An Open Letter to Jill Stewart Regarding the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative

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Hi Jill,

My name is Stephen, and I’m just like you.

I’m the type of person who is defined by my convictions, and I tend to project them — relentlessly — out into the world. Like you, I’m prepared to defend my personal ideology to the death, because like you, I think I’m right. I know I’m right.

Unfortunately, that means we’re at war.

You and I are waring over the future of Los Angeles. The usual routine of pointing fingers from behind the walls of our respective fortresses, seeking affirmation from those who are already on our team, isn’t going to cut it this time. Let’s get vulnerable, because we need to figure this out.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m often so blinded by my core beliefs that I won’t give anyone who doesn’t fully embody them a chance. And I’ll be honest: when I first read through your initiative, I was so determined to hate it that I immediately wrote off all 6 of your points as ignorant and misguided before I even took the time to process and understand them. But debate theory says that one of the best ways to be persuasive is to put yourself in your opponent’s shoes and try to make their argument for them, and though it makes me uncomfortable, in the interest of opening up this dialogue, I did it. I gave it a second read — this time pretending someone I admire had written it — so that I could keep a true and open mind for your ideas. I read straight through the whole thing, and do you know what I discovered? You and I actually have a fair bit in common.

Your core belief is that real estate developers are having a huge negative impact on our neighborhoods. Guess what? I agree. I totally agree. You think that the laws that govern what developers can and can’t build are broken, corrupt, and run counter to our effort to build high quality, livable neighborhoods. I agree. I totally agree.

I’m also with you in the sense that I think that financially-motivated developers take advantage of existing legislation to build structures that don’t contribute positively to our city’s culture or reflect the character of the neighborhoods they’re built in. And most of all, I think developers too often get away with political murder. I nearly cried when I found out that Geoff Palmer knocked down the last standing original home on Bunker Hill — a home that he was contractually obligated to preserve, and I’ll be the first to admit that the projects most real estate developers are bringing to our city these days are nothing to be proud of.

What’s more, I actually think some of the specifics enumerated in your plan are great. I would agree, for example, that a developer conducting his or her own EIR is a total conflict of interest, and I think the section that prevents them from doing so has great merit. So too, does the part that requires review and critical feedback of the general plan. With a background in software development, trust me, I’m the first to argue that validation and iteration are the keys to any successful endeavor.

I’m happy to have taken this moment to reflect; I think that you and I, from our respective castles, have a tendency to fabricate images of each other that are the perfect antitheses of our own belief systems, and it occurs to me now that just as I view you as a selfish, metathesiophic old fart who hates to walk and thinks bicycles are for poor people, you probably view me as an ignorant kook with no respect for cultural history who would be content to see every single family home in the whole city razed and replaced with a 7-story stucco box, so long as said box came with ground-floor retail. But if this exercise has revealed anything, it’s that despite all our disagreements, there are things we could work productively together on. Like, for example, doing this to a Palmer building.

Furthermore, there is absolutely nothing wrong with having an ideological viewpoint, and it’s not at all wrong for us to disagree. Ideologies are constantly in flux, evolving from generation to generation, and it wouldn’t be reasonable to declare that any one is intrinsically better than another. All either of us is doing is choosing which sacrifices we’re willing to make to create the version of Los Angeles that best reflects our own belief systems.

Take the issue of parking, for example. You love parking and want more of it. I despise parking and want less of it. And yet despite that, I highly doubt you’ve ever lobbied for the existence of a parking lot purely on the basis of it’s beauty. Rather, the reason we so forcefully butt heads on the issue really just comes down to the fact that you’re a lot more willing to tolerate the negative impacts of a parking lot than I am, because parking subsidizes your modus operandi: driving. Similarly, I hope you can see that in my camp, we’re doing the exact same thing, but flipped: Instead of tolerating ugly, soul-sucking parking lots to support driving, we’re tolerating ugly soul-sucking buildings to support walking, which is our modus-operandi.

Again, there’s no issue here. We’re both citizens, lobbying for the right to live in the world we want to live in, and in fact, our differing viewpoints are a healthy starting point in promoting balance. However, in today’s world, our voices are louder and the stakes are higher than they have ever been, and as such, it is equally important that we consider the health and livelihood of local communities, as well as that of the global community and the planet, as we make our decisions.

We no longer live in a world of unlimited resources. In the 60’s and 70’s, when people decided they didn’t like the city they’d created for themselves, they simply drove 25 minutes outside of it and started over again — we can’t do that anymore, and so I ask that you be extremely careful with the megaphone you’re holding, because it’s no longer just your preferences that are at stake: it’s all of ours, and our livelihoods. And this is where, in my opinion, your Neighborhood Integrity Initiative falls short.

You’re calling it the neighborhood integrity initiative. You’re claiming that you’re attempting to preserve Los Angeles. But the question is, what is your definition of integrity, and who are you preserving it for?

Last week, we learned via Twitter that you live in Calabasas. It’s not my place to critique the merits of the place you choose to live, but there’s a painful irony in what you’re trying to accomplish from there. How do you morally justify trying to preserve the integrity of a city you don’t consider to be worthy of living in?

What you’re doing is not so much preserving the city for what it is — a living organism full of people achieving goals, creating culture, and striving for happiness. Rather, you’re trying to preserve like you’d preserve a Picasso: in a museum.

Jill, Los Angeles is not an art project. Though I can respect your preference for a car-oriented lifestyle, I cannot respect your desire to make this city more accessible for those who prefer to view it from afar. And don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying Los Angeles isn’t a beautiful work of art worthy of admiration. What I’m saying is that you can’t expect to hop into your car and come “visit” Los Angeles the same way you would visit a historic mining town or Machu Pichu — to get a feww oohs and ahhs in before retreating to suburbia. We still live here, and this city needs to work for the people who live in it before those who choose not to. You can’t just freeze us in a time capsule for your viewing pleasure.

There’s nothing wrong with the suburban lifestyle. What’s wrong is forcing other people to suffer the consequences of that lifestyle. And while I understand that you could flip that argument on its head and make the case that you are suffering as a result of the way Los Angeles is changing, consider the scale: When changes are made to this city, those of us who live in it experience them 100% of the time. We don’t leave when the sun goes down like you do. And what’s more, even if we wanted to, that’s not always an option for us. Personal preferences aside, your lifestyle has costs associated with it that are entirely prohibitive to a huge portion of our residents. Your initiative will force those people to suffer for the benefit of the small percentage of people like you who have that luxury of choice. That is not fair.

What drives me more crazy than anything though, is that you actually pander to that demographic.

Despite the fact that you live far outside the city and are pushing legislation that helps people like you more than it helps anyone else, your website is branded almost exclusively with images of Black and Latino people in lower-income communities like Boyle Heights. You’re capitalizing on anti-gentrification sentiment, projecting that your initiative is somehow going to offer relief from gentrification. And this is what really draws your agenda into question, because if you were as informed as you claim to be, you would know that.

Your initiative dramatically slows the pace of real estate development in Los Angeles. Such a change would cause the city-wide housing crunch to become even more severe than it already is. In the first half of last year, ~40,000 people moved to Los Angeles, but we only built about ~20,000 housing units, and correspondingly, the price of housing in our city jumped 13%. Now imagine how much it would have jumped if we’d built zero new units? This is exactly what you’re proposing. And do you know who’s going to be hit the worst by that jump? Low-income communities like Boyle Heights — the very same communities you’re claiming to help.

With respect to the rest of the city, Boyle Heights and its surrounding neighborhoods are relatively affordable. That means it’s the first place that people who currently live in higher-income communities are going to turn when they can no longer afford to live in those expensive neighborhoods. So while yes, a moratorium on development would indeed preserve the physical appearance of places like Boyle Heights, it would make the gentrification problem worse. And while I agree that big, dense housing complexes can also be damaging to a neighborhood in their own right, at least they serve to alleviate the demand for housing and actively work against displacement, which, based on your marketing position, seems to be what you’re claiming to be doing.

All of this begs the question: Did you already know this? Are you simply pushing legislation for a cause you haven’t done enough research on? Or are you actively lying to people about your motivation?

I cannot imagine you’re the type of person that supports Donald Trump (if you are, I immediately regret the effort I put into this writing), but what you’re doing — pandering to people’s fears in order to extort their votes for an initiative that will not end up benefitting them — is exactly that same brand of demagoguery: exploitation of those who are less informed for the purpose of personal gain.

Where this leaves us depends entirely on your true intentions. In my field, we talk a lot about the importance of finding alignment between goals and actions, and if preserving integrity is truly your goal, there are plenty of healthy and constructive ways to do that. For example, we already have a processes for designating “Historic Cultural Monuments”, which protects culturally significant parts of Los Angeles’s history from being destroyed. Why not work to loosen the restrictions on what qualifies as a Historic Cultural Monument to better protect the parts of the city you feel are at risk?

Or if you feel (like I do) that it’s the design and impact of new construction that’s at the heart of the problem, why not promote legislation that creates better incentives for great aesthetics and livability? While I agree that developers can indeed be greedy, depicting them as the Cruella Deville of the neighborhood does more to satisfy our emotional frustration than to actually confront the problem, because greed is normal. Most people are greedy — we do everything possible to get the most we can under the constraints we’re given. You yourself are no exception: you’re doing everything you can to stop development to satisfy your agenda, even if it means killing thousands of development jobs and causing massive rent increases in an already unaffordable rent market.

From beautiful, high quality cities to ugly, soulless ones around the world, the people are the same. The only thing that changes is the constraints they work with. So instead of squashing those jobs, why not consider the ways you might adjust the rules to harness that greed for good?

The same goes for the cronyism argument. I have no doubt that money and politics play a huge role in determining what does and doesn’t get built in LA, but blaming developers isn’t going to solve that problem. Again, they’re just working with the system they’ve been given, and no matter how the rules change, if the system is broken, these problems will persist. A better way to promote equity in planning is by getting closer to the process, understanding where these moral failings are happening, and working to elect representatives with a higher standard of integrity into those roles.

The point is, Jill, you and I don’t have to fight like this. Though our lifestyles are different, our root goals for Los Angeles are nearly identical. Both of us want to preserve the heritage of our city. Both of us want to make sure that the culture we’ve created up until this point doesn’t get wiped away by the new. And both of us want to ensure that new development happens respectfully and additively, as opposed to destructively. If your intentions are pure, the only difference between you and me is the actions we’ve decided to take in order to achieve those goals.

Your current actions were chosen not by metrics and data, but by frustration and speculation. In the interest of meeting your goals, I respectfully suggest that you revisit them. And if you’re open to it, I’d love to be part of that process. Perhaps we could get one of those Malcolm Gladwell style email chains going. →

We can work productively together. When you properly align your actions with your goals, you may quickly find that your agenda and that of your opponents really aren’t that different.

Imagine everyone you’re fighting against suddenly joined your team. Imagine what you could accomplish then.

Stephen Corwin is the founder of CityGrows, a GovTech company based in Los Angeles. Send him a tweet, or subscribe.