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Why Los Angeles gave in to the NIMBYs in the freeway removal debate

Until a few days ago, Michael Schneider sincerely believed that his nonprofit, Streets For All, had strong enough political support to pursue what would certainly be an unpopular idea in Los Angeles: a study aimed at determine whether it made sense to demolish a Westside highway and replace it with affordable housing and a huge park.

He was a man about town, enthusiastically touting letters and statements of “tremendous enthusiasm” from elected officials.

As in the office of Mayor Karen Bass, who called out the Marina Freeway — a three-mile stretch of lightly trafficked Route 90 that remained unfinished after a project to connect it to Orange County was abandoned in the 1970s – a “highway to nowhere”. .”

And from Sen. Lola Smallwood-Cuevas (D-Los Angeles), who described Schneider’s idea as “a forward-thinking project that would help meet the needs of Los Angeles.”

Indeed, as someone who drives Marina Highway all the time, I have long believed that there is a bigger and better use of the land than simply shortcutting from Marina del Rey to the highway 405 and to South Los Angeles. I was thrilled to learn that Streets For All was applying for a federal grant to study it for two years, tracking everything from environmental impacts to traffic to the opinions of nearby residents like me.

But now, both my enthusiasm and Schneider’s had given way to familiar feelings of frustration. In true NIMBY fashion for Los Angeles, the political support he thought was solid suddenly became porous.

That includes Bass: “I do not support the removal or demolition of Highway 90,” she said in a statement last week. “I have heard loud and clear from the communities that would be impacted and I do not support a study on this initiative.”

Los Angeles City Council member Traci Park agrees. After conducting a very unscientific poll of her Westside constituents, she wrote in her newsletter that: “The 11th District does not support the demolition of Highway 90. Your voice is the reason Mayor Bass rescinded his initial support.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell told me that, despite rumors to the contrary, she never decided to support a study or demolish the Marina Freeway, which adjoins her district in the unincorporated neighborhood of Ladera Heights. “But it’s a moot point now,” she said.

Meanwhile, Smallwood-Cuevas said she still supports a feasibility study, but warned this week that it cannot be done “at the expense of transparent community input and analysis.”

Likewise, Assemblyman Isaac Bryan (D-Culver City) said he never opposed the research. But there’s a difference between studying the impact of removing the freeway and, referring to several renderings of what Schneider envisions as Marina Central Park, “proposing an alternative design and resolution without a study having been carried out”.

“Highway 90,” Bryan assured me, “doesn’t go anywhere.”

It is problematic that at a time when approximately 75,000 people are sleeping on the county’s streets and vehicle emissions are exacerbating the effects of climate change, Los Angeles cannot muster the unified political will to even study – TO STUDY ! — whether to replace a highway with housing.

The reason is just as problematic.

I’m not talking about the criticism some have leveled at Streets For All for being overzealous in its messaging and tactics. Or that, according to others, elected officials were too quick to give in to the fears of their constituents, some of whom wrongly believe that the removal of the Marina Freeway is imminent.

I’m talking about the fundamental disagreement in Los Angeles about the role and importance of community outreach. How much is enough? How soon does this need to be done? What weight should we give it? And for what purpose?

These unanswered questions are ultimately why political support for the Marina Freeway study has collapsed, and it’s a worrying warning sign.

Most residents naturally want to have a say – or THE for example – in what happens to their neighborhood, whether it’s affordable housing on what is now a highway or a homeless shelter on what is now a parking lot.

But given the size of the unhoused population and the scale of housing construction needed to address it and the falling rental prices for everyone else, I increasingly believe that Los Angeles’ political leaders cannot not continue to give so much importance to the opinions of residents. Not every development project that is worthwhile or necessary will be popular.

“For so long, the loudest voices have usually derailed things,” Schneider said. “And all I’m saying is that the loudest voices aren’t always the most correct voices.”


People don’t like change.

It’s a truism that has led NIMBYs to file countless frivolous lawsuits across the state of California.

It has also led Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature to repeatedly roll back local control over land use decisions — the latest being a law that allows nonprofit colleges and religious institutions to bypass most local permitting and environmental review rules and to rezone their land to build housing.

Even Bass, who has made homelessness his top issue, has pushed to cut red tape and streamline housing and shelter construction, trying to expand the pipeline for unhoused Angelenos who have been moved into hotels through its Inside Safe program.

But the mayor said she still strongly believes in the “hard work” of community outreach. She explained why when I shared my skepticism.

“It goes back to my days at the Community Coalition,” she said. “We used to fight when the city tried to force development on South Los Angeles without including South Los Angeles, which is why you would think I would say build anywhere, anywhere. But I don’t feel that way.

Instead, she wants to involve people in the process and build methods that match the wishes of each community.

“If I took a position that said ‘steamroll everyone, just build housing,’ we would tear the city apart,” Bass said, adding that residents would likely be against development for no other reason than that it was imposed on them.

That’s one of the main reasons she decided not to support a study on the Marina Freeway. In talking with residents, she told me she’s heard nothing but complaints — about the possibility of heavier traffic and longer commutes, and from black people in South Los Angeles, about the loss of a convenient corridor to Marina del Rey and the beach.

But mostly, Bass said he’s heard dismay at the lack of community outreach.

It was alluded to in an online petition that went viral last month — although it was filled with misleading claims — written by Daphne Bradford, an education consultant from Ladera Heights who is running for supervisor against Mitchell in the March primary election .

“Ladera Heights is not just any neighborhood; it has the distinction of being the third wealthiest African-American community in the country,” Bradford wrote, channeling his inner NIMBY. “Our community has worked hard to create a safe and thriving environment for our families, and we believe our voices should be heard when decisions are made that directly affect us.

Schneider sighed when I asked him about the petition.

“The whole point of the feasibility study is that we would have almost two years of community outreach,” he said. “We are a small nonprofit, we don’t have the resources to do community outreach before we get the grant.”

Meanwhile, rumors about the Marina Freeway have eclipsed the facts, and many residents have given up on whatever they thought might happen. Mitchell suspects one reason for this is that Streets For All hasn’t “done awareness in the way we define awareness.”

“On a weekday, it can’t be 10 a.m., just one meeting at the community center,” she told me. “You really have to be creative, collaborate with communities and not be afraid to reach out to people who will oppose you. »

But community outreach is a thorny issue, Mitchell acknowledges. Again, people don’t like change. And too many people want to “pull the drawbridge” behind them and not let new housing come to their neighborhood.

“When people talk about awareness, they mean, ‘You didn’t ask me.’ And then when you asked me, you didn’t do what I said,” Mitchell said. “It can’t be what anyone expects. But I believe that all the effort must be done to ensure that affected communities are aware of this.

But eventually, everyone will have to get used to the idea that our neighborhoods will look a little different to accommodate the housing that Los Angeles needs.

“These are really tough decisions that we all have to make,” Mitchell said.


Which brings me back to the Marina Freeway.

Although the Streets For All project has been abandoned by much of the Los Angeles political establishment, Schneider said his plan to conduct a feasibility study is not dead.

“We live in a democracy. You can’t stop someone from studying something in the public space. It’s just not possible,” he said. “If we get the federal grant , we will. If we need to raise money privately, we will. But we are committed to exploring the idea because it is worth exploring.

Whether this study leads to the removal of the highway and the construction of thousands of affordable housing units in Marina Central Park is another matter.

It’s a huge political decision, Schneider admits. A project that ultimately – undoubtedly and unfortunately – will depend on community awareness. After all, it’s Los Angeles

Los Angeles Times

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