L.A.’s second-most dangerous intersection for schoolchildren could get even less safe now that City Hall has sided with developers over families in approving five new liquor licenses in Westlake.
Developers Erwin and Mark Sokol, longtime property owners in Westlake, want to redevelop storefronts they own on Burlington Avenue and 7th Street, which is directly across the street from elementary and middle schools.
On a Tuesday evening, April 12, at L.A. City Hall, Westlake activists found out what mattered most to city officials, and it wasn’t the welfare of young students who attend public school in the neighborhood. Instead, what really mattered to L.A. officialdom was bringing more high-end development to Westlake, a working-class, mostly Latino community near downtown that’s being eye-balled by developers and local politicians.
You see, Westlake is undergoing a transformation, but it’s not necessarily going to benefit the longtime, lower-income residents who now live there. If anything, they may get pushed out.
Numerous new residential projects are sprouting up, including a proposed 24-story luxury housing skyscraper on 7th Street and Lucas Avenue, which is only blocks away from Esperanza Elementary School and John H. Liechty Middle School. For developers, Westlake is the next hot neighborhood that will attract well-paid professionals who want to live close to downtown.
The Sokols’ big plan is to build four new restaurants and a bar a few blocks away from the skyscraper, and they want liquor licenses for all those establishments, even though school children are nearby.
Understandably, Westlake residents, whose sons and daughters attend the schools, aren’t thrilled about what the Sokols are proposing. And even Los Angeles Unified School District officials are distressed. Westlake Advocacy, a neighborhood group founded by brothers Manny and Gustavo Flores, and L.A. Unified are now opposing the Sokols’ effort to get the city approvals to operate with all those liquor licenses.
They have a tough fight. L.A. City Councilman Gil Cedillo wants the new restaurants and bar, and the city’s planning department has signed off on Sokols’ project. Even the Los Angeles Police Department has gotten involved and backs the Sokols.
In addition, the Sokols have given lots of money to City Hall. Between 2009 and 2015, Erwin Sokol had contributed $2,900 to the campaigns of local politicians. His son, Mark, shelled out $18,536 in campaign contributions to L.A. pols between 1998 and 2015. Mark also paid $50,035 to a City Hall lobbyist between 2014 and 2015. The Sokols are deeply plugged in.
But the Flores brothers and L.A. Unified appealed the planning department’s initial approval of the Sokol project to the Central Area Planning Commission, and that’s what brought Westlake activists to City Hall on April 12.
“We’re not against new businesses in our neighborhood,” Manny Flores told Central Area Planning commissioners Kimberly Chemerinsky, Daphne Brogdon, Jennifer Chung Kim, Bricia Lopez and Christina Oh.
However, Flores made the point that his community is “family-oriented,” and they need something other than another bar and four restaurants that existing, lower-income residents can’t afford. His brother, Gustavo, tried to appeal to the commissioners’ sense of duty to support the little guy.
“This is a David versus Goliath battle,” said Gustavo Flores. “We are a working-class community. We don’t have the resources to fight this battle.”
Jonathan Bauman, an attorney for the Los Angeles Unified School District, told the commissioners, “We, at LAUSD, are very fearful for the children’s safety.”
Bauman noted that according to L.A. Unified data, the intersection of Burlington Avenue and 7th Street is the second most dangerous intersection for students among all LAUSD schools. The school district and Westlake activists worry that people who are drinking across the street at the Sokols’ establishments and then hop in their cars to drive will only make the intersection more hazardous.
“We have very strong concerns,” Bauman said.
Then the Sokols’ team of high-priced, politically connected consultants addressed the commission. At one point, Mark Sokol testified, and a commissioner pointedly asked him why he wants to build the restaurants and bar. Sokol talked about bringing fresh foods to the community, but mentioned nothing about the luxury housing skyscraper and other high-end development projects coming into Westlake. All of which his establishments would ultimately cater to.
“These restaurants aren’t for the community,” Manny Flores later said.
Perhaps one of the most backward comments from the Sokol team was the suggestion that the parking lots for the schools could be used after school hours for restaurant and bar patrons. The schools, in other words, were there to accommodate the Sokols’ needs rather than the other way around.
Gerald Gubatan, Councilman Cedillo’s senior planning deputy, told the commissioners that his office was “very focused on eliminating economic and physical blight,” but didn’t explain further for who’s benefit. The existing residents? Or for the people moving into the luxury skyscraper down the block from Burlington Avenue and 7th Street?
It didn’t matter. The commissioners unanimously denied the Westlake activists and L.A. Unified’s appeal — the Flores brothers plan to appeal that decision. The commissioners all cited a hope that the Sokols’ project would bring more investment and change into the neighborhood. None of them asked at whose long-term expense. When it comes to the city’s land-use policies, it’s a question rarely asked at City Hall.