Outside Looking In

Money, Power, and Character All Count in Foothills Development


By Joseph F. Mailander

Guest Columnist


“We’re just an advisory committee. We’re not trying to set anybody on fire,” said Dale Gibson of the City of Los Angeles’s Equine Advisory Committee after I asked him about the Stop the Canyon Park Development presentation that his committee was about to hear.

Gibson couldn’t attend the meeting himself, though, because he was out of town. Along with Mary Benson, he represents the foothills communities on the equine committee, which heard complaints from foothills-area residents on September 22 about the housing development planned for the edge of Big Tujunga Wash called Canyon Park Homes.

When the Stop the Canyon Park folks presented to the city’s committee, few of them realized that another proposed development in the foothills, involving Verdugo Hills Golf Course, had come closer to development because of a similarly well-intended but ham-fisted civic blunder. The would-be developer of the golf course shocked all parties last year by filing a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles after the city made a small part of the course a historic-cultural monument.

The developer’s attorney, Fred Gaines, “said the suit was filed . . . when it appeared the working group might recommend the city use the historic designation to block the development,” reported the Glendale News-Press in August of 2013.

Similarly, the activists who already have announced their hopes to stop the Canyon Park development have now asked a civic committee to take development-hostile action on their behalf—action that could put the city on less firm footing later. The development team was not even invited by the committee to the presentation and discussion, which opponents made without learning what kind of equestrian plans the developer may have for the site.

Might another city committee make the same mistake twice? Might another city committee take a potentially illegal action again, again at the prompting of local activists who are not land use specialists themselves?

“I too am a bit confused by the rush to meet on this matter as the proposed project is in its infancy and there is very little to discuss relative to what it is and is not,” said Brad Rosenheim, counsel to the developer, via email before the meeting. “A meeting with the committee might be appropriate at some time in the future but it seems premature at this time.”

It seems unlikely that this committee will swallow the bait and make an early wrong-footed move; although it did not rule out entirely the possibility of writing an opposing advisory letter on the antidevelopment folks’ behalf. But it also is important to note that three separate hundred-plus housing tracts have been proposed in the East Valley foothills in the past decade. And while locals like to crow about persistently thwarting development plans, large-scale developers think in terms of a decade or more, not in terms of the latest meeting.

The persistent hopes to develop the East Valley foothills reminds me of a similar rush to develop the West Valley foothills in the late 1980s—a battle that continued to 1997, when the city finally surrendered to large-scale development. For nearly a decade, various communities in the West Valley foothills remained opposed to developing Porter Ranch—and then in 1997 the dam burst.

“Scaled-Back Porter Ranch Plan OKed” read a quiet headline on April 19, 1997, in the Los Angeles Times. The city unanimously agreed to allow the Porter Ranch Development Co. to proceed with building 3,400 homes, enough to transform the community forever.

Some of those homes recently helped make the developer’s heir a billionaire, when Toll Brothers Inc. of Pennsylvania agreed to buy Shapell Industries Inc. for $1.6 billion late last year. The portfolio of properties included hundreds of homes in Santa Clarita and Porter Ranch.

There is no doubt that not only the persistence but also the personal character of the developers—Nathan Shapell and Irving Feintech—paid off for their hopes for the development. Shapell, a Holocaust survivor, once chaired Building a Better Los Angeles, which raised $1 million for homeless relief. Feintech, who died in 2011 at age 92, for some time chaired the Cedars-Sinai Hospital board.

The foothills communities should expect a similar stripe of character of all those—developer, politician, or activist—who would plan the future of the East Valley foothills. Still, the communities are well acquainted with the kind of antics that have unfolded in conjunction with development over the past decade.

In this last decade, whether opposing or supporting development, the East Valley foothills have seen little character in their political figures. Wendy Greuel quickly ditched the communities to run for the citywide office of controller and then mayor; when that didn’t work out, she ditched the whole northeast Valley, running for Henry Waxman’s west-side seat in Congress. Paul Krekorian, her successor, let the whole of the foothills be thrown into a Latino-majority district via redistricting on his way to becoming the city’s budget and finance chair. Richard Alarcon, his successor by the redistricting favor, is now facing a prison sentence, convicted of living outside the district he represented.

So now it falls to Felipe Fuentes to deal with development decisions in the foothills. It doesn’t seem likely that Fuentes, already beholden of a fragile majority of voters on the west side of his own district, would favor any scheme to increase the voting population of monied foothills homeowners by even 300 or 400 souls—at least not until he is more secure in office.

Beyond Fuentes’s office, the activists engaged in the nascent fight to stop the Canyon Park development should recall that the battles are only recently conjoined and will unfurl long after various initial victories are claimed, that there are not only one but now several such development prospects, that civic dialogue be informed by people of impeccable character who have earned the community’s trust, and that enthusiasm is no substitute for real expertise.

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