Crime, trees, densification, development, zoning, housing, homelessness…combine, stir, lather, rinse and repeat. The topics on the agenda at our local homeowners’ associations annual meetings in the last year or so seem to differ from one another only in matters of degree, depending on the neighborhood. And the situation was no different at the 36th annual meeting of the Miracle Mile Residential Association, which was held this past Saturday , March 16, at the Korean Cultural Center on Wilshire Blvd.
Introducing the meeting, MMRA President James O’Sullivan highlighted the neighborhood’s long history, from its days as “barley fields and oil fields” to its later boom period as a thriving retail area, followed by years of decline and rebirth…and now as the locus of a new wave of intense redevelopment. And it was interesting to note, when O’Sullivan polled the audience, how many people had been there for most or – in one case – nearly all of that history. In fact, it seemed that well over half the audience said they had lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years, with sizable numbers who had been there 30 or 40 years…a few who had been there 50 years…a couple for 60 years…and, yes, one who said he’d lived in Miracle Mile for more than 70 years.
In looking toward the future, O’Sullivan noted that “we do not oppose density. Density in and of itself is not a problem. But density without infrastructure and safety is a problem.” He particularly cited the area’s recent history of power outages, potholes and other street repair issues. “We are going to insist with both the city and the state that we will support almost anything [in terms of new development],” he said, “but we must be safe to live our lives.” O’Sulllivan said the association has always tried to find good compromises when working with developers – and solutions that work best for both the community and the developer.
As he has done at several other recent neighborhood association meetings in the Greater Wilshire area, City Council Member David Ryu, the morning’s first guest speaker, gave a wide-ranging update on some of the 4th District’s current hot-button issues, including Miracle Mile’s ambitious efforts in creating an effective Neighborhood Watch program, which he called “one of the best” in the city. Other topics Ryu addressed included:
“I believe in historic preservation. It is very important,” Ryu said, noting that preservation is important not just for individual buildings, but also whole neighborhoods. “It’s important to know where you come from to know where you’re going,” he said. In fact, he added, his enthusiasm extends to even smaller bits of history, too – and is why he has insisted on keeping a few pieces of former City Council Member John Ferraro’s office furniture at his City Council office, despite the objections of some younger and more aesthetically-minded staff members.
In terms of local preservation, Ryu said he firmly supports the current Historic Cultural Monument application for Miracle Mile’s Tom Bergin’s Bar and Restaurant. Saying that members of the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission are the experts on such things, and they have unanimously voted to support the application, “My role is to support what the Cultural Heritage Commission recommends,” he said.
Also, regarding the state-level bill SB50, which could eliminate most local zoning restrictions (including local historic protections) within half a mile of major transit lines, Ryu said he has submitted a letter of opposition to to the bill. We “need to tackle this housing crisis,” he said, “This housing crisis is real.” But when the state tries to impose a “one size fits all” solution, he said, “I say no.” Different neighborhoods in the 4th District have different housing needs, Ryu said, different neighborhoods in the city have different needs, and different cities in the state have different needs. So if the state removes all zoning within half a mile of bus lines, “then what’s the point in having historic districts and other specially-designated areas?”
Ryu, who has spoken even more extensively at other recent neighborhood meetings about efforts to preserve the local tree canopy, said he is doing whatever he can to protect the urban forest. He said, however, that the city is definitely at a “crossroads,” trying both to fix broken sidewalks and preserve trees, which are often the biggest culprits in creating our extensive sidewalk damage. The trick, he said, is to find the right balance between sidewalk repairs and tree removal and replacement. “We have more trees and open space than any other part of Los Angeles,” Ryu said…but even so, “it’s still not good enough,” and areas that have even fewer trees need more, too.
Complicating the problem, Ryu said, are personnel issues. For example, he said, the city’s Department of Urban Forestry was “decimated” by budget and staff cuts in the recession, and much trimming work was done by contractors with varying degrees of knowledge and competency. The city is trying to re-staff the department, he said, but the process is slow. Also, he noted (as he has at other recent meetings) that fully 40% of the city’s staff, across all departments, will be eligible for retirement by next year…and even if the people who do retire are replaced quickly, there will still be the issue of “knowledge transfer,” and a huge loss of experience as older people leave and are replaced by younger workers with less experience.
And, finally regarding trees, Ryu said that there are conflicts not only over whether or not to remove and replace trees…but also over which trees to use as replacements, even if neighbors do agree that specific trees need to go. He cited two trees in front of the Rite Aid drug store on Larchmont Blvd. as an example. In that case, both the property owner and the Windsor Square Association have agreed the two trees, which are affecting the adjacent sidewalk, should be replaced…but neighbors have not been able to agree yet which kinds of replacement trees should be used. He said, however, that he will be using tree canopy programs developed by the Hancock Park and Windsor Square neighborhoods as pilots for wider policies on tree removal and replacement that he hopes to roll out across the city.
Ryu said at the meeting that homelessness is “the crisis of our time.” He noted that several homeless housing efforts are now under construction in other parts of the 4th District, which will help a bit. But he also stressed that getting people back on their feet and back into society is a three-pronged effort: housing comes first…but then there’s a long process of counseling, medical and other kinds of treatment programs, training, and other services…and then, finally employment and rebuilding a sense of personal worth. (And merely arresting the homeless, he said, rather than embarking on this longer journey of support, actually hurts the process because it’s hard for people to find a job with an arrest record.)
In addition to housing the currently homeless, Ryu said, it’s equally important to prevent new people from becoming homeless. Last year, he said, the city found new housing for 14,000 homeless residents…but they were simply replaced by almost as many newly homeless, and we need to stem that tide. Ryu said one key step in that process is preventing the demolition of rent-stabilized housing units, because even if a new development that replaces an older building includes a few low income units, the original occupants are still displaced, don’t return after the new building is completed, and are vulnerable to becoming homeless. The three most vulnerable populations, he said, are seniors, women with children (especially domestic violence victims), and youth transitioning into adult independence.
Finally, Ryu noted that, on average, it takes 10 contacts with a homeless person to get them to accept help. During that time, there is the option of a “5150” psychiatric hold, to get them off the streets if they’re a danger to themselves or others, or if they’re “gravely mentally ill.” But Ryu said the definition of those terms has been frustratingly narrow, making it hard to provide ongoing care. Ryu said he has been working to broaden the definitions of the terms that can be used to retain a person for care – for example by acknowledging that refusals of help are actually a path toward “slow suicide.”
Dockless Mobility Devices
When one resident at Saturday’s meeting inquired about issues with dockless electric scooters, Ryu said he is generally in favor of the devices, but will support getting rid of them if they become a “total nuisance.” Ryu said that many urban problems are congestion problems. One way to reduce congestion is to get people to use public transit, but many people don’t. The overall goal is to create a multi-modal transit system, he said, and one big component of that is solving the “first mile/last mile” problem – helping people get to and from major transit lines. Dockless devices like scooters and bikes are part of that solution…and scooters have an advantage over bikes because they’re not just dumped when people are done with them. Scooter operators have to come around every night and pick up the devices to charge them.
Ryu also said the city is creating an app for transit that could also be used in other cities and countries to track and monitor dockless device usage. The city is also installing gyroscopes that can report tipped scooters…and it’s working with scooter operators to make sure their apps don’t stop charging for rides until the scooter is properly parked.
Moving on to a discussion of crime and crime prevention, Miracle Mile Neighborhood Watch leader Kari Garcia reported that since the program began a little more than a year ago, property crimes were up 7% in the area in 2018, but burglaries were down 1% last year (after rising 20% in 2017). Garcia said the goal is for neighbors to gather together, “put ou heads together” and figure out what they can do to prevent crime.
The first step, she said, is to get a roster of everyone on your block, find a block captain, and then have a block meeting at which everyone learns how to secure their property and how to “be vigilant and not a vigilante.” Since she started organizing the neighborhood watch, she said, the MMRA has recruited 30 block captains, and people are more aware of crime issues, are educating their neighbors, improving communications and improving the neighborhood’s quality of life. The next steps, she said, will be adding even more block captains on blocks that don’t have them, and expanding coordination and communications to include emergency and disaster planning.
Also addressing crime issues, LAPD Wilshire Division Captain Anthony Oddo said there are now about 240 police officers in Wilshire Division, with 7-10 cars patrolling at any one time. The division receives about 1,000 calls pare week, he said, and each patrol car may have about five calls in its stack at any one time – which leaves little to no time for active crime-prevention activities. Oddo said the division’s goal is to balance crime fighting and crime prevention. It added 17 new officers in the last six months, and some of them now staff additional cars.
Each day, Oddo said, he looks at all the crimes reported in the last 24 hours and searches for patterns from day to day, to help him distribute resources appropriately. Right now, he said, there are a lot of robberies – and so a lot of cops – along the Melrose corridor.
What LAPD needs from residents, Oddo said, is to participate in the Neighborhood Watch, to “harden the target,” and to “lock it, hide it, keep it.” Oddo said neighbors have been doing well on the “lock it” part part of that last instruction (in 2017, 50% of burglaries were through an unlocked door or window, but that number fell to 35% in 2018, which is a big improvement)…but not as well with “hide it.” He said he frequently sees laptop computers charging in full view in locked cars, which can be an invitation for someone to smash a window and grab the device.
In addition, Oddo said, “distracted walking” – such as walking while reading things on your phone – is a big problem, and makes it easy for someone to come along and grab the device. While you don’t always need to be looking over your shoulder, he said, you should always try to remain fully aware of your surroundings.
Finally, Oddo said that modern technology is a big help in fighting crime – photos and video from security cameras and devices like Ring doorbells are distributed to both police officers and neighbors, and have been very useful in catching suspects.
Living in the MMRA – Mark Zecca, HPOZ Chair
The meeting closed with a quick presentation on tips and helpful resources for living in today’s Miracle Mile, from Miracle Mile HPOZ Chair Mark Zecca. They included:
Front yards: Miracle Mile HPOZ rules specify that front yards should be at least 60% green, with mulch OK for filling out other spaces. Zecca suggested using Bermuda grass, St. Augustine grass, or Zoysia grass for the green areas, since all are drought tolerant, and spread and repair themselves easily.
Other house and home resources: For other kinds of house and yard resources, copies of a “Partial List of Preservation Resources” were distributed…and CityPlants.org was recommended for free trees.
Graffiti and blight: Zecca also urged neighbors to keep up their properties, noting that graffiti taggers are attracted to properties that aren’t well kept, and to construction fences, because taggers assume no one is caring for those surfaces. Blighted homes, he said, attract more blight…and that often leads to increases in crime as well. Zecca reported that one blighted property in the neighborhood – a former board and care facility at the NE corner of Olympic and Cochran – changed hands not long ago, and the new owner began renovations without permits. That activity was halted, however, and the new owner will now have to bring plans and blueprints to the HPOZ board for review before continuing with the project.
Trash cans: Zecca reminded residents that city rules for trash cans require that they be brought out to the street no earlier than 6 p.m. on the evening before collection day, and then removed from the street before sundown after collection. Cans should also be stored out of sight from the street. Also, on a related note, items dumped on the street or parkway will just remain there until someone contacts 311, or uses the MyLA311 app, to request pickup.
Homeless camps: Finally, Zecca noted that homeless camps can also be reported to 311/MyLA311, or to LA-HOP.org, and the city will send a team to help resolve the issue (though there are a lot of steps in the process, and it doesn’t happen immediately).