Thursday, January 28, 2010

Agency ignores community, ok's unpopular project

Ignoring the growing chorus of opposition to the proposed Discovery Center, the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy and its partners voted to bulldoze wildlife habitat and an existing nature center and replace them with a project few people actually want.

But the project still needs county board of supervisors approval and -- the real challenge -- to scrape together $30 million for construction.

The project has about $10 million committed to it, and authority board member Sam Pedroza said at last week's meeting that fundraising difficulties could derail the project. Of course, he said the same thing to the Los Angeles Times a year and a half ago when the authority had raised only -- $10 million.
"Was the center planned to be built 'regardless' of what the actual citizens in the region want? Was the request for public comment simply (and cynically) an effort to make people believe they actually have a say-so about such things?"
If you're interested in a recap of the meeting at which this took place, please see the Pasadena Star-News story, "Officials OK new river center at Whittier Narrows site."

The story gives a good sense of the opposition that was expressed at the Jan. 21 meeting, but it doesn't place it into the context of the opposition that's been building for some time. (Have a look at the reader comments for an idea of the growing anger over the waste of the public's money.)

If you take last week's meeting and the public hearings on the project's draft environmental impact report last summer, this is who you see lining up against the project:

- Numerous residents of the local communities that are the ostensible beneficiaries of the project
- Local members of environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and Aububon Society
- Latinos ranging from high school and college students to professionals and retirees
- Numerous educators, including a past vice-president of Rio Hondo College

But who supports the project? you ask. A very small, very narrow slice of society, to judge from the handful of voices speaking in favor of the project at the same hearings and meeting. And few, if any, of these drawn from the communities of the Whittier Narrows area.

But none of this seems to matter to the RMC and the water districts that apparently can't wait to take advantage of the marketing and meeting-space opportunities the outsized building promises.

It makes one wonder if the environmental review process was undertaken in good faith, or as one observer of this matter asked: "Was the center planned to be built 'regardless' of what the actual citizens in the region want? Was the request for public comment simply (and cynically) an effort to make people believe they actually have a say-so about such things?"

The project must be serving someone's interests. But whoever that someone is, it's clearly not the community.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Is Discovery Center to be capitol of RMC empire?

Throughout history, empires have announced and reinforced their power through architecture meant to dominate. Be it Rome or London or Madrid, or the capital of any other current or former power, these places announce the hegemony, past or present, of the men and women who built them.

The proposed San Gabriel River Discovery Center seems exactly this kind of announcement of empire, with the empire-builder this time being the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy.

The RMC building an empire? you ask incredulously. Come now, you can't be serious.

Well, how else to explain the fact that an agency created primarily to "provide open-space, low-impact recreational and educational uses, water conservation, watershed improvement, wildlife and habitat restoration and protection and watershed improvement within its territory" is focused so intently on putting up a building -- over the objections of so many -- that would harm many of those same values?
"They've placed themselves too high." -- Sally Havice on the RMC
How else to explain its use of the "joint powers authority" across the San Gabriel Valley and southeast Los Angeles County? Could it be the RMC's way of getting around the prohibition against its use of eminent domain and of cementing its influence in areas that were previously and largely the responsibility of local governments?

How else to explain the RMC inserting itself into the management of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-owned Whittier Narrows Recreation Area? In 2008, one of these JPAs, the RMC-led Watershed Conservation Authority, launched a Whittier Narrows Master Plan development project that, to all appearances, was the real thing. But in late 2009, we learned that the project "is not a formal update to the existing USACE Whittier Narrows Master Plan. . . ."

What is it then? And how much is it costing the taxpayer?

On a recent Sunday afternoon, former state legislator Sally Havice visited with the Friends and other critics of the Discovery Center. Havice, co-author of the legislation that created the RMC more than a decade ago, said that, at the time, "there was no discussion about bricks and mortar and buildings," though there was to be start-up money for various projects. "But no empire building," she said.

The goal was, Havice said, "to preserve, enhance and create parks, green space and habitat."

But of the RMC today she said: "They've placed themselves too high. They're too far removed."

Somewhere along the road, the RMC lost its way. As it grows more powerful, cities and communities grow less so, and we all start to look more and more like petitioners, or, for the "lucky" few, like princes at court abasing themselves before the monarch.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Discovery Center final EIR released, on authority board Jan. 20 agenda for possible adoption

The San Gabriel River Discovery Center final EIR was released last week. No reaction here to it yet, other than to say there's a strong air of "Authority right, public wrong" about it.

The 1,200-page document is available on the Discovery Center Web site.

The Web site also states that the final EIR will be on the authority board's Jan. 20 meeting agenda "for consideration for adoption."

The meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 20, at 2:30 p.m. at the Whittier Narrows Golf Course, 8640 E. Rush St., Rosemead CA 91770.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Former state legislator, co-author of RMC-founding legislation to speak at Whittier Narrows on Sunday

Interested in learning how the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy--also known as the RMC--got its start? Join the Friends of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area this Sunday for a presentation by former California Assemblymember and co-author of the founding legislation, Sally Havice.

Havice, a professor of English at Cerritos College, will give her presentation at 2 p.m. during the Friends monthly meeting in the picnic area of the Whittier Narrows Nature Center, 1000 N. Durfee Ave., South El Monte, 91733. The meeting begins at 1 p.m.

This should be a truly illuminating talk. The RMC is, in my opinion, the man behind the curtain you're not supposed to notice. But this state agency is the driving force behind the unpopular San Gabriel River Discovery Center project, attempts to take 30 - 40 more acres at the natural area for "future potential development," and a potentially anti-water conservation proposal that would alter a canal (and the land around it) that runs across the entire wildlife sanctuary.

I'm interested to learn what was the original vision behind the RMC back in the late 1990s.

The Los Angeles Times did a good job chronicling the process that led to the birth of the RMC. Here are links to Times and other coverage:

- A conservancy for an urban river, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 16, 1999
- Changing a river's course, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 3, 1999
- Ideas flow for a river conservancy, Los Angeles Times, April 4, 1999
- Conservancy coalition idea in the works, LA Weekly, Dec. 28, 1998

That process seems to give credence to Otto von Bismarck's view that "Laws are like sausages--it is better not to see them being made."

I have no doubt that Havice and co-author Hilda Solis had the best of intentions when they set out to create a state conservancy for the San Gabriel River. My hope is that Sunday's conversation will help shed some light on how we went from a focus on conservation a decade ago to the RMC's bulldozers-and-buildings approach today.