Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz has to navigate the tricky economic currents of a district full of Jewish activism.
I asked how he did it when we talked last week in his City Hall office. Koretz, 62, is a friendly, reserved man, well-informed on the issues, both citywide and across his Fifth District, which extends from around Beverlywood, Pico-Robertson and Fairfax into Century City and Westwood and up into the hillsides of the West San Fernando Valley.
His supporters call him a careful consensus builder who gets things done. His foes condemn him as afraid to challenge the real estate developers who are a powerful economic and political force in the district. Maybe that’s why, in conversation, Koretz is cautious, knowing the danger of a bad headline.
The project that reveals most about the changes in the district and Koretz’s tactics is the four-acre Casden West development, the brainchild of the powerful developer Alan Casden, who has projects around the city. Casden West envisions buildings up to 10 stories in height, with 595 apartments, 15,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space and underground parking for roughly 1,000 vehicles.
The project, on the site of an old cement factory, is adjacent to the Sepulveda station for the Expo light rail line, which connects Santa Monica with downtown Los Angeles and is spurring big construction projects along its route. That clearly was the driving force behind Casden West, and Casden wanted to make it big. He initially proposed buildings of up to 17 stories and potential big-box stores such as Target.
Neighbors living in nearby single-family homes rebelled, arguing that Target and another planned store would attract traffic, nullifying the Expo Line’s traffic reduction goals.
“I went to the developer [Casden] and tried to come up with something that was reasonable,” Koretz told me. “Then I said we have to vet it with the neighborhood. Casden asked for what he needed on the project to make it profitable. Ultimately, we removed almost all the commercial, we cut the big-box retailing out of it, we added more housing and moved it a few hundred feet back from the [I-10] freeway.”
A neighborhood leader, Jay Handal, chairman of the West Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, told David Zahniser of the Los Angeles Times the changes represented “a serious, serious victory for the community.”
Economically, compared to most of Los Angeles, with its vast neighborhoods of poor and working-class people, Koretz’s district seems like another, richer city. The Fifth District (CD5) has more than double the number of residents with bachelor’s degrees than the citywide average, and its affluent, largely white residents earn slightly more than $100,000 a year, 31.5 percent higher than the citywide average. About 46 percent are homeowners living in a hot real estate market.
That mixture of well-educated, politically sophisticated and affluent homeowners sometimes spelled trouble for Koretz and his predecessors, who include such famous politicians as Roz Wyman, Ed Edelman and Zev Yaroslavsky.
“Every developer wants to build in CD5,” said Koretz, surrounded by sports memorabilia in his office, including a 1988 World Series ticket signed by victorious Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda. “And every resident doesn’t want them to.”
In addition, Koretz is confronted with something his predecessors never faced — rising numbers of homeless people living in tent encampments throughout the district.
Koretz is a child of the Fifth District. He grew up in a duplex owned by his parents on Cardiff Avenue, near Pico Boulevard. His parents escaped from Nazi Germany in the late 1930s.
“My father was a professional soccer referee, the youngest in the North German soccer leagues,” Koretz said. “He came here, there was no soccer. He sold Fuller brushes door-to-door and then got a job as a waiter. He had a gift of gab. He entertained the customers. He did that the rest of his life.
“My mother was a bank teller for a while,” the councilman said. “She got robbed a couple of times at the Bank of America at Pico and La Cienega Boulevard. She was a file clerk after that.”
He recognizes that his old neighborhood has become much more Orthodox since his youth, when, he said, only two or three Orthodox families lived there.
“Last time I checked, there were six rabbis living on my [old] block. We had two or three Orthodox shuls, including the one I had my bar mitzvah in. Now I am told there are about 40. I haven’t found them all, but my favorite one that I daven in is a karate school most of the time,” said Koretz, who now lives with his family in an apartment south of Sunset Boulevard.
Politics has been part of his life since he was 10, he said. In 1969, when he was 14, he worked on Tom Bradley’s first mayoral campaign. “I went door-to-door every day, weekends, for months. I probably walked half the Westside,” he said.
An important influence was his government teacher at Hamilton High School, Wayne Johnson, who became president of the teachers union, the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA). When UTLA went on strike, Koretz joined them.
Koretz graduated from UCLA, was the Southern California director of the League of Conservation Voters and executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee’s western region. He helped found the city of West Hollywood and was a council member there. He was elected to the State Assembly in 2000 and then to the Los Angeles City Council in 2009. He has a City Hall family. His wife, Gail, works for Mayor Eric Garcetti, and his daughter, Rachel, is an aide on the councilman’s staff.
As was the fate of his predecessors, Koretz finds himself in the middle of fights between land developers and homeowners. And some of the homeowner groups can’t even get along with one another.
However, Koretz is contending with two issues his predecessors didn’t face. One is mansionization, the tearing down of single-family homes and replacing them with two-story houses that extend to the property lines of the area’s comparatively small lots. Koretz has pushed through measures modestly regulating design and requiring homes to be set back more from property lines.
“But some will go up because they have already been approved [under the previous regulations],” he said, adding, “I don’t think anyone anticipated anyone would be building those giant homes on smaller lots.”
These are all problems of prosperity, and poor parts of Los Angeles would gladly face them. His second big problem is homelessness. Prosperity doesn’t shield neighborhoods from it.
Koretz concedes it is the biggest and most difficult problem he faces. Homelessness is up 18 percent on the Westside, according to the last homeless census. In Koretz’s district, it’s up 27 percent, from 924 to 1,160 people. Citywide, the homeless population totals 57,794, up 23 percent.
Los Angeles voters approved a bond issue to build housing for the homeless but the approval process for the projects is slow. So is county progress on a related measure, a sales tax increase passed by voters to provide social services and other help for the homeless.
“It’s going to take us 10 years to build 10,000 housing units,” Koretz said, conceding that his district would be “one of the least popular places” to build some of them.
I wondered if he felt a special Jewish obligation to help these very poor.
“I think for every religion, what we are living with now is not appropriate, and we’re trying to come up with every possible solution,” he said. “I don’t think it’s for a lack of trying. I think our responsibility in general is tikkun olam, to repair the world, and certainly one of the things that is most in need of repair in Los Angeles is to figure out the homeless situation.”
Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).