At the end of October, in one of the region's worst disasters in recent memory, thousands of homes burned as fires spread across hundreds of thousands of acres spanning from Ventura County to the Mexican border. Representing the parts of L.A. County that first experienced the wind-driven flames, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky witnessed firsthand the fires' toll on the region. As the flames began to subside, TPR spoke with Supervisor Yaroslavsky about the disaster, how land use and building practices affected the fires, and how residents and politicians can better deal with the risks of living in Southern California.
No interview at the end of October should begin without having you comment on the devastating and still simmering Southern California fires. What impact will they have on the region's land use policies, fire prevention planning, and housing policies? How well did the county respond to the fires, and how might we be better prepared? How can we make our communities safer in the future?
Obviously, most parts of Southern California have one hazard or another associated with living in it, whether it's earthquakes, fires, or floods. In each case, we've taken great pains over the years to develop building and zoning codes that inoculate from those problems. After each one of these fires or floods or earthquakes, we take stock of how we can improve the state of the art in terms of regulation.
I think many of the advances that have been made over the last decade have been to improve the protection of property: the brush clearance program and the investment that the local governments here in Los Angeles County have made in equipment and infrastructure (both air and ground equipment) have made us able to respond quickly with overwhelming force to the outbreak of a fire. All of those things combined-and maybe a little bit of luck, at least in the Valley fires-proved to be contributing factors as to why we did not have a worse outcome in damage to property and loss of life; we had no loss of life in Malibu.
In the Santa Monica Mountains area of the county, we advise to insulate structures from fires. We have seen, time and again, that when fires cut through an area, the structures that survive tend to be those that were built from fire-retardant material and whose brush trees were pruned within 200 feet of structures. Fire often bypasses those structures and moves to the next ones. We learned that those policies paid off.
We'll take stock after these fires as we do after every disaster and see what worked and what didn't work. Emergency preparedness in Topanga worked very well this time around. The reverse 911 system, which we have in Topanga, worked well. Coordination between fire and law enforcement officials worked out, mutual aid worked out, and our air support proved to be worth its weight in gold. We have invested millions of dollars in the aircraft-the ones we own and the ones we lease. And if you compare that to other counties in the region, we were able to respond quickly and overwhelmingly within the first hours of a fire outbreak, while providing mutual aid to do the job that we needed to do.
But it's still a tragedy. The Malibu Presbyterian Church burned to the ground; six homes were destroyed. But by all standards, it should have been much worse. These are very complicated hills and valleys; some of the buildings are old and still wood-framed and are more vulnerable than others. I think we're really fortunate that, in Malibu, we didn't have more damage.
Natural disasters are not new to Southern California. What did counties and cities learn from each other that might be instructive for first responders and fire agencies in the future?
What you can learn from the Los Angeles experience is, first and foremost, fire safety doesn't come cheaply. You've got to invest in the aircraft. Having a variety of air support options to fight a fire in Santa Ana conditions is worth its weight in gold. The city of Los Angeles and the county have similar investments, and we have a mutual aid relationship with them.
Other counties in the region need to take stock of their recent experience and decide whether they have the ability to respond in the first hours of the fire. In the first hours, it's all on the shoulders of the local firefighting agency. The mutual aid can take several hours to arrive and to move in. In the first hours, the local fire department has to carry the load, and each jurisdiction needs to take stock as to whether they feel they are adequately equipped. If they're not, they need to spend the resources to do it. It's a lot cheaper than losing 1,300 homes.
Critics over the years say that we've built and grown in the areas that should have been preserved and are not meant as habitat for building houses or commerce. Have these fires offered support to these critics? Are planning and building codes deficient?
We have to have strict building standards in these fire-prone areas, in the hillsides and valleys of our mountain areas. I believe in that, and I have worked for that in the western part of the county. There have been no big subdivisions built in these areas since I've been the county supervisor. We have been very careful in what we have permitted and where we permit it. Where we believe the property has sufficient resource value, we should keep it as open space for all time. We've partnered with the state of California through the various bond measures that have been passed, with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and our own Proposition A measures, to buy a huge amount-thousands and thousands of acres-of open space that we have provided for the park system, the national parks or the state park system. We've acquired tens of thousands of acres in the western part of Los Angeles County and the eastern part of Ventura County, which will be preserved for all time. That doesn't just have fire protection value; it has resource value, as well.
Privately owned lands are strictly regulated-within the limits of the constitution. We have limited what you can develop, where you can build, and under what conditions you can build. The proposed Santa Monica Mountains Local Coastal Program, the West Angeles County segment of the Los Angeles County Local Coastal Program, will go before our Board of Supervisors next week. That's our philosophy, and it's working well.
We do, at least, understand that if you own a piece of property, you're entitled to put a house on it. Our job is to ensure that the houses are built in a safe and environmentally sound manner.
Changing subjects, you recently drafted a letter of opposition to the city of L.A.'s current plan to implement SB 1818, which is meant to encourage the development of affordable housing through density bonuses. Why are you so upset about the current implementation plan?
The proposal that has been drafted by the Planning Department is a give-away to developers in the city of Los Angeles. If I were a planner, I'd be embarrassed to put that proposal forward.
The plan was touted as a way to get more affordable housing; in fact, it will cost the region more affordable housing than it will create. It is a call for developers to come into virtually any neighborhood in Los Angeles and bust the zoning regulations in those neighborhoods and neglect the affordable housing that should be created. Most of the units created will be market rate, and the number of affordable units that are needed will dwarf the number of affordable units created in those projects.
How do you reconcile the city's sincere need to create more affordable housing with the reality of the rhetoric? The Planning Department and the city's administration ought to be honest about it and say, "We want to create more market-rate housing. And if we destroy the Fairfax area or the Crenshaw area or the Silver Lake area or the North Hollywood/Studio City area in order to get more market-rate housing, so be it." That's what they really should be saying; of course, they wouldn't say that, because it wouldn't sell well.
I've lived here all my life. I spent 20 years of my professional life as a councilman in the city of Los Angeles, where I spent a considerable amount of my energies protecting affordable housing, and I'm watching my work of two decades being slowly dismantled.
Building massive buildings next to single-family homes is not elegant density. It's ugly development. It's destructive development. I believe you can generate more affordable housing and even more market-rate housing in areas in Hollywood, in areas that do not compromise some of the zoning decisions and land use planning decisions that neighborhoods and developers negotiated over the last 25 years.
We should be protecting single-family neighborhoods, protecting affordable housing stock, and protecting the quaint, beautiful, and somewhat dense apartment buildings in various parts of the city-Fairfax, Echo Park, Hancock Park, Silver Lake, North Hollywood, Studio City, Leimert Park, Lincoln Heights-communities that are dense but have a charm and scale to them that has preserved affordable housing for seven or more decades.
These drafts of the city's SB 1818 were not negotiated or shared with any neighborhood groups or with any neighborhood councils. They were negotiated between the developers and their attorneys, the Planning Department, and the Central City Association. The Central City Association wants to bring Downtown to every neighborhood in Los Angeles. That will not fly. Bringing the same policies that are being implemented Downtown to the corner of Laurel Canyon and Ventura, Beverly and Fairfax, or Cesar Chavez and Soto, is lunacy.
Proposed plans for building out NBC-Universal's lot tout the virtues of transit-oriented development in Los Angeles. You have expressed reservations about these plans. What are your concerns? Do you support TOD?
I obviously support transit-oriented development, and Metro is facilitating transit-oriented development along its most heavily used transit corridors, the Red Line in particular. But transit-oriented development also has to be done in moderation; there's a limit to what even the Red Line infrastructure can handle. Most people in Los Angeles today still use their cars; most people do not use public transit. You need to validate your development with the realities of Southern California transit.
Having said that, we have approved a project at Hollywood and Vine, Blvd6200, which is dense, but it's not super dense. There are some condos, and there's retail. It's appropriate; it's a high-density corridor on a subway station, and it's a historically prominent intersection of Los Angeles. That was an appropriate development. Development is taking place in North Hollywood at the junction of two major transit lines in Los Angeles-the Red Line and the Orange Line. There's been considerable development, both commercial and residential, around that Metro site along with the Community Redevelopment Agency. It's appropriate and on point, because there are two major transit lines, the Orange Line and the Red Line. If you can't do it there, you can't do it anywhere.
The Universal Metro Station is an apt area to develop. The question there is, how much? How big? My reaction to the initial plan was that it was too big, and it should be scaled down. But having said that, I think the elements of what they want are not unreasonable. We can move the NBC studio. Residential on top of the Universal Studios property could be very productive and very intelligent from a land use planning point of view. It's just a matter of how much, how big? Are 3,000 units of residential right or is too much? Is a million-a-half square feet of commercial studio development on the NBC/Universal subway station too much? My feeling is that it's too much.
You're not going to build single-family homes on the Metro/Universal Studios station. You're not building single-family homes on top of the Universal Studios property. It will be denser. There are areas where it's appropriate to put in dense development. But it needs to be done to a certain scale with a certain amount of moderation, and I hope the city will consider that in this approval process.