MONTEREY PARK — A public forum that was publicized as an attempt to bring harmony to a community facing rapid physical and social changes turned into a heated debate between slow-growth advocates and the developer they said has brought overcrowding to their city.
The developer, Frederic Hsieh, was one of four panelists invited by the University of Southern California's Center for Real Estate Development to discuss the effects of rapid development on Monterey Park. The other panelists--City Councilman Chris Houseman, city Planning Commission Chairman Yukio Kawaratani and USC urban planning professor Eric Heikkila --were largely ignored by members of the audience, who spent most of the two-hour session attacking the changes that they said Hsieh's real estate firm has wrought in their community.
Hsieh, who has spent 15 years buying and developing large sections of Monterey Park, is generally credited with playing a pivotal role in the transformation of the predominantly white bedroom community into an Asian-majority city.
Since 1980, the city's Asian population has grown from 18,300 to 31,500, an increase of 72%, according to an informal census conducted earlier this year. Asians now make up 51% of Monterey Park's population.
Although tensions between long-term residents and Asian newcomers have sometimes been racially motivated, many of the 100 people who gathered in the City Council chambers Wednesday night said ethnicity was not the issue.
"I would guess there are 30,000 Chinese living in Monterey Park, but I don't believe there are 30,000 developers," said Joseph Rubin, a 30-year resident who is chairman of the Residents Assn. of Monterey Park, an organization that has Anglo and Asian members.
"I have Chinese neighbors," said Rubin. "They are equally as concerned as I am about noise, about pollution, about where to shop. I'm sorry Mr. Hsieh sees himself as representative of the Chinese. I'd like to see some real Chinese representation on this panel."
Rubin's statement was greeted with applause from both Anglos and Asians in the audience.
Hsieh argued that proposals to limit Monterey Park's growth, including a new commercial zoning plan that residents will vote on Tuesday, were inherently racist.
"Here you have a lot of Chinese coming, and suddenly there are a lot of laws restricting this and restricting that, and you say it's for everybody, not just for the Chinese," Hsieh said. "But if nine out of 10 or 10 out of 10 of the new owners are Chinese, whether you intend it or not, the Chinese will be affected."
USC's Heikkila, the forum's organizer, said Hsieh was wrong.
Race 'Not Involved'
"These kind of moratoria (on development) are being debated in areas where the question of ethnicity is not involved," Heikkila said, citing as examples San Diego and Orange County. "This issue is being debated just as vigorously in areas where the ethnic element does not come into it."
Houseman agreed, saying that passionate opposition to unbridled development has grown in response to the construction of "inappropriate, badly designed multi-unit houses" on streets that previously had only single-family homes.
Hsieh objected to the implication that high-rise buildings are unattractive and that an increase in population density is in itself a bad thing.
"Who is to say it's ugly or not ugly?" Hsieh asked. "If you come to Hong Kong, which is in a boom and everyone comes there admiring it, it is very congested. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
One audience member responded that Monterey Park should not be compared to Hong Kong.
Places to Go
"We realize that Hong Kong is limited land. There, you have nowhere else to go. In America, you do," said resident Andy Islas, 27.
"I've been here for 15 years in this community, and I'll be honest with you: It was much nicer back then," Islas said as the crowd applauded. "We've been cluttered unexpectedly and without warning."
"We don't want to have 50-story buildings in our city, like New York or Hong Kong," added Nancy Claire.
Hsieh said many in the audience were nostalgic for a bygone era. He said their image of Monterey Park does not reflect today's reality.
"You say we are a small community, we are no San Francisco or Los Angeles. But we are a great community in the world," said Hsieh, who earlier placed ads in Hong Kong newspapers promoting Monterey Park as the "Chinese Beverly Hills."
Where's New York?
"They know San Francisco and Monterey Park," he added. "New York? Where's that? They've never heard of it."
Throughout the session, Hsieh argued that Monterey Park's continued growth is inevitable. When residents said city services are not capable of meeting new demands, the developer said they were looking at the problem from the wrong perspective.
Hsieh compared the growth of the city to the growth of a foot. When a foot grows too large for its shoe, do you cut off its toes? he asked the audience. No, he replied, you buy a larger shoe.