Woodland Hills businessman Robert Cohen has taken to carrying an unusual cargo in his 35-foot truck and trailer when he makes deliveries in the West San Fernando Valley.
The trailer bears ammunition for Cohen's growing war with Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joy Picus over a development dispute.
Cohen, a 32-year-old owner of a print shop, wants a senior-citizens' home built on a 1 1/2-acre lot owned by his father, Max, near the intersection of Sherman Way and Louise Avenue in west Van Nuys.
But Picus, who represents a long-established single-family residential neighborhood surrounding the lot, refuses to support the high-density zoning Cohen needs for his multistory project. She criticizes Cohen's plan as self-serving.
So, when Cohen finds a large enough parking spot next to a busy street, he parks his big rig and hangs out huge banners that bitterly denounce Picus. He also distributes self-printed anti-Picus posters to anyone who will take one.
"Russia Helps Their Elderly--Why Won't Joy Picus Help Ours?" reads one 15-foot-long banner. "Senior Housing? Over My Dead Body, Says Joy Picus" reads another.
The posters contain a photograph of Picus and suggestions that she is out of touch with her constituents and should resign.
"I've taken it upon myself to do a crusade against her," Cohen said. "I have the strength. I have the print shops and the truck and trailer behind me. I've come out fighting."
So has Picus.
She sought at first to resolve the dispute by persuading Cohen to build a single-family residential tract on the lot. That failed.
Since then, Picus has angrily branded Cohen's charges as "blatant lies" and accused him of using the senior-citizen issue as a ploy to get high-density apartment zoning into the Van Nuys neighborhood.
Cohen claims Picus also has unleashed city building and safety inspectors to harass him. He said they have issued a flurry of citations against his truck's banners as well as for minor violations such as extension cords in print shops he operates in Van Nuys and Woodland Hills.
According to Cohen, the idea for a senior-citizens home came three years ago, when he was unable to find a place for his 90-year-old grandmother to live.
"If there was a water shortage, the City Council would do what it has to do to bring water to the San Fernando Valley," Cohen said. "Well, there's a senior housing shortage, and the council isn't doing anything about it."
Cohen said he's willing to sign a deed restriction preventing a senior-citizens home on the lot from being converted to apartments or condominiums if it will make Picus loosen her grip on the zoning.
Cohen said he has spent a year seeking to enlist support for his senior-citizen project from other council members and from state officials. Each has referred him back to Picus.
He said he began using the banners about six weeks ago. A second set is being painted and will question Picus' campaign contributions, Cohen said.
"I'm thinking about parking the trailer in front of her council office," he said.
Picus charged Thursday that the senior housing issue is a smoke screen to hide Cohen's real goal, which she said is to obtain "as much density as he can" for the lot.
"He never talked about senior housing at all until he put up the signs," Picus said. "He's using the seniors issue to get sympathy. When he puts those signs out, it really hurts."
Defends Record on Seniors
Picus said her record of support for older citizens is clear. "The Reseda Seniors Center is the best in the city by far. I'm certainly supportive of housing for seniors," she said.
She denied ordering the building inspectors' crackdown on Cohen, although she said others on her staff might have done so.
"If he ever plans to do anything on the property, he isn't going about it the right way," Picus said of Cohen. "It does antagonize me. . . . you don't get what you want by angering a council person who has some control over how it's developed."
Picus vowed that she will not be swayed from retaining the single-family character of the Van Nuys neighborhood.
That was good news Thursday to homeowners who live next to the grassy parcel.
"We've all talked about it here in the neighborhood," said Rose Tawney, a 15-year resident. "We feel nothing higher than one story should be built.
"I have nothing against senior citizens, but I don't want any large building behind me. That's always been a nightmare of mine--what would be built back there."
Others said they are not looking forward to the next round of signs on Cohen's truck.
"They only tell one side of the issue," said Dan Engelken, who manages a Van Nuys restaurant where Cohen parked the big rig for two days last month.
"That was all you could see when you looked out the windows here at the restaurant. I finally called him to move it. I thought his method of communicating his message was poor. It was mudslinging."
Woodland Hills property manager Larry Calemine said he also has asked Cohen not to park the banner-bedecked trailer on his properties.
But Cohen has plenty of backers--such as muffler warehouse operator Jeff Olshane, 33, of Van Nuys. Olshane has helped distribute Cohen's posters.
"It's a real tragedy he can't build a place for senior citizens," Olshane said. "My father-in-law's 69, and we're trying to get him onto a reputable place.
"I'm going to be old in another 30 years. With the baby boom we've had, this area will be saturated with old people nobody wants."