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Sam Hall Kaplan

He Speaks Up for a Worthy Cause

April 27, 1986|Sam Hall Kaplan

The Lakers had a National Basketball League play-off game scheduled at noon last weekend, but this did not keep star forward James Worthy from attending a community rally that morning in Westchester.

"I've been a homeowner here since 1984 and like it and want to see the neighborhood's quality of life preserved," Worthy said at a gathering sponsored by the Coalition of Concerned Communities.

Then he was off to the game and the neighborhood crowd went off on a "walkathon" to raise money for their battle against a variety of proposed projects in the area.

The coalition of 19 resident groups also was gathering signatures for the initiative to limit commercial growth across the city and on a petition to limit building heights in their own area to four stories. (Worthy in an aside joked that he also would like to see a height limit in the NBA, to about five inches less than his 6 foot 9 size.)

The coalition and similar groups rising up out of the city's diverse neighborhoods have been under attack for being parochial, elitist "nimbys"--"not-in-my-backyard" negativists. The attacks have picked up steam in the recent debates over the initiative.

There is no doubt that within the groups are some residents who have seen their communities turned into monopoly boards and are in principle opposed to anything beyond a second-story addition to a neighbor's house.

To sympathize with the residents, one only has to walk along select streets paralleling Wilshire, Santa Monica, Olympic, Pico and Ventura boulevards and view the single-family houses backed up against a rash of office buildings obviously designed, approved and constructed with no regard for neighboring structures.

It is this abuse--the construction of out-of-scale commercial buildings in a zone intended for low-scale neighborhood services--that the initiative would prevent. It will not stop growth, just control it better.

That is what is being sought by the Westchester-based coalition, as well as many of the other community groups--despite the efforts of vested development interests to paint them as "nimbys."

But they want the growth to be responsible, that is to say, balanced in a way that recognizes the ambiance and needs of their communities. The resulting challenges to the planning and design professions within the city's convoluted political context are rife with contradictions.

They were summed up somewhat simply on the posters residents carried in the "walkathon" last week. There were posters that declared "Save Our Houses, "Save Our View" and "Save Our Bay," certainly reasonable requests, stated positively.

And then there were the more contentious posters declaring "Stop Overbuilding," and "Stop Summa," Summa being the corporation that has proposed an ambitious, $1-billion residential and office development in the area.

Yet, there also was a poster that declared "Build Affordable Rentals for Summa Singles." What the coalition is saying is that if Summa wants to build offices for jobs that are so important to the city's economy, it at least should be balanced with appropriate housing.

Now there is a challenge to the development community, worrying that if the initiative gets on the ballot and is approved, it will have nothing to build.

With the office market overbuilt to the tune of about a 20% vacancy rate, perhaps it is time to look at well-designed, sympathetically scaled in-fill housing.

The Initiative . . . is stirring up passions downtown, where a few members of the city Planning Commission and City Council at the beck and call of labor and development interests are fumbling around for ways to diffuse the zoning reform issue.

There has been talk at City Hall of rushing through ordinances that would minimize the abuses that have marked development in the Height District One zoning designation, that has so angered community groups.

The initiative, as proposed by Councilmen Zev Yaroslavsky and Marvin Braude, Planning Commission President Dan Garcia, community leader Irma Dobbyn and architect Mark Hall, would cut in half the size of structures allowed in the district designations.

The obvious ploy is that if a reform ordinance is approved, it would take some of the steam out of the initiative, and perhaps be an argument for its defeat. It also would, of course, keep the process behind closed doors at City Hall where it could be more easily molded in the sticky fingers of lobbyists.

The discussion of the ordinances prompted Garcia to comment in a burst of candor at a recent Planning Commission meeting that in his 10 years, as its president, past efforts at such reforms almost always had been "tabled, sidetracked or not acted upon due to the influence of lobbyists."

And Garcia added that it was those "years of frustration in seeing good planning efforts go down in flames" that fired his support of the initiative.

That the lobbyists and labor unions would go so far as to instruct their favored political puppets to support a "reform" ordinance to subvert the initiative is an indication of how much they fear the public exerting some control over the planning process, albeit through the ballot box.

As various groups are lining up for and against the initiative, one wonders what the local chapters of the American Institute of Architects and the American Planning Assn. will do.

Though the AIA and APA talk well of improving the city's quality of life, of social responsibility and of service to the public, the initiative is a bread-and-butter issue--that is to say who butters whose bread.

It will be interesting to see what side of the fence the associations land on, and whether they land on their feet, head or rear.

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