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Youth Rise Above Heckling to Win Concession for Community on Metro Projects at Neighborhood Council Meeting

Irvin Plata from YouthBuild Boyle Heights gives the thumbs up after a victory at the neighborhood council Wednesday night. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Irvin Plata gives the thumbs up as Canek Pena-Vargas (at left), Site Coordinator at YouthBuild Boyle Heights, debriefs with students after a victory at the neighborhood council Wednesday night. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Irvin Plata from YouthBuild Boyle Heights gives the thumbs up after a victory at the neighborhood council Wednesday night. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

"They're not even from Boyle Heights!" heckled an agitated Teresa Marquez before the handful of youth from YouthBuild Boyle Heights that had nervously stepped up to speak at the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council (BHNC) regarding the fate of Metro-owned properties Wednesday night had even had a chance to make their comments.

Another woman, Yolanda Gonzalez, also jumped up to argue against listening to the youth, proclaiming angrily that they were too busy with ethnic studies to know anything about civic processes or economic development.

The women -- both property owners known for being vocal in community politics (Marquez is also a member of Metro's Design Review Advisory Committee for the Boyle Heights sites currently slated for development) -- couldn't have been more wrong.

When I spoke in Genaro Francisco Ulloa's economics classes at YouthBuild last week, I found a group of young people who were highly engaged in questions of how economic development and public policy intersect in lower-income communities like theirs. Some even mustered up the courage to take a stab at speaking out at the January 22nd Metro-run meeting. Their discussion of how the social fabric of the area could be undermined by the erasure of important cultural markers and the displacement of existing residents and businesses was some of the most poignant testimony of the night.

Since that meeting on the 22nd, the youth had been working with their teachers and Joel Garcia and Cesia Domingo Lunez of the Boyle Heights Youth & Arts Stakeholders Committee to come up with a set of testimonies and concrete demands to present to representatives of the BHNC, Metro, and developers regarding the plans for the Metro-owned properties in Boyle Heights.

It was crucial to speak up Wednesday night, they felt, because the BHNC was about to vote on whether to recommend Metro grant a "phased" or "interim" ENA (Exclusive Negotiated Agreement) to the developers looking to build affordable housing at 1st and Soto and Cesar Chavez and Soto.

They recognized that the phased-ENA approach -- a new effort by Metro that would set aside a 3-month window for intensive community outreach and the incorporation of feedback into site plans before the full ENA is granted -- was a step in the right direction. But they didn't think it went far enough, given how outreach around plans for Mariachi Plaza -- one of the most important sites in the community -- had been completely neglected.

To that end, they had a few demands. They asked that Metro both extend the "interim" phase of the ENA to 6 months and revamp its current advisory committee process, which tends to rely heavily on the usual suspects and is not particularly transparent. They also asked that part of that revamping include hiring a local community group to do outreach to ensure that all sectors of the community -- especially youth -- were represented as well as "afforded the time needed to understand how these projects will impact their lives." [The full list can be found here.]

They underscored the importance of including youth in the discussion by describing their own relationship to public space and how, even now, it was sometimes a struggle for some of them to be able to access it.

Irvin Plata, for example, who likes hanging out at Mariachi Plaza because it is one of the few spaces that is well-lit and safe for youth at night, is often targeted by Sheriffs who are quick to hassle skateboarders and threaten them with costly tickets and/or arrests. As he described being ticketed to attendees, a still agitated Marquez emphatically shouted, "Good!" Shortly after, she got up and approached the youth rather aggressively -- insulting them, asking if they had a problem with her, and again accusing them of not being from the area.

Not having been forewarned that neighborhood council meetings can sometimes be full of drama and/or hijacked by stakeholders who put great stock in their own set of interests, the youth appeared taken aback. They respectfully continued their testimony, however, and were rewarded with support from members of the BHNC. Others in attendance were impressed that youth wanted to be involved in the process, including a Spanish speaker who noted that the youth were the ones who would have to live with whatever changes were to come to the community.

Chair of the BHNC Planning and Land Use Committee, Mynor Godoy, commended the youth for speaking up. He agreed that, given that the median age in the area is 25, the youth voice was truly important to ensuring the process was responsive to the community's needs.

He recommended that the board support the recommendation to Metro that the interim phase of the ENAs for the 1st/Soto and Cesar Chavez/Soto sites be extended to 6 months and that explicit efforts be made to consult with youth during that period.

The motion to recommend Metro approve the extended interim-ENAs was passed and Metro representatives immediately approached the organizers to ask about contact information and talk about next steps.

It wasn't a perfect ending -- the long-standing lack of a real relationship with a wider set of stakeholders or genuine effort to address community needs does raise questions about how easily those hurdles can be overcome. Concerns about what is to come at Mariachi Plaza or just how much residents' input will actually impact final designs are still front and center for many in the community.

But the win at the neighborhood council meeting represented both an important step forward in laying the foundation for a working relationship between Metro and the community and a timely lesson in why working with a wider range of stakeholders is so important. And those are things to be celebrated.

* * * *

The most recent schedule of meetings I have regarding the Metro-owned properties is as follows:

Wednesday, February 18, 2015, 2 p.m.
Oral Progress Report to Planning and Programming Committee –
Staff will present oral progress report on community outreach.
Metro Board Room, 3rd Floor, One Gateway Plaza, Los Angeles, CA 90012

Wednesday, March 18, 2015, 2 p.m.
Planning and Programming Committee – Any recommendations to move forward with phased ENAs for the 1st-Soto and Cesar Chavez-Soto joint development projects will be presented to the Committee. (Note that no action will be taken on Mariachi Plaza as Metro will not be proceeding with any developer at this time.)
Metro Board Room, 3rd Floor, One Gateway Plaza, Los Angeles, CA 90012

Thursday, March 26, 2015, 9 a.m.
Metro Board of Directors –
To ask Board to consider entering into phased ENAs for 1st/Soto and Cesar Chavez/Soto sites, if supported by the community
Metro Board Room, 3rd Floor, One Gateway Plaza, Los Angeles, CA 90012

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