When you get off the 210 Freeway at Sunland Boulevard, you leave the grit and noise of the rest of L.A. and enter what seems like an old California town of well-kept modest homes and small businesses set between mountains .
It could be 1968 as easily as today.
But the peace and quiet of this community of less than 60,000 has been disrupted by a four-year battle against City Hall and the corporate America Goliath, Home Depot.
On Saturday, that battle came to a turning point with the city sending out a team of mediators to look for an opening that would get Home Depot to drop its lawsuit and get its project greenlighted to transform a closed Kmart store into another home improvement megastore .
More than 300 residents showed up for the Day of Dialogue, and were quickly split into 30 or so small groups, sort of like when the cops separate a group of suspects so they can’t collaborate on their story.
The residents didn’t need to collaborate. They knew their story cold after fighting what they see as the beginning of the end of everything they love about their community, a rustic place where people sometimes ride their horses down Foothill Boulevard and neighbors look after each other.
The back story is that the city approved Home Depot’s request for permits without informing the community or bringing the people into the process, without even takiing a look at what the store would do to the character of the community or to local merchants. The bureaucrats just took the work of the lobbyists and corporate execs like they do every day as they go about trashing the neighborhoods of L.A. and the quality of life of its residents.
But Sunland-Tujunga organized and fought back while Home Depot played hardball, packing meetings with hirelings, blitzing the mainstream meda which is so dependent on Home Depot for advertising revenue, even accusing the residents of racism for not wanting dozens of day laborers hanging around their neighborhood.
The roar of the community, magnified by Home Depot’s arrogant tactics, forced the City Council to nix the development unless the company did an extensive environmental impact report that would take years and in the end would show it was the wrong business in the wrong place anyway.
So the corporate giant sued and the City Attorney’s Office, which has such a poor record of defending the public interest in litigation, sought the mediation effort.
I sat at Table 27 with six local residents, a representative of Home Deport and a volunteer facilitator. Oddly, at the outset of the entire event, media representatives were asked to identify themselves but bloggers like myself were accepted on equal footing with my former colleague, Daily News reporter Rick Coca. And the facilitator questioned at length the appropriateness of my joining in at Table 27.
Truth be told, the event came four years too late. If City Hall gave a damn about the neighborhoods, every development project with any significant impact on the quality of life would start with community information meetings and this kind of mediation event if there was much of a controversy.
Regina Clark set the tone for my group by setting out a long series of problems and making it clear Home Depot could never win even if the store got built.
“Most people in this community would never shop in another Home Depot no matter what happens,” she said.
The company representative offered no objection to that or any other statements during the next 90 minutes or so, making sure everyone understood listening to the community’s concerns was the mission.
The group’s list of objections was long: It will destroy the small-town character of the community; small merchants, especially hardware stores and home repair services, would be put out of business; noise; traffic congestion; dozens of 18-wheel trucks on the street; a school less than 500 feet away; day laborers; violation of the community plan; the start of overdevelopment and high density. Similar lists of issues that came up at every other table.
So what do these people want?
A town center with a Target or other general merchandise store, with a meeting hall, and places to stroll, lots of little shops — why it sounded like a scaled-down version of every Rick Caruso project like the Grove or Calabasas Commons.
I couldn’t help but wonder why the city wasn’t working to achieve that for Sunland and every other neigbhorhood in the city. Isn’t that why we have a government at all? Shouldn’t City Hall be working with every community to create gathering places and economic health? Isn’t government supposed to deliver what we the people want, not what’s good for the politicians, bureaucrats, developers and influence peddlers?
After four years of consciousness-raising experience, the people in my group had a good grasp on what’s wrong with L.A.
Kathy Kennedy said, “We’re not getting heard, all we get is lip service.”
“We don’t trust the city,” said Dan Smith. “No matter what we do somehow or another this thing is going to go through.
Added Jeff Buzard: “Democracy is just a buzzword anymore. All they’re saying is, ‘Let’s give them a voice so we can say we did before we get our way,’”
Almost in unison the group in the end asked the same question: “Why are we even doing this?”
A good question. Nothing came up that wasn’t well known to them, to Home Depot and to their elected representative, Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who will receive the full report of what each of the group found important. Killing the project outright or requiring a full EIR were at the top of the list.
Greuel supports the community in this fight, the same way every council member in the city will support the community if they face large numbers of people organized, informed and ready to fight for themselves.
It’s unthinkable that Home Depot won’t see the light and back down on this project before people everywhere start questioning whether supersized stores and corporate America aren’t causing more harm than good.
And it’s unthinkable that Greuel and her colleagues will back down because the people in this community have shown that people power works. Similar struggles to theirs are going on all over the city as the mayor and council do their best to remove all community input and give developers the go-ahead to do whatever they want, wherever they want.
And that’s why the battle of Sunland-Tujunga is so important. The community won. It won because it empowered itself by banding together and raising the stakes for the politicians..
So if you want to save your community and the character of your neighborhood, look, listen and learn from the people of Sunland-Tujunga. Perhaps someday this will be seen as an historic event, the moment when City Hall first learned that the government belongs to the people and exists to serve them.
PRESS RELEASE: THE HOME DEPOT PARTICIPAT
ES IN PUBLIC DIALOGUE IN SUNLAND-TU
THE HOME DEPOT PARTICIPATES IN PUBLIC DIALOGUE IN SUNLAND-TUJUNGA
Company Officials Listen to Community Opinions About Proposed New Store
LOS ANGELES, CA (April 26, 2008) – The Home Depot® today issued the following statement regarding the company’s participation in the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Mediation Group voluntary public dialogue at Mt. Gleason Middle School in the Sunland-Tujunga area of Los Angeles.
“Today we were able to listen to and interact directly with members of the Sunland-Tujunga community,” said Jeff Nichols, Director of Real Estate, Western Division for The Home Depot. “We believe it is important that all parties involved in this neighborhood hear from differing perspectives and opinions and today’s meeting was an important step toward accomplishing this goal. On behalf of The Home Depot, I would like to thank the City Attorney’s Mediation Group for facilitating this forum for community dialogue. I would additionally like to thank the committed residents of Sunland-Tujunga for the frank and helpful opinions expressed here today.”
As background, The Home Depot acquired the site at 8040 Foothill Blvd. from Kmart in 2004 as part of a multi-store transaction. The Home Depot applied for and received remodeling permits in July of 2006, which were later revoked by the Los Angeles City Council. The Home Depot sued the City of Los Angeles on November 9, 2007, asking the California Superior Court (Court of Los Angeles, Central District) to reinstate the incorrectly revoked permits. On March 4, 2008 a stipulation to a stay of litigation was agreed to by The Home Depot and the Los Angeles City Attorney, allowing the two parties to work toward finding solutions other than litigation. On April 22, 2008, The Home Depot submitted a new project permit compliance review application to the City of Los Angeles as part of the stipulation to the stay of litigation.
As a separate component of the stipulation, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Mediation Group was charged with facilitating discussions between The Home Depot and Sunland-Tujunga community stakeholders.