For most of us, the only experience we have ever had with land use and city planning issues has been through playing Monopoly. And yet there are few issues that have as much impact on our daily lives -- setting the standards for where we live, work, and play, and under what conditions.
Chinatown and Northeast L.A. have largely negative experiences working with the City on land use issues. The original Chinatown was demolished to make way for Union Station, while our neighbors to the west in Chavez Ravine were forcibly evicted and eventually replaced by Dodger Stadium.
With this experience still fresh, when the Department of City Planning showed us their new plans for our neighborhoods, Chinatown and Lincoln Heights residents were understandably nervous. The plan, known as the Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan (CASP), was a 25 year plan to redevelop the areas surrounding the L.A. State Historic Park and the L.A. River into an urban planner's dream.
At various meetings we were shown colorful maps and renderings of before and after images. Dirty factories were to be converted into vibrant apartments and desolate roads replaced with walkable streets, filled with outdoor cafes covered under a canopy of trees. The plan was designed to create more urban, walkable communities that would encourage commuters to ditch their suburban homes and long commutes for a loft in the city and the ability to walk to work.
But where were we in these plans? What about the needs of the people who already live and work here?
Proponents of the plan reasoned that more parks and other amenities in the area would improve the quality of life for current and future residents.
While we agreed with their logic, many residents, including our youth members, saw the writing on the wall: that rents would rise and we would get pushed out long before any of these amenities arrived. That was when we started getting involved with the CASP plan.
We are the Southeast Asian Community Alliance (SEACA) and we organize youth in Chinatown, Solano Canyon, and Lincoln Heights. Our youth are Asian and Latino high school students who come from low-income families. They love and care about their communities, but also recognize that change is needed: streets are unsafe to walk on as cars speed by at 50 miles an hour; many families live in severely overcrowded housing; and wage theft is far too common here. Our students also know that they must be the voice for the many immigrant families who cannot speak English, otherwise the past would repeat itself.
In 2009, we embarked upon a long and difficult journey to learn about land use. None of us knew anything about the issue and did what most people do when starting out on a new project: we Googled it. As we delved into our research, four key issues emerged: workforce development, environmental justice, affordable housing, and City politics. The youth broke out into four teams and began researching further into their newly designated specialty areas. They began reading through hundreds of pages of CASP documents to understand the impact of the plan on their issues. They developed questions and interviewed key experts in the field. We joined forces with the community development attorneys at Public Counsel, who took us on as a pro bono client.
Private developers, environmentalists, transportation advocates, and of course the Planning Department and City Hall all have a major say in urban planning decisions. But who was going to speak about the things that current residents of Chinatown and Lincoln Heights wanted most: affordable homes, living-wage jobs, and a chance to benefit from the positive changes happening around them?
We began meeting with folks in City Hall to adapt the plan to better reflect community needs. The students helped us to define priorities, the experts provided analysis to show what was feasible, and the lawyers amplified our voices in City Hall.
At the heart of our work were the students, who took time out of their busy lives to learn about particulate matter, inclusionary zoning, local hire policies, and density bonuses. They were also brave enough to share deeply personal stories about developing asthma because the only apartment their family could afford happened to be next to a freeway.
Or about how their parents argue so much about rent that they try to avoid going home.
And after three years of lobbying City Hall, we won. Thanks to the work of SEACA and Public Counsel, we now have a plan that:
- Is the the city's FIRST to pro-actively deal with the issue of gentrification and the displacement of low-income communities by creating incentives for private developers to provide affordable housing;
- Is the FIRST to specifically address the needs of extremely low-income families; AND
- Garnered the support of environmentalists, transportation advocates, for-profit developers, organized labor, affordable housing advocates, and of course, a bunch of high school students
Looking back, it's hard to believe that a scrappy little youth group helped to create what the L.A. Times' editorial board called "A Model of L.A. Planning."
It isn't just the zoning rules and planning tools that will shape the neighborhood for decades to come, but deep and meaningful involvement of residents that made the difference. We created a model for community-centered planning that we hope will lift up the voices of seniors, students, and families here in Chinatown and in the many neighborhoods across Los Angeles that are planning for their futures.