Downtown Divided Over Skid Row Neighborhood Council

Over the past decade, the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council has emerged as one of the more prominent of the city’s 96 neighborhood councils. Although like all neighborhood councils it lacks legislative power, it is considered an important advisory group. Developers regularly appear before the panel, hoping to get community support for their project.

A move is underway to pull territory from DLANC, as well as the smaller Historic Cultural Neighborhood Council, and create a new panel: The proposed Skid Row Neighborhood Council would cover approximately 50 blocks bordered by Main, Third, Alameda and Seventh streets. It would be the first time since neighborhood councils began in 1999 that an existing council would be split.

The effort has sparked controversy. On one side are Skid Row stakeholders who say it would give a bigger voice to an overlooked community. On the other are people who believe it would isolate the area and obstruct new projects.

The official Skid Row Subdivision Election takes place Thursday, April 6, at the James Woods Community Center (400 E. Fifth St.) from 3-7 p.m. Individuals can also vote online (registration closes April 2) and at a series of pop-up locations, including the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment offices in City Hall from 1-4 p.m. on Tuesday-Wednesday, April 4-5.

Jeff Page, chair of the SRNC Formation Committee, said the council is a response to stagnant conditions in a district with vastly different needs than the rest of Downtown.

“Many of the other communities under DLANC’s purview are doing very well for themselves. But what change have we seen in Skid Row?” said Page, who represented Skid Row on DLANC from 2008-2014, but came to feel the panel was not doing enough for the community. “We want our folks on the ground floor to get connected to City Hall. People think homeless people or others in Skid Row can’t or don’t want to have a say in their neighborhood. With the Skid Row Neighborhood Council, we can help people get up, come to meetings, get involved, become productive.”

Opposition is coming from stakeholders, who, among other things, think the election should be put on pause because of flaws in the SRNC’s application. A group dubbed United Downtown L.A. has tapped former City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, now a partner at law firm Liner LLP.

A March 17 letter from Delgadillo to the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners, which certifies neighborhood councils, implies SRNC’s application has too many mistakes. It also states an aim to fight the “decades-long failed policy of community isolation in Downtown Los Angeles.”

 “We believe that the city has the ability to pause the election and go back and do it right, which we think would be in the best interest of everyone — including the formation committee,” Delgadillo said in a phone call with Los Angeles Downtown News. “If it is formed, it would be a problem for people to be able to question its legitimacy.”

Stops and Stumbles

Page and others in Skid Row began brainstorming a new council in 2014. Katherine McNenny, a SRNC community liaison who co-founded the nonprofit Industrial District Green, which works to beautify the Industrial District, said a panel would be able to dedicate time and brainpower to the daily needs of Skid Row, such as upgrading green spaces and housing conditions.

“I think DLANC does need changes to make it more reflective of the needs of its stakeholders, but I personally struggled to get Skid Row issues dealt with and was frustrated by the lack of long-term movement,” McNenny said.

Anecdotally, people have expressed concern that a new neighborhood council could make it harder for developers to get projects approved. Some critics contend that the L.A. Community Action Network, an activist group that has often protested new development, could dominate the SRNC’s voice.

Publicly, much of the opposition is based on procedural matters. Indeed, Page ran into trouble in November when he discovered that many of the nearly 200 petition signatures he had collected were incomplete. Two more rushed rounds of signature gathering resulted in a petition with more than 400 names. Those were verified by a DONE team led by Policy Director Mike Fong, according to a DONE representative.

Still, the presence of duplicate signatures and imprecise addresses (such as “Sixth and San Pedro” in numerous cases) is cause for closer investigation, Delgadillo said. A bigger complaint is that Page and the SRNC formation committee did not reach out to enough stakeholders around Downtown.

Constituents in the Historic Core and Little Tokyo were alarmed to hear that a vote could change their neighborhood council, said Jacob Douglas Van Horn, a broker and DLANC board member representing the Historic Core. (DLANC has not taken an official position itself.) 

He and others lobbied the city to include online voting, rather than the in-person polling place the SRNC formation committee had originally suggested. Van Horn also questioned why Skid Row business owners have only a single position on the proposed 11-seat board, despite their prevalence in the district.

 “I’m not opposed to a Skid Row Neighborhood Council, but I do question the current effort, in which so many residents are saying they were left out of any outreach. Any neighborhood council has to consider all stakeholder views,” Van Horn said.

Page and other SRNC leaders counter that they have reached out to business owners and other groups in Skid Row, including the Central City East Association (which operates the Industrial District Business Improvement District). The city also directly notified DLANC and HCNC of the subdivision vote, giving them the impetus to do more outreach, Page said. 

Other critics fear economic impacts. Scott Gray, director of operations for prolific Downtown developer Capital Foresight, said in a phone call that “fracturing” DLANC would be a huge symbolic blow against growth and development in Downtown. He has been reaching out to area stakeholders to warn them about the SRNC election.

“While the homeless are vital to the economy of DTLA and the entire City of Los Angeles, the pending proposal to divide Downtown Los Angeles into separate geographic districts will have significant fiscal and far-reaching economic impact on the entire city,” he said in an email sent to various Downtown groups.

Page disputes that notion, and suggests people focus on the power neighborhood councils really have. They can provide recommendations for new projects and city policy, try to wrangle community benefits from big businesses and developers, or simply serve as a forum for the people who understand Skid Row better than others, he said. 

“Even if we lose, I hope this is an opportunity for DTLA to look at itself in the mirror,” Page said, exasperation creeping into his voice. “Point to me what DLANC or the city has done to really change the standard of living in Skid Row. It’s not enough. We need to speak up.”

The SRNC must receive a “yes” from 50% of the voters in the proposed neighborhood council zone, as well as the DLANC and the HCNC territories, to move forward.

Voting is open to any “stakeholder” in these communities, with the term referring to anyone who lives, works or owns property in the area, as well as anyone who, according to an email from Councilman José Huizar’s office, “affirms a substantial and ongoing participation within the Neighborhood Council’s boundaries.”

The results are expected to be available on Friday, April 7, according to a DONE representative.

Click here for more information on the election. 

eddie@downtownnews.com