Sam Yebri Interview with Damien Newton, September 2022

Transcript:

Damien: So I’m Damien, I’m here with Sam Yebri.

We like to start with something easy and a little personal for people.

So could you sort of describe your transportation diet so to speak? How do you get around? And how do you make choices between different modes? What informs those choices?

Sam: So my family’s car light. We have 1 car that my wife and I share. We have four kids. She generally is the one who drives but we coordinate. Oftentimes, I schedule around her availability. So she’ll drop me off and that gives me extra time with the kids. I am blessed to live near my office, I live in the south part of Westwood, and my office is in Century City. 

Pre-covid, my commute was an 18-minute door-to-door walk from my house to my office. Stopping in Clementine for a coffee or a meeting. And that’s what I’d like for more Angelenos to experience: to have the opportunity to afford to be able to live near where they work or near a transit station. So I have that daily commute. I do get around by bus on occasion. I take my kids bicycling when we can, oftentimes we have to drive somewhere to do that. Unfortunately, that’s the reality in Los Angeles but I’m proud to make it work as a car light family. I think that’s really the future of Los Angeles: that more and more families will be able to get around Los Angeles without a car. 

Damien: When I first emailed you about this interview and we were talking what I said that, I always let the person we’re interviewing for these stories, pick the place. Sometimes people pick something symbolic. And you picked Profeta here in Westwood Village. Where we are. What was what went behind the choice to pick this location?

Sam: Yeah. So Westwood Village is really close to my heart. I grew up not too far from here and I really think it shows both the challenges and failures of City Hall and also the opportunities for our great City. So the challenges: 42% commercial vacancy rate. So two out of every five storefronts are empty. There is no connected bike lane all the way down to the Expo line or connecting it elsewhere. That’s a big failure. And in general, there’s just a malaise in this Village. 

But if you think about what this Village can be, combined with UCLA in Westwood and these neighboring communities, the Subway coming…The Village could once again be one of the most wonderful parts of Los Angeles. One of the most vibrant places that is pedestrian-friendly bike-friendly. I have a great plan to turn Westwood Village into that. We’re going to turn Broxton into a pedestrian plaza that’s car-free. 

There was a plan in the 1980s that the then councilmember killed. I’m going to take that off the shelf and implement it. The BID supports it and the neighborhood supports it, and that’s something that I would like to happen. 

Westwood is really ground zero for the transportation transformation that’s coming to CD5: 80,000 cars drive through Westwood Boulevard, through the Village into UCLA everyday. 

That’s what the subway, the Purple Line that’s coming in, at Wilshire and Gayley, Wilshire and Westwood is supposed to address, right? And I’m really hopeful that people will get out of their cars and take public transportation <bus loudly pulls out in background>.

Hopefully, we’ll have enough housing near UCLA and near the Purple Line and near the Village so folks can actually walk to work or to take public transportation.

Damien: So I live in CD 11, Mar Vista. I was on the Mar Vista Neighborhood Council. Mar Vista sort of like slivers into CD-5 in a way that I honestly never understood. And just last night was the big discussion of the Venice Boulevard, Safety and Mobility project, I have up my tweet about it to make sure I got the name right. Which as, you know, is talking about bus-only, lanes and protected bike Lanes. It’s actually was surprisingly a project that was aggressively in early back by Paul Koretz his office who was not necessarily having the reputation of being the most bike-friendly council member. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about the plan? I know it’s not completed yet. They’re still in outreach, but anything you’d like to share about what you think about the planar for Impressions on how they could improve it or anything along those lines. 

Sam: Yeah, I appreciate your asking about it because Palms does not get its share of resources and attention from the city and from the Council Office in general. For a population of 40,000 Angelenos, there’s one park: Woodbine Park at 1.2 acres. By comparison, Westwood, which has roughly the same population, has 10 times the park space and green space, which is not, okay. 

And, and there’s been this real increase in density and gentrification, an increase in rents in Palms and also an increase in crime. I was just at the Motor Avenue/The Palms Farmers Market last Sunday and it’s a topic of conversation. People are learning about and hearing about [the Venice Project] and the city was doing some outreach there as well. 

And I know it’s not complete. So I’m still doing my own research and talking to people. But the two main reactions are, “we really need this investment. We need this infrastructure. We need something, it’s not working.” Then there are also some concerns by some folks who have small businesses nearby about, what about the parking, which I think we can mitigate.  Venice is a big boulevard. It’s an artery that goes from the ocean to pretty darn east and there are some businesses there.

We can address those concerns. So I’m hopeful that we get to a good place where I’m excited to hopefully support this. We do need protected bike lanes. We need new buses lanes so they aren’t stuck in traffic. They can get people from point A to point B, really fast and that’s not what’s happening right now. They’re not as reliable buses, as they should be, right? They’re the primary mode of transportation for a lot of Angelenos. And we have to do better to get folks to work, or to home, or to their appointments faster.

Damien: So we’ve talked a lot about the west and the Southwest portion of the district CD5 is a very sort of big and weird District as far as the geography. You don’t have to comment on me saying it’s weird <laughs> In rhe pre-interview you were talking about the opportunities of Pico near The Grove. When I moved to Los Angeles, 15 years ago, we lived for a little while just north of the Grove just off of Beverly Boulevard. So it’s an area I know well. 

What are some of the things we can do near there? I know the the traffic between the studios, and the Grove, and the farmers market can be kind nuts. 

Sam: Yeah. So there are two big opportunities. One is down on Pico where the Expo line is, where Google is coming…Google is taking over the Old Westside Pavilion and almost 2,000 folks are going to be working there…There’s a real opportunity to revitalize Pico, bring life and restaurants and help the small businesses and add more housing. There’s no reason for there to be one story old buildings up and down Pico Boulevard. We need five, six stories or more with mixed use housing ground floor retail. It should be pedestrian friendly from the Westside Pavilion all the way down to the park and then further east into Pico-Robertson. We can make it a pedestrian-friendly area and have people walk and enjoy the neighborhood.

And that’s what people really are excited about. 

In the Grove and Mid-City area, the big concern is traffic congestion.

And I’m excited, for example, by the Television City project because it’s going to save our Studios and enhance them. It will have a traffic impact there too. And when we need to make sure the subway stations that are coming in at Wilshire and La Brea, Wilshire and Fairfax, Wilshire and La Cienega are used. We have to navigate that first and last mile and make it easier for people to get there. Whether it’s by bike, by foot, by micro transit… we have to be really creative because we’re making this ten billion dollar investment in the Purple Line and the goal of it is to get people out of their cars, reduce vehicle miles traveled, and carbon emissions, greenhouse gas, emissions. But if people aren’t going to take the public transportation, not going to take the subway or the bus, it’s been a massive massive waste of dollars. My hope is we really get creative and create incentives for businesses, for new development. And so it’s not just building housing next door to a subway station. If people don’t take it, that’s a misuse of these density bonuses, right? We have to tie it in and I think we can be really creative with a council member who’s getting proactive, very early on in the permitting, planning, design stage of project to make that happen. And there are real opportunities to create bike lanes that will connect the Mid-City area and increase the slow streets program, which people love. And that’s something that seems like a no-brainer.

Damien: AS the Slow Streets coordinator for my little area, I am shocked the DOT has not put more energy into that program. It’s got,  got motherhood and apple pie, approval ratings and I have not met one person…well ok, 

Sam: I have not met one person. who says, “Hey, I don’t like the fact that you slowed out streets.” <laughing>

Damien: As a slow streets coordinator, I can introduce you to some of them…but they’re okay, they’re out of your districts. Don’t worry about it. They’re Traci and Erin’s problem. 

Sam: Fair enough.

Damien: Now one of them’s going to see this.

All right, so the other part, you know, of the 5th District or I mean there’s many other parts of the other big areas, obviously, up, in up, in the Valley. The district is geographically very diverse place. So what are some projects are some things you’d like to see to sort of improve the transportation Buffet that’s offered up there. 

Sam: Yeah, so the district now post-redistricting does not include any specific Valley parts.  We lost Encino and Sherman Oaks; we gained Park la Brea, Miracle Mile and Hancock Park. It’s still an important question because CD5 goes all the way up to Mulholland including the hillsides. There have been some ideas to expand bike lanes up there. And one thing we obviously got to protect is the green space and the hillsides. And I support protecting the wildlife through various proposed ordinances as well.

And from a mobility perspective, it’s more preserving Green Space, and make it easier for people to use, benefit, and enjoy open space, if there’s a way to get bike lanes and bus lanes up to some of those areas too. But there are some real Mobility challenges in the hillsides of Bel Air.

Damien: Going back to the idea of transit-oriented development. And some of the changes that we could be doing to improve our housing market. What is the role of affordability in that? I mean, obviously real estate prices are all over the map and what can we do to when the city is somewhat handcuffed as far as what I can require developers at the same time? There is, you know, affordability, mandate. So how much flexibility and what can the city do to increase affordable housing stock near transit?

Sam: TOC has been a real boon. It is creating affordable housing, but there are problems. First, there is no central registry. There’s no enforcement, there’s no auditing. We must make sure low-income Angelenos are actually getting those units. Some are vacant, some are going to friends and family of developers. We have to stop that. There’s some motion happening at the city council to create that central registry, but it’s imperative that those units actually get to people who need it. 

Second, it’s not creating workforce housing. So what’s getting built is eight or ten percent in a building that will be set aside for affordable. 90-92 percent will be luxury.

I do believe that more supply helps and obviously we need that, but we need workforce [housing]. So for that teacher, for that nurse, for that essential worker, who makes more than forty thousand dollars a year, but doesn’t fall into the very low-income category of affordable housing, there’s no benefit for them. They don’t get the benefit of affordable housing. They can’t afford luxury. They’re priced out of the neighborhood, where they likely grew up, out of the neighborhood where they work, where they were they provide a valuable service. Then they have to drive an hour each way which is environmentally irresponsible as well. 

So, my priority will be to create more incentives to build workforce housing as we modify and update TOC. We need those incentives. There is an old line in business, “Show me the incentives, I’ll show you the outcomes.” There are no incentives to build workforce housing, we have to create that. So that’ll be a major major part of this.

Second is acquiring housing. We can also convert hotels and motels and adaptively reuse. This historic building that we’re in right now this. Were this ever to be torn down, I hope the history would be preserved. Look at these beautiful tiles, and this Courtyard. 

Bulldozing this for a massive Tower…It would be counterproductive. 

But what I’d like to see is turning those underutilized and vacant properties on those big corridors on Pico, and on Beverly and La Cienega, near transit and big job centers. There, we have a lot of big job centers in the 5th Council District from UCLA and Cedars and Fox and the Grove and Century City, the Beverly Center.

We can create those incentives to turn those underutilized properties into affordable housing. 

The other piece of housing is keeping tenants in their homes. It’s imperative. If someone gets evicted from a rent-controlled unit, that unit is no longer affordable. It’s gone. It’s gonna cost half a million bucks to build another unit. 

And with all that money that we have at the state level to help low-income tenants, we got to keep them in their homes. So that’s why a priority for me is to make sure we help low-income tenants stay in their homes and avoid any evictions. Evictions are lose/lose. 

Part of the affordable housing puzzle is eviction protection and I support a right to counsel for every low-income tenant. We have that in San Francisco and New York, it’s time for it to come in Los Angeles in a robust way. If something does get built that tears down currently naturally occurring affordable housing, there has to be a net increase in affordable units. 

So, what’s happening? 

For example, next to Tom Bergin’s a 40 unit, rent-controlled short older historic building is going to be torn down potentially under the Ellis [Act]. It will be replaced by 100 units, only 20 will be affordable. So yes, we get a whole bunch of housing. But, it’s a net loss of 20 affordable units. So that’s a bad deal for the city. We need to create net wins and also obviously do everything we can to help those 40 families who will be displaced. Make sure they have the right to come back and are taken care of in the meanwhile. 

So, there are a lot of aspects affordable housing: it’s building more, preserving, acquiring and helping tenants. 

Damien: So we open with the we say that sort of a nice easy question. I thought for these interviews, I was going to try to close with one too. Could you describe a fun experience you had either at CicLAvia, out biking or walking around your neighborhood for people? 

We spend a lot of time when we talk about Transportation being like, “oh, this is great for the environment” or “we need to get people out of their cars.” It’s always sort of at the sort of negative slant on it. So let’s try to tell people some fun stuff. 

Sam: Slight over-share, but one of my big regrets, as a candidate has been, that I have not had enough time to spend with my kids, and my daughters have been nagging me to learn how to bike. Once the primary was over, I had a little bit of breathing room. So she and I had the opportunity to spend some time together and we went to Rancho Park. 

We found a nice flat, beautiful part of the park and spent two hours to get her to learn how to ride a bike. We are blessed to have that park and have that opportunity. We need more Parks. We’re really a park poor City. Only 60% of Angelenos are within a 15-minute walk of a park. 

I told you in Palms, there’s only one park. In other parts of district, there are similar issues, in Koreatown, in Wilshire Park. There’s virtually no park space for them. 

So for me, just being able to spend time with her in a park, on a bike, with my phone away…it was a real blessing. I know that’s the really important idea of CicLAvia and these opportunities. It’s to get us out of our rat race, get us out of our cars and into nature and on a bike, doing something healthy with other Angelenos. 

I look forward to doing that as a council member and really being a champion for that kind of healthy lifestyle that we all want. And that’s what Los Angeles can be. We’ve lost a couple generations because of bad housing policy and transportation policy. There should have been a Subway 40 years ago on the westside. There’s no reason why this part of the city is especially stuck with one story buildings up and down major commercial corridors where we could have housing and great businesses and trees and people can walk and bike. 

And that’s what I’m going to implement because that’s the city I want to live in. That’s where I want my little kids to grow up in.