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Q&A With Councilman Tom LaBonge

LaBonge sits down with Patch to discuss the issues he has inherited as newly redistricted councilman for Sherman Oaks.

Councilman Tom LaBonge was in his Toluca Lake office on Riverside Drive on Friday.

As the council member for the newly redistricted 4th District, he is usually in motion, somewhere between his three offices (besides this one, there's his downtown office in City Hall, and his Hollywood field office on Fountain Avenue in Hollywood) and one of his countless events in and around his expansive district. 

This office is a beehive of activity, with boisterous bunches of people either meeting with the councilman or waiting to do so, eager to involve him in their agenda. 

His agenda, however, includes what he promises will be regular meetings with Patch to discuss issues on the minds of his new constitiuents in Sherman Oaks, who were previously represented by Paul Koretz.

LaBonge was born in Los Angeles in 1953 at the Queen of Angels hospital, and he was raised in Silver Lake. He served on Mayor Tom Bradley’s Youth Council as a teen, which ignited his love of civic duty.

After graduating from Cal State Los Angeles, he got his first job on the staff of Councilwoman Peggy Stevenson of the 13th District, which then included Hollywood. 

In 1978, he joined the staff of Councilman John Ferraro of the 4th District, where he worked for 15 years. Following Ferraro’s death, LaBonge ran as his replacement and was elected in a special 2001 election. In 2003, he was elected to his first four-year term, and reelected in 2007 and 2011.

With his new press secretary, Scott Levine, sitting next to him, LaBonge sat on the couch in his office, and after signing a brisk succession of documents handed to him, answered some of our questions. 

Patch: What is it like for you as a councilman when your district shifts like this? How do you adjust?

Councilman Tom LaBonge: Well, it’s happened a lot. I’ve been with the city almost 38 years. I remember what was the traditional 4th District, which was basically Fairfax Avenue on the west, Olympic on the south, but all the way to downtown, to the Harbor Freeway. And north to Melrose and through. And John Ferraro was a good friend of Peter O’Malley, who gerrymandered Dodger Stadium into the old 4th District. That was the district. It was basically a square, rectangular-fashioned district. With a little bump up in Elysian Park.

Now these districts are quite dramatic and changed. I’m very happy to represent what is the traditional 4th District, as well as the new areas in the Hollywood Hills, west of Laurel Canyon, and Sherman Oaks, which is one of the great neighborhoods in the whole city.

Patch: In Sherman Oaks, the issues which seem to most engage our readership are land use issues. I did a series of stories on the Chabad situation. Are you familiar with that development at Chandler Boulevard and Ethel Street?

LaBonge: Yes.

Patch: There’s a widespread feeling among residents that the City Council doesn’t represent them as much as these special interests, such as Chabad, to allow these developments that many feel are too large for the area. Jack Weiss enabled the project to go ahead right before leaving office, as did Paul Koretz. A lot of people are waiting to see if you will be responsive to the residents in this regard.

LaBonge: Well, I think I’m a responsive representative. But these particular issues, as they relate to RLUIPA [Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act] and religious freedom and land use are ultimately probably going to be challenged by the United States Supreme Court.

I do believe in local zoning. I know in the district I represent there’s a situation at 3rd and Highland. It’s been in the courts for years. I believe in local zoning.

But unfortunately – and I say unfortuately – there’s been a challenge. And people with great hearts and tremendous commitments exercise their rights to try to establish a place of worship. And so I know of these situations. I know I don’t make friends with both sides, the people opposed to the land use or people who are for the land use, because you’re right in the middle in trying to solve a problem.

That being said, you know, I’ll work with everybody and try to make the best decision. I’ll always remember the history of what has taken place.

Patch: Residents who oppose the Chabad development are not opposed to the use of the land for worship, they simply feel the synagogue is too big, and there’s no parking. Do you have any stance on whether this project is an appropriate land use?

LaBonge: No. If it comes ultimately to my desk, I will look at all the facts. I respect Mr. Koretz, who really is a very good councilman. And Mr. Weiss was a former councilman and he did what he did. But Mr. Koretz, I think, tried to do what he thought was best. So we will look at the whole situation.

Patch: Similarly, the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council recently met to vote on the reconsideration of the Il Villaggio Toscano project, which did not pass. A representative of your office was there —

LaBonge: Jonathan Brand. Went to Grant High School. Good guy. USC Trojan.

Patch: He said you had not yet even reviewed the project, and had no opinion —

LaBonge: I just got briefed on the project [Friday]. What I want to hear is from our city planners. The professionals. What they think about this proposed project. That will help guide me in making my decision.

Patch: But you knew nothing about this project prior to Friday?

LaBonge: No, I knew there’s a project. But specifically to see what it looks like, what the elevations were, what the entrances are, the work, I just found out [Friday]. I mean, I just studied it [Friday], coincidentally. I knew there was a project. I drove the site. I’ve looked at it. But to look at the drawings, I’m being specific to you. Got it. So that’s that.

So, whatever the professionals say from the planning department who are trained in land use, then I’ll make my decision.

Patch: Again, it’s one of the issues where a big segment of the community feels the Council isn’t addressing the residents’ concern, which is basically traffic, and the feeling that this project is just too big for the area. The other one, also in Sherman Oaks, is the Ralphs going in on Ventura Boulevard, which stretches from Ventura Boulevard to Moorpark Street. Again, it’s another project that many feel is too large for that space. Do you have any general opinions about these kind of issues?

LaBonge: Well, I know I come from the densest part of the city. I did represent the East Valley — Toluca Lake, North Hollywood. I came from a very dense part of the Wilshire center, which I had to give up, and which I loved. I loved the old neighborhoods.

The challenge for our region, all over, is density, and how it fits and how it works.  So I’ll listen but I’ll try to make the right decision when I have all the facts.

Patch: Some people feel density is always our foe —

LaBonge: Well, we just did the Hollywood Community Plan, if you’re familiar with it. I don’t support the super highrises at all but I support the plan because it rolls back the density of some zones in the area. But where they increased it, there has to be a process to get city approval.

I am concerned in all cases that you can’t overwhelm a community with the project. And one thing about Sherman Oaks, one of the prettiest streets in town is Valley Vista, do you know Valley Vista?

Patch: Sure.

LaBonge: It’s one of the prettiest streets in town. And that’s very nice. But also from a technical aspect, we have the one main backbone, which is Ventura Boulevard. Then you have a freeway to the north and you have Moorpark, which is a substandard street. But there’s very few street systems like you see in the Wilshire District where you have big Wilshire, then you have 6th on the north, 7th on the south. Olympic, big street, further south. Third Street, big street, further north of Wilshire. You have the grid of Western, Normandie and Vermont, in that order. 

You don’t have that in the Valley, you have this one backbone street. So the planners have to be very cautious, how it impacts the neighborhood, how it impacts the community.

Patch: This Ralphs is impacting both Ventura Bouleard and Moorpark. Moorpark is down to one lane behind the project. So there’s no question that during construction, at least, it will impact traffic congestion. But is your feeling that density like this is good for the area?

LaBonge: You have to make the right decision. Density is part of life. 

In 1930, 90 percent of people lived in a single-family home. Now that has changed.

And I knew of my work with Mayor Riordan, when I was his director of field operations, after the 1994 earthquake, I think I worked 43 days straight. And of those 43 days, about 38 of them were in the Valley. The Valley has single-family houses next to high density. In the Wilshire district, you usually have single-family houses next to duplexes — R2, R3 — before you get to the mega-buildings.

When I came out into the Valley, and I did spend time in the Valley as a youth, I had Uncle John and Aunt Lucy who lived here in what is now the Valley Village area or Van Nuys. We used to go out to the Pacific Boys Home and play football from our school. I also went to West Valley Occupation Center, so I got a feel for the Valley. Used to cruise Van Nuys sometimes, you know, in my teenage days.

But that all being said, the Valley has grown immensely. It’s no longer single-family neighborhoods. It’s always densified. Now how do you balance the densification? Do you say, okay, this land is already in a dense corridor, there’s no minus and no plus, but there’s housing that is making people closer to the shopping district and the jobs?

It’s still to be determined. I’m waiting for the planning department. But I’m tuned in.

Patch: There are many who feel the problem isn’t density, it’s transit. And that solving transit problems will take care of the density issue.

LaBonge: Yeah, there’s a lot to do. If you look back at what Los Angeles has done wrong, you see we should have had the Green Line into the airport, the Red Line deeper into the Valley. We should never have lost the Red Car. We’re trying to play make-up.

But right now it’s also very important to have jobs. And if there’s jobs, it’s good.

Patch: And you have been working to establish a new light rail line?

LaBonge: Yeah. But I’d like to see heavy rail, because it’s faster. I know we’re building a car-pool lane. I wish it was a transit lane.

I once had jury duty downtown at the Criminal Courts Building. And usually in our public buildings they have displays of all the things that are there from history, like L.A. Times headlines: “Dodgers Come West From Brooklyn.” And then on the left side a one-inch column, “Board of Supervisors voted down a requirement to have lanes of traffic both directions.” These directions that they made would have helped us.

Patch: Another issue very much on the minds of residents is schools. The Buckley School, a private school in Sherman Oaks, just got $40 million, where other middle schools in Sherman Oaks, such as Millikan, are overcrowded. And this is a magnet school which buses in kids from all over the city.

LaBonge: [Buckley] didn’t get $40 millionBasically, the city of Los Angeles, because it has broad shoulders, helps not-for-profit institutions: hospitals,  institutions, schools, to get a loan. So that’s what this was about, Buckley. They applied and it was approved by the city attorney, so I’m okay with that. But it’s a loan. They’re gonna pay all the money back. It’s just a loan. Hospitals would not be built unless they could work off the credit.

Patch: But for this to occur while the public schools in Sherman Oaks are so hurting —

LaBonge: Public schools got billions of dollars in our rebuilding program. Many schools are getting fixed up. But the reality is, in this particular case here, you don’t have money that you tax that goes to teachers or janitors or coaches. It can only go to the building structure. Bonds.

We had two bonds for the schools. There are some new schools in the Valley because of this, so it’s been helpful. But it doesn’t go for staffing, it only goes for brick and mortar.

Patch: Can you do anything at all as councilman for this region to help a school like Millikan?

LaBonge: L.A. Unified operates by governance of the public school system. I support schools in my district.

I have a variety of programs like Hike For Health where I take 5th graders, about 300 of them, from a variety of elementary schools, and we hike through the park up to Mount Hollywood. I have a program called Love a Library, where I get buses to schools, and parents and students  go downtown to the Central Library for a half a day of explorations, and hopefully it ignites them to get into the libraries and enjoy and love them.

I have an after-school program where I work with Rod Dixon, the great Olympian, on his Run for Fun programs and half-marathons.

So, I do a variety of things, but it’s mostly post-3 p.m.

Patch: But how about pre-3 p.m.? That’s when it matters most, when our kids are in school. 

LaBonge: That’s up to the District, because I can’t influence that. I can’t influence that, other than support. That’s the L.A. School Board’s responsibility. I would love to, but we have no jurisdiction. But I can help after 3 p.m.

Patch: Will the work you’ve done in Hollywood continue?

LaBonge: Oh yeah, anywhere I’ve been. My title is Los Angeles City Council member. So I still feel close to neighborhoods that aren’t in my district where I know people. It’s all about people. 

The sad thing here is that I’ve only got a three year — now less than three years, it’s 2 years, 11 months and 19 days — left representing this district because of term limits. My term ends in 2015. So there’s a lot of people that I do know already in Sherman Oaks from past work working for the mayor, my citywide work that I’ve done.

That being said, my staff and I are committed to engage and help people to believe that Los Angeles is a good city to live in. And a responsive one. 

Sherm July 16, 2012 at 04:07 PM
Valley Vista needs Sidewalks and a Bike Lane. At least put a crosswalk at Van Nuys!
Barry Cullison July 16, 2012 at 04:27 PM
Yeah. It all seems to boil down to him saying, #1 My hands are tied, #2 I don't have enough time to be effective. No strength and no answers. I guess he won't need our vote for what ever position he moves to in 2015.
R July 17, 2012 at 01:12 AM
The stretch of Moorpark adjacent to the Ralphs property has always been one lane in the eastbound direction. Construction has taken away the sidewalk and parking lane, but those will of course be restored once the building is completed.
Skraeling July 17, 2012 at 06:04 AM
Ok, I like La Bonge for being a cheerleader but that is as far as it goes. He is optimistic but has not worked out of City hall ever, it appears. The guy is clueless about Sherman Oaks and Studio City. Most of us know that density is a fact of life but the city council forgets that must giving developers and land lords carte blanche to build whatever they want, where they want requires that density to be served by parking, by parks, by new hospitals, and grocery stores and that is lacking. Sure, Ralph's is developing a new store but it will serve the same people as the old one, yet in my neighborhood, we have only Gelson's overpriced for most, and a run down Vons that operates out of a building put up around 1948...but the population has increased by at least 40,000 within a one mile radius....development means more than more condos converted to apts to sec 8 housing....lots more...that is being ignored.
Alex Daniels September 07, 2012 at 06:02 AM
Why do we keep voting in these union purchased idiots for city council? And we want "who" for Mayor??

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