If you have participated in our community in any meaningful way then you probably know Laura Meyers.
Noted for her prodigious knowledge of all things related to local development, Laura is recognized as a fair and steady voice at meetings she attends or chairs, as well as for her tendency to be a little wonkish with the details. But you can hardly blame her. She has been at it for a long time and knows her stuff.
Ms. Meyers has held the position of Chair of the Zoning and Planning Committee on the United Neighborhoods Neighborhood Council (UNNC) since 2003 and has also been sitting on one of the project area advisory committees of the California Redevelopment Agency (CRA) for 20 years. Her involvement with community planning issues began in 1983 as one of the founding members of the West Adams Heritage Foundation. WAHA was originally established for historic preservation advocacy but within a few years it soon became apparent that preservation issues went hand in glove with zoning and development.
When asked what inspired this level of interest and commitment, Laura replied “Land use combined with historic preservation helps secure the future of this community. If we’re not engaged in our basic zoning issues and development plans, then someone downtown will take charge.”
In the mid-eighties Ab283 was a piece of state legislation aimed at Los Angeles which forced the city to bring its zone requirements into consistency with the City Planning Department’s community plans. Most of the community plans in our area were calling for single family or low density but the zoning called for all high density putting it at odds with the plans. This was happening all over the city.
WAHA quickly established a planning and zoning committee and in 1987 took the lead in helping to revise the zoning and community plans in our area so that they worked together. On a block by block basis, throughout all of West Adams, including most of the UNNC area, Laura and about 50 volunteers literally counted all mailboxes and gas meters from Figueroa to West Blvd. and Pico to Jefferson. Because of the early prescient work of volunteers and leaders like Laura, most of the residents in the United Neighborhoods area and historic West Adams now enjoy lower density zoning throughout their communities.
I sat down with Laura to talk about the issues surrounding the development of the Washington Blvd. Corridor and the Planning and Zoning Committee.
TNN: Laura tell me how the Planning and Zoning committee works.
LM: When anyone wants to build something in our community (private or commercial) which requires an ‘entitlement’ (an aspect of their plan that varies from the required codes) they file with City Planning. The ‘variance’ could be from someone who wants to build a fence higher than allowed, or build a driveway in front of a building or even a request to change the zone to allow for certain kinds of building. These ‘entitlement’ requests are published every week by the city and then forwarded to the neighborhood councils for review. In our community they land on my desk and I get them on the agenda for the Planning and Zoning committee. Anyone in the community is allowed to attend these committee meetings to find out what’s going on, contribute their opinions and concerns and vote on recommendations. The recommendations are forwarded to the Board of the UNNC who in turn consider the recommendation, discuss, maybe amend and vote. I then represent the UNNC’s decision at the City Planning Committee hearing where that particular entitlement request by the developer is being considered. Our decision is not binding to the City Planning.
TNN: What kind of issues typically come to your desk?
LM: Requests for alcohol licenses, permission to build driveways on their front yard and lots of cell phone tower applications. We have also been getting a lot of applications for affordable housing or affordable housing with retail on the ground floor along our commercial corridors. For 24 years we have had zero applications and recently we have had as many as half a dozen. Washington is zoned primarily for commercial manufacturing and light assembly line production even though we don’t really have any.
TNN: Retail and affordable housing along the corridor sounds exciting.
LM: We are looking to revitalize our corridors but be careful what you wish for because a building on the main corridor that rises 2 or 3 floors does overlook the houses behind it.
TNN: Why not leave it to just retail then?
LM: The idea of putting housing mixed with retail on the corridors came from the need to develop more housing without having to go into the surrounding neighborhoods. One way or the other the city has to accommodate a growing population. As a neighborhood council we have to address the needs of everyone in the community.
TNN: Doesn’t this bring us to the UNNC’s ‘Specific Plan”?
LM: Sure does.
TNN: What is a “Specific Plan”?
LM: It is a community generated Plan that allows us to develop some exciting ideas such as greening, making Washington more pedestrian oriented, create parking for the as-yet to be developed shops and encourage more businesses servimg the local community. It also creates a top layer of requirements and tools that will allow these ideas to take place.
TNN: How did the Specific Plan come into being?
LM: Back in 2002 when Nate Holden was still Council-person, 60 community leaders in Council District 10 went through CORO training. CORO is an organization focusing on leadership training. Quite a number of elected officials have gone through this training. At the time the City was contracting with CORO to train local community leaders. It was 12 weeks of weekly meetings and subcommittees. Their idea was that we create a vision plan for the community and we ended up with a pretty interesting vision. We looked back at our community and saw that although we had succeeded in improving our neighborhoods over the last twenty or thirty years our local commercial corridors were still blighted. We decided to focus on this issue and started exploring our options, looking at the tools and solutions used in other areas. There were Specific Plans, Business Investment Development (BID’s), National Trust Main Street, Greening Programs, lots of different things. We then came back to our respective Neighborhood Councils and UNNC began to tackle our section of Washington Blvd.
TNN: Is that when the Specific Plan Task Force was created?
LM: You mean the “proposed” Specific plan. Yes. We did extensive meetings with the businesses and residents and spent 4 or 5 months developing a thirteen page single-spaced Specific Plan. There are a lot of unique factors that intersect in this community. It crosses two community plan areas, it has Community Redevelopment Agency for part of it, it has Historic Preservation Overlay Zone for part of it and several other considerations. We found that using a Specific Plan was the best tool to solve all these different conditions.
TNN: What about other sections of Washington?
LM: West of us was MINC, Mid City Neighborhood Council, who came up with their own Specific Plan for their section of Washington. East of here, CRA, working in concert with Auto Row (the car dealerships at Figueroa and Washington) have been working on a plan to enliven that section of Washington Blvd.
TNN: How are these plans converted into action?
LM: The politicians have to do it and it hasn’t happened.
TNN: What happened to the Plan?
LM: We shared it with the City Planning Department and were told that they loved it, wanted to do everything in it….except give us the Specific Plan.
TNN: I don’t understand.
LM: In the City of Los Angeles neither individuals nor Neighborhood Councils are allowed to initiate Specific Plans. State law permits us but City policy does not. So we have to rely on either our elected officials or the Planning Department staff. Let me correct that….up until three months ago any of our last three Councilmen (Nate Holden, Martin Ludlow and currently Councilman Herb Wesson) could have made a motion at City Council to initiate a specific plan which would instruct the Planning Department to go ahead and implement it. But the City has a budget crisis and resulting staffing problems so I can’t see it happening now. They have been given the budget for it but I can’t see it happening.
TNN: Isn’t there more aggressive support from the Councilman Wesson’s Office?
LM: The Council Office and City Planning seem to understand the ideas are great but I don’t think they understand why they need a Specific Plan to implement all of it. The Specific Plan would redefine the requirements and allow development that would create the cohesive vision of the Plan. For instance, one of the problems is that without a specific plan and as long as Washington Blvd. is defined in the General Plan as a major highway, we will never get development that honors the traditional street face of our 1920s and 30s buildings. We would get buildings that don’t follow the same line along the block. We would get a patchwork of buildings that stick out while others are pushed back.
TNN: So if a Specific Plan is not supported by our Council Office or the Planning
Department where does that leave the Washington Corridor?
LM: Blighted or with rampant development without any community control.
Editors note: at a recent MINC meeting Councilman Wesson’s office sent
Andrew Westall to talk about the Councilman’s actions and efforts to develop Washington Blvd.. Mr. Westall said the Councilman supports the vision of UNNC and MINC Specific Plans. But the Councilman has yet to initiate any action on it. City Planning is updating their community plans for our area and are including some of the Specific Plan ideas.