City Planner Sal Salinas holds Northeast Los Angeles in the palm of his hand.
Actually, it's a map of the Northeast Community Plan that Salinas is clutching on this recent day as he discusses the thorny issue of development in Mt. Washington.
D. D. & W. Associates of Brea wants to build a 100-unit condominium complex on a 35-acre hillside parcel in the Elyria Canyon part of Mt. Washington. But, because the Northeast plan permits only half that many units, D .D .& W . has requested a plan amendment and a zone change.
That's where Salinas comes in.
Commission Depends on Recommendations
Salinas is one of about 40 men and women who evaluate development proposals and recommend to the Planning Commission what should get built where. He is an important rung in the long bureaucratic ladder that D .D .& W . must climb before its request reaches the City Council for final review.
Salinas doesn't have the visibility or name recognition of council members and community leaders. Nevertheless, planning commissioners consider the Los Angeles city planner a key figure in determining what projects are appropriate for a neighborhood. Commission President Daniel P. Garcia says that Salinas' recommendations are usually upheld.
"He's the expert. He's the one most familiar with the area," Garcia said.
Salinas' turf encompasses three of the city's 35 community plans: Northeast Los Angeles, Silver Lake-Echo Park and Boyle Heights. That includes the diverse communities of Highland Park, Eagle Rock, Atwater, Glassell Park, Silver Lake, Echo Park, Mt. Washington and Boyle Heights. It is one of the city's oldest settled areas, an eclectic land dotted by affluence and poverty, flatlands and hillsides, Anglos and Latinos, established homeowners and newly arrived Third World immigrants.
It is also an area that has been polarized in recent years by developers eager to build it up and homeowners determined to see it retain the sleepy charm of many of its neighborhoods.
Salinas, a trim man with a salt-and-pepper mustache, says he tries to stay neutral. From a small, fifth-floor office in City Hall stacked with maps and building plans, Salinas researches the development proposals and writes his reports.
Recently, for example, he spent the afternoon scrutinizing a tract map that D. D .& W. submitted for the Elyria Canyon project. The developer offered to build a private street through the subdivision and said the project would create needed housing while maintaining the area's woodsy feel.
Before making a decision, Salinas requested reports from city offices including the Department of Transportation (Could the area's narrow roads bear up to 200 additional car trips daily? The answer: no); the Fire Department (Did the proposed new road give enough access to fire trucks? No); geologists (Would grading create drainage problems or increase the chance of mud slides? Yes); the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (Would additional water mains be needed? Yes), and the Department of Health Services (Would more sanitary sewers be needed? Definitely).
Concern About Precedent
He also took community concerns into account. The local homeowner group, the Mt. Washington Assn., was especially worried that the project might set a precedent for hillside development.
Eventually Salinas came out against the project because it violated the plan and burdened the area's infrastructure. Also, he said in an interview, "I've looked at it closely enough to see that the community does not want it."
But his supervisors in the Planning Department wanted more time to study the issues, and, at a hearing in July, the Planning Commission agreed to table the matter until a hearing scheduled for today.
Meanwhile, planning officials hope the developer will devise a proposal that residents and other city agencies find more acceptable.
A consultant for the developer declined to comment on the workings of the Planning Department. But Camille Courtney, a vice president at D. D .& W., said she found Los Angeles city planners professional and helpful.
Salinas, who holds a bachelor's degree in architecture from USC, says most developers are well-versed in planning lore. But cultural misunderstandings sometimes arise with Latino or Asian developers unfamiliar with Los Angeles' planning procedures.
"Some developers don't bother getting permits. They just start building," Salinas said.
In nearly three decades with the Planning Department, Salinas says, he has been threatened, cajoled, entreated and offered money in return for favorable reports.
Developers tell Salinas that their fortunes will be sunk, their families forced onto the street and their reputations ruined if he doesn't push their project. He tells them that "one individual in the Planning Department doesn't make the decision . . . and the ultimate decision is made by the City Council."