Why we can’t have nice things in Los Angeles

About a month and a half ago, I got a phone call from one of my colleagues on the Mid City West Community Council (one of LA’s 99 “neighborhood councils”). He was excited that StreetsLA (our Bureau of Street Services) was considering applying for a $40M grant to redo a long section of Melrose (between Fairfax and Highland)— one of LA’s most iconic streets. The street is also on the city’s “High Injury Network” and part of the City’s 2035 Mobility Plan where it has a planned protected bike lane. Here is what “Uplift Melrose” was proposed to look like:

New trees, new lighting, wider sidewalks, and LA’s first curb-level protected bike lane
Raised crosswalks at every intersection make cars slow down and better protect pedestrians

The power structure in Los Angeles is as follows: we have one mayor and 15 city councilmembers — each one oversees ~250,000 people and makes more money than members of Congress. While it’s true we have a “weak mayor” system where the mayor doesn’t have as much power as in other cities, it’s also true that culturally the mayor doesn’t “interfere” in individual council districts, and defers to the councilmembers. Each councilmember gets to decide what happens or doesn’t happen in their district — essentially they are democratically elected dictators. And this makes it incredibly difficult to get things like a network of bike lanes or bus lanes done.

Here’s the sequence of events. I publish this in the hopes that others learn from the “gotchas” and also to inspire people to get involved and demand real change in Los Angeles going forward. This can never happen again.

Outreach #1 — On August 11, the Mid City West Community Council (which has Melrose between Fairfax and La Brea in its borders) held its monthly meeting and StreetsLA’s presented Uplift Melrose. After the presentation, 36 people made public comment (a very high number for MCW on a single issue), of which 33 people voiced their support. Afterwards, the board voted to support the project by a margin of 29 to 2. Here’s the support letter.

Just after the Mid City West meeting, the NIMBYs sprang into action. They viewed Uplift Melrose as a threat to the sacred space of vehicles in this city, and were outraged that a project would even be considered that would rellocate space from cars for a bike lane. Those bike lane thieves, trying to take away sacred car space! And while the project was so much more than a bike lane — it was wider sidewalks, new trees, raised crosswalks, new lighting… all they could see was the bike lane.

Jim O’Sullivan, co-founder of Fix The City — a litigious organization that sues over nearly every bike lane and high density housing project using money from questionable funding sources — started sending threatening emails to Councilmember Koretz and eventually to the entire city council. They also posted misinformation on Next Door. When NIMBYs can’t win on the merits of something, then they simply resort to the tired and true “there wasn’t enough outreach” argument.

On August 14, the Melrose Business Improvement District (a “BID” represents property owners along a commercial stretch) voted unanimously to suport the project. Here’s their support letter.

Outreach #2 — On August 20th, the Melrose BID and StreetsLA walked the entire stretch of Melrose, stopping at every business and letting them know about the project and answering questions.

On August 24th, flyers went out to every residence 2 blocks north and south of Melrose, inviting them to an online community meeting on August 26th.

Outreach #3 — On August 25th, the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council’s Land Use committee (which has Melrose between La Brea and Highland in its borders) held its monthly meeting and voted unanimously to support Uplift Melrose. Here’s their support letter.

Outreach #4 — On August 26th, StreetsLA held the final online community meeting. They presented the project and answered questions from the community. While no road reconfiguration is without controversy, when polling people, there remained overwhelming support for the project.

On September 3, Councilmember Koretz held a phone call with members of the Mid City West Community Council in which he said he liked the project and was “leaning towards” supporting it, and that the only thing that might kill it was if LAPD and LAFD told him they couldn’t properly tend to emergencies.

On September 4, a letter from a broad coalition of residents, businesses, schools, religious institutions, and neighborhood councils went to the council office, expressing overwhelming support for the project.

Unbeknownst to us at the time, LAPD was working behind the scenes to sabotage the project:

Here is LAPD fear mongering and calling into question “surrendering very valuable vehicle traffic lanes” to create bike lanes in Los Angeles that “nobody uses”

The LAFD was on a similar track:

We all care about emergency services being able to operate efficiently. But if it was true that narrower roads led to fires that would simply burn down buildings and people dying of heart attacks because emergency services couldn’t get to them, then you would hear about these things happening all the time in European capitals with medieval narrow streets, downtown Manhattan, etc. You don’t because it’s a lie.

StreetsLA replied to LAFD’s concerns and offered to engage further, an offer that was never accepted:

On September 8, at 10:13pm, Councilmember sent this letter to the community stating he was not going to support the project. While Streetsblog’s article counters most of his falsehoods, to me what was most revealing is that Koretz says he had “done much soul searching, and even driven down Melrose one more time to try and envision the results.” Yes, Koretz — who lives just blocks from Melrose — got in his car and tried to envision a project that widened sidewalks, added trees, raised crosswalks, and a curb level bike lane from behind a windshield.

Curiously, his letter also took talking points, nearly word for word, from John Russo’s public comment, co-founder of Keep LA Moving, another anti-progress organzation that started an effort called “Keep Melrose Moving” to defeat this project.

The backlash to Koretz killing Uplift Melrose was swift:

So there you have it. That’s how a project with a wide coalition of overwhelming community support that would save lives, give people mobility options, help fight climate change, and beautify a street currently hurting from COVID and recent riots, that would be built with free money from the state, dies.

Want to see real change in Los Angeles? Get involved with Streets For All. Vote for Nithya Raman, who is far more progressive on transportation than David Ryu. Get on the board of your local neighborhood council — the birthplace of many projects, where they are often killed by NIMBY forces before they can see the light of day. Pay attention in 2022 to the eight LA city council seats up for grabs, and vote for the progressives Streets For All endorses (we will be making Uplift Melrose a litmus test for anyone that wants our endorsement, getting them on record to support projects like it should they win). We can win this fight if we a) make people aware of what’s happening b) get them involved in neighborhoood councils c) get them to vote for progressives in our city council elections.

Tali, Mika & Sofi’s dad, Katerina's husband, LA native. Founder, Service. Founder, Streets For All. Board Member, Mid City West Community Council.