Monday, November 30, 2009

Michele Zack Is One Of Us ... The Tattler Reviews "Southern California Story - Seeking The Better Life In Sierra Madre"

There is a wonderful gift awaiting you this Christmas. Though, if you're like me and not very good at waiting, you will want to get your copy of Southern California Story - Seeking The Better Life In Sierra Madre just as soon as you possibly can. And while the book isn't actually out until some time later this week, here's a Sir Eric street tip for you. They do have copies in stock for a book signing at Vroman's Books on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena. And if you ask nicely they'll sell you one. But you won't find it at the Vroman's location nearest to us. Trust me, I went to both.

If you're looking to come to grips with this wonderful, if complex, town that we live in, you can do no better than read Michele Zack's amazing book. Published in conjunction with the generous members of the Sierra Madre Historical Preservation Society (the Historical part being founded on April 21, 1931), it is a stunning review of Sierra Madre from the time our species first appeared in California up until some (but not all) of our recent imbroglios. It is a richly illustrated over-sized book you will be proud to show the relatives from back east when they ask why you never returned to New Jersey. And the lasting impression you'll come away with is that we fortunate few living here are the heirs of a remarkable legacy, something that needs to be protected and nurtured at all costs. A bittersweet realization when you consider the threat Sierra Madre is under now from those insensible souls who would ruinously exploit our collective inheritance for narrow personal gain.

So who is Michele Zack you might ask? According to biographical info found on the internet, she is an Altadena resident of some note, a writer and historian with a curriculum vitae that includes everything from the Pasadena Weekly to the Far Eastern Economic Review. Good enough for any writer, I'd think. But what really brought her to the attention of that hardy band of folks who have chosen to spend their lives pressed up against foothills once known to the world as the Sierra Madres, she wrote an acclaimed book about Altadena that went on to win some important awards. Here is how Kevin Starr, California State Librarian and author of the America and the California Dream series, describes it:

"Altadena: Between Wilderness and City is urban history at its best. In each aspect of her story - whether it be people, politics, architecture, water, environment, social development, or the fair housing crisis - Michelle Zack pays her subject the tribute of extensive research, vigorous narrative, and the fullest possible honesty. Not only does Michele Zack tell the lively story of Altadena in an encompassing and vibrant way, she places that story in its most complete regional and national context. If we had only this one history to guide us, we could significantly recreate the history of Southern California in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a mecca for millions seeking a better life in the Southland."

Now Michele Zack has done the same for Sierra Madre. And trust me dear friends, this is both an important event and a generous act. One that couldn't have come at a better time.

Zack tells some fascinating stories about the big personalities that founded this town. Of particular interest is the business relationship between the two gentleman credited with jump starting the place, Nathaniel Carter and Elijah J. "Lucky" Baldwin. Carter, whose name now graces both Carter Avenue and the One Carter Estates fiasco, was a successful sewing machine salesman from the Massachusetts town of Dracut who, suffering from tuberculosis at a time when people regularly perished from the disease, fled west at his doctor's advice and ended up here. Once in sunny California he regained his health and, master salesman that he was, turned this story of miraculous recovery into a pitch that made him a wealthy man. Traveling back east over and over again, he proclaimed to all who would listen the wonders that could happen for similarly afflicted souls should they leave the cold forbidding east to "take the California cure."

Apparently Lucky Baldwin wasn't very lucky at all. Repeated business debacles are what led to his becoming known as Lucky, yet somehow he managed to hold on to the vast tracts of land that were his fortune. And a key to his business survival at the time of Sierra Madre's emergence was the likes of Nathaniel Carter. Unable to sell land during the depression of the 1870s, the only business he could profit by was the selling of small plots of land courtesy of Mr. Carter and his California Cure. And apparently those lots fetched top dollar prices. Another key to Lucky Baldwin's survival as a land baron was not paying his debts or employees until he was taken to court and forced to do so by a judge. A practice still used by certain local humbugs.

We have also had residents of some fame and even notoriety. Gutzon Borglum, you'll be glad to know, was an artist of renown in the 1890s. He was also a sculptor at Mount Rushmore (he carved Abe), and the creator of monuments still seen at Gettysburg National Military Park. A complex man, he was both an admirer of President Lincoln and fundraiser for a sculpted tribute to the Confederacy at Georgia's Stone Mountain. Something which serves today as a rallying point for those who haven't quite reconciled themselves with the South's defeat in the Civil War.

Another resident of note was Anais Nin. A controversial writer of great importance to both lovers of books and anyone who took an advanced literature course in college, here is how she is described by the blog writer's best friend, Wikipedia:

"Nin is hailed by many critics as one of the finest writers of female erotica. She was one of the first women to explore fully the realm of erotic writing, and certainly the first prominent woman in modern Europe to write erotica ... Nin was a friend, and in some cases lover, of many leading literary figures, including Henry Miller, Antonin Artaud, Edmund Wilson, Gore Vidal, James Agee, and Lawrence Durrell. Her passionate love affair and friendship with Miller strongly influenced her as a woman and an author."

And where did this chanteuse of the exotic live? At 341 Sturtevant Drive. Which is in the Canyon, of course. Where else would she live? But apparently the marriage to her Sierra Madre husband, Rupert Pole, described by Zack as being an "impossibly handsome and shy forest ranger," was not the only one. Mrs. Rupert Pole would at times leave for New York where she was known as Mrs. Hugh Guiler. An arrangement that lasted until her death in 1977.

(As an aside, isn't this something the Chamber of Commerce should be taking advantage of? I mean, there is no doubt that Santa Claus and the Wistaria Vine are big attractions and bring business to town. But here we have a direct connection to one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century, and nobody seems to see any potential in it. Maybe they just aren't big on reading?)

A lot of our friends and acquaintances are mentioned in this book as well. Carolyn Brown's work in creating the Sierra Madre Mountain Conservancy, the first of its kind in the San Gabriel Valley, is justifiably lauded. Tommie Ann Miller describes her connection to Sierra Madre's ceramics industry, in particular noted pottery makers the McCarty Brothers. David Darbyshire's role in helping to develop Sierra Madre's art colony reputation is mentioned as well. George Maurer gets a big spread in this book, and his accomplishments as a Sierra Madre volunteer are carefully detailed. Of particular note is the role he played in helping Sierra Madre get its first ambulance. Michael Sizer's troubles with draconian marijuana law enforcement is detailed, along with his imprisonment. Aggressive policing being a tradition back then as well. Michael later achieved redemption by becoming Citizen of the Year in 1993. And Doug Hayes, whose picture in this book shows a grinning long haired dude standing next to a chopper (perhaps it was some kind of an Easy Rider influence?), apparently first came to town while on a serendipitous motorcycle trip, and never left. Something that helps illustrate Sierra Madre's rich countercultural vibe in the 1960s and '70s.

In one of the final chapters of this book, Whither To, Sierra Madre?, Michele Zack touches upon some of the concerns we face today. And while she is cautious not to come down too firmly on any specific side of our more contentious recent challenges (she basically punts on the entire Measure V struggle), her instincts are obviously - and firmly - preservationist. And in this chapter she details the struggles that have taken place over the years to keep Sierra Madre what it is now, an independent town where quality of life issues coupled with a reverence for deeply ingrained traditions still hold sway. Here is one paragraph in particular that highlights that theme:

"It is hard to imagine a past in which Sierra Madre boosters lobbied fiercely for a state highway that would have run across this land north of the Passionist Monastery and along the foothills. Equally unimaginable today is that in the 1920s most Sierra Madreans hoped the University of California would open its new southern campus in Upper Hastings Ranch (and considered annexing this land) - and that they craved business development that would create 'a smaller version of Los Angeles.' Perhaps 2009 is a good time to take a step back and marvel that such visions did not materialize."

Obviously when we discuss the consequences of SB 375 and those in town who would support the dismantling of a traditional Sierra Madre in favor of the mixed-used condo monstrosities that have done so much harm to the increasingly generic downtowns of Pasadena and Monrovia, we're talking about a struggle that has gone on for years. The players and their rationales for eminent destruction might change, but the core values we live by stay the same.

And then there is this:

"As the first decade of the new century draws to a close, the evening scene along Sierra Madre Boulevard or North Baldwin is one of small town charm set against an awesome mountain backdrop. Over time, people by the millions have come to Southern California seeking health, beauty, and personal redemption - and a good few found it here. While challenges, imperfections, and unfinished business will always be around to annoy the human beings who insist on taking these problems on, at this moment they are drowned in foothill scents of sagebrush mingled with more domesticated rosemary and oregano. Background sounds of diners, laughter, and music create a life-filled cacophony. Neighbors out for a stroll, the cry of a baby, words hanging in the air: indeed it looks, smells, and sounds like the better life in Sierra Madre tonight."

Michele Zack will be signing Southern California - Seeking The Better Life In Sierra Madre at Vroman's Books 695 E Colorado in Pasadena Wednesday, 12/2 at 7 pm. If you want to pick up your copy in town, Sierra Madre Books will be getting their allotment on 12/4. You might want to pre-order with them because of the expected demand. Books can also be ordered through the Sierra Madre Historical Preservation Society site, linked to in the second paragraph. And there will also be a book launch party at the Sierra Madre Library this Sunday, December 6, from 2 to 5 pm. That's where I'm going to get my copy autographed.

One more thing. A lot of the information found in this book was culled from the excellent newspapers Sierra Madre once claimed as its own. The history of the Sierra Madre News is particularly fascinating. Will somebody years from now be able to mine that kind of quality information from the papers we have today? Sadly, I think not. And unless it is a sociological study on the decline of Sierra Madre's print media, the information found would be hopelessly inaccurate and without value. The latest edition of the Mountain Views "News" leads off with a headline story about a winning lottery ticket. And further down the front page an article about this very book reveals the following:

The coffee table book, written by Michelle (sic) Zack of Altadena, covers the first 100 years of the city and includes photographs from 1907 to present.

This book actually covers the history of Sierra Madre from the dawn of time, and has photos dating from as far back as the 1850s. And why would this book cover the first 100 years of Sierra Madre yet only have photos from the most recent? It's not just that the publisher of the SMN didn't read a book she was attempting to write about, she apparently didn't even bother to crack the cover. With the stewardship of this city's newspaper of record having fallen into the hands of someone so poorly equipped to perform even the most rudimentary functions of journalism, we have lost something valuable. Both for today and how we will be seen in the future.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Fay Angus Graciously Offers Insight to John Buchanan

There are several moments from last Tuesday's meeting that I've gone back and watched over again. None of them jumped out at me initially, probably because some of the fireworks that night overshadowed this more subtle fare. But I think we need to take another look at two in particular because they reveal not just the obvious obstructionism of the two development lobbyists masquerading as our representatives on the City Council, but also how a little grace and patience can reduce their noisy complaining to something of very small importance.

The first instance was MaryAnn MacGillivray's dismissal of Joe Mosca's ham fisted attempts to derail the establishment of an "interim ordinance" on development in the Canyon. The Canyon Zone Committee has been hard at work creating a zoning ordinance that will help to protect this unique and historic neighborhood from the kinds of predatory development that would destroy it. And the ordinance under consideration Tuesday would extend the moratorium on building up there for the full 12 months initially under consideration. Something that would give the Canyon Committee the time it needs to finish its deliberations and turn their findings over to the Planning Commission and City Council.

Now Joe, who apparently has decided that he is solely beholden to the home improvement industry's interests here in town, felt the need to monkey wrench the proceedings. But Joe being Joe, he had to do this in such a way that it sounded like he is in favor of the Canyon Committee's work while at the same time pushing for something that would obviously undermine its efforts. And the method he chose to do this was to call for "Outreach Meetings."

A ploy that collapsed like a house of cards when Mayor MacGillivray pointed out to Joe that this was something already included in the procedure, but would only take place after the Canyon Zone Committee had finished with their part of the deal. Otherwise why even have a committee do the work in the first place? Rather than just a series of most likely fractious public meetings? You'd think Joe would have understood something as simple as that. Obviously everyone else in the room did as his "great idea" died a miserable death.

And so another Joe Mosca attempt to doubletalk his way to re-election was dealt a serious setback.

Criticism offered with grace and eloquence can be a kindness, even if the intended audience seems incapable of understanding or accepting it. But Fay Angus made the effort anyway. And in the process delivered what was a very effective speech.

The situation was John Buchanan's attempt to undermine the City's rather gutsy efforts to stand up to SCAG and in the process protect the long standing ability of Sierra Madre's to control its own destiny. And what was John's red herring issue here? The $1,000 dues payment to SCAG that is being held back in lieu of an honest and meaningful response regarding a letter sent by Sierra Madre. With John Buchanan unfortunately taking the side of SCAG against the needs of his own city.

What could possibly be in it for John Buchanan you might ask? That really is the big question. Who he works for and what the motivations are for doing what he does being at the very core of this city's biggest and most troublesome issues over the last half decade.

Here is what Fay Angus had to say about John's concerns, and more:

I want to applaud Mayor MacGillivray and Mayor Pro Tem Watts and Councilmember Zimmerman for taking a firm grasp of the situation and making a statement. And Councilmember Buchanan, the issue is not .50 cents or a hundred dollars or a thousand dollars. That is not the issue. The issue is exercising leadership for change and already there has been a response from other communities from within our framework one might say, and it is a beginning and hopefully it will continue so I would certainly applaud all of you for doing this. And hopefully your focus can grasp the reality of the statements and not the money aspect. The money is inconsequential and we know that.

And I think that initiating change in Sacramento is an excellent idea, and I'm hoping that possibly you individually, you can contact your representative and start initiating this change. That would be great. But in the meantime let's do what we can to hold fast to collectively rally some of the smaller communities and give them the strength and the courage to change what should be changed.

A great soul stooped to offer instruction and understanding to a narrow, petty bureaucrat. And the contrast was stunning.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Sierra Madre Stands Up To SCAG

I should probably point out the odd thing first, and then get into the more important stuff. All during last night's debate about whether or not to pay that $1,000 in dues to SCAG, Joe Mosca said nothing. Not a peep. Instead the City Council's resident bloviant John Buchanan wailed on and on about how the money should be paid, in the process spitting out enough red herring to fill an ocean. But Joe did something very uncharacteristic for him, he kept his mouth shut the entire time. And since very little that John and Joe do at our City Council meetings isn't by prearranged design, what could the purpose have been? My take is it has finally dawned on Joe just how disliked SCAG is in this town. And as a politician in serious danger of losing his Council seat next April, Joe is now attempting to distance himself from an organization that he has been part and parcel to for the last 3 years.

Can it be that the chameleon-like Mr. Mosca is changing his colors yet again?

One of the benefits of having MaryAnn MacGillivray and Don Watts representing us at the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments is that we actually get to hear about what is going on there. When Joe Mosca was our liaison that was not the case. Probably because he never bothered to show up at the meetings. And something that MaryAnn and Don learned at the last COG confab is that SCAG has been trying to pull a power play in regards to SB 375. In particular strong arming COG into being the designated subregion for the administration of what has become known as the "Destroy Small Cities Act." In the process doing nothing to indemnify COG from some highly probable lawsuits. In other words, SCAG would set the whole thing up and then protect itself by turning the dirty work over to COG, who would have to bear the brunt of the legal challenges certain to emerge in reaction to this hideous and oppressive law. Something also meaning that cities like Sierra Madre would have to help pay for COG's legal costs.

Naturally the member cities of the San Gabriel Council of Governments turned that honor down.

The lesson that was taken away here is that SCAG, who is currently on a charm offensive in hopes of being seen as a collaborative organization on these matters, is in reality anything but. And by attempting to force the nastier aspects of enabling SB 375 upon COG, they were dictating rather than cooperating. Something that has reinforced their image of being Sacramento's enforcer and willing bully.

And apparently many of the member cities at SGVCOG are as unhappy about these developments as we are. After all, SB 375 will do harm their cities, too. But will they fight it? Here is where Sierra Madre is taking the lead.

Our City Council is doing something very courageous, and it needs to be talked about. What Sierra Madre is attempting to do is to lead a symbolic rebellion against a bureaucratic bully. That bully being SCAG. Unchallenged, SCAG could go on to dictate just how we should plan our city, how many houses we should build, whether those houses should be condos, or low income, or even places to park the region's homeless and addicted. That along with the kind of transportation we should be expected to use, how we should commute to work, an entire range of decisions that we'd always made for ourselves. But because of SB 375, these things have now become the purview of the central planners in Sacramento. A usurpation of local planning power on a scale never before seen in an American state.

And what exactly is this symbolic rebellion? Sierra Madre is not going to make payment on its $1,000 in dues to SCAG until that organization lives up to its claim of being a collaborative organization. With the litmus test being SCAG's reply to our letter contesting the unfair housing and employment projections they'd been attempting to cram down our throats. Something that could, should they get away with it, enable a massive development campaign here that would all but destroy the character of this town.

Kurt Zimmerman explained it to a visibly flustered John Buchanan this way. SCAG is antithetical to the preservation of Sierra Madre as a small town. And its apparent mission has been to break down the defenses towns such as ours have erected against over-development, opening them up to their client developers who so desperately want in. We need to send a message to SCAG that we mean to preserve of Sierra Madre as a small town. And that by holding back our $1,000 in dues we are saying that we won't be dictated to about how to run our town. And we certainly won't pay SCAG to help destroy it.

Now John Buchanan had a lot of wild claims to make about SCAG. Perhaps the most misleading being that it is a collaborative (that word again) organization made up of member cities defending their rights in Sacramento. But, and as Kurt so clearly explained, SCAG has never listened to us. And there is no better example of that than the outlandish RHNA number they hung on us a couple years back. We went before them, contested their unfair demands, only to have our point of view dismissed in an abrupt and summary fashion. They weren't there to listen to us, they were there to tell us what to do. And when they'd finished doing just that we were sent on our way.

Our paying that $1,000 would be, as Kurt put it, like the state making a condemned prisoner pay for his lethal injection. We just don't need to turn a thousand dollars over to SCAG so they can dictate the destruction of our City.

It was a very good night. And as was predicted on this site a week ago, it looks like we could have some Eminent Domain options on the ballot next April. Something not entirely separate from our SB 375 discussions. I'll have information on that, plus more about tonight's meeting, right after the holiday.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Attack of the Zombie Buildings

Ever wonder what would have happened to beautiful downtown Sierra Madre had Measure V failed? Would it have blossomed into a vibrant center of business and modern residential life like it said in those brain dead pamphlets the DIC used to hand out? Probably not. Because judging by what we're seeing elsewhere, and five years since our DSP first crawled out of its primordial planner ooze, the likely result is our downtown would have turned out to be something far different. That being a barren and empty swath of what are now known as Zombie Buildings.

The Huffington Post has a great article up about this phenomenon titled 'Zombie Buildings': Are They The Next Economic Calamity? And its description of what has come to be in so many other parts of the country is also a cautionary tale about what almost happened here. Check this out and see if you don't agree:

While the overall U.S. financial system is showing signs of stability, a rapidly rising tide of troubled loans for commercial real estate threatens the survival of hundreds of the nation's small and medium-sized banks.

Financial reports this month from federal regulators and industry analysts detail a new cycle of uncertainty that they fear could cripple the economic recovery. Billions of dollars in commercial debt will have to be paid back or refinanced at a time when property values have plummeted. About $500 billion will come due in 2010 alone and an equal amount every year through at least 2012, according to the Federal Reserve.

Many banks that cater to regional and community developments were largely unscathed by the residential mortgage meltdown. But now they are facing huge numbers of possible defaults by builders who erected thousands of office buildings, condominiums and shopping centers with the easy credit available five years ago. With few tenants, those developments are turning into what industry insiders call zombie buildings.

Who knew that the Downtown Specific Plan (DSP) was actually the Downtown Zombie Plan (DZP)?

You do know that the whole thing really was little more than a get rich quick scheme, right? Borrow a bunch of the cheap money that was flowing in vast mysterious quantities five years ago, throw up some generic condos and minimum wage nicknack shops using the same uninspired plans being used everywhere else, unload the paper on some other equally suicidal bank or investors, then take the money and run for wherever people like that go to live out their lives in grim excess. Excess portrayed locally in the contextual gaucheries of The Magazine.

Of course, what really happened here is the DSP attracted a lot of barely monied mediocrities who imagined themselves to be in-the-know big-a-shots getting in on something swanky. And that they were finally going to make the financial killing they'd always dreamed about. But in the end these eager chumps became little more than that unfortunate form of human annoyance called failed investors. And their whining and complaining is still with us today.

The sad irony here is that if more towns had done what we did in Sierra Madre, put a Measure V style initiative on the ballot and stopped the madness, this country wouldn't be facing quite the kind of financial crisis it is today. But the kind of greed and callous stupidity represented here by the DSP also happened in a lot of other places as well. Only there nobody stopped them.

And now this country is facing a form of blight far worse than it has ever seen before. A blight that will probably cost us over a trillion dollars in taxpayer money to overcome. The attack of the Zombie Buildings indeed.

Monday, November 23, 2009

It's Agenda Man!

I have to admit to getting a little frustrated once in a while. The things that would make this city a better place seem obvious, yet despite some very good ideas having been agendized by the City Council, they never seem to make it to the finish line. Plenty of interesting shows, occasional fireworks, but rarely do we see a payday.

Take the Downtown Blight Law as an example. The clowns who own the Skilled Nursing Facility continue to allow the place to rot right out there in public. And the obvious solution would be to fine these reprobates for creating and perpetuating this shameful eyesore. And this has been agendized, and staff was issued instructions to get something down on paper months ago so that the City Council can vote on it. But does it ever happen? Nope. And that sad building continues to deteriorate right there in the middle of our town.

Or the forensic audit that was smothered in the crib. As we've discussed many times before, Sierra Madre has a history of blown audits and fiscal incompetence. Back during the Shenanigan Years they were so blinded by the big money they were going to make off the DSP that they forgot all about doing the paperwork. And in one instance it was so bad it turned out there was a million dollars that we didn't know we had. A million dollars nobody could account for, even though it was there hidden in plain sight. And these were the numbers the voters of Sierra Madre had to use when voting themselves a 100% Utility User Tax hike. So wouldn't looking into this city's fiscal history both make sense and ease the sting of this ethical lapse a bit? And given the past, can we say with any real confidence that this is the end of it? Did you know that there is another nascent audit out there, one that we apparently can't see until next year? What's up with that? I'm sorry, but sometimes you can't see the transparency through the fog. Can't we at least get a progress report please?

And on Tuesday evening's agenda we can see that SCAG is once again taking the spotlight. We have now gone from getting out of this useless strawman of an organization to dedicating valuable City Council time to them every damn meeting. This week it looks like we're back to hearing about that $1,000 dues payment it will take to stay a member of Club Ikhrata. But look, has anything changed since the last time we put off making that payment? Outside of their sending a couple of colorful gentlemen to one of our meetings, have we gotten anything out of our stringent reappraisal? Have they backed down on their absurd RHNA demands? Not one bit. I say we write the check, but then lock it away in a safe. Tell SCAG it has been cut, maybe even send them an edited photocopy. But only when they do something to earn their pound of flesh should we invest in the stamp.

It looks like the consultant NBS has cut their price from $50,000 to $40,000 in regard to that "Professional Service Agreement" for a Fee Study. I guess it is a good thing the city went back and worked out a little deal, eh? But you know something? Where I work, out there in scary old private industry land, if I went to my boss and asked for $50 grand, only to have it later revealed that the price was actually $40 grand, my professional abilities might be called into question. Along with my continued value to the company. So why wasn't this properly negotiated the first time around? Can we really be sure it was done right the second time? Times are tough right now, and if NBS was willing to come down ten thousand dollars, chances are pretty good they'll come down even more. Assuming we even need to spend this money, of course.

There are some other items here. The City should let the Firesafe Council people use the Sierra Madre logo on their fundraising literature. That is a pretty good trade for getting an emergency radio station. Then there's the matter of issuing a Temporary Use Permit for the Candlelight Walk. Which really is quite a beautiful spectacle. Just as long as it isn't costing us that monopoly price of $1,200 in police security expenses I'm down with it. And then there is the call for an Interim Moratorium Ordinance for the Canyon. And how could you be opposed to that? Particularly in light of the recent outbreak of Snitch Lice they've been suffering up there? I don't know how familiar you are with this scourge, but just beware of anyone looking itchy. Nuff said.

Then there is an item about Assembly Bill 1881. This is a Sacramento concoction dedicated to saving water, particularly when sprayed on stuff like lawns. According to the website Chance of Rain this bill only applies to the following:

* AB 1881 is mostly aimed at new construction and commercial landscapers.

* AB 1881 only applies to single family residences that are being put in by developers with gardens larger than 2,500 square feet, or to existing single family homes where the landscaped area is more than 5,000 square feet and undergoing a changeover.

There is more information to be found there as well. Click on the cite and read the stuff if you need that sort of punishment. On the agenda it is recommended that the City Council only read the title. Probably a good thing. Though I suspect John and Joe might like to chat about this one for a while. Preserving our water supplies is always important to them, except when it has something to do with building condos.

Oh, and one other thing. It looks like they're scheduling a City Council election here for next April. And they're throwing in a tiebreaker this time, like at a soccer game or something. Anybody put any thought into that one yet? The election, that is? I hear it might be important.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Tattler News In Review

There have been new developments in some of the stories we've covered here on The Tattler site, and as Sierra Madre's One True News Source (SMOTNS), we feel it is incumbent upon us to keep you up to date with this stuff. So here goes.

It looks like the Anthony Adams recall has failed. Our esteemed California State Assemblyman, noted here recently for his Top 10 performance in the category of Indiscriminate Acceptance of Lobbyist Largesse, was the subject of a campaign to toss him out of office due to his reneging on a no new tax pledge he took when running for office. Tony Baloney was one of only three GOP Assemblyman to vote for a temporary income tax increase last February, a little something impacting our paychecks now. This from today's SGV Tribune:

Assemblyman Anthony Adams will serve at least the remainder of his term as backers of a drive to boot him from office failed to gather enough support ... The California Secretary of State's Office announced Friday that a group of anti-tax advocates and Orange County conservatives did not gather enough valid signatures to call for a recall election ... "I feel vastly relieved," said Adams, R-Claremont, who represents a district stretching from Hesperia to La Canada Flintridge. "I'm just so thrilled and so thankful to all my voters."

I can imagine he is. One of the consequences of losing his office would mean he'd no longer be the recipient of such things as free massages and cellphone headsets from his friends in the lobbyist profession. The Sacramento Bee reports him as responding to the news this way:

"I'm elated, I'm euphoric," Adams said Friday. "People generally don't like recalls," he said. "I'm up for re-election in June, in the primary. Voters will have their say then."

I guess you can say that he's so excited, and he just can't hide it. Apparently the problem the recall ran into wasn't the quantity of signatures, it was the quality. While 58,384 were gathered, only 24,500 or so were judged to be valid. Which is the problem with using professional signature gatherers, folks who are paid by the autograph. Since they are picking up some cash for every signature they get, they tend to be a little less discriminating than those who would do it out of support for an issue. And the Adams Recall folks spent $110,000 on these dudes in support of this effort.

The Napa Valley Register, in an editorial on the upcoming Sacramento budget disaster (as opposed to the Sacramento budget disaster just past), notes that in the next go 'round there will be nowhere left for such scoundrels to hide. It's either make the deep cuts they lack the courage to take on, or raise taxes permanently. Something they also lack the cojones to do.

The $20.7 billion problem could easily balloon to $25 billion or more. Even more ominously, as temporary tax increases expire and deferred spending promises come due, the state faces annual deficits in the $20 billion range for many years to come ... They've scraped the bottom of the gimmick barrel, voters are livid and new taxes are functionally off the table. This will be one of the bloodiest skirmishes the capitol as ever seen.

I assume by "bloodiest" The Register is speaking metaphorically. Though news of open combat among members of our legislature would be well-received in some quarters of this long suffering state.

Now over there in The City of Industry (as opposed to "a city of industry," which would be anywhere people happen to work), things have been getting a little sticky lately. It appears that one of the big play-uhs in the effort to bring the SGV its fabulous new Ed Roski Jr. NFL Football Stadium and Shopping Oasis, recently De-CEQA'd by Da Govahnor, has a little problem. And no, this has nothing to do with the Oakland Raiders re-upping their stadium agreement in the Bay Area, meaning they won't be playing here anytime soon. Much to the chagrin of noted Raider Nation devotee (and Michael Jackson fan) Officer Henry Amos, I suppose.

No, it would appear that The City of Industry Mayor David Perez is now under investigation by the District Attorney for being a crook. I know, believe me, we're all shocked. This from the Pasadena Star News:

The District Attorney's Office opened a probe into allegations the mayor may have a financial stake in city contracts, violating conflict of interest laws, officials said Wednesday ... A complaint was filed against Mayor Dave Perez in September, said Dave Demerjian, head of Los Angeles County District Attorney's Public Integrity Divsion .. "We are reviewing it," Demerjian said Wednesday. "The allegation is there may be a conflict of interest - he may have a financial interest in contracts made with the city."

The Pasadena Star News has now filed a follow up story to the above, and it contains information that warms Sir Eric's jaded heart. Check this out:

A business owner embroiled in a legal battle with the city said he lodged an ethics complaint against the mayor because he believes officials want to take over his bar before a proposed NFL stadium is built ... Rene Cota, of Chino Hills, filed the complaint with the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office in September, and alleges conflicts of interest between Mayor Dave Perez's business ties and city contracts ... "This all came to a head when the NFL package was voted on," said Cota. "That's when they really wrapped up proceedings on shutting me down." ... Cota's 5150 Bar lounge was shut down by the City Council last year because officials said the bar failed to follow rules restricting live entertainment. But Cota claims all he wanted to do was play music, and should have been able to because of a previous entertainment permit issued at the Valley Boulevard location.

Now here's the really cool part:

In his complaint, Cota claims "due to my business location sitting between the proposed NFL stadium and the only five-star hotel (Pacific Palms) in the area, it has come to one of the mayor's friends' opinions (sic?) that my business would be a perfect location to own a bar ... Cota said considering the location of billionaire developer Ed Roski Jr.'s proposed $800 million stadium complex near the 57 and 60 freeways, his bar is "going to be a gold mine" - and city officials recognize that.

A piece of information not contained in this story is that Pacific Palms, that five-star hotel mentioned above, is also the property of Ed Roski, Jr. Which means that Rene Cota owns the only thing sitting between Big Ed's big stadium and his fancy shmancey hotel. It will be interesting to see what the DA's investigation turns up.

One more item for your delight concerns that El Monte Transit Village we were talking about so much six months or so back. As you might recall, this was of poignant interest here in Sierra Madre because the billion dollar bus station project (with shops and condos attached, of course), was being headed up by a redevelopment concern known as Titan Development. And who is the Chief Operating Officer at Titan? Why former Sierra Madre Mayor and meddlesome nuisance Bart Doyle. This from the SGV Tribune article El Monte takes over $1 billion transit village in wake of fraud investigation:

At the center is the El Monte bus depot, a 35-year-old station undergoing a total renovation by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority ... The original plan was to have Transit Village LLC lead the transformation of the surrounding property from parking lots and public works storage facilities to hundreds of homes and stores and millions of square feet of office space ... That plan was derailed when two Transit Village LLC/Titan Development executives were arrested in mid-June on felony charges, including fraud, embezzlement and theft.

Long story short, Titan is now out and El Monte has taken the project over. It just gets no better, right?

Please note that the moderation function is in effect today due to a rather nasty assault on this site by people who for some reason don't enjoy the fine local coverage we offer here on The Tattler. This will mean a short delay in the appearance of any comments you might wish to post. Anyone familiar with the tragic demise of the FC Blog will understand why we need to do this sort of thing. Enjoy your weekend!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Santa Claus Evicted From Kersting Court

Perhaps it is a sign of the tough economic times we're living through these days. Or maybe it was just a misunderstanding. And there is a possibility that the Jolly Old Elf was cruelly used in a misguided powerplay that backfired. But the word in town yesterday is that when the beloved yearly Sierra Madre tradition of Dickens Village comes together next weekend, Santa will not be where everybody thinks he should be.

I have to level with you, I'm not quite sure which way to go with this story. I've heard from more people than you might expect for a matter like this, and there are two very distinct story lines here. And I just don't have enough evidence to make a definitive decision on who, if anyone, is at fault. I will make something of a call towards the end of this article, I have an obligation to at least do that. But I'm not completely comfortable here. Feel free to weigh in.

The first version of the story goes something like this. Members of the Sierra Madre Police Department demanded an extra $400 to close Baldwin Avenue and man the barricades during the Dickens Village shindig coming up in a week or so. And the Chamber of Commerce, perhaps feeling the pinch of a challenging economy, just doesn't have that kind of cash available right now. So rather than sell the furniture from their Auburn Avenue offices, they decided to forgo much of their traditional rollout for this yearly event and shuffle Santa over to the less desirable Renaissance Plaza. Which, in case you don't know where to find it, is about a block east of The Bottle Shop.

Now Kersting Court would still be part of this celebration, but with Baldwin Avenue now open to traffic as usual, the many nicknack booths and art kiosks would have to be be situated there. Along with the Nativity Scene, Star of David, and the usual hastily scrawled cardboard signs dedicated to Festivus. And that means no room for Jolly Old Saint Nick at the Inn. Apparently some of the more senior members of the Chamber are none too pleased about being forced to do this, and expressed their displeasure to people I spoke with yesterday.

That is apparently one side to the events I've described. The City Hall version is somewhat different. The Chamber wanted to set up a childrens' train on Baldwin this year, along with those arts and crafts kiosks. And the cost of shutting down Baldwin and paying Sierra Madre Police Officers to man the ramparts would be around $1,200. The City offered to pay 2/3s of that cost, or $800, leaving the other $400 for the Chamber to pick up. But the Chamber, in an unfortunate moment of pique typical of those given to episodes of entitled behavior, refused to cough up any dough whatsoever. Didn't think they should have to. So they took their Santa and went to Renaissance Plaza instead. A place that many feel suffers from a lack of sunshine.

Now I don't want to let you into my other world too much, but my day job is in the entertainment field. And I do stage outdoor events from time to time. Some of them pretty big, and not always on the fashionable side of town. And when I have security requirements I always hire off duty L.A. police. They're pros and comfortable with crowd control. I've never had any problems. And I've got to be straight with you, for $1,200 I could hire a sergeant and around eight regular cops, no questions asked. And for something like Dickens Village, which is not a high impact security situation in my opinion, I'd spend less than a third of that amount. Probably two off duty police officers and some rent-a-cops would be fine.

For security costs at a commercial Christmas event in Mayberry $1,200 is some pretty wack money. And I'm not sure we should be spending our tax revenues like that. Even for Santa Claus.

There is another angle in the mix that clouds our picture a bit. This story had the Chamber moving Santa to Renaissance Plaza because it would encourage people to shop more. The claim being Kersting Court events only drive people into Starbucks or up the street to Beantown. But if that was the true original intent, why all the effort to get the City to shut down Baldwin and foot the entire security bill? Or all the talk about that kiddie train? I sense a disconnect.

You know, I heard a very nice story yesterday as well. Talbot's of Pasadena donated brand new $400 gowns to Sierra Madre's Rose Parade Princesses. Beautiful dresses I've been told, and each of our four Rose Parade royalty will get to keep them after the parade is over. The dresses becoming cherished keepsakes, reminders of a great event in their lives.

You really have to admire that kind of class.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

So How Are Things Going Up There In Sacramento?

The powers that be in our state capitol seem to have a lot of confidence in their ability to tell cities such as ours how to run their affairs. And with the consolidation of many former city responsibilities under the aegis of the state, you'd think that they'd finally get a handle on this stuff, right? After all, isn't that why Sacramento decided they'd need to do everything themselves, so that things would just be better?

Well, it appears that things might not be working out quite that way. The Associated Press, citing a report from the Legislature's own budget analyst, paints a picture of rampant incompetence.

Forecast: California faces another massive deficit - California will face a nearly $21 billion budget gap over the next year and a half, extending a fiscal crisis that already has led to steep cuts to public schools, social services and health programs ... In a report Wednesday, the Legislature's nonpartisan budget analyst pins the blame on the deep recession and poor decisions by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state lawmakers over the past year.

Now that's wild. When their very own analyst says the Legislature is doing an terrible job, and then blames his bosses for running the state into fiscal disaster, you know things there have got to be pretty awful.

So how are are our legislators dealing with all these problems? Are they staying up late at night poring over the books looking for a way to make the numbers work? Well, according to an article from the Sacramento Bee, they are staying up late. But maybe not in quite the way we'd hoped.

Amid budget crisis, California legislators still wined and dined on lobbyists' dime - It was Valentine's Day eve 2009, and the state faced a $40 billion deficit and a deadline ... The governor and legislative leaders had just agreed on a package of sobering tax increases and spending cuts that would affect every Californian. But the package awaited review by the full Legislature ... Conservatives were decrying the tax increases, Democrats were trying to stand firm, and national newspapers were opining on whether California would go bankrupt ... That same night, AT&T spent $1,800 to send 18 legislators, legislative staffers and their children to "Disney's High School Musical: The Ice Tour" at Arco Arena ... Such contrasts were commonplace, according to a Bee analysis of gifts to legislators over 18 months, ending in June. While their constituents coped with the worst recession in decades and the state suffered through another budget crisis, California's legislators and leaders ate about 8,000 free meals, pocketed about 2,000 free event tickets and accepted enough flowers to open a new shop, all courtesy of lobbyists.

That is a pretty damning assessment of how our state legislature is doing its job.

Attached to this article is something called the Sacramento Bee Data Base. And within that data base there is a function that enables the reader to not only see how much every elected official and their staff is getting from lobbyists, but also exactly what those gifts were. And then it ranks then by the gross dollar value received.

So being the curious sort of fellow that I am, I decided I'd check up our boys Assemblyman Anthony Adams and State Senator Bob Huff. And you know, both of them really distinguished themselves in this report. Why? Because they both finished in the Top 20 of all Sacramento elected officials! Adams came in at #7, while Bob Huff was no slouch either at #19. They might not be much in the way of elected officials, but they're as tough as nails when it comes to elbowing their way to the lobbyist trough. Quite an achievement.

So here is a very partial list of the gifts and services our two legislators and staff received from lobbyists. Remember, it certainly isn't everything they got, but does give you a pretty good idea of who is lavishing free stuff on the two ethical heavyweights we elected to represent us.

Assemblyman Anthony Adams (#7 CA lobbyist gift recipient)

- Massage Certificates from Body Center Physical Therapy .... $290.00
- Beer and wine from Anheiser Busch ... $130.00
- Tickets to Kings game from AT&T ... $121.00
- Tickets, parking, and lunch from Oak Tree Racing (Indian Gaming) ... $315.00
- Blue Tooth Headset from Nectar Associates ... $120.00
- Lunch and gift from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs ... $107.00
- Tickets USC vs. ASU and food from California Corr. Officers ... $344.00
- Dinner & Reception from Entertainment Software Associates ... $420.00
- Dinner & Reception from California B.I.A. ... $264.00
- Dinner @ La Verne CC from Metropolitan Water Dist So Cal ... $135.00

State Senator Bob Huff (#19 CA lobbyist gift recipient)

- Rubicon Jeep Trip from Chrysler Motors ... $780.00
- Dinner @ LG's Prime Steakhouse from Philip Morris Tobacco ... $131.00
- Reception with California B.I.A. ... $122.00
- Dinner from Sempra Energy ... $200.00
- Tickets to Billy Joel concert from BP America ... $316.00
- Lakers Tickets from BP America ... $175.00
- Tickets to Angels Game from AT&T ... $195.00
- Dinner from California B.I.A. ... $132.00
- Dinner from Exxon/Mobil ... $130.00
- Dinner from Sempra Energy ... $165.00

Well there you go. At least they're good at something.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Will Eminent Domain Be On The Ballot In Sierra Madre Next April?

Lots of talk around town about this one. The idea of eliminating Eminent Domain once and for all as a redevelopment tool in Sierra Madre by putting it to a public vote has apparently acquired quite the buzz. And according to the rumors I've been hearing it could even be agendized for City Council consideration, with a vote on whether or not to put the question on next April's ballot being held before the end of this year a good possibility.

And it makes a world of sense. When you consider the heavy RHNA demands that will be made upon cities such as ours once SB 375 starts rolling, the timing couldn't be better. And while there is no immediate threat of Eminent Domain being used right now, consider that SCAG is already down on paper as saying that we need to start planning for the inclusion of 140 new households in our already built-out city. And the only way anyone will be able to make room for that kind of redevelopment is through the use of a bulldozer.

The argument against putting this to a vote is that nobody has any plans to use Eminent Domain right now, so why go to all that bother? Two very good reasons come to mind:

1) With the rule book having been completely rewritten by Sacramento with the passage of SB 375, how do we know what the future holds? With this bill Sacramento has now seized much of the planning power that used to reside within cities such as ours. And since central state planning is almost always out of touch with the needs of local governance, how can anyone be certain we won't get hit with an immense RHNA number in a couple of years? Any large number would take a lot of currently unavailable land to accommodate, and the only way anyone could free up that kind of space would be to either buy it or, should owners be reluctant to sell, seize it. SB 375 is a massive statewide undertaking, and it will be difficult reaching the goals set for it by Sacramento without the help of Eminent Domain.

2) A document has now been found on the internet showing that the Sierra Madre Community Redevelopment Agency had indeed applied for Eminent Domain approval in 2004 as part of the run up to the Downtown Specific Plan. Here is how it reads:


Face it, if old regime folks within our City government in 2004 wanted to use Eminent Domain for the DSP, those of a similar bent today could very well do the same for any SB 375 RHNA conflicts. Ask yourself this: would you trust a Mayor Joe Mosca to protect the property rights of owners here who refuse to sell when Sacramento comes calling for what it thinks is its due? Knowing where Joe's real loyalties lie, I certainly would not.

Chris Norby Wins!

A hero in the fight against Eminent Domain abuse won an election last night, one that will help send him to the California State Assembly once a runoff is held in January. And Chris Norby did it in the face of a heavily funded smear campaign that rivaled in intensity the garbage the "No on V" people threw at us a couple of years back. Here's an early breakdown from the Orange County Register:

Norby holds commanding lead in Assembly race - Republican Chris Norby was poised to advance to a runoff after Tuesday's special election to fill the Assembly seat vacated on Sept. 9 by Mike Duvall, who resigned after being caught bragging about extramarital sex ... Early returns and a large mail ballot tally showed Norby, a county supervisor, more than 15 percentage points ahead of fellow Republican Linda Ackerman, who outspent him in a vicious campaign battle but could not neutralize the better name recognition he had from the outset of the race.

Considering that two "independent committees" spent over $150,000 to defeat Norby, you have got to believe there are a lot of people in both the redevelopment field and Sacramento who are none too pleased about the results of this one.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What the City of Sierra Madre Told Dear Auntie SCAG About Her Numbers

"It is being rammed down our throat, and we resented that fact. Many of the planning bills in Sacramento have had the appearance, if not the result, of taking local jurisdiction from us." - Robin Lowe, City Councilwoman, Hemet

I enjoyed the description someone posted here about SCAG recently. That they're a bit like the crazy aunt your parents forced you to be nice to when you were a kid. Because if you weren't, well, there was certain to be some unpleasant consequences. And that is how small cities like ours have to treat the Southern California Association of Governments. Like that crazy aunt. Because if you offend her, she'll go snitch us out to Sacramento. And then terrible things will happen. Like we'll lose our grants for that new generation of trash cans everybody is excited about. Or something.

And there couldn't be a better example of the Crazy Aunt Theory in action than a letter the City of Sierra Madre recently sent out to SCAG regarding our Regional Transportation Plan / Sustainable Cities Strategy numbers. If you have a life and are not familiar with this bizarre process, what it means is we had to cook up some predictions for Auntie SCAG on how many jobs and houses will be here in the year 2020. And then in 2035 as well. No discernible reason for this absurd exercise, SCAG just likes everyone to believe it can predict the future. Think of it as bureaucratic entrails reading, with the magical results being the juju that gives SCAG its swagger with Sacramento. A place where they're nutty enough to believe in this sort of thing.

So anyway, we're going to reproduce portions of this letter here for your edification and, hopefully, amusement. While it gently breaks the news to SCAG that we're not buying into their overcooked version of our remote future, it also takes pains to make sure they are not in any way offended. You know, like the author thinks he is addressing someone who has lost a couple of paddles on their way down the great rapids of life.

So here it is. Have a nice time.

Dear Xx Xxxxxx Xxx,

Thank you for the opportunity to provide input on the Population, Households, and Employment forecasts for the City of Sierra Madre ("City"), which will be used as a starting point for the 2012 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) and the Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) required per SB 375. The City appreciates your seeking of our local input to ensure accurate growth forecasts and distribution as it relates locally and regionally.

In summary, the City finds that the Population forecasts of 11,099 by 2020 (increase of 32), and 11,116 by 2035 (increase of 17), appears accurate. However, the Household and Employment forecasts as provided by SCAG are grossly over-projected, and do not reflect the actual, recent local historic data and the local employment characteristics and trends in Sierra Madre. Per the City's analysis for Households, the City used actual household unit (net) increases per year, using building permit data of the last six years, as a basis for projecting future numbers. For Employment, the City inventoried all current businesses by type and size (average number of employees), and developed a list of potential future projects in the City which would generate new jobs, as a basis for projecting future numbers. The City respectfully submits these adjusted numbers:

2020 Households ... 4,904 ... (increase of 72 from 2008)
2035 Households ... 5,039 ... (increase of 135 from 2020)

2020 Employment ... 3,462 ... (increase of 82 from 2008)
2035 Employment ... 3,549 ... (increase of 87 from 2020)

The Development Services staff, in consultation with the City Council, closely studied the forecasts as provided by SCAG, and we find that the City's analysis presents a far more accurate representation, based on true, actual data.

Now as anybody who has been following this exercise in fanciful future population and jobs soothsaying will tell you, SCAG could very well turn around and claim that since we said it, it must not only be true, but that we'll now have to start planning for the leveling of several city blocks to make space for the 72 (or 135) "units" it will take to locate these nonexistent new households. Or they could very well reject our made up numbers altogether and demand we accept their made up numbers. Which are certainly much larger, and will require far more bulldozers to accommodate.

Auntie SCAG is like that, you know. She can be wildly unpredictable, and at times terribly unfair.

Now we're going to skip over much of the "Households Forecast" and go straight to the red meat of the thing.

The City finds that SCAG's projected increase of 140 households by the year 2020 is extremely high considering that Sierra Madre is predominantly urbanized with low-density residential and small-scale commercial uses. There are a very limited number of undeveloped properties in the City, mostly located in the Hillside Management Zone area, with significant topographical constraints that would physically and financially hinder new development. In addition, the combination of high costs of raw land and restrictions on allowable density further constrains production of the number of units that would be required to support SCAG's household projections.

You know the real reason why SCAG desires 140 "units," don't you? They want us to allow for the building of some 4 (or is that 3) story condo complexes. SCAG knows we don't have the land to spread all those "units" out, so 140 would effectively force us to build up. The dirty secret is that's exactly what the building trades folks want, and SCAG, as a compromised appendage of lobbyist run Sacramento, is only doing what it is being told to do. Something that could, should it be forced through, drag this City down to the planning level of Pasadena. And if you were a developer, wouldn't you want to build big old condo complexes rather than single family houses? At $500K a pop, condo profits are far higher because you get to sell so many more of them.

And SCAG's Employment Forecast for Sierra Madre also gets gently criticized in the following passage of our letter:

The City used alternate methodology that utilizes the actual employment characteristics in the City. According to business license information obtained from ReferenceUSA, the City concluded that the majority of businesses in Sierra Madre each employ between 1 and 4 employees, based on a count of 217 out of a total of 320 businesses, which translates into 70% of the jobs in the City. The remaining 30% includes already established larger employers comprised of public and private schools, and government agencies such as the US Postal Service and City Hall offices. This data reflects that local, community-serving retail and small-scale professional and service businesses characterize Sierra Madre. regional-size retail/commercial uses or corporate-size businesses, which typically result in large numbers of jobs, have not historically been attracted to Sierra Madre. Further, the small-scale character and limited density of the City's downtown district does not lend itself to larger employers.

Which is a nice way of saying that we're predominantly a pizza and latte' based economy, with most breadwinners having to travel elsewhere to make the kind of money it takes to live here. All of which makes SCAG's employment projections for both 2020 and 2035 seem rather daft.

So that is pretty much it. The first consequence of the disastrous SB 375 (aka, "The Destroy California Cities Act") process we'll be going through these next few years. And you do know that SCAG (which is basically Sacramento's messenger boy) can pretty much ignore our input if it so chooses. And since our debt-ridden state capitol, through such new laws, has pretty much nationalized the planning powers that used to be the heart and soul of cities like ours, maybe all we have left us is to write cautious letters.

Welcome to a world where the planning rights of California's cities no longer exist. Who knows, maybe their next step is to just assign Sector Numbers and do away with the notion of independent local government altogether.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Pasadena Holds General Plan Public Meetings. The Big Topic?

Overdevelopment, of course. What other topic could there be in Pasadena right now? Yogurt shops?

So the idea is that there is a lot of unhappiness amongst Pasadena residents these days because of the apparently unchecked development that has gone on for the last decade or so. Development that has turned entire neighborhoods of this quaint old city into something closely resembling Anaheim. To the horror of many residents.

So how best to re-channel all that energy and anger to the city's benefit? For Pasadena's City Council, that answer would be to invite the public out to share some opinions on the new General Plan they're working on. After all, wasn't it the previous General Plan that led to this mess in the first place?

Here is how City Councilmember Terry Tornek wiffled it out there for a Pasadena Star News op-ed piece:

"How could the city approve all these new projects?" "What were they thinking?" ... I heard these questions repeatedly during my campaign for Pasadena City Council last spring. I heard complaints about traffic, new developments and poor design ... The short answer is new development was largely consistent with the General Plan as last modified in 1994. During that process, thousands of citizens said that they wanted new development concentrated in downtown areas and near Gold Line stations.

I'm not certain how "thousands of citizens" back in 1994 could have demanded "new development concentrated" near Metro light rail stations since, according to Wikipedia, the Gold Line didn't open until 2003, nine years later. Maybe those thousands of eager citizens were just thinking ahead? Way ahead? How could they really have known?

But Terry does have a solution. And that would be citizen input at the Pasadena General Plan meetings.

Now the General Plan is being updated again and we need to hear from a broad cross-section of the community. If your voice is not heard, your opinions cannot help guide the update. If you don't like what you see in Pasadena, get involved and let us know what you think. It is time to put up or shut up.

In other words, unless a whole lot of people show up at these meetings to express their anger at what has become of their town, the City Council could very well end up approving a General Plan that would enable the city's current Anaheim motif to begin accommodating density similar to, say, Hong Kong? Put up or shut up indeed.

Now apparently General Plan meetings with the public have been held since Terry aired his concerns, and the prognosis for the big development crowd has not been all that positive. Pasadena Star News reporter Dan Abendschein, in an article he calls Pasadena residents give two cents on general plan, let this slip:

Pasadena has been holding public meetings over the last few months to gauge residents' concerns. Topping the list were overdevelopment, overpopulation, a shortage of parks and accessible open space, high density and traffic ... The next step is for a city council-appointed committee to take those concerns and integrate them into an updated draft, which will happen sometime in spring 2010. Forming a plan than can help address all the concerns expressed by residents can be challenging. For example, concentrating housing in an area that also has shops and restaurants - such as central Pasadena - can help reduce car use because it encourages people to walk ... But based on how people are responding to the idea of high-density zones, trying to reduce traffic that way might be a tough sell, said Julianna Delgado, a professor of urban planning at Cal Poly Pomona who is serving on the general plan committee ... "It's up to the people, and the current climate would seem to be against increasing density," said Delgado.

Now what Dan is alluding to here is the redevelopment formula put out by Sacramento through SB 375, and which is why we'll be seeing vastly increased RHNA numbers once all this filters down through various government agencies like the ARB and SCAG. The assumption being that if you build high-density development the people moving in will somehow voluntarily give up their greenhouse gas producing automobiles and start taking public transportation, bicycles, or even walking. A theory many critics are calling magical thinking that has more to do with the business agendas of developers and realtors than actually saving the world.

And to his credit, Dan Abendschein does supply some insight - albeit cautiously - that helps us to further question this magical thinking.

Reducing traffic has been a challenge for the city over the years. A city surveyed (sic) showed that despite increases in walking and biking to work from 1990 to 2008, the overall number of people driving to work in cars by themselves has increased.

In other words, it ain't working so good. Just because somebody moves into a downtown apartment complex does not mean he's going to voluntarily surrender his car and start taking the bus. Which shouldn't be a surprise to anyone beyond the planner elite and the big development corporations that employ them. And apparently what the good people of Pasadena are now telling their City Council is the madness must stop.

Larry Wilson also chimed in here. He's got a column to write three times a week, so chances are good there are few topics of interest that won't be blessed by his opinions. And it seems that he is not all that enamored of the great unwashed getting in the way of a shiny new layer of General Plan sanctioned redevelopment in Pasadena. Can it be he has some important friends in the construction field?

And Larry's defense of even higher density downtown areas? It's good for the waistline. I kid you not.

Pasadena architect and urbanist Lisa Padilla of Cityworks set our minds to rest about the health benefits of doing that, at least. The densest places - Manhattan, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland - have the least obesity. All that walking's good for you.

You know, I'm not certain the really densest places aren't wherever Larry happens to be writing his column at the time.

There is a Pasadena blog that I link to called East Of Allen. And its publisher, Michael Coppess, has some solid insights into how this next wave of development might roll out.

Development Near the Sierra Madre Villa Metro Station - This is a big big issue. If or when building resumes, there is likely to be a lot of development within 1/2 mile (generally walking distance) of Sierra Madre Villa Station ... Building, particularly of the scale possible near the Metro station, impacts traffic, which is already tight along Foothill and Rosemead. I'd also like to revisit just how much new development is planned and where it will all go ... I'll admit to some disappointment over the lone "transit oriented" project we've seen so far. As originally planned, the corner of Foothill and Sierra Madre Villa and the old Stuart building was to include a mix of uses, including office, bio-tech uses, and some housing. Somewhere along the way, that plan got jettisoned and the entire area is now primarily devoted to housing.

I'm afraid I'm going to have to get real with you here. Remember the dog and pony shows we here in Sierra Madre were treated to by RBF Consulting and the DIC when the Downtown Specific Plan was first being rolled out? Or that rigamarole with the "Ad Hoc Finance Committee" during the User Utility Tax increase and expansion process? It has been my opinion for a while now that whenever a city government is about to do something it fears is going to be howlingly unpopular, it starts inviting the public out for hearings. With the purpose of getting at least some citizen sanction for what they want to do. It is much more of a public relations exercise than anything else, with the final results having been already determined.

Does anybody here actually think the City of Pasadena is going to chop Gold Line "transit oriented development" out of their General Plan if the citizens who show up at these meetings ask them to? I doubt it. After all, Sacramento already promised that one to their best boys when they passed SB 375. Or that more condo monstrosities will be prevented upon citizen request? C'mon. No way is that kind of money going to be left on the table. The concerned parties just aren't going to let that happen.

Pasadena's new General Plan, when it is finished, will enable redevelopment beyond anything that city has seen already. These General Plan gatherings are designed for one purpose only, and that is to prep and position the voters for that eventuality. The only real mystery left is the identity of the PR consultant that lined up all those dogs and ponies.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Somebody Stuck A Fork In Pasadena

It was a big event for Pasadena. So big that it generated three distinctly different articles in the Pasadena Star News. An 18 foot high shining silver fork suddenly appeared one night, stuck right in the middle of the median on a busy city thoroughfare. And the people who put it there didn't even ask the city if they could do it.

Now it takes something very special to generate that kind of ink in the San Gabriel Valley's most venerable daily. A fire, or maybe even a bear knocking over a garbage can in Duarte. But is their interpretation of this event true? For a growing minority, that answer is no. And I am here to represent that alternative viewpoint. Because while some might find the "Fork in the Road" angle to be amusing and comforting, "Somebody Stuck a Fork In Pasadena, It's Done" might also have been the creative intent. Art isn't always kind, you know.

The first of the three articles appeared on November 3rd, authored by Janette Williams. Announcing this event to the world, its tone is one of perplexity and bemusement. And it definitely falls on the "Fork in the Road" side of the equation.

Pasadena's Fork in the road is guerilla art installation - Right where Pasadena and St. John avenues divide, there is a fork in the road. It's about 18 feet tall and looks like stainless steel. The fork's appearance a few days ago, tines firmly stuck into a little Caltrans-owned median, was a bit of a mystery at first. "It's a guerilla installation," guessed Rochelle Branch, the city's cultural affairs manager, who oversees the public art program. "I don't know if it's through Caltrans, but it is clever." Caltrans Spokeswoman Maria Raptis, who said Caltrans leases the smallplot of land to the city, was equally baffled. "Sometimes we do put art up. We have context-sensitive art off some freeways," she said. "But I don't know about this."

Context-sensitive or not, this was hardly where the story ended. Larry Wilson was moved to weigh in on the matter, and did so November 7th. Now Larry has an interesting shtick. Surfer, art taster, a patron of local theater and music, he self-consciously curries a kind of hipster flair in both his writing and lifestyle. But at the same time the San Gabriel Valley's established business elite has never known a more dogged defender, and no matter what consequences their actions might cause to our local communities, Larry is always there for them. Think Jack Kerouac crossed with Ebenezer Scrooge. Leavened with just a pinch of Peter Tork.

And again we see the "Fork in the Road" canard being heavily pushed.

Larry Wilson: All journeys have a fork in the road: Don't talk about it - or not more than once. If you've got a notion for guerilla public art installation, the only way to make it more than a notion is to don those Caltrans vests, choose a real fork in the road - the weird intersection of Pasadena and St. John avenues down in never-to-be 710 Freeway land in the city's southwest - get out there in the dead of night and plant the 18-foot-high eating utensil in the ground ... I happen to hope it stays forever and a day, because I happen to like it. You could say that it's a one-note solo - once you get the visual pun, planted as it is where the streets fork, that's all there is to get - but so are the best Neil Young riffs. One note, so long as it's a good one.

Gratuitous countercultural references aside, obviously The Fork had taken on a certain importance for The Rose City. And on November 8th this near-frantic attempt to sell the "Fork in the Road" message reached new heights. You just can't help wondering why the need to push this message is so urgent for The Star News.

Citybeats: Fork in the road creates positive buzz for city - The giant 18-foot fork in the road - stuck tines-down at the fork in the road at St. John and Pasadena avenues - may have generated more positive buzz than any official piece of public art in the city.

But is this really the case? And was it the artist's original intent? This "Fork in the Road" thing? Because you do know that there is a growing dissatisfaction with the way things have been going in Pasadena these last few years. A realization that out-0f-control development has all but destroyed the once celebrated character of this venerable and world-renowned city.

Pasadena City Councilman Tony Tornek, in a guest PSN editorial regarding a new Pasadena General Plan that appeared on November 12th, spoke of this anger among the residents.

"How could the city approve all these new projects?" "What were they thinking?" ... I heard these questions repeatedly during my campaign for Pasadena City Council last spring. I heard complaints about traffic, new developments and poor design.

Having a day off from the salt mines, I decided to take a bike ride down Colorado Boulevard and see The Fork for myself. And one of the things that I couldn't help noticing is just how hugely overbuilt much of Pasadena has become. On Pasadena Avenue alone I counted three immense new condo complexes, each of them towering over the remnants of that area, blocking the sun and casting deep shadows upon what was once a pretty neighborhood. And believe me, nobody is more conscious of traffic than somebody riding a bike. While some maintain that high-density development is supposed to curb automobile usage, you could have fooled me. Cars in that neighborhood were backed up for blocks as people struggled to get their vehicles in and out of these Brobdingnagian structures.

And just to show you that I too can drop a gratuitous countercultural reference, the Little Old Lady from Pasadena would hardly recognize the place.

Now they say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that in the end all art interpretation is at best subjective. To me it seems obvious that the meaning of this "guerilla art" piece has precious little to do with roads, or context-sensitive correctness, or what good old guys Larry Wilson is buttering up this week. Rather the real message here is what has been done to this once proud and distinctive city.

So please, let's get this right. It needs to be called, "Somebody Stuck a Fork In Pasadena, It's Done." Now showing on a Caltrans median near you.

Friday, November 13, 2009

People Who Sue Sierra Madre

With rumors making the rounds regarding a couple of new lawsuits about to hit Sierra Madre, maybe it is time to reflect a little on the real cost of these things. And while there are lawsuits that do have some merit and are therefore worthy of being brought before a Court, the vast majority are not. Oftentimes they are brought about by individuals nursing a personal or political grudge, and then there are always those looking for that big payday. But any way you look at it, the people being hurt the most are the taxpayers forced to pick up all those legal expenses. People such as our esteemed selves.

And according to an article posted last week on the blog CityWatch, the costs to California cities and counties from lawsuits have now crossed the half a billion dollar mark. And that in just the last two years! A huge figure if you think about it. And at a time when most government agencies are laying off many of their workers, while also separating those in need from aid that they so desperately need, a devastating one as well.

But obviously most of the individuals dragging our cities into Court could care less. For these folks such considerations are meaningless.

An organization that has put a lot of thought into this problem is the California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. And this month CALA (acronyms are like taxes, inevitable) has issued a report called The Hidden Impact of Lawsuit Abuse on Taxpayers. And rather than just rail against the damage lawsuits are doing to many of our municipalities and counties, they have taken the actual dollar figures lost to litigation and stacked them up against the costs of real government programs.

Here are some examples of costs to California cities:

City Litigation Costs: In Fiscal Year 2007, the cities of Anaheim, Bakersfield, Fresno, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, and San Jose spent $101.2 million in litigation, $60.9 in verdicts and settlements, and $40.2 in outside counsel ... In light of recent budget cuts in nearly every city and county in the state, cities are no longer deep pockets that can afford to absorb such steep litigation costs ... To illustrate the weight of these costs, following are examples of city programs that could have been funded by what was spent on litigation:

* In Anaheim, the $2 million could have maintained 146 acres of park land and 105 sports fields.
* In Bakersfield, the $3.7 million spent on litigation could have more than paid for the city's entire Parks and Recreation Department.
* In Fresno, the $4.6 million could have funded 75 cameras and supporting equipment for a new video policing program, the Mayor's Gang Task Force for prevention and Intervention Services, and the Stamping Out Graffiti program.
* In Los Angeles, the $64.9 million spent on litigation could have funded all infrastructure improvements such as streets, storm drains and bikeways, in the city's budget.
* In Oakland, the nearly $7 million spent on litigation could have funded the entire Police Department's Port Security program (which provides public safety services, traffic safety and law enforcement in and around Oakland's airport and seaport) and the addition of 21 part-time recreation staff to support after-school programs.
* In Sacramento, the $1.9 million spent could have paid for maintenance and increased security in Old Sacramento, as well as brought world-famous events such as the Dixieland Jazz Jubilee and New Year's Eve Fireworks Celebration to the city.
* In San Diego, the $15.5 million spent could have paid for all the supplies and services of San Diego Fire-Rescue.
* In San Jose, the $1.9 million spent on litigation could have funded 28 full time positions in the fire department's emergency response unit.

In Fiscal Year 2008, these cities paid even more to deal with lawsuits, spending a total of $109.1 million in litigation, $62.6 million in verdicts and settlements, and $46.6 million in outside counsel. Again, this money could have been better spent on budget items:

* In Anaheim, the $2.4 million spent on litigation could have covered the operating costs for the Workforce Development Division whose programs are designed to match employer needs with qualified local job seekers.
* In Bakersfield, the $1.6 million could have more than paid for the realignment on Auburn Street west of Morning Drive to tie into the new location of the Auburn Street/Morning Drive intersection.
* In Fresno, the $3.3 million could have paid for the City's After School Recreation / Educational Programs, which include Literacy and Employment Readiness (BEST Program), Therapeutic Recreation, Academic Game Plan, Community Science, Fresno Connect, and the Reduce Substance Abuse Educational initiative.
* In Los Angeles, the $71.8 million could have paid the starting base salary for 1,271 police officers. The Los Angeles Police Department is currently trying to save the city $50-100 million.
* In Oakland, the $7.9 million could have completely funded the Department of Human Services.
* In Sacramento, the $3.3 million spent could have paid the salaries of 60 new police officers.
* In San Diego, the $17 million could have paid the salaries of 282 firefighters.
* In San Jose, the $1.7 million spent on litigation could have nearly funded the entire Office of the Mayor.

The CALA report goes on to give us a breakdown of the costs Counties have had to pay for litigation as well, and the services that could have been paid for out of the tens of millions of dollars lost. Included in those numbers is the $100.7 million spent on litigation in Los Angeles County, money that would have paid for almost all of the Public Library General Fund.

So listen, if you want to sue Sierra Madre, then just check what little conscience you have at the door and go at it. It is your right, and who are we to stand in your way? But I promise you one thing, you will not be treated gently here. As far as I am concerned, unless you have a damned good reason for doing so, then you are nothing but a cancer on this community.