Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Claritans Cheer Donation to Theater Chain, Acosta Unleashed

Tonight, three-fourths of the Santa Clarita City Council approved a very popular plan for Old Town Newhall that includes a parking structure, mixed retail/residential, and a Laemmle theater, the best that $18M in taxpayer funds can buy. It's not the end of the redevelopment story, but it still took five hours to get there. The lengthy meeting was a product of other business (council raises, mobile homes), Boydston's extensive comments about the theater proposal, and a very talkative public. Indeed, there were dozens of supporters for Laemmle, many of whom saw the theater chain as nothing less than the salvation of Newhall--nay, the salvation of Newhall, Santa Clarita's economy, and the Arts themselves. A few opposing voices were largely ineffective. Bob Kellar would close the meeting with the promise that "We're gonna have a Laemmle Theater in this town!" Time for recapitulation. 

*Note: "theater" will be used instead of "theatre"--Laemmle uses both, but "theater" is used more often on its FAQ page. Unfortunately, consistent spelling was not a condition of tonight's deal.
 

Dangerous Dairy

Mayor McLean's invocation addressed a topic that made her "a little sad." She spoke of the passing of Frank Kleeman, a man who served many non-profits in Santa Clarita. McLean had spoken with Frank's wife, who revealed that Frank would have been shocked at the attention his passing received in The Signal and at City Hall. McLean believes that volunteers ought to know they are valued while they're still alive, and she advised people in the crowd to make their appreciation known.

The Men of Harmony Chorus came to the front of the room and sang because, well, why the hell not. The performance was pleasing in its brevity.

No coherent threads could be pulled from public participation. State Senator Bob Huff introduced himself to the crowd because he's going to be running for LA County Supervisor Mike Antonovich's seat once he's termed out. Huff seemed rather self-involved, so he would be a natural successor. Elaine Ballace asked for someone to return her missing scarf (one of her favorites, she said). She also requested that those in power, particularly council members, show some support for mobile home residents by attending rent panel meetings. A local father and BMX enthusiast said he's been taking steps to get a BMX track in Santa Clarita and asked for discussion of options to be agendized next meeting. 

Al Ferdman was upset at what he perceived to be City efforts to block the County from meeting with residents to talk about park needs. The County has been engaging in outreach as research before a bond measure. In response, Rick Gould said that they've already had many meetings with residents and have passed those results along to LA County, and City Manager Ken Striplin said that they could provide the county with a meeting venue if the county would go to the trouble of organizing and publicizing the meeting itself. Striplin stated that opting out of the recent meetings didn't mean Santa Clarita would be exempt from county park funds. Ferdman brought up the matter again in a later comment, stating that he'd call the county tomorrow morning to get the ball rolling on a meeting. At that point, an annoyed Mayor Kellar "reminded" Ferdman that elected officials and staff make such calls, not Al himself.

Two college students were the final public speakers. The first read a slew of statistics about environmental issues, most relating to industrial agriculture. He requested that the council require school assemblies to inform students about these issues. The second student took things several steps further. He said that just because something is a part of one's culture, that doesn't mean it's right--he used the history of slavery in the U.S. as an example. But the cultural norm he was interested in changing was consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy. He said the practice was unhealthy and unethical, and he went into considerable detail about how most of the world is lactose-intolerant. He also called for better food education of Claritan youths. The council seemed more amused by the youth and pluck of these speakers than impressed by their proposals, but City Manager Striplin encouraged them to bring their suggestions to a school board meeting. Steve Petzold was the first to juxtapose their comments with the McRib comments of several meetings ago. He tweeted, "#sccouncil hungry for a mah crib," after the plea for more vegan lifestyle choices.

Council updates followed. They were a mix of tedium, anticipation, and remembrance. In summary: go to the Cowboy Festival.


Dante Takes on TimBen

The consent calendar was relatively brief, but the second readings of two items attracted discussion. First, several speakers said that they supported the plan to appoint voting alternates for the mobile home rent panel. This would make up for lost votes in those instances where panel members must recuse themselves from voting because they own or rent at a particular park. But with some appeals in the near future, several on the council wanted the change to the ordinance to be put into effect immediately, not after the next election when it would be too late. Councilmember McLean said "We're smart and we should be able to come up with something that will work!" By "we" she meant City Attorney Joe Montes, who was tasked with devising a solution on the spot. He said that the council could adopt the ordinance and make plans for accelerating the election of alternates. In the interim, hearings on cases where alternates were needed for owners or renters would be postponed. The council was happy to accept the plan, but when considering the fallout, Montes could offer nothing more than a promise to "play the cards where they fall," which mixes a couple of gambling metaphors but still manages to communicate the uncertainties ahead. 

Most significantly, the entire council is now behind mobile home park residents. With the lawsuit that the city is facing from owners, continual skirting of rent policies, and literally years of hearing about mobile home woes from renters at every meeting, the councilmembers are frustrated. Weste feels that the entire state has failed to find a solution, and even Mayor Kellar said, "It's time this thing gets fixed."

During discussion of an item finalizing raises for the 2017-8 council, things got even more tense. Acosta was the most fired up. From his variety of acting roles, which range from "Angry Middle Eastern Driver" to diabetic father to the quirky "Chef Hollandaise", it's clear that the mayor pro tem knows how to emote. But he's usually quite reserved at council meetings, if he speaks at all. Not so tonight. 

After Councilmember Boydston made his expected protest of a 10% raise, a decision he called "morally reprehensible," Acosta called him out. "We couldn't just leave it alone...Councilmember Boydston seconded this item to be put back on the agenda!" Acosta contended that Boydston wanted to use the discussion of pay raises as an opportunity to discuss cash-in-lieu benefit discrepancies, but when Boydston was told he couldn't discuss them, he flipped on the matter. Next, Acosta chastised Boydston for always having to have the last word and he said the raise would be applied next year, not immediately. "Should you be so fortunate enough to get reelected, I'm challenging you to direct the city manager to dock your pay that amount and give it to the seniors," Acosta told Boydston. He added that the raise would help to cover the expenses he covers for his elderly mother, whose car is in the shop today. Acosta closed by calling Boydston "disingenuous" and asked, "Did you only bring it up to cudgel us with it?...Sorry but I'm tired of it." Acosta's remarks were somewhat scattered, but the crowd applauded him. Unlike former Mayor McLean, Mayor Kellar doesn't make much effort to restrict applause.

"Councilmember Boydston, let's try to keep it kindly," Mayor Kellar warned before letting Boydston respond to Acosta (Acosta received no such warning). Boydston said of Acosta's claims, "Nothing could be further from the truth." He said he seconded discussion of raises because he's frustrated that a councilmember needs support of others councilmembers to get an item on the agenda. And in Boydston's book, more discussion is always good. Acosta began defending the raise to the audience yet again, saying, "We make basically just over minimum wage." He said he would be comfortable letting voters decide "Am I worth $183 more a month or not?"

When the vote on the raise went around, Boydston said yes. Some members of the audience reacted in disbelief, and after a few moments Boydston realized his error, the crowd guffawed, and Boydston corrected his vote to a "no". Kellar was the other "no", but the item passed with the support of McLean, Weste, and ,of course, Mayor Pro Tem Acosta. The rest of the consent calendar was approved with the recommended actions.


$3.4 Million Reasons for Laemmle to Come to Santa Clarita

At last, it was time for the big agenda item of the night: Laemmle. Jason Crawford kicked things off with a thorough presentation about the $21.6M construction project. There are multiple parts and parcels--mixed use business/residence, theater, parking. But the basics are that Serrano (developer) would purchase a chunk of property at fair market value. Then the City would pay for and give a chunk of property to Laemmle plus cover other costs/fees totaling $3.4M in subsidies to the theater chain. There were several conditions placed on Laemmle, including a requirement to operate 6 screens for at least 7 years (their plan is 7 screens), and no fewer than 4 screens thereafter for a total of 15 years. And finally, Santa Clarita would cover the multi-level parking structure, the really big ticket item. The request for proposals on the structure has yet to go out, but it's estimated at $15.2M. The plan is more finely detailed than what I've written and there were nearly two full pages of specific recommended actions for the council and redevelopment successor agency on the agenda, but that's the big picture. 

Crawford spent quite a bit of time discussing the studies done and consultants consulted about economic benefits of the project. The presentation was full of stats and figures, but the critical one was an estimated ~$200,000 from increased sales tax revenue and increased property tax revenue. He also said that Santa Clarita wasn't the exception when it came to subsidizing the theater--Glendale gave $5.1M to get its Laemmle and North Hollywood residents subsidized theirs with $3.3M. Laemmle appears accustomed to accepting millions in subsidies as a housewarming present from communities.

When the presentation ended, Greg Laemmle, who was in attendance, did not speak but rather sat through public comments. Mayor Kellar said that there were 40 speaker cards, and he recommended that people keep it brief lest everyone be "late for breakfast." The crowd laughed, and the procession of speakers began. (Councilmember Weste, incidentally, was in the Century Room watching because she has property in the area and had to recuse herself--Kellar had gotten laughs when he said he wanted to join her.)

The vast majority of speakers and comment cards were in favor of the theater/retail plan. Many predicted a strong, positive financial impact on the community. The first speaker owns property in the area, and he explained how delighted he was that rents were going for $2 a square foot in anticipation of a theater. Other business owners in the area were supportive of bringing in a big new business to anchor downtown--these included the wife of a veterinarian who practices down the street and a woman who runs Organic Sweat Shack, an infrared sauna for sweating away calories. Terri Crain and Holly Schroeder offered the blessings of the Santa Clarita business community at large. Dick Jeffrey said, "No potential business should ever be denied simply because it represents a threat to a similar type of business in the same area. If there is not enough room for both, capitalism and that process that it entails will tell the tale and take care of the difference." In light of the generous subsidies and exclusive negotiation privileges that had been afforded Serrano/Laemmle, Jeffrey's contention that we were watching the free market work seemed poorly supported.

Another batch of comments focused on benefits to Santa Clarita's arts scene. One woman complained that she has to drive over the pass to have her lunch and movie with the ladies. Another lamented her inability to watch Oscar-nominated films in local theaters. Bob Hernandez, president of ARTree, spoke slowly and with pregnant pauses as he offered his withering assessment of Claritan arts: "I believe in culture. We, frankly, in Santa Clarita, do not have any..." And Hernandez should know--he has blessed Santa Clarita with a tacky mural on the bike trail and crafty projects where kids can glue decoration onto shoes, which clearly establishes him as our valley's de facto cultural authority A local filmmaker was supportive of the project, just hoping that Newhall could avoid "all these chains that come and ruin everything" (the exception, of course, being the Laemmle chain). A man who has sold art films and just bought a home in Newhall said, "This town needs art, it needs it so bad!" He mentioned that Mike Levine, a beloved local actor who passed away a couple years ago, had wanted a theater like Laemmle. The speaker said it was "insane" (an adjective presumably addressed at Boydston) to push back against the project.

There were many other supporters ranging from bicycling enthusiasts (who hoped for bike parking in the garage) to couples looking for something to do to people who have put their time into making Newhall great (well, great-ish). Carol Rock got quite a lot of applause after she laid out the merits of the project and made a preemptive critique of Boydston's opposition. She said that Boydston's theater guild had received a grant to move from Sierra Highway to Newhall, so Boydston, too, was a beneficiary of the public's largesse. And of course, Leon Worden, tireless champion of Newhall, history, and the intersection thereof, was in favor of the project.

Some, however, spoke in opposition. Steve Petzold and Gene Dorio wondered whether the movie industry could even be counted on to exist in 15 years--was this the right horse to bet on in the race for long-term financial stability? This sentiment seemed at odds with recent record-setting movie ticket sales despite rampant piracy and improved home theaters. Deanna Hanashiro raised the threat of paid parking, and she said that with empty building elsewhere in town, a new theater amounted to a "frivolous" expenditure. 

When comments ended, Boydston asked for a bathroom break, explaining he's been ill all week. Kellar agreed, but asked, "Can we get 'er done in 5 minutes?" TimBen promised even faster.


Boydston Talks

Councilmember Boydston was the first to speak, and he went on for the better part of an hour. His comments began with a lengthy explanation of his ability to be impartial on the item, despite having a theater that could benefit/lose from the presence of a Laemmle (he wasn't sure which was more likely--more traffic or competition.) Still, Boydston said, "There is nothing I would like better" than a Laemmle in town. He acknowledged that the City of Santa Clarita had subsidized the move of the Canyon Theater Guild in the past (they gave $1 for every $2 spend by the guild). All that said, Boydston presented another plan. It wasn't well drawn out, looking more like a draft from Microsoft Paint than a slick sketch, but it was adequate as a visual aid. His plan envisioned only commercial buildings and street level parking--no theater or big parking structure. Boydston said the plan would save a lot of money, and the City could expect to recover its investment in 11 years versus 97 years. Boydston said the money saved could go to: senior center ($2M), adult day care center ($2M), transitional care unit ($2M), year-round homeless services ($2M), no-kill animal shelter ($2M), parks facilities ($3M) and Via Princess extension or other roads ($5.6M). Basically, he was asking the people to weigh whether they wanted a theater and big parking or a major contribution to old people, puppies, the homeless, and the ill.

The plan attracted no support.

Boydston next had a lengthy interview with Greg Laemmle. He asked if they could guarantee that they would show arthouse-type films. Laemmle said they usually show a mix of popular and more obscure films depending on audience demands. Next, Boydston asked if the theater could add a $1 surcharge or tax on every ticket, which could be used to pay costs associated with development. Laemmle said that would put them at a competitive disadvantage and that the City would have to impose it. Boydston still pushed the idea, which didn't seem so outrageously unreasonable, but Laemmle said it was "Not something that I'm willing to do...I think that I've answered your question and the answer is no!" Some in the crowd cheered Laemmle. Apparently, they were supportive of his insistence on taking the full subsidy from Santa Clarita taxpayers. 

Boydston's remarks began to test the patience of Mayor Kellar and the crowd. He tried to get clarification on whether anticipated tax revenue was coming from shuffling people around Santa Clarita or from attracting new patrons from outside the area. As the clock moved toward 11, Kellar put a time limit on Boydston so that other councilmembers could speak. "It's just getting out of hand here!" he said.

Councilmember McLean moved the recommended actions for the City, and Mayor Pro Tem Acosta gave her a second. Acosta then moved the recommended actions of the redevelopment successor agency, and McLean gave him a second. Then Acosta offered a few minutes of his own thoughts. He said that the parking structure would benefit everyone and that that's what cities do--build parking. He said it would be cheaper now than later. Acosta also said that Laemmle was a small chain and gave charitably, so it was more deserving of public funds than, say, Regal.
 
Before the vote, Councilmember Boydston asked if they could separate the parts of the motions so that he could give his support to some limited aspects of the project while withholding support from others. City Attorney Joe Montes said it would take a bit of work, but a tired (or fed up, or both) council decided to force a vote of the motions as McLean and Acosta had already made them. Thus, Boydston voted no, and the others voted yes. The vote leaves much business to be settled, but the project is moving forward.

I'm not sure if Old Town Newhall looks like a hundred million bucks, but it's more than halfway there in terms of tax expenditures ($50M was the figure that Leon Worden and others gave for City investment in Newhall to date, and this project adds another $20M or so). The theater development will be the biggest step yet toward Newhall's gentrification.

The crowd cheered, and it was time for the last round of public participation. Only Cam Noltemeyer spoke, and more memorable than her remarks was her opening line at the microphone. Standing with steely contempt for the antics of those celebrating around her, she asked, "Could you calm down the rabble-rousers, please?" She complained about the "gift of public funds" and asked about redevelopment agency titles/capacities. The meeting ended a minute before 11.


Appendix: Whole Foods is to SoDoSoPa as Laemmle is to Old Town Newhall

Below is a transcript from a recent episode of South Park ("The City Part of Town") that explores gentrification of South Park's rundown center. A number of cities though the script was specifically about them, and it certainly works well for Newhall. In other words, it shows that Santa Clarita's pursuit of more cultural sophistication is making it a cultural cliche, right down to the twinkling white lights in the trees that say hey, I've gentrified. Just replace “SodoSoPa” with “Old Town Newhall” and “Whole Foods” with “Laemmle" in the script. 

Mayor: I'm announcing a plan for SodoSoPa. A new urban development that will turn the most rundown and dilapidated part of our town into a quaint center of artisan shops and cafes.

Randy: Lots of cities are doing this. The area south of Downtown South Park has always been the ugly eyesore of this town. But now, SodoSoPa is going to bring in the fresh new vibrancy that Whole Foods can't ignore.

Architect: We'll keep the existing structures, but add brick walkways and some quaint white lights. A plaza in the middle will be a place where young couples can play with their toddlers. And it will all be small businesses like artisan cheese shops or noodle houses.

Randy: Oh, this is really exciting. I thought this area was just gonna stay shitty forever… [in phone conversation trying to woo Whole Foods to set up shop in town:] We have a SodoSoPa and this town is completely different! SodoSoPa! We have an arts and entertainment district! Cultural!

The arts/entertainment focus, the plaza, the brick walkways with white lights, the charming eateries, and even the mixed residential loft spaces…Old Town Newhall has/will have it all. How innovative, how sophisticated, how unique.

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