Shady real estate deals are not just for presidents – they’re popular in Los Angeles too. The problem starts at the very beginning of the approval process: neighborhood councils.
Developer influence in Westwood is not new, and it could continue to harm economic vitality in the Village. If developers can buy their way into approval, planning commissions will forget about their accountability to residents and build luxury projects that are out of character with the Village, which would slow student business in the area.
Since the Los Angeles Times revealed that developers funneled millions of dollars to Los Angeles City politicians, LA City Hall has been under pressure to prove to residents that it will prioritize fair development projects and accountability.
To that end, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s recent directive bans city planning commissioners from talking to developers while reviewing their projects. But this is merely a Band-Aid solution to the widespread problem of developer influence that pervades LA.
The Westwood Neighborhood Council board members, who advise city council members about Westwood issues and development, criticized the directive for not doing enough. However, board President Lisa Chapman and Vice President Sandy Brown overlooked the council’s own role in approving development projects and how it can contribute to the problem of developer influence.
The council has a Land Use and Planning Committee, which reviews proposals for development in Westwood. It then makes a recommendation to LA City Councilmember Paul Koretz, and the city council then votes whether to grant approval to a given project.
The fact the Westwood Neighborhood Council’s review of a proposal is the first step in the approval process means it’s the council members’ responsibility to take the initiative in preventing shady meetings with developers. If they actually want to minimize developer influence in Westwood, they first need to make the Land Use and Planning Committee’s regulations for dealing with Westwood developers clear. The first step is creating regulations available to the public regarding how members of the committee are allowed to interact with developers.
Making sure the Westwood Neighborhood Council will not listen to developers or their representatives while considering projects will set a strong precedent. Without clear regulations on developer interactions with council members, developer influence and shady behind-the-scenes deals will continue to be the norm.
Brown also expressed concern about architects, designers and financiers talking to LA city council members on behalf of a developer, which is still permitted under Garcetti’s directive. That could also happen in Westwood, where there is no rule against such interactions.
Getting the approval of the Westwood Neighborhood Council can be a lengthy process. Brown said that many developers come in without fully developed plans, which requires them to then come back with more robust plans. The current rules about how developers are allowed to contact the Land Use and Planning Committee muddle the legitimacy of communication because neither developers nor the council know what interactions are allowed, leaving the public in the dark during the review process.
If Brown and Chapman find the loopholes in Garcetti’s directive egregious, they should be on the frontline of fighting developer and city planning conflicts of interest in Westwood.
To address these issues, the Westwood Neighborhood Council needs to create clear regulations that ban developers from meeting in private with committee members before submitting proposals. The regulations should also ban developers’ representatives, such as architects and financiers, from privately speaking to committee members during the approval process. These regulations should also permit developers to exclusively consult council members about their concerns or questions regarding the proposal process.
The stakes are above a legitimate development approval process in Westwood. The economic vitality of Westwood is on the line.
Consider Napa Valley Grille on Glendon Avenue. This project required the Westwood Neighborhood Council to grant developers special permission to construct a high-rise urban structure, which usually wouldn’t be granted for a building so out of character with the Village. The council’s governing board members expressed confusion over how Napa Valley Grille was approved when it is significantly taller and more urban-looking than the buildings surrounding it. In a previous interview, Brown even said she thought that its approval was likely a political decision not fully transparent to the public.
These exceptions stand to hurt the neighborhood’s economic vitality, too. If more of these out-of-character businesses pop up in the Village, Westwood business will slow, as many students will no longer be able to afford the higher-end restaurants and stores that wealthy developers would push through approval. Although not all business in Westwood is driven by students, business in North Westwood Village is primarily meant to serve UCLA students, considering its close proximity to campus. Without affordable shops, the Village would lose significant business.
At a time when developers and wealthy financiers hold considerable sway over politics at the federal, state and local levels, the Westwood Neighborhood Council must reprioritize the interest of common residents, especially students, and that starts with clear regulations about developer and planning commissions’ interactions.