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March 03, 2017

Opinion: Vote No on Measure S

LOS ANGELES—If one thing has been clear for the past few years, it's that the Executive Board of the non-profit AIDS Healthcare Foundation has completely lost control of the foundation's president, Michael Weinstein. Admittedly, it's arguable that the board might have agreed, philosophically, with Weinstein's attempts to drive the adult movie industry out of town (and later, out of the state) on the specious argument that the industry's general lack of condom use in productions has somehow increased the HIV infection rates in the state, despite the fact that it's been more than a dozen years since the last on-set transmission, and despite the industry's comprehensive testing regimen—but that only scratches the surface of Weinstein's lust for power. Seriously, did the Board actually vote to approve spending millions of dollars of the organization's hard-sought donations, first, in getting Measure B on the L.A. County ballot—signature-gatherers don't come cheap!—then in spending who-knows-how-much more defending the ordinance in court for three years after the county itself, recognizing how poorly the ordinance was written, declined to do so? And how about spending more than $6 million writing, gathering signatures for, publicizing and defending statewide Proposition 60, another abominably written piece of legislation that would have subjected many performers to baseless citizen lawsuits, and in the process reveal personal information about the performers that would have resulted in a massive increase in stalking and other societal hazards? (Of course, as everyone knows by now, that proposition was stunningly defeated, with counties all over the state, except the few southern ones in AHF's power bailiwick, voting heavily against it.) Perhaps the better question to ask, though, is whether the Board considered to what extent it was allowing Weinstein to put the entire foundation in jeopardy of losing its tax-exempt status by far exceeding AHF's allowable expenditures on political issues. An examination of AHF's disclosure statements on its political activities reveals that from 2011 through 2016, the organization spent in excess of $34 million on general lobbying, on their Prop 60, their Prop 64 (their "Drug Pricing Initiative," which also went down to a stunning defeat) and their "Neighborhood Integrity Initiative," now called Measure S for ballot purposes. In fact, AHF was/is almost the exclusive funder of all of those initiatives, with spending that averages out to $5.67 million per year—when the Internal Revenue Service allowance for political spending by a non-profit of AHF's size is $1 million per year, or a maximum of $6 million over a four-year period; limits AHF greatly exceeded over the past two years in the run-up to getting its propositions on the ballot and promoting them. Indeed, earlier this year Free Speech Coalition Executive Director Eric Paul Leue registered a complaint with the IRS over those clear violations. "Michael Weinstein is using millions of dollars intended for people living with and affected by HIV on dubious political campaigns that benefit his bottom line," Leue told the AHF-friendly L.A. Weekly, whose editor, Jill Stewart, Weinstein hired away, along with other staffers, to run the Measure S campaign. "This is not only a gross violation of IRS limits governing non-profit political spending, it’s an absolute abandonment of his organization’s moral imperative. Weinstein is robbing underserved communities that need treatment and education dollars to fuel anti-science moral crusades. We’re asking the IRS to immediately begin an investigation. "Michael Weinstein’s out of control political spending is putting his organization's non-profit status at risk," he added. "We also have reason to believe they are misusing federal 340B funding intended for uncompensated care to help finance political campaigns and for-profit business development." (That last apparently refers to AHF's purchase, since 2012, of "smaller nonprofit HIV healthcare providers across the country in Ohio, Florida, Texas and New York," according to an article on TheRealDeal.com.) All of which brings us to Measure S (referred to in the city's Voter Information Pamphlet as "Ordinance S"), the Weinstein brainchild that reportedly had its genesis when Weinstein learned that Crescent Heights, a Miami-based developer, had planned "a restoration of the historic [Hollywood Palladium] theater and the construction of two 28-story condo towers on its lot." "Weinstein had been a vocal opponent of the project and a regular attendee at community meetings, where he urged the developer to reduce its height," reported TheRealDeal's Gabrielle Paluch. 'Why?' one might ask: "The proposed buildings would block the view from the international headquarters of Weinstein’s AIDS nonprofit, on the 21st floor of the Sunset Media Center on Sunset Boulevard." (Many adult industry members may remember that building, since Free Speech mounted a massive anti-Prop 60 protest in front of it in October.) Notably, Weinstein has a lawsuit against the Towers that's still in the courts. So what is Measure S? According to the Impartial Summary prepared by Chief Legislative Analyst Sharon M. Tso, the measure would "impose a maximum two-year moratorium on the approval of new projects seeking General Plan amendments or zone and height district changes which would result in a more intense land use, such as a less restrictive zone or the construction of a higher structure; an increase in floor area ratio, density or height; or, a net loss of land zoned for open space, agricultural, or industrial areas." In other words, Los Angeles' General Plan, which was adopted in November of 1980, describes what the City Council then saw as a diverse community, both environmentally and culturally, and described as "a sprawling, low-density metropolis," though it noted that the suburbs were growing much faster than its inner city, and that "many older neighborhoods suffered sharp population losses," with "[l]ower income families replacing middle income families in many older areas." It also noted that "the volume of construction is dramatically lower than during the boom years of the 1960s" and that "because of a decline in household size, substantially more housing is needed to serve approximately the same level of population." The plan's objectives included "prevent[ing] urban blight and deterioration," and "provid[ing] more affordable homes," though it also looks to conserve natural resources like water and clean air, and to "preserve the natural environment"—that last objective apparently not having been given high priority. What's clear from reading the Plan is that it's sorely in need of updating. L.A. has changed a little since 1980, and the Plan really should have kept up with it. Sure, there have been a few amendments over the years, but its basic tenets haven't changed—which at that time included the citizen- and public agency-requested goals to "Promote a more concentrated urban pattern" and to "Focus new development in suitable locations." Fact is, L.A. is growing; has been for years, with people settling here from all over the country. AVN, in fact, was based in Philadelphia for the first eight years of its existence before moving to "where the action is" in L.A. (To be fair, back in the '80s, there was a significant adult production community in New York City, but its growth was nothing compared to the West Coast's, and now has all but disappeared.) And where there's growth, there's the need for housing, though the era of the single-family house in the inner city is clearly on its way out. Apartments, condos and lofts seem to be the current rule. So the question is, will a moratorium on building those dwellings serve the future of L.A. and its citizenry? One thing's for certain, the moratorium will hurt the city financially. According to City Administrative Officer Miguel A. Santana, "The measure will cost the City millions of dollars in lost revenue from permits, licenses, and other fees charged to impacted projects"—including, in part, projects that were already approved and are under way, which would be halted: "[T]he ordinance would impose a maximum two-year building moratorium by prohibiting the issuance of a building or demolition permit on a previously approved project that the City granted a General Plan amendment, zone or height district change that resulted in a more intense land use; an increase in floor area ratio, density or height; or, a net loss of land zoned for open space, agricultural or industrial areas," according to the Legislative Analyst. By some estimates, L.A. will lose $2 billion in economic activity and will cost taxpayers $70 million a year for as long as the moratorium is in place—and its effects may last much longer than the claimed two-year expiration date. But for many observers, density is the future of large cities, even one as spread-out and diverse as L.A., though there are reasons to carefully consider how high high-rises should be build, considering the area's earthquake history and the recently much-diminished drought, which could return. But Measure S opponents rightly call the proposal a "recipe for recession," noting that nothing in the measure stops the corruption that Weinstein claims is the reason many building projects are approved. It might change where they're approved, but if construction is going to continue at all, it's likely that "donations" to the politicians that could help get them approved will continue as well. Lots of people oppose the measure, including the current Mayor Eric Garcetti, who stated that, "Measure S will drive L.A. into recession, will cost taxpayers millions, and will make our housing and homelessness crisis even worse," and the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which stated, "Measure S is a regressive and deceptive measure that would impose a moratorium on building developments that need exemptions from land-use rules. This would effectively stop almost every effort to establish desperately needed affordable housing in L.A. This city needs more housing, not less!" "The existence of serious problems relating to development does not mean that a bad solution is the correct response," stated adult-friendly defense attorney Jeffrey Douglas, a progressive activist (and member of the Free Speech Board). "Measure S does nothing to solve the basic problems. It fails to address updating the zoning and planning maps; it does nothing to increase transparency or prevent graft. All it does is put a moratorium on all development, good and bad. It's best to defeat Measure S and create workable solutions to these terrible problems. I resent when people exploit problems through the initiative process by arguing that theirs is the only solution." The L.A. Times has also published several articles, including one framed as questions-and-answers about the measure, that deal with various aspects of the measure, including why AHF is spending so many millions on a non-health-related political battle, why the 'Yes' campaign has sent out misleading flyers such as one implying that Mayor Garcetti is in favor of the measure, and one (pictured above) scaring voters into thinking they could be evicted from their homes if the measure doesn't pass. The Times also noted that, apparently in response to Measure S, the City Council has voted to speed up the updating of L.A.'s 35 community plans, to be completed by 2024, and to require the updating of the plans every six years. One adult industry member who supports the measure, however, is Penthouse Global Media owner Kelly Holland.  "I have, over the last year, become increasingly involved in local politics," she told AVN. "I've really started to get involved in what happens at a local level, and Chatsworth, where I live, is so unique. For the most part, it was traditionally equestrian properties; you can still, in the morning on your way to work, see people not walking their dogs but walking their horses; we have a bar and a restaurant at the dead center of town—Los Toros is the Mexican restaurant, Cowboy Palace is the bar—that still have hitching posts out back for horses. That is why I moved to Chatsworth. I didn't move to Chatsworth because it's considered to be the center of my industry. The first time I came to Chatsworth, which was 14 years ago, I pulled off of the 118 freeway and was at the top of Topanga Canyon Boulevard, looking down onto this amazing landscape: horse pastures and huge rocks and this very kind of wild landscape, and that's what I fell in love with. "But over the last several years, with increasing property prices in Los Angeles and an increasing number of people moving to Los Angeles from all over the country, property prices have gone up, and that means developers have had an increasing opportunity to widen their profit margins and build on every postage-stamp-sized piece of land that they can find, and that was rampant on the west side around Santa Monica, then it became rampant in low-income neighborhoods where, unfortunately, gentrification happens, so you've got Silver Lake, Echo Park, now Highland Park, Mt. Washington, and now that's overbuilt, and so they're looking to the last places where there is open land, and one of those places is Chatsworth, and also the Valley in general because there are larger pieces of open land. So Measure S comes on the scene." After registering her contempt for Michael Weinstein, describing him as a person "who had nothing to do with this industry, had no insight into this industry, but decided, probably, I believe, for the sake of self-aggrandizement and self-promotion, to come into this industry and try to make a name for himself by creating a problem that didn't exist," she nonetheless decided that for all his faults, Measure S was the one thing he did right: "Do I find it awful that once again, because he's incredibly self-interested and he doesn't want a 28-story building going up across from him, spending a bunch of money, and he's spending AIDS Healthcare dollars, yes, I find it shocking. But, does he have the capacity in spite of himself, to do something good? Yes. "As things stand now, developers come into Chatsworth and they look at what was formerly four-acre horse properties, which is intrinsic to the character of this town, and they say, 'Well, we're gonna donate a bunch of money to the local city councilman Mitch Englander and we're gonna ask for a zone change'," she posited. "Ninety-six percent of the time, they get it, and it does not matter that I go, and tens and hundreds of people go, to the Chatsworth Neighbor Council and voice their distress at the fact that a community is losing its soul; that doesn't matter. What matters is that big developers, who stand to make millions on more dense residential development, and who contribute to councilmen and who have meetings and lunches with city planners, want a zoning change—and 96 percent of the time, they get it. "Look, some communities are wastelands and they would like a lot of residential and commercial building to come into that community because it would bring a tax base into the community and into their local school districts, and it would also bring dollars into that community, and there are good reasons why you want to do that," she continued. "It's just Measure S addresses the fact that there are a lot of communities that are being overrun with rampant development." Holland also charges that one of the main arguments against the measure is bogus. "The big canard that the city knew would be a song to the progressive ear, was this: If you approve Measure S, we cannot build housing for our homeless population, which is a huge problem in Los Angeles," she stated. "That is simply BS, and here's why: The city owns hundreds if not thousands of parcels of land all over the city. Most of them, I'm gonna guess—I don't have hard statistics, but I'm gonna guess 90 percent of them are zoned for residential/commercial mixed use, so if you wanted to put up a big apartment complex for low-income housing and homeless housing, you would not be restricted from doing that... Let me tell you something: The city has been stonewalling homeless housing for ten years." The trouble is, if Holland is wrong, Measure S, in banning new apartment/condo construction, would make it even more difficult for low-income workers and the homeless to find affordable housing—and if the city does what it has, in the wake of Measure S, promised to do, which is to approve more low- and moderate-income housing construction, Measure S will have fulfilled its basic purpose without even having been passed—even if the view from Michael Weinstein's office window will be restricted. What Holland wants appears to be what some would say the city's 1980 General Plan envisioned: a more pastoral L.A. "I think there's a shortage of affordable housing, so you have to ask yourself, fundamentally, is it like Kevin Costner said [in Field of Dreams], 'Build it and they will come,' and do we want them to come? Do we want more people? Our population is swelling, our resources are dwindling, and we specifically have a huge problem despite the rains we've had, a huge problem with water. And we all know traffic is a horrible problem, so do we want more people coming here? I think not. However, do we want to gentrify the entire city so that people who are working for minimum wage have nowhere to live or have to go two hours outside the city? No, we don't. "So all I'm saying is, is there a lack of low-income housing? Yes, and I think part of that is the outgrowth of irresponsible development and gentrification in older neighborhoods that were rammed through by developers and the city council who had tax dollars and contributions thrown at them, which did not take into consideration that population and creating and mandating enough low-income housing in that neighborhood... So let's think about that. Let's analyze our population and our population growth. Let's find places where it makes sense to build, close to public transportation; plot in public transportation when you're plotting in big, dense, multi-family residential spaces. But this is just whoever has a dollar and can buy a lot, you know? And the community, I'll tell you, never wins. I've been to too many of these meetings. They do not win because they don't have the money." Whether Measure S passes or not, Holland intends to continue to do her own part to maintain Chatsworth's integrity. "There was a field that had 120 horses and they put some ticky-tack boxes and called them equestrian properties, but not so surprisingly, there's nary a horse there," she said. "But there is one last piece—and this is how I got into this whole thing—there is one last piece of open land, seven acres, which is a historical piece of land. It's the old Johnson Ranch, so it goes back to the turn of the [20th] century when this was all old-growth. That has been bought by a development firm from the west side, Borstein Enterprises. They are a huge developer; they did a $2 million endowment to USC—I mean, these guys have bought their influence and they want to put 14 houses down there. That is the last piece of open land between the 118 and the top of Topanga Canyon, and that is the last place where you could come into Chatsworth and go, 'Oh, this place is weird. It's got horses?!?' I mean, that's the deal. So we —Kelly Holland, Penthouse—are going to discuss trying to buy that property before they get into development and set it aside and create a non-profit there and put horses back there. "Every neighborhood has to have its calling card," she continued, whistfully. "You know, Hollywood has the Hollywood sign; Chatsworth has the amazing Stony Point, the big rocks, the climbing rocks, and it has these open pastures that used to have lots of horses grazing. It's got one left, and that one's owned by Borstein Enterprises, so I will plead guilty to NIMBYism myself, because that's where most activism starts, right? ... Well, I'm fighting in my own little way, and along comes Measure S, ironically championed by the guy I've been working fervently against for six years, but its objective, no matter how flawed and the fact it's coming from the Spawn of Satan, aligns with my sensibility about responsible development in Los Angeles and after not having a General Plan for four decades, before we allow developments all over the city and build up every single square inch of available land, let's take a pause and take a look and see what it is we're actually doing. I never think that's a bad thing." Trouble is, for many, it will be a bad thing, and whatever good Measure S might do, it is poorly drafted—a signature Weinstein flaw—and while many agree that reform is necessary, Measure S isn't the way to do it. Vote 'No' on S.

 
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