Runyon Canyon For Sale: Winners, Losers and Copious Apologies
After nearly two years of secretive deals brokered in the shadows, the bright light of public inquiry has finally shined on Runyon Canyon.
On April 4, at a standing-room-only emergency meeting of the Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council, convened at the Durant Library, elected officials and their development partners were compelled to explain to the Council board (and an outraged audience) why they had knowingly violated the public trust. They also apologized — sometimes fulsomely, sometimes disingenuously — for the cavalier disregard they’ve shown for transparency, stakeholder input and the democratic process. Their scheme? They’ve attempted to build a corporate-sponsored basketball court in the middle of a nature area without public discussion and without an Environmental Impact Report. A full narrative of this sordid story can be found here: Runyon Canyon For Sale.
Councilmember David Ryu, who has emerged from this debacle with his reputation badly tarnished, accurately described the manner in which his office, the Department of Parks and Recreation (RAP), and the Friends of Runyon Canyon (FORC) handled the process as “a travesty.” He began his presentation by apologizing for not seeking and soliciting public input, for behaving anything but openly. Then, at the moment he might have made an unequivocal pledge to act on the will of the people, not his financial benefactors, Ryu equivocated. Addressing the public he betrayed, Ryu pleaded for “civility” — he’s been called hateful names and allegedly threatened — explaining how difficult it was going to be for him to correct his mistakes, and telling the constituents (many of whom voted for him) that selling off pieces of Runyon Canyon park could actually be beneficial. “We want to encourage these people [corporate sponsors],” Ryu said to a chorus of groans, boos and hisses.
Ryu, like everyone who spoke in defense of the planned basketball court, attempted to invoke a preposterous “public safety” rationalization for building in the heart of a wild area. There is a retaining wall on the site that needs to be fixed or replaced, but if it is genuinely hazardous, why have Ryu and his Park colleagues allowed more than 1.75 million pedestrians annually (and their hundreds-of-thousands of dogs) to blithely jog and hike beside such a dangerous impending disaster? Answer: Because this isn’t even close to being a public safety issue. This is, as it often seems to be in City politics, a money issue.
No matter how much Ryu attempts to distance himself from the basketball court project, the official City memorandum acknowledges on Page Two that his office provided “positive support” for the deal. Ryu was asked several times at the meeting to explain what “positive support” he supplied. No answer. He has been asked three times in writing by this space to explain what “positive support” his office provided. No answer. His press liaison, Estevan Montemayor, emailed us only to say that the Councilmember is “seeking guidance from the City Attorney.”
If Ryu does not respond appropriately and promptly to the overwhelming majority who don’t want Runyon Canyon developed, he might also “seek guidance” from a job counselor, because his political career will be finished in Council District 4. The coming lawsuit that surely will be filed by a land-use attorney seeking a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) on the construction will stick to Ryu like bubblegum on a basketball court. He will be known as the Councilmember who left his desperate constituents no choice but to sue in order that their park be properly protected.
Vicki Israel, the RAP Assistant Manager of Revenue and Partnership who signed off on the deal, spoke next and offered a fleeting apology, acknowledging that “things could have been handled better.” She then spent the balance of her presentation bemoaning how cash-strapped her Department is and extolling the benefits of partnering with corporate benefactors. Joel Alvarez, whose work at RAP entails trading “sponsor recognition” in exchange for much-needed funds, did not apologize. He was only doing his job. Alvarez finally explained 21 months after the fact how he and his cronies “vetted and bargained” with Pink+Dolphin, the clothing company who wants their logo prominently displayed in Runyon Canyon in perpetuity — or until the inevitable vandalism obliterates it. No explanation was offered by either steward of the public lands why this process was non-competitive. No explanation was offered by either Israel or Alvarez for why RAP entered into discussions with Friends of Runyon Canyon nearly four months before the City had a Memo of Understanding with the group. And most troubling, no explanation was offered by Israel and Alvarez for why they thought it was sound policy to waive an Environmental Impact Report on a construction project in the middle of a nature area.
One can only speculate on how Ms. Israel and Mr. Alvarez felt when they learned later at the meeting that, in fact, a nest of Owls (and their babies) sits in a tree within yards of the project site. Pride in a job well done? Shame? Or eagerness and anticipation for how much money they might get for the Owl’s Nest naming rights?
Next to speak was Don Andres, vice-president of FORC, who has been lobbying for a parking lot inside Runyon Canyon since 2011. He shared FORC’s glorious history of attempting to implement the 1986 master plan calling for (limited) park development. He promoted the benefits (money!) of a robust public-private partnership. Then, after explaining why the public really ought to like all the wonderful things FORC has done for them, he apologized for his organization’s poor outreach. “We need all your input,” he said, before speaking and power-pointing for 10 more minutes about FORC’s “accomplishments.” Then Andres spoke at length about the tremendous community outreach his organization had done through expensive dinner parties and small-sample surveys, the community outreach that had gleaned so much valuable guiding information — the same community outreach Andres previously apologized for being so shoddy. He concluded his presentation with another claim that private-public funding is the “wave of the future.” He did not pledge to conduct an EIR, to halt construction, or to remove the hideous 14-foot vinyl banner his group has erected.
An associate from the landscape architecture firm MLA, Claire Latinay, presented the firm’s “Vision Plan,” which was roundly hissed, booed and shouted at, earning board president Anastasia Mann’s gavel. Donations to FORC paid for MLA to create this noxious and unpopular “vision,” which includes a parking lot, cafe and “visitors center,” and which many public comments compared to a shopping mall and more in line with the needs of one of MLA’s other clients, the NFL Experience. The architect didn’t stay to answer questions, but she did leave behind several handsome color enlargements on easels, including one showing automobiles sitting in the meadow currently occupied by yoga.
Many members of the HHWNC weighed in. Except for Cyd Zeigler, who pronounced himself a fan of public-private partnerships, who proposed a motion that would accept the basketball court as a done deal and who then left the meeting before a final vote, every board member who spoke expressed their outrage, dismay and disgust at how the democratic process had been subverted. “Why must we accept that this is a fait accompli?” board member Annie Gagen asked rhetorically. Treasurer Michael Meyer predicted that this debacle was just the tip of the commercialization iceberg and that he would oppose any efforts to develop Runyon Canyon. And to the accompaniment of loud applause, several others, including Brian Dyer, said that nothing was going to happen — not the court and not any future projects — without an EIR.
Just before the public was finally permitted to speak — two-minutes per citizen — David Ryu offered another apology and promised “your thoughts will all be considered.” We knew he was sincere because during the public comments the Councilmember frequently looked up from his phone.
Nearly 30 people spoke, presenting overwhelming opposition to the “Vision Plan,” to corporate sponsorship of the park, and to the FORC organization, which was described by park patrons as “condescending,” “elitist” and “disrespectful.”
The last speaker was Stacy Sillins, a FORC board member. As though she were on a mission to confirm every adjective describing her group, as though she had pondered and considered and ultimately figured out the best way to illustrate FORC’s abiding arrogance and contempt for public opinion, Sillins did not apologize. She did not acknowledge that FORC had violated their MOU with the City. She did not acknowledge that FORC violated public trust. Instead, she used her time to lecture the seething crowd on the psychological concept of confirmation bias, treating the overflow congregation of incensed stakeholders like naive children who didn’t understand the situation clearly and were only believing what they wished to believe.
Poor John Gile. The President of FORC had to follow Sillins, whose gall effectively alienated every non-FORC member in attendance. Gile bravely faced the mob and did what he does best: ask them to give money. Fundraising for political candidates, like Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, is Gile’s specialty, and no doubt a perspicacious reporter — the LA TIMES, better late than never, is now aware of the story — will soon explain the complicated financial arrangement between Gile, FORC, Ryu, RAP, and the conspicuously absent Pink+Dolphin.
That beautifully beneficent company, the one whose generosity brought out the worst in our public servants, was not represented at the meeting. Perhaps the company’s PR team is more sophisticated than FORC’s, what with all the experience they’ve had dealing with the public perception of one of Pink+Dolphin’s silent partners, the singer Chris Brown, best known for manfully beating up his ex-girlfriend Rihanna.
After nearly three hours of testimony, the HHWNC board voted unanimously — with Zeigler absent — to place the basketball court project in abeyance, to oppose all commercialization of Runyon Canyon, and to require an EIR for all future construction. The crowd cheered. Gile gamely thanked everyone for their input. And for a few minutes late on a Monday night in Hollywood, until the money hungry determine their next boondoggle, it seemed like democracy was the big winner.