Gobsmacked. That English word, which means “utterly astonished, astounded”, was what I felt when I read the summary of a recent survey commissioned by the city that says a majority of West Hollywood residents don’t want more apartment buildings in our city.
Yes, they want more affordable apartments (what else would one have the nerve to say in a city built on protecting renters’ rights?) Just don’t build them in our neighborhood, please.
A deep read into the survey’s findings shows that those who own their homes (that’s 20% of the population) are more likely to oppose new apartment buildings than are those who rent. Old folks also are more likely to oppose new apartment buildings. And so are those who have lived here a long time.
A major reason offered by the opponents is fear of more traffic. Yes, traffic is a bitch in WeHo, as it is in every one of the four other major metropolitan areas where I have lived or worked. But we need to recognize that it’s not the fault of those who build apartment buildings here. It’s largely because West Hollywood is a drive-through city, with what we call Santa Monica Boulevard now listed on Google Maps as California Route 2. That designation signals that those who don’t live here see us less as an “urban village” and more as an annoying slowdown in their morning and evening commutes.
We also need to recognize that 80% of the people who work here don’t live here (most can’t afford to), so they drive into WeHo for their jobs. And 80% of the people who live here don’t work here (if you can afford a house, condo or apartment in WeHo, then odds are you aren’t making your living pouring drinks at a local bar or making beds at a Sunset Strip hotel). So residents leaving town for work, and workers coming to WeHo for their jobs, are another major factor in rush hour traffic.
Another concern of those opposed to new construction is that it will make worse the city’s lack of parking, which may be what people in WeHo (myself included) bitch about most. However, new apartment buildings must include parking, with most of it underground. And why would someone who lives here need to constantly drive in the one of the smallest and most densely populated cities in the United States? I have come to realize the idiocy of my driving from my apartment building on Hacienda Place, where I have a basement parking spot, to the Starbucks on Santa Monica Boulevard at Westmount, where I can spend 10 minutes circling around looking for a spot to park the car, and then have to feed the meter. I now realize that it’s a very healthy eight-minute walk, no gas or parking fees required. And I recently bought a bicycle.
A radical thought is that maybe an actual reduction in parking would make West Hollywood more of a walkable city. New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg shut down several lanes of Broadway in Times Square a few years ago, replacing the constant stream of cars with tiny tables and chairs. It was Bloomberg’s way of saying that people needed to get out of their cars and take the subway (which we don’t have in WeHo, yet) and the bus (which we do have, with some of them for free). We also have the opportunity to walk (safely, if we focus on the cars in the street instead of text messages and taking selfies).
And finally there’s the fear that more construction, especially of taller buildings, will erode the “urban village” atmosphere that some treasure. First, let’s acknowledge the inherent contradiction is calling West Hollywood both urban and a village. West Hollywood clearly is urban — it is the 17th most densely populated city in the United States (we beat San Francisco and Boston in that measure). That’s a position WeHo has occupied, with some wavering on the list year to year, since the city was incorporated in 1984. As for being a village? We aren’t that physically, but we are that in the sense that we have a common sense of values, a willingness to accept people for who they are, to help them establish their careers and age in place here. If anything is eroding WeHo’s reputation as an urban village, it is the opposition of so many property-owning residents to letting more renters live here.
There are some things that give me hope. One is that the survey isn’t as representative as one might think, given that those surveyed were pulled from the city’s voter registration list. That list tilts heavily toward older people (like me), who are (unlike me) more likely to own their homes and be resistant to the inevitable changes that life brings. Another is the quiet work by some of our residents to form an alliance to represent renters at meetings before the City Council and the Planning Commission and other public forums. A group like that has been formed in San Francisco. It has, surprisingly, allied itself with developers in the realization that growth that is well managed, as is that in WeHo, is the best way to keep slow the inevitable rise in rents.
Finally, being a journalist, I do have a hope that ultimately facts will matter:
— Despite the claims by challengers in the last City Council election, we haven’t Ellis’ed out masses of local residents from their rent-stabilized apartments (we have lost only 5% of those over the past 30 some years, and more low-income apartments have been built since then).
— Building more apartments won’t have an impact on our water supply, unless, of course, those new apartments are occupied solely by newborn children who are still breastfeeding and haven’t yet sipped a drop. Those who move in presumably have already been drinking water. And residents of apartment buildings use, on average, less water than those living in private homes.
— The surge in new apartments in WeHo, many with ridiculously high rents, means an increase in supply. If that supply starts to keep up with, and ideally surpass, demand, the increase in rents will slow. (If the owner of the Avalon West Hollywood can’t rent that 720 square foot studio for $3,200 a month, for example, I’m betting that the rent will go down or the occupant will get a few months for free).
— Another recession is inevitable, although let’s pray it isn’t like the “Great” one provoked by George W. Bush’s poor management of this country. We have one every 10 years or so, and the result is a slowdown in housing price increases, if not an actual decline.
So, as we bemoan the changes in L.A. Pride that don’t reflect what some see as its original mission, and as we decry the erosion of the quality of life in our “urban village,” let’s not forget that there is a bigger thing at stake. That is West Hollywood’s reputation as a city that is open and welcoming to all, a city whose diversity includes people of different sexual orientations and ethnic backgrounds and also should include an acceptance of people from all economic classes who want to live here.