Stakeholders in Westwood are being asked to vote on whether or not a broad coalition of UCLA students, UCLA faculty and staff, Westwood businesses, homeowners and renters should get their own Neighborhood Council to better represent their interests. While this might not sound as exciting as voting for the next Governor of California or voting out your hometown member of Congress, this election has the potential to shape the future of Westwood for decades to come.
While many Angelenos are unaware that we even have Neighborhood Councils, much less attend them regularly and vote to elect their board members, they have a pivotal role in the governance of Los Angeles. A Neighborhood Council, in its simplest form, is a city recognized governing board made up of people who live, work, own property or have some other connection to a neighborhood. Once approved by the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, the city department that is responsible for overseeing the Neighborhood Council system, these groups are able to take positions on proposed policy and legislation, provide input into the city planning process and budget and are given $37,000 in public funds to use as they wish. In another words, your community having a Neighborhood Council is a big deal!
Since its formation though, the Westwood Neighborhood Council has failed to serve the needs of the Westwood community. Under their watch, rents have skyrocketed, there remains a lack of entertainment options and when students and other stakeholder groups dare voice these and other community concerns, they get shouted down and are told that they are not their constituents if they don’t own property and/ or have not lived in Westwood for decades. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the existing Neighborhood Council has done everything possible to make it difficult for a majority of its stakeholders to vote.
On the housing front, the Westwood Neighborhood Council (and the countless other neighborhood associations and groups that their board members have controlled for decades) have been utterly unresponsive to the affordable housing crisis in our community. According to Apartments.com, the average rent for a one and two bedroom apartment has reached $2,525 and $3,442, respectively, this month. While Westwood is hardly the only community in California currently facing an extreme shortage of affordable housing, they certainly have not made it any better and arguably have exacerbated it by fighting tooth and nail against new housing development. For example, earlier this school year, the Westwood Neighborhood Council and its allied groups successfully used their influence to shrink a proposed student-housing project in Westwood Village by three floors, resulting in a loss of 141 beds, citing lost views of the Regency Village Theatre and the Santa Monica Mountains among other things. While the Neighborhood Council is largely advisory in nature, City Hall and UCLA administrators rarely go against their wishes, especially when it comes to housing development.
On the business front, the Westwood Neighborhood Council has also made it hard to open and operate student friendly business establishments such as fast-casual restaurants and bars. The Westwood Specific Plan, which is the governing document that determines land-use in the neighborhood, specifically limits the amount of “fast food restaurants,” which is onerous and includes everything from In-N-Out to Starbucks to 800 Degrees, and outright bans pool tables and dance floors in Westwood Village under its C4 zoning. In addition to the limits put on entertainment by the Westwood Village Specific Plan, which was advocated for by some of the same members of the existing Neighborhood Council, restaurants seeking conditional use permits (CUPs) and seeking the Westwood Neighborhood Council’s approval for them, are met by obstruction during all parts of the process. Rocco’s for example, which wanted to offer open-air brunch and lunch, was forced to delay their opening and spend over $100,000 remodeling, when the council insisted their retractable windows be changed so that they could never open. Prospective Westwood business owners, seeing the torture that businesses must go through to open and operate, are likely to just move to another neighborhood, leaving Westwood to miss out on more trendy entertainment options.
The Westwood Neighborhood Council has also failed to uphold democratic governance. Not only have students and other stakeholders been interrupted and chastised while giving public comments at their meetings, but they have also engaged in efforts to disenfranchise students by holding their last election during Finals Week, at only one location, on South Sepulveda, which is not convenient for students. Even if somehow students were able to mobilize and turn out to vote, the Westwood Neighborhood Council’s bylaws would prevent us from being adequately represented on their board.
The Westwood Neighborhood Council has failed our community for the above reasons and it is time for a change. Therefore, I invite the whole Westwood community to join Westwood Forward, a diverse coalition of UCLA undergraduate and graduate student leaders, UCLA faculty and staff, Westwood Village business and property owners and Westwood residents. Vote “Yes” on May 22 to subdivide the existing Neighborhood Council in order to have a more forward thinking, inclusive, and welcoming Neighborhood Council. Vote-by-mail registration has already started and goes through May 15th and in-person voting will take place from 2-8 p.m. at the John Wooden Center and the Westwood Recreation Center on May 22. ALL stakeholders of Westwood are eligible to vote, regardless of citizenship status, and casting your ballot will not affect your regular voter registration if you are registered to vote somewhere outside of Westwood.