Last Updated ( Wednesday, 27 January 2010 18:25 )
Bridge Street Neighborhood Project Update
by HopeDance Staff
If you haven’t been aware, the SLO City Council voted down the eco design / affordable housing project (named The Bridge Street Neighborhood Project) unanimously. There have been numerous responses. We select these three responses:
Groundswell builds for Bridge Street Project
from the Chamber of Commerce E - insider missive....
The City Council’s shortsighted rejection of the Bridge Street Project has caused a backlash. The Council members, who’ve said previously they wanted in-fill housing, compact urban form, affordable workforce housing and green, environmentally sensitive development, were willing to reject this project even though it provided all of these benefits. Why? Because a small group of misinformed but influential neighbors are convinced that housing for "those people" will degrade their neighborhood. Of course, the council couldn’t use that argument publicly against the project, so they created bogus ones like flood issues and open space. (The project will be built one foot above the 100 year flood level, the same standard that has been applied to every other project in the city for the last 30 years. And the open space is a sliver of land that’s privately owned.) Thanks to excellent coverage of this issue in The Tribune, many local citizens are calling council members. It’s working, but more pressure is needed. Let them know how you feel.
(Go to http://www.slo-business.com/legislative.html for the email addresses of the city council members.)
A city council member who voted against the project responds publicly:
I figured when I was elected to office that, sooner or later, I would piss everyone off. The recent City Council vote regarding the Bridge Street project seems to have added what some consider to be my primary constituency to the list.
The housing design proposed is the greenest, most sustainable and environmentally friendly offering that we ever have seen here in town. It is exactly what I have been advocating and championing for years. So, why did I vote against it?
Simply stated, it is the right thing in the wrong place. The location is in a heavy industrial manufacturing zone, in a flood plan, leapfrogging over undeveloped land to push into the edge of open space at the edge of the hills. This is not an area the City has planned for residential development.
City staff found various policies that seem to support the project. But I believe that many policies in our Safety Element, Noise Element, Landuse and Open Space Elements of our General Plan that do not support the project were ignored in their analysis.
What came across loud and clear though, from staff, the Planning Commission, indeed, from the hue and cry of the community at large, is that sustainable, environmentally friendly design is what we want to see. So this should become our standard; this is where we should set the bar.
If we truly want to see the innovative design concepts of the Bridge Street project utilized in town, we are going to have to demand it. We must institutionalize these standards in the policies of the City.
We are updating our Housing Element, and will soon be doing the same with our Conservation and Energy Elements. I invite the visionaries of the Bridge Street project to become involved at the policy level to help us achieve in the future the innovative ideas that have excited the community.
The City plans to annex land and rezone other areas for residential use. Can we expect better projects than we have seen in the past? We have housing projects ready to come forward that give us the same old thing we have always gotten. And that is what we are going to keep on getting if we do not demand better.
Another unusual and exciting component of the project was the large percentage of the homes to be sold in a moderately affordable price range. This was only possible because there is a magnanimous property owner willing to sell land at a reasonable price. While his land is not in any of the areas that the City plans for housing, he has certainly shown leadership to other property owners that one can do the right thing, and make some money, without being greedy and insisting on maximizing one’s profit.
The Bridge Street project took a lot out of me; it is probably the most difficult vote I have made in my three years on the Council. But I believe the Council did the right thing. After days of study and several hours in a public hearing, we concluded that this was a wonderful concept, but in the wrong place.
Let’s concentrate now on bringing sustainable and environmentally friendly designs to all new housing in town. And let's remember that the price of land locally is the largest component of housing price .
A reponse to Christine’s letter:
Christine’s letter brought to mind a conver-sation I once had with Michael Corbett, the visionary architect and planner of Village Homes in Davis, California. Constructed in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Village Homes is one of the most amazing ecologically designed communities that is still thriving in the U.S. As is the case with most non-tra-ditional projects, Corbett’s concept initially faced a lot of opposition. Upon submitting his proposal to the Planning Department in Davis, he was quickly turned down and told that he would never get the variances to construct such a development. He was given a long list of "no’s."
Shortly after, Michael attended a party wherein, as fate would have it, he met a City Council member who was enthralled with the project and offered to support the en-deavor. So, Michael embarked on a quest to convince to Planning Department that the project would actually be a boon to the city rather than a financial burden. He illustrated that good design would take pressure off the city having to construct and maintain ad-ditional sewage runoff and that it would use less electricity because of its reliance on solar energy and landscaping conservation etc. Needless to say, the project was erected and, to this day, it is a beautiful haven for families who still live there 20 years later and the kids of other communities surrounding them.
Ironically, Michael Corbett became Mayor of Davis in order to change the policies that had made it so hard for good environmental projects like Village Homes to get approval. Slowly, he started to change the rules and actually was making some progress until local developers, who felt he was stepping on their toes, decided to oust Corbett. During the next election, the developers poured tons of money into back-ing Corbett’s opposition and consequently removed Michael and all those who had sup-ported his ideas. Then, the new City Council went on to approve so many poorly designed sub-divisions that it created a backlash in the community. A "no growth" policy was adopted and presently the City of Davis won’t allow any development no matter how beneficial. As it stands, Davis is surrounded by sprawling sub-divisons, with Village Homes remaining the only large alternative. This is a prime example of one community’s attempt to change the process. Can we hope for better? I hope so.
I can’t decipher from Christine’s let-ter if she offered to help promote San Luis Obispo’s Bridge Street Project by trying to influence to City Council before they reached the voting process. If she didn’t of-fer suggestions to the council, she certainly missed an opportunity to change the legal process before such issues come to vote. All of her suggestions appear to have come after the vote. In the long run, developers will only alter the design of their projects if the Planning Commission and City Council influence them in the right direction. For the most part, this will be a decision that is forced upon developers, not willingly adopted. This is what a community needs to do through it’s local government to lead the process to create sustainable living environ-ment.
A project such as Bridge Street will be sorely missed, as they seldom come as beauti-fully conceived. It truly is a shame that de-velopers still use money as a weapon against ecological projects that care for both people and the earth, to get the local government to give them variances well offer the com-munity crumbs of change. The Bridge Street project would have justified the variances by allowing human compassion to flourish. Yes, you might have had a lot of reasons for rejecting the project, but there were just as many reasons and more to adopt it. Unfortu-nately, change is not easy.
Wes Roe, is the SBarbara editor of HopeDance and co-head of the Permaculture Guild of the South Coast.
As of this date, the Bridge Street Project has been invited by numerous cities in SLO County (Paso Robles and Arroyo Grande, to name a couple) to take their ecodesign and affordable housing plans to their respective cities. Cheers!
Last Updated ( Wednesday, 27 January 2010 18:31 )
by Amy Landau
The longtime residents of an extraordinary artist community in Topanga Canyon are currently facing what may be the threat of their lives: imminent eviction. Once a vibrant artist community of 120 residents forming one of the last outposts of the ’60s hippie bohemian lifestyle, the community has now diminished in size to 40 courageous holdouts. They do not battle an easily recognizable culprit like a real estate or strip mall developer, displaying obvious signs of monetary greed. Rather, their battle is with none other than the California State Parks, which bought the property in 2001 from the Los Angeles Athletic Club, the previous owners for 50 years. On the surface of the matter, the community’s eviction may incite one’s sympathy more than outrage. However, one need not look far to uncover a much more troubling picture, one that cries out for the public’s attention.
I first stumbled upon the community of Lower Topanga in mid-November last year when I had the fortune to attend a fascinating party in one of the main neighborhoods, known as the Rodeo Grounds. After descending a windy road through the lush Santa Monica Mountains toward the ocean, my companions and I took a secretive turn onto a rough, broken road that led to the grounds. Behind a latched wooden door, we found a charmingly rustic world I didn’t think possible within such close proximity to the chaos of Los Angeles. At the party, people actively shared their passions, improvised new songs around a fire, played music, danced to a DJ and lounged in a wood-stove-heated art studio. The edgy urban sensibility and out-of-bounds creativity of the people within such an unexpectedly wild setting struck me as rare and delightful. However, I soon learned that this jewel of a community was on the brink of extinction and that what I witnessed was only a taste of the community in its former glory.
An assortment of neighborhoods lying at the border of Malibu, Lower Topanga stretches from Topanga State Beach to the first two miles of Topanga Canyon in an area characterized by frequent flooding from Topanga Creek. Its residents have rented their low-cost houses from the Los Angeles Athletic League on land considered undevelopable because of its location within a low-lying flood plane. Although the people rent their homes, they more closely resemble toughened homesteaders than modern tenants. Their unique lease arrangement stipulates that they must be responsible for all repairs on their homes without outside assistance. Thus, they confront flood, fire and earthquake routinely. Consequently, their identification with their homes and fellow community members is strong. "Everybody has wonderful war stories," says Beth Van de Wouw, a resident of 10 years. "People with shovels and sand bags. People help one another. Your house is a living entity."
The declared motive behind the actions of State Parks is to restore the land to its "natural state." They claim that their intention is to connect the coastal region to Topanga Canyon State Park in the mountains. However, residents are quick to point out the difficulty of negotiating a path from the coast to the mountains: a hiker has yet to tackle this feat. Furthermore, State Park’s plan for the removal of all plants deemed non-native would account for approximately 80% of the flora. Bernt Capra, a longtime resident and accomplished art director, is actively fighting the evictions in court. He describes the State Park’s mission as a futile attempt to turn back the clock in order to recreate a Jurassic Park fantasy-land. He argues that the 500-year-old-past cannot be recreated without bringing back the bears, wolves, and other natural predators to the area. Weeding out the non-native plants itself would be an endless, nearly impossible operation.
Bernt believes that the State Parks have a much less ethical plan up their sleeve: to do business with developers. Developers have always had an eye on Topanga Canyon, wishing to build a strip mall, for example, along the Pacific Coastal Highway, yet it has remained essentially rural until recently, because of prohibitive costs. The State Park’s decision to purchase such expensive land leads to suspicions that they intend to recoup costs through a lease with developers. "The New York Stock Exchange is a non-profit," Bernt declares, pointing out the myth behind the non-profit designation. In his belief, State Parks are merely a business, wanting to increase their cash flow like any other. As a ring leader in the current struggle, Bernt remains resolute in his determination to keep his community intact and remain in his home. "We are like Jiminy Cricket in ‘Pinocchio,’… the conscience," he says, referring to the character who points out the wrongs of others. "They don’t want us here."
Historically, Lower Topanga had significance to the Chumash who recognized the area as a sacred economic and cultural meeting place. In the 1800s, the Rodeo Grounds served as an actual rodeo arena for a Mexican ranch; in the early 1900’s, a Japanese fishing village. Finally, the houses of the residents in the 1950s (many of which are now boarded up or demolished) were built as weekend beach shacks, for actors like Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Charlie Chaplin, Carole Lombard, and Ida Lupino. "There are stories that Peter Lorre and Bogart used Herb’s house as a weekend retreat place where they’d have their mistresses and what have you," said James Mathers, a resident painter and writer, referring to the now vacant home of his friend Herb Bermann, also a writer. Clearly, the region has a long and unique heritage of undeniable cultural significance. "And strangely, it’s been allowed to exist in this kind of state," mused Mathers, calling the area an "anomaly" amidst the belt of multi-million dollar homes extending from San Diego to Santa Barbara. "I can either say that’s good luck, or that it wants to be like this."
Although the community in question only encompasses 2% of the total parcel of bought land, State Parks has mounted an aggressive policy to uproot its occupants, bulldoze their homes and reshape the land according to its own particular ideals. Arundo, a type of Bamboo that has come to define the landscape, has become a pivotal point of controversy to parallel the peoples’ own struggle. One of many plants considered "non-native" by State Parks, the plant has been condemned for removal by means of herbicide. The original herbicide in use, Round Up, contains Glyphosate, a cancer-causing agent hazardous to humans. Residents and environmentalists have fought the plan with varied success. Aside from the complete disregard for the health of the community, some residents are dismayed by what they view as the destruction of a familiar and treasured plant. Pablo Capra, a poet, journalist and publisher, feels particularly strongly on this issue. "This plant in particular, I feel very connected to, and it just seems to me like the most native plant to this neighborhood. Because I grew up here, I used to climb them." He grieves the loss of the memorable Arundo tunnels that are now reduced to refuse along trails by State Park contractors. Although the plant originated in Asia, Pablo says its non-native status is by no means universally-regarded. The question of what to consider native to the land, whether it be people or plants, is at the heart of the Topanga Canyon conflict. Pablo, the publisher of Idlers of The Bamboo Grove, a collection of works by local Topanga artists, arrived upon his title with precisely this parallel in mind. He and other residents fought to block the use of herbicides and won an agreement with State Parks to halt herbicide activity through the end of 2003. However, the agreement was broken recently, when an independent contractor working for State Parks was spotted in the act of spraying herbicide to poison another "non-native," the castor bean.
The daily struggle to remain in their homes and confront officials of the State has taken a harsh toll on the well-being of the residents. Many suffer from depression at the thought of losing their homes. Most notably, the struggle resulted in the tragic loss of three people, Arthur King Zimmerman, John Fowler and Jerry Greenwood who died from causes their loved ones directly attribute to the stress and threat of eviction. The Pacific Relocation Consultants (PRC), who were hired by State Parks in 2001 to assist residents in finding comparable living situations largely failed in their attempts, namely because no such equivalent living situation exists. Coliene Rentmeester, a resident of 22 years, came to live here for the tranquility and natural beauty that Lower Topanga offered. "I like it here and I don’t know where to go. There’s nothing around, not in a comparable situation. You have to be a very rich person." Katherine Groomer, a resident of 30 years, says she has looked everywhere but found nothing comparable to her home. "Everyone lives under a constant threat. The stress is a form of torture," she complains. Trailer parks have been proposed as relocation homes to residents, falling far short of expectations. Contrary to rumor, no cash-in-pocket has been offered for compensation. Instead, residents have been offered the option to accept one of three "comparable" houses with the difference in rent paid for a period limited to four years or a modest sum for a down payment on a house (i.e. trailer) but no assistance to pay off mortgages. The unsatisfactory efforts of PRC may have reflected a conflict of interest because public records uncovered by the community’s lawyer revealed that monies left over from relocation would go toward employees’ salaries. State Park’s decision to remove the relocation consultants from office in December suggests PRC’s failure and the triumph of the 40 holdouts who resisted relocation for more than two years beyond the deadline.
Although some of the holdouts are uncomfortably resigned to their fate, others are fiercely determined to fight to the end. Beth Van de Wouw, whose house became an unexpected legacy from her husband’s grandfather, vows that she will climb the palm tree outside her window and refuse to come down, should the officials come to evict her. "I’m not just fighting for me, I’m fighting for this family," she states. Bert Capra too, remains one of the most cheerfully defiant of the bunch. He considers State Parks his landlord and cites precedents (such as the Trippet Ranch in the 1970s) in which rentals were allowed to cohabit peacefully the State Park land. He strongly believes in the success of the community’s quest for survival.
One can only hope, for all our sakes, that he is right. The artistic contributions and love of the land that distinguish the community are striking testimony to its value, as is its role as a rare and much-needed conscience for the world today.
For further information on the court battle, or to offer assistance, contact Bert Capra at
. Amy Landau is a native New Yorker now living in Ojai, California. She is a writer with a background in teaching whose latest dream is to be a journalist. She is pleased to make her debut in the pages of HopeDance Magazine. Contact Amy at
Last Updated ( Wednesday, 27 January 2010 18:37 )
Two Weeks in a Steam Bath
by Linda Seeley
When Hurricane Katrina hit, I knew I had to go help. I was glued to the radio and internet news reports. Hearing the voice of a nurse reporting from Charity Hospital, telling the world how they had received no help – no food, water, emergency evacuation – for five and six days after Katrina, keeping their patients alive by hand-bagging, and sustaining each other by giving IV fluids, the “nurse” in me had to go.
I started my quest by going to the local Red Cross headquarters, thinking they could use the services of a nurse practitioner and certified nurse-midwife. How wrong I was. The Red Cross will not send a physician or any other licensed professional health care provider to work under its auspices. You can volunteer with them, but you will be restricted to handing out over-the-counter medications and referring to local hospitals and clinics. But the problem in New Orleans was that all local hospitals and clinics were closed.
So then I registered with the US Department of Health and Human Services, who were compiling a data bank for licensed health professionals who wanted to practice their professions. I received back from them an email stating they had over 33,000 health care professionals in their data base, and that they didn’t need my services at the moment.
I believed them. What a relief! So many health professionals were in the hurricane-ravaged area that people’s needs were being met. What a great system we have here in the USA!
Then I received an email from Michael Moore. He reported that in most areas of New Orleans where people were still living, there were NO medical services available, and in the backwater bayou regions, people had never even caught a glimpse of the Red Cross or FEMA. He talked about Common Ground Clinic, a grass-roots, newly-formed health care facility housed in a mosque and staffed entirely by volunteers in Algiers, a neighborhood of New Orleans that had not been flooded. I called them.
Two days later, my friend Judelon LaSalle, an RN, and I were on the plane bound for Houston, just in the wake of Hurricane Rita. When we got off the plane, Houston looked like a ghost town. We were virtually the only people on the highway to New Orleans, and we saw giant steel girders bent over like pretzels, houses without roofs or walls, football stadiums filled with water.
We drove into New Orleans around midnight on September 23rd. There were no street lights, the heat was oppressive, and the streets were crawling with humvees with armed soldiers hanging out the sides to cool off. When we arrived at the Common Ground clinic, we spread our bedrolls on the floor, along with 15-20 other people. It was hot, clammy, and noisy. I barely slept a wink. Next morning began our strange, wearisome, and joyful journey.
I spent the next day at a church, giving vaccines to 65 souls who straggled in from throughout the City to pick up food, water, and clothing in the 100+ degree heat. Back at the clinic, Judelon and other volunteers saw over 140 people with various health problems, ranging from high blood pressure and diabetes to post-traumatic shock, heat-related illnesses, and skin lesions from exposure to toxic mud.
After working at the clinic for several days, we left New Orleans and headed out to the Bayou at DuLac, a finger of land in the Gulf of Mexico about 2? hours southwest of New Orleans. There, Cajuns, Creoles, and Native Americans, all mixed together, speaking a patois of French and English, live on the water – shrimp, crab, oyster harvesters – at home with hurricanes. They say they’ve never seen such a hurricane as these two, Katrina and Rita. Four weeks after Katrina, the water’s still knee-high, and there is no way they can return to their homes. At the local shelter, set up in a Knights of Columbus hall that was on high ground, we give tetanus vaccine while listening to Cajun music from the next room. We eat shrimp jambalaya and white beans prepared by the local priest and his helpers; they made 700 pounds of it this morning, and most of it is gone.
One huge difference I notice between the people of the Bayou and of the City is here everyone knows everyone else; in fact, most of them seem to be related in one way or another. They are aware of each other’s needs, a real sense of community. I feel deep inside that these people will be all right. Their fabric of love and friendship has been strengthened by their suffering. Relatives are housing them. And all of them intend to rebuild and live on their own land.
In the shelter in Houma, in great contrast, are people from the City who have nowhere to go – people lacking community. They are suspicious, and angry at the government and each other. Most are renters, and most had no insurance to cover their losses. They don’t know what will become of them. Many fear that friends and family are dead. Many say they will never return to New Orleans. They saw too much, suffered too long waiting for help. I speak to Millie, a thin, elderly woman wearing a hair net. Her blood pressure is 200/100. She hasn’t been taking her medication. She reports she was in her attic for three days after the hurricane, watching the corpse of her neighbor float in her yard. Finally, a fisherman from the Bayou came in his own boat and rescued her and her son. Every night, she says, she dreams of water.
Now that I am home, I, too, dream of water and mud every night. I feel connected to the people of Louisiana, and I want to go back to help some more. The devastation covers an area the size of Great Britain. Corporate carpetbaggers inhabit the downtown luxury hotels where they sign no-bid contracts worth $65 Billion to “rebuild” New Orleans and the Gulf area. In the meantime, the City of New Orleans just laid off 3,000 city workers because they don’t have the money to pay them. I don’t have answers, but I do have questions.
Linda Seeley is a nurse-midwife and the director of the Terra Foundation. She has lived in SLO for 24 years, is a mother and grandmother, and loves the Earth with all her heart.