What a refusal to explore turning a freeway into housing says about the future of LA

ME.StreetSmart.#1.1127.BC/aThe Marina Freeway, left, ends abruptly at Slauson, right, as it curves around the Fox Hills Mall.

(For the times)

What a refusal to explore turning a freeway into housing says about the future of LA

LA Politics, Homepage News

Erika D. Smith

Oct. 28, 2023

Until a few days ago, Michael Schneider really believed that his nonprofit, Streets For All, had enough political support to pursue an idea that would certainly be unpopular in LA:

One one

exploring whether it makes sense to tear down a Westside freeway and replace it with affordable housing and a giant park.

He was a city man who excitedly praised letters and statements of “tremendous enthusiasm” from elected officials.

Like from

the office of

Mayor Karen Bass, who called the Marina Freeway a three-mile, lightly trafficked stretch of Route 90 that was left unfinished after a plan to connect it to Orange County was abandoned in the 1970s (a highway to nowhere).

And from Secretary of State Lola Smallwood-Cuevas (D-Los Angeles), who described Schneider’s idea as a progressive project that would help alleviate LA’s needs[s].”

As someone who drives the Marina Freeway all the time, I’ve long thought there could have been a higher and better use of the land than just a shortcut from Marina del Rey to the 405 Freeway and to South LA. And so I was excited to hear that Streets For All had applied for a federal grant to study it for two years, tracking everything from environmental impacts to traffic and the opinions of local residents like me.

But now both my excitement and Schneider’s have given way to familiar feelings of frustration. As usual for NIMBY-permissive Los Angeles, the political support he thought was solid has suddenly become porous.

That includes Bass: “I do not support the removal or demolition of Highway 90,” she said in a statement last week.

10/20

“I have heard loud and clear from communities that would be affected by this and I do not support an investigation into this initiative.”

LA City Council Member Traci Park agrees. After conducting a very unscientific poll of her Westside constituents, she wrote in her newsletter, “The 11th District does not support the demolition of the 90 Freeway. Your vote is why Mayor Bass withdrew her initial support.”

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

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

Likewise, Assemblymember Isaac Bryan (D-Culver City) said he is never against investigations. But there is a difference between studying the impact of removing the freeway and, referring to various renderings of what Schneider envisions as Marina Central Park, “proposing an alternative design and solution without any study rounded.”

“Highway 90,” Bryan assured me, “isn’t going anywhere.”

It’s problematic that this is happening at a time when about 75,000 people are doing it

people

sleeping on the streets across the country and vehicle emissions worsening the effects of climate change, Los Angeles can’t muster the unified political will to even STUDY! whether a highway should be replaced by housing.

Equally problematic is the reason why.

I’m not talking about the blame some have placed on Streets For All for being overzealous with their messaging and tactics. Or that, others say, elected officials have surrendered too quickly to the fears of their constituents, some of whom wrongly believe the elimination of the Marina Freeway is imminent.

I’m talking about the fundamental disagreement in Los Angeles over the role and importance of community outreach. How much of it is enough? How quickly does it have to happen? How much weight should be given to it? And for what purpose?

These unanswered questions are ultimately why political support for studying the Marina Freeway crumbled, and it’s a troubling harbinger.

Most residents understandably want a say

the

say what’s happening 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 development needed to address this problem, and lower rents for everyone else, I increasingly believe that LA’s political leaders cannot place as much weight on the opinions of the inhabitants. Not all development projects that are 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 are not always the most correct voices.”

::

People don’t like change.

This is a truth that has led NIMBYs to file an untold number of frivolous lawsuits in the state of California.

It also caused Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature repeatedly want to roll back local control over land use decisions. The latest law is one that allows nonprofit colleges and religious institutions to bypass most local permitting and environmental assessment rules and rezone their land to build housing.

Even Bass, which has made homelessness its primary issue, has tried to cut red tape and streamline construction of housing and shelters in an effort to expand the pipeline for unhoused Angelenos sent to hotels through its Inside Safe program transferred.

But the mayor said she is still a big believer in “doing the hard work” of community outreach. She explained why when I shared my skepticism.

“This goes back to my days at Community Coalition,” she said. “We used to fight when the city tried to impose development on South LA without involving South LA. So you would think I would say build anywhere, everywhere. But I don’t feel that way.”

Instead, she wants to involve people in the process and come up with ways that fit what each community wants.

“If I took a position that said, ‘Steamroll everyone, just provide housing,’ we would tear the city apart,” Bass said, adding that residents would likely oppose development if for no other reason than that it was forced upon them.

This is a major reason why she decided not to support an investigation into the Marina Freeway. In conversations with residents, she told me she only heard complaints about the possibility of increased traffic and longer commute times, and from black people in South LA, about the loss of a convenient corridor to Marina del Rey and the beach.

But most of all, Bass said she heard the uproar over the fact that there had been no community activities.

This was reflected in an online petition that went viral last month, even though it was filled with misleading claims written by Daphne Bradford, a Ladera Heights education consultant who is running for supervisor against Mitchell in the March primary.

“Ladera Heights is not just any neighborhood; it stands out as the third most affluent African American community in the country,” wrote Bradford, channeling her inner NIMBY. “Our community has worked hard to create a safe and prosperous 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 reach the community before we receive the grant money.”

Meanwhile, the rumors about the Marina Freeway have overshadowed the facts, and many residents have voiced opposition to what they think is happening. Mitchell suspects that one of the reasons for this is that Streets For All “didn’t do outreach as we define outreach.”

“It can’t be at 10 a.m. on a weekday, a meeting at the community center,” she told me. “You really have to be creative, work with communities and not be afraid to reach out to people who are against you.”

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

“When people say outreach, what they mean is, ‘You didn’t ask me. And when you asked me, you didn’t do what I said,'” Mitchell said. “That cannot be the expectation. But I do believe that every effort should be made to ensure that the affected communities are aware.”

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

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

::

Which brings me back to the Marina Freeway.

Despite Streets For All being abandoned by much of the Los Angeles political establishment, Schneider says his plan to conduct a feasibility study is not dead yet.

“We live in a democracy. You can’t stop someone from studying something in the public space. That’s just not possible,” he said. “If we get the federal grant, we will do that. If we have to raise the money privately, we will. But we are determined to

Unpleasant

exploring the idea because it is worth exploring.”

Whether that study leads to removing the highway and building thousands of affordable homes in Marina Central Park is another matter.

It’s a huge political decision, Schneider admits. One that will ultimately and unfortunately depend on community outreach. This is LA after all

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