Editor’s note: In early December, we asked each of the candidates running in the March 2013 election for West Hollywood City Council to address four key questions that are either on the public agenda or relevant to the city’s future. For each of the next nine weekdays, we will publish answers from the candidates.
A native Angelino, John Duran officially took up residence in West Hollywood in the early 1990s, after spending much of his youth as a Boystown activist and clubgoer.
Elected to the West Hollywood City Council in 2001, Duran is one of a handful of openly HIV-positive elected officials in the nation. A criminal defense attorney, Duran got his law degree from Western State University, his BA in business administration from Cal State Long Beach. Duran also sings in the LA Gay Men’s Chorus.
PRESERVATION VERSUS COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT
Question: This is a very fraught issue, with some residents claiming the city is willing to tear down buildings that they see as an integral part of its past and important to quality of life today in favor of dense development. On the other side are those who argue that “old” doesn’t equal “important,” and that the city must strike a balance between preserving historic West Hollywood and building for the present and future. Does the city’s current process for designating cultural and historic landmarks strike the right balance? And if not, what needs to be changed?
Answer: The language in this question is poorly phrased. The city does not tear down any buildings other than the buildings that the city owns. Almost all buildings in the city are privately owned. The city must strike a careful balance between the constitutional protections provided to private property owners versus the city’s desire to preserve historic buildings.
The city adopted a historic preservation ordinance in 1989 and has designated 82 buildings citywide. Our historic preservation commission carefully analyzes each nominated property and then determines whether the property should be designated. Some property owners were demolishing apartment buildings to build condos. Many of those demolitions did not increase density at all, but rather replaced old apartments with new condos. That is why I authored the interim zoning ordinance, which stopped the demolition of apartment building in neighborhoods until the city updated its general plan.
My ordinance stopped the wrecking balls and displacement of renters and preserved many apartment buildings in the city.
URBAN DENSITY VERSUS URBAN VILLAGE
Question: This is another issue that, like most on the political agenda, involves development. Some residents see West Hollywood as an “urban village,” words that evoke an image of moderate density, low-scale buildings, easy walk-ability, and little traffic. People have moved here because of what West Hollywood is, they argue. So why change it? Others see the value of urban density — with an increase in apartment buildings meaning an increase in population and business revenues and, perhaps, a more competitive market for renters. Some also hope that increased use of mass transit and the walk-ability of the city will offset an increase in automobiles. Many press for construction of more parking garages, like those proposed for behind City Hall and underneath Plummer Park. City planners have devoted a lot of attention to this question and have produced some impressive reports. Now we need to know where our council candidates stand. Should we be happy with West Hollywood as it is, in terms of density and population? Or should we be pushing for growth? And if we are going to grow, what are we going to do with all those cars?
Answer: Let’s start with the facts from the U.S. census data that exists for West Hollywood. In 2000, the city’s population was 35,716. In 2011, the U.S. census reported that our population was 34,650. Our population has decreased over the past decade, not increased. West Hollywood is not pushing for growth. Rather we employ sustainable development, which keeps our population at about the same level.
West Hollywood did have extraordinary growth during the 1970s and 1980s before cityhood occurred. Many of our residents now live in the apartment buildings and condos that were constructed during this past growth period. We recently adopted a general plan that encourages mixed-use development along our commercial corridors and major intersections and discourages new development in residential neighborhoods. Our community decided that we want economic diversity and affordable housing. We have achieved that primarily through our rent control ordinance.
However, when Sacramento took away our ability to control rents after vacancies occur, we have been seeing many apartments in the city rising to market levels that are not affordable to young people, the disabled or senior citizens.
Therefore, our city requires that any new development set aside 20 percent of the units as affordable housing. Many of these units are utilized by senior citizens. Without these set aside, our city would evolve into a community of young wealthy individuals who could afford market rents on the westside. These affordable housing units allow us to share West Hollywood with the elderly and people with disabilities or people living with HIV.
TERM LIMITS VERSUS CIVIC ENGAGEMENT
Question: Also on the March ballot will be a proposal to limit city council members to three four-year terms. The proposal, which won’t be retroactive, is championed by residents who argue that some council incumbents, having always won their re-election races, aren’t responsive to the community. Another issue is civic engagement. In 1984, 17,000 people voted in the election that gave birth to West Hollywood. Last year, only a little more than a third as many voters turned out for the municipal election. Obviously we’d like to know where the council candidates stand on the term limits issue. But we’d also like to know what they think the city can do to engage more residents in civic life. Should municipal elections be shifted to the same date as national elections, when there’s much larger turnout? Should the city sponsor a campaign on the sidewalks to register voters? There’s little incentive to increase voter turnout for politicians who don’t want voters looking over their shoulders. But it’s the only way to guarantee the good government that West Hollywood deserves.
Answer: Every election cycle, the city promotes getting out the vote through public education, street banners and by televising a debate. Our turnout is not much different than neighboring Beverly Hills or Los Angeles.
Traditionally, there is higher voter turnout for a presidential election like we had in November compared to local government races. The city should not join the general election because our election would get lost amid the competing campaigns for propositions and initiatives, congressional races and Sacramento races.
Being at the bottom of the ballot would probably mean less participation, not more.
I am opposed to term limits. Each voter should have the right to cast a ballot freely for the candidate of their choice. Term limits eliminate choices from voters. Term limits have failed the state of California in Sacramento. Term limits end up strengthening the political players who remain after an election – lobbyists and staff. Political power then resides in those outside the electoral process.
THE CREATIVE CITY
Question: West Hollywood promotes itself as “The Creative City.” Urban development theorists such as Richard Florida argue that fostering a “creative class” of knowledge workers is essential to the economic health and well-being of a city. Should the City of West Hollywood invest in making the city a more attractive place for residents and businesses engaged in the knowledge economy as opposed to the service economy of restaurants, bars and hotels? If so, what can the city do?
Answer: The city should play to its economic strength, which is tourism and entertainment.
First, West Hollywood is in the black with prudent reserves that have given us a Triple A bond rating. We are in the category of 7 percent of cities nationwide that are not suffering through the current economic recession.
We have not had to lay off one employee or cut one program to our residents like neighboring Beverly Hills and Los Angeles. We enjoy our status of being fiscally strong because of tourism and nightlife, which are the largest sources of tax revenue that we receive.
Second, the city is completely built out. We have no vacant land to create a campus for high-tech industry that requires a concentration of high-skilled white collar workers to work most effectively.
Third, we have a strong main street economy along Santa Monica Boulevard that primarily has neighborhood-serving businesses along its corridor.
And finally, the Pacific Design Center and Melrose Avenues serve as an example of the creative class at work in the design, fashion and entertainment industries.
Our recent Fitch bond rating pointed out that we have a very diverse economic base, which has given us the ability to weather the downturns that occur in certain industries.