeowner Association, which supports the new project, told the Times. “This is about having community members shop in the community they live in and bringing new amenities to the neighborhood.”

Edwards has plenty of company. Over the course of two years of community hearings, San Francisco-based developers Carmel Partners heard “overwhelming” support from scores of local residents. Moreover, in response to those “listening sessions,” the builders agreed to design changes to limit traffic and limit parking impacts.

But that wasn’t enough for Weinstein and his Coalition to Preserve L.A. The project would include a multi-story tower, and that’s enough to generate a lawsuit. To Weinstein, the tall tower means “Manhattanization,” and so it must be stopped.

Never mind the consensus of expert opinion which holds that the only way to ease the pressure on housing prices is to build new housing. Never mind that for a generation or more, planners in L.A. have sought to increase density around transit corridors, thus encouraging people to get out of their cars in favor of rail or bus. The alternative is to build out — into the suburbs, resulting in more sprawl, more traffic and a less-livable city.

None of this fazes Weinstein or any of the other slow- or no-growth activists who have sprung up across the L.A. basin in the past few years.

Santa Monica has its own anti-development outfit known as Residocracy, a sort of acronym for Residents’ Direct Democracy Solution. Like Weinstein’s Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, Residocracy is also sponsoring a ballot measure that would require a referendum on any buildings over a certain height limit, making new buildings risky and difficult — not to say impossible — to undertake.

Residocrats — can we coin that term? — say they are simply protecting the character of the community, but their agenda is less-nuanced than that. Already they have launched petitions opposing two projects, the Plaza at Santa Monica and a major expansion of the Miramar Hotel, both of which are located amid dense development and close by a new rail terminal. If those projects can’t pass muster, then it’s development per se — never mind good or bad — that Residocracy opposes.

Likewise with Weinstein. He likes high-rises enough that he planted his office on the 21st floor of a tower in Hollywood. But when he looked out his window and discovered a building boom going on all ‘round him, he decided to bring his special brand of activism to
city planning.

I understand the impulse. Change can look crass, especially when it involves demolition of buildings and places you’ve grown accustomed to. But change is happening whether we like it or not, in the form of new arrivals, higher rents, more traffic. The only thing that will bring down rents is new construction, and if we don’t build up, we’ll have to build out. It’s a fact of life from Santa Monica to Eagle Rock, and everywhere in between.

Make no mistake: If Weinstein’s Neighborhood Integrity Initiative ever becomes law, it will lock in high housing prices, spur a new round of urban sprawl and eclipse 20 years of progress toward a more livable Los Angeles. It’s a bad idea whose time came, and passed, quite a while ago.

Charles Rappleye is a veteran Los Angeles writer and editor. His latest book is “Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency.”