Community Slams Mayor, Weiss on Pico/Olympic Plan

"The medium is the message" is a well known saying among Public Relations theorists. In the story we’re about to discuss, the medium used to send the message was the traditional media. By choosing that medium, the unintended message that the community received was "up yours."

When Mayor Villaraigosa and Councilman Jack Weiss held a press conference to announce their plan to aid commuter traffic on Pico and Olympic Boulevards they were looking to take a little credit for thinking outside the box to help ease gridlock. What they ended up doing was creating a firestorm in the surrounding communities and uniting landowner, resident, and businessman with a common goal: stop the Pico-Olympic Plan from ever seeing the light of day.

The blowback against the Mayor and his plan began today when a who’s-who of community leaders, business owners, homeowner’s groups, chambers of commerce and regular old citizens from the Pico Blvd. area flooded a City Council Transportation Hearing and spoke for hours about their concerns with the plan. While many people didn’t like the plan, they were even more irritated with a grandstanding mayor (where have we heard that before…) for notifying them of the changes via newspaper and tv headlines without first holding a public meeting.

The number of people testifying was so great that the normal committee room was too small, and the hearing was held in the full Council Chambers. The DOT was asking for funding for Phases 1 and 2 of the Mayor’s plan, which would standardize the rush hour restrictions along both roads, eliminating parking during rush hour, and re-time signals to give priority to east-west commuters during rush hour. The Committee promised not to move forward with the plan until after an extensive public outreach.

After a presentation by the DOT and Deputy Mayor Jaime de la Vega outlining the plan, Chairwoman Grueul opened the floor for comments. The over thirty commenters then strode to the microphone and proceeded to trash the plan, the mayor and the Council (or Councilman Weiss) in that order.

The best barbs thrown by testifiers were aimed at the Mayor. One resident, responding to de le Vega’s rhetorical question, "why are we here today?" answered, "We’re here today because we woke up one morning and saw the Mayor and Councilman Weiss smiling in the LA Times. That was our notification!" A member of Councilman Weiss’ Pico-Olympic Task Force complained that the committee was hoodwinked. They were promised a full hearing process but were instead were "treated to policy by press conference."

The angriest people were the business owners along Pico Boulevard who see a speedier road with no parking as the death knell for their restaurants, shops and dry cleaners. "We already have a freeway system" one restaurant owner complained, "Stop trying to turn our surface streets into a second one and bankrupt all our businesses at the same time!" The owner of two dry cleaners complained that "70% of my business occurs between 7 and 9 in the morning and 4 and seven at night. If you take away my parking, you’ll force me to close both shops."

Some of the other complaints with the plan itself included:

1) Restricting left-hand turns will create more people driving on community streets to avoid having to make three rights to get home

2) Pico and Olympic will become un-passable boundries for those that need to turn left off of them to get home

3)The real problem is the over-development in places like Santa Monica and Wesfield Mall (located conveniently in Councilman Weiss’ Fifth District) and nothing is being done about that

4) The plan is just moving the bottleneck and won’t impact traffic

5) Seven minutes (the estimated savings for commuters) isn’t worth displacing hundreds of businesses

6) What effect will this plan have on ridership for the Expo Line?

Each councilperson reacted to the testimony in their own way.

The usually-affable Councilman Rosendahl sat off the center podium and just listened to the testimony. Rosendahl’s district will benefit from the quicker commute and the Councilman will be holding a public hearing on January 9th to elicit more feedback. The meeting was criticised as being held too early by many speakers, but the Councilman did not commit to moving it to February or beyond.

Chairwoman Grueul focused on keeping the meeting moving along and making sure every speaker was heard. Somehow she managed to do this without the aid of a gigantic countdown clock. She also let speakers finish their thoughts if they went over the suggested speaking time of a minute. I hope her courtesy towards her constituents doesn’t impede her career.

So the job of soothing people’s anger fell to the HOT-Lanes-hating, parcel-tax-promoting, Councilman LaBonge. LaBonge tried joking (How do I get this many people to come to Parks and Arts?), teaching history (We didn’t build our freeways correctly because of a strong homeowners group in Cheviot Hills, now we’re doing what we can.), and stumping for his parcel tax (Who wants to see more transit?).

What worked best was responding intelligently to people’s concerns and working with the one person who didn’t testify against the plan (a representative from Metro) to make sure that Metro would work with DOT and the Council to hear people’s concerns.

The future of the Mayor’s congestion busting plan for the Westside is now in question as the opposition seems deep, angry, and well organized. What isn’t in question is that its generally a bad idea to ignore your community groups and committees and talk to the newspapers before your constituents.

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