Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Happenings: Marsha, Marsha, Marsha! (Gets Her Library)

Forewarning: I'm not covering the Special Meeting that occurred before tonight's regular City Council Meeting.

“We are a poster child of success.”

At least that’s what Mayor Bob Kellar said during his invocation of tonight’s City Council meeting. He told us what a great community we are and how wonderful it is that Santa Clarita’s citizens are so involved and motivated and full of diverse opinions. After Kellar’s spirited pep-talk concluded, I felt more ready than ever to get out there and beat Team San Fernando Valley in the big game. Go us!

I was soon brought back into the dismal, gray world of City Council meetings with the obligatory presentations, public comments, and council spiels. Nadine Teter’s speech during public participation was notable. With quietly smoldering scorn, she addressed her frustrations with City Manager Ken Pulskamp over—what else?—the Benz Road cut-through traffic problem. Ensconced in his gated community, Teter said that Pulskamp could not understand what it’s like to have traffic speeding nosily by every hour of every day. (By the same token, I suppose Teter can't understand what it's like to have everyone in Santa Clarita bitch at you all the time.) On a more upbeat note, we learned that progress is being made on Buck McKeon’s CEMEX bill and that a third recent trip to D.C. made by some members of Council was a success.

Next we went on to awarding a contract for design of Old Town Newhall’s library project. Unfortunately, someone from LPA, Inc. (the architectural firm awarded the project) was present to discuss his firm’s many merits. He sported a bald head, an oddly shaved soul patch, and pseudo-hipster glasses like that guy wears in the LensCrafters commercials. I agree with Councilmember Laurie Ender on his one redemptive quality: he spoke very quickly.

He gave a pitch laden with nebulous, feel-good crap like “Every community has a story to tell.” He made the daring promise to focus on “function, context, and the environment” when designing the new library. It was all straight out of a Meaningless Principles of Architecture That Sound Good if You Don’t Think About Them Too Hard textbook. Councilmember Laurene Weste took the bait. In typically quiet-but-fervent fashion, she praised the plan to incorporate city history into the design and make it a centerpiece of the community. Councilmember Marsha McLean, too, was positively tickled to see this step forward on one of her pet projects.

None of the businesses in Old Town Newhall, however, were at all pleased. Several shop owners came forward to say that they felt it would be better for the City to pay for streetscape improvements first and then move on to library construction. TimBen Boydston reminded the City Council that a consultant to whom they had given about $1M recommended that redevelopment begin with the streetscape, move on to parking structures, and finish with the library around 2020—if there was money for it. He said no one would walk from a lovely new building into slum-like streets, so fixing up the businesses first should be the priority. Sensing (quite correctly) that the Council was going to act against his, the business owners’, and the consultant’s recommendations, he closed “I am telling you, you are making a mistake.”

This greatly upset McLean. She admonished Boydston with a “You should be ashamed of yourself [for accurately pointing out the slum-like qualities of Old Town Newhall]!”[1] and countered his arguments by saying that “A fantastic library with the amenities that will be around the library … is going to bring more business to the business-owners than trees.” If her argument had stopped there, it would have been better. Instead, she continued by saying that some people (i.e., everybody) want the streetscape done first while other people (i.e., she herself) want the library first. And guess whose opinion counts more? Essentially, it’s a matter of we’d like to listen to you but instead we’re going to build our precious library first--so deal with it.

Mayor Kellar lamented not being able to spend more time on this issue as it was moved and seconded to a vote. Kellar’s four council comrades gave their yeses to awarding the $340,000 design contract (well, Weste always gives an “aye” instead of a “yes”, which speaks volumes). Kellar ended the voting with an ironic/snarky “It would seem appropriate to make it unanimous. Yes.” [2] Thus, the soul patch guy will now design us a building that tells a story about the community while helping shape the future story of the community in its own little way at the same time. Yippee.

After the 8pm potty break, there were several bland issues presented for consideration—continuations of changes in ordinances, specific plan updates, other stuff that wasn’t terribly riveting...[3] I used this time to delete old emails from my inbox, cut my fingernails, play a game of solitaire, link paperclips together, and sigh.

The evening ended on an eco-friendly topic. The Item, “Non-motorized Transportation Plan and Negative Declaration Adoption," basically threw City support behind efforts to make Santa Clarita a good place to use walking and biking as alternatives to driving. This signals a shift from looking at biking only as a recreational activity to an intelligent, positive form of transporation. J-to-the-Wilson of SCVTalk will surely be delighted by this development. I suppose I should be too, but I almost ran over a bicyclist today (his fault, really—and it wasn’t J.W., incidentally), so I’ll just feel kind of weird and guilty about it instead.

[1]Didn’t you see the bedraggled, falling apart “Labor Ready” business ?
[2]Yes, I’m going to stick by calling it ironic because his little quip made that the most profoundly un-unanimous unanimous vote I’ve ever seen.
[3]Tonight’s agenda, in case you’d like to read it.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

OMG It's Nature: Im in Ur Valley, Killin Ur Bearz

I’m disappointed. SCV Bear Watch 2008: The Invasion is over. After a certain Ashley Harrison killed the bear in a collision on Monday night, all of my plans are ruined. There’s no longer any point guessing which household’s pet will be the first one devoured by the wayward ursid. It’s moot to even speculate about whether a group called Santa Claritans Against Black Bears In Our Neighborhoods (SCABBION) will materialize. The bear is gone.

Here's a map/timeline, based on June 14th report by Stephen Peeples and reports on June 16th and June 17th by Parimal Rohit[1].
*Friday morning, the bear was reported at Placerview Trail/North High Ridge Drive.
*Friday night, the bear was seen near Kathleen Avenue.
*Early Sunday morning, the bear was at Park Woodland Place.
*Late Monday night, a bear (if not the bear) was run over north of Sand Canyon/Highway 14.

The circumstances surrounding its death are still rather vague. Based on The Signal's coverage, we know:

Ashley Harris was driving northbound in the carpool lane of Highway 14 at 11:59 on a Monday night[2]. She struck a black bear and thought it was a dog.

She’s also from Palmdale [insert knowing nod here].

Oh, I know, that’s not fair. Don’t worry. I’m delighted that Harris is OK and I know that it’s easy for even the most alert drivers to hit an animal that goes bounding across a dark road at night. Still, it would be only fair for us to go run over one of Palmdale’s black bears—you know, an eye for an eye. Any volunteers?

The only thing left to speculate about is what drove the bear to visit the 'burbs. Predictably, we heard Ian Swift's take on things. When not describing new species of beetles, Swifty runs Placerita Canyon Park[3] and fields calls from reporters who have questions about Mother Nature. This time, he chalked the transgression up to the need to hydrate. The bear simply wanted an easy source of water.

I think we need to explore two alternative hypotheses. (1)Are we making Santa Clarita too attractive? Revitalizing Old Town Newhall and adding new bus stops and public art is fine, but not if it draws bears with a penchant for cultural appreciation into our neighborhoods. (2)Was this a grand stunt perpetrated by the City Council? The bear wandered all through the area near Benz Road and Kathleen Avenue. This is the site of a major traffic flow controversy (see last City Council meeting). Perhaps, thought some on C.C., releasing a bear would distract homeowners from traffic gripes and make them focus on more dire, immediate threats to safety.

Regardless of why it came and how it went, the bear reminded us that Santa Clarita has a wild side. As we move forward in preserving open space and expanding parkland, perhaps more of these big predators will find a hope near SCV. I hope they fare better than this bear.

[1]All of these in The Signal, of course. And Rohit seemed fond of using the word “bruin” as a synonym for bear in his article. As a UCLA Bruin (’06—woohoo!) myself, I take deep offense.
[2]A single person can drive in the carpool lane of the 14 during non-peak hours, right?

[3]Placerita aqui

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Happenings: A Resilient Budget and A Nightmare on Benz Road

Shortly after the meeting began, Mayor Kellar’s leaky water glass began to mar his notes and agenda. It was then that I fantasized about being able to write “Faulty cup brings City Council meeting to a premature close.” Alas, it was not to be.

After professing allegiance to our Motherland and recognition of some high school kids who are awfully good at sports, it was time for our monthly lesson in public safety. I trust I wasn’t the only one delighted to hear some super-helpful summer security tips. For instance, sleeping with an open window is unsafe, especially for females living alone! And don’t forget to lock your doors before you go to sleep, either. What clever ways to foil thieves and rapists--thanks, City of SC!

Public Participation came next, and perennial podium fixture Allen I-am-the-Chair-of-the-Canyon-Country-Advisory-Committee Ferdman defended the tactic of citizen bombardment of the Council over traffic concerns. He noted a lack of progress on the Benz Road problem—to be discussed later in the evening—and other local traffic problems as evidence. People involved in the Canvas/Linda Vista traffic headache expressed preemptive support for the Benz issue as well. Indeed, before the agenda item dealing with Benz Road had even been reached, people were already getting riled up and giving us a taste of what was to come.

City Manager Ken Pulskamp fought back with a cool, logical (but ultimately unsatisfying) “I ask that everybody keep an open mind.” Pulskamp shone more brightly in his discussion of 08/09 Operating Budget draft. The good news was that the City will “maintain financial solvency” through this period. Still, he cautioned “This is not the year to be taking on new, significant expenditures”, citing growth in the general fund of a paltry 1%. The general financial picture painted, he offered us the chance to ruminate on some more specific budget highlights. Among these: $200,000 to work towards a resolution with CEMEX; $100,000 for Old Town Newhall professional services and marketing; two commuter buses; demolition in preparation for the (second) Newhall Library; and new positions like a tree specialist, commercial enforcement deputy, and community preservation officer. Budgeting for the expansion of Central Park and Phase IV of the Santa Clarita Sports Complex was also discussed. Pulskamp summarized his presentation by stating that because the City budget has been “conservative and balanced”, we will still be seeing improvements and expansions while many other cities cut back in the face of a less-than-ideal economy. The budget will be up for formal approval at the June 24th meeting.

The only speaker on the budget was TimBen Boydston. Miraculously, he resurrected the spectre of Big League Dreams, asking whether it’s the wisest investment in the current economy. Pulskamp responded by saying that the Big League Dream Feasibility Study is already underway but has been allotted no additional resources.

Before moving on, Councilmember Laurene Weste gave a plea that the City budget to help out the Senior Center. Apparently, a sum of $75,000 is urgently needed to help support the Meals-on-Wheels program so vital to the senior community. Said Weste “You cannot let grandmas and grandpas of America starve in their communities.” Everyone largely fell in line behind the need to ensure funding, and the City Manager promised to make sure this was reflected when the budget returned on the 24th.

Then it was time to deal with traffic on Benz Road. This is one of many instances in the valley where “residential streets carry major traffic flows” as A. Ferdman nicely summed it up. People looking for shortcuts drive on Benz Road at high rates of speed. This in turn threatens the safety of residents and diminishes the quality of life for homeowners. But if you block traffic flow through Benz, cut-through drivers will simply destroy the quality of life for people living on adjacent streets. Andrew Yi, City Traffic Engineer, made a presentation covering the results of a recent survey on this very dilemma.

T’would’st have been better for Mr. Yi if this survey had ne'er been sent out.

Indeed, it pitted neighbor against neighbor, was extraordinarily biased, and it delivered the predicted result: most people want the traffic patterns on Benz Road to stay the same because they like using it as a shortcut. There were plenty of Benz Road residents ready to give the survey the skewering it so richly deserved, and plenty of nearby residents ready to support it in hopes that the traffic headaches wouldn’t be diverted their way.

Here is a small sampling of what was said. I withhold credit for the quotations because I think I got the names mixed up along the way—so much for blogger credibility, eh?

“Andrew…you’re throwing us under the bus. There’ve been many times when…I don’t know what to say I’m so angry right now.”

“Convenience is never as important as safety.”

“I’m very disappointed in the City Council. You have not kept your word, nor do I believe you ever intended to.”

“The situation is going to go from nightmare to beyond belief.”

“Part of good government is good planning.”

“You do not throw an entire neighborhood to the sharks.”

“How much longer do they have to live like this?”

Some of these comments got really dramatic—even tearful. One woman claimed that as she crossed the street, a motorist accelerated from his pause at a stop sign and tried to hit her! We even heard the story of a man who brandished a gun after a Benz Street woman told him to slow down! The lives and safety of children were said to be riding on how the Benz Road issue was resolved.

Councilmember Marsha McLean demonstrated her frustration over all this. “What are the physical solutions? Period! That’s all. What are the solutions?”

Mayor Pro-Tem Frank Ferry took a different approach, urging thoughtful decision-making since any decision will make a policy statement. He brought up de facto policies of never cul-de-sac-ing public roads or adding speed bumps.

The discussion vollied back and forth from City Attorney to Yi to councilmembers to Pulskamp for a while, with the only conclusion being that enough direction has been given for the City to work on and Ken Pulskamp to report back shortly. In short, it is far from "over", and everyone will be trying to answer to the disparate demands of residents of Benz Road, their worried neighbors, and convenience-seeking commuters.