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The War to Save the Neighborhood : Behind Proposition U Is a Tough New Generation of Community Groups That Has Begun Working to Preserve the L.A. Dream Before It Disappears Amid High-Rises and Traffic

October 26, 1986|SAM HALL KAPLAN | Sam Hall Kaplan is The Times' design critic and author of the forthcoming book "L.A. Lost & Found."

Waking up in Westchester to the buzz of power saws cutting down a row of graceful shade trees so a street can be widened; wandering out in Studio City to buy milk and getting stuck in traffic; watching oversized office buildings balloon up over Burbank; wanting to go to Westwood for a movie, or to the Redondo Beach Pier, but deciding not to because of the hassle of parking; wondering while stuck on the Santa Monica Freeway what happened to the dream of a low-key, low-scale, lush Los Angeles with the ocean, the mountains, shopping, work and play never more than 20 minutes away from wherever--these concerns are ricocheting across the diverse Los Angeles landscape, generating confusion, anger and protests.

But the same concerns have prompted a new spirit that is making residents ponder what they value about living in and around Los Angeles and how they can protect it. In recent years, the number of resident associations in the city of Los Angeles alone has doubled to about 300, say community activists and campaign consultants who monitor such trends. And, they add, the groups are not simply one-time, one-issue committees but seem to be digging in to prompt major changes in the city politic.

"No question about it," observes Dan Garcia, who for the last 10 years has presided over the city Planning Commission, "communities are more organized, more likely to oppose projects, more likely to file a lawsuit than ever before. It is no phenomenon anymore. It's a fact--the most dramatic thing occurring in the city today. And while some of it is parochial and negative and some of it reasonable and well intentioned, the total is getting louder and more forceful."

From San Pedro to Sunland, from Boyle Heights to Venice, across dinner tables and back fences, at supermarkets, shopping centers and gas pumps, on the job and at the beach, the weather is no longer the prime topic. It has been replaced by such issues as traffic, planning and zoning, and whether Lotus Land is disappearing in a cloud of exhaust fumes or in the shadow of a high-rise.

A direct result of this apprehension is Proposition U on the Nov. 4 Los Angeles city ballot, the so-called slow-growth initiative, which, if approved as expected and not diluted by political manipulations, would cut by half the size of commercial buildings in Los Angeles. The measure would restrict growth in areas covering about 85% of the city's commercial properties, most of them bordering single-family neighborhoods. As Election Day nears, the City Council has been trying to exempt select properties from the restrictions, to the chagrin of neighborhood activists.

Though some would have preferred that the initiative be more radical and sweeping, it was embraced by most of the city's resident groups, who gathered 105,000 signatures, substantially more than needed to qualify it for the ballot. Reflected in support for the measure is the fact that discontent with the shaping and misshaping of the city is taking on an increasingly militant tone.

"It is a very frustrating and also exciting time, for we have finally realized if we don't take some control of the growth, it will very shortly overwhelm us," says Charles Rosin of the Carthay Circle Homeowners Assn. At a recent meeting in the living room of Rosin's Spanish Colonial bungalow, neighbors echoed his determination, ticking off their particular peeves, which included crass billboards and the destruction and defacement of landmark buildings.

For the Carthay Circle group, taking control has meant devising traffic-management programs and lobbying for their implementation, pressuring developers to pay for community improvements such as street landscaping, monitoring requests for zoning changes, testifying at Metro Rail hearings, and generally looking closely over the shoulders of their elected representatives. Recent victories include designation of some local streets as one-way and installation of barriers to discourage through traffic. Rosin says that it took nearly two years of badgering the city to get the changes approved and to persuade the developer of a nearby office tower to pay for them "as a gesture to the community." But, he adds, it was worth it. "The streets are so much more quiet now, and safer. And they are a wonderful demonstration of what a community can do if it organizes."

Increasingly heavy traffic spilling off congested Wilshire Boulevard is a concern for the neighboring Miracle Mile Residential Assn. For homeowner and resident associations in San Pedro, Wilmington, Highland Park, North Hollywood, Van Nuys, Sunland and Tujunga, the major worry is a rash of uncongenial apartment houses.

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