Richard Close: A lion’s roar in the valley

Richard H. Close is one of the most powerful people in Los Angeles who most people don’t know.
July 16, 2015

Richard H. Close is one of the most powerful people in Los Angeles who most people don’t know. As a citizen advocate, he has spearheaded some of the most widely discussed and controversial local political movements in the past 40 years. 

Close, 70, has a dry and grandfatherly demeanor. He speaks slowly and carefully, often pausing in midsentence to delicately rephrase what he just said. He is a real estate attorney by trade, but his power base is the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association (SOHA), which he has led since 1977. One of innumerable comparable neighborhood associations that dot the L.A. landscape, SOHA eschews the stereotype of a sleepy group of locals working to put on block parties or begging the city to repair streets. Under Close, SOHA meetings have become a gantlet that must be reckoned with by anyone hoping to reach elected office anywhere near its jurisdiction.

As far back as 1978, Close made his name by playing a significant role in the passage of Proposition 13, the landmark landslide that immediately reduced Californians’ property taxes by about 57 percent. In 1986, Close joined with then-City Councilmember Zev Yaroslavsky to generate community support for Proposition U, which slowed development citywide. In 1991, he was the primary community advocate for the Ventura-Cahuenga Boulevard Specific Plan, commonly referred to as the Ventura Boulevard Specific Plan, which placed restrictions on new developments on the San Fernando Valley’s main commercial thoroughfare. Between 1996 and 2002, he led Valley VOTE, the organization that fought hard, but failed to allow the San Fernando Valley to secede from the city of Los Angeles. In 2001, he approached then-U.S. Rep. Howard Berman about the need for a carpool lane on the 405 Freeway through the Sepulveda Pass, a project that was completed in 2014.

With Santa Claus at the 2011 Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association holiday toy drive are, from left, City Councilmember Zev Yaroslavsky, Richard Close, City Councilmember Paul Koretz and City Attorney Michael Feuer.

Throughout the past 38 years, Close has been an unwavering advocate for Sherman Oaks homeowners — fighting new development, arguing for restrictions on helicopter and airport noise, and maintaining close political relationships. When SOHA has been accused of “NIMBY-ism,” Close has never hesitated to respond. 

“I don’t have time to waste doing impossible tasks, so I’d rather take on tasks where I can get accomplishments rather than waste my time,” Close said. “My main focus is Sherman Oaks.”

“In truth, so many organizations are essentially paper tigers, and the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association is not,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director for the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute for Public Affairs at CSU Los Angeles. “People know at City Hall to pay attention to any organization that can consistently attract a couple hundred people.”

Even as other larger political forces, including organized labor and neighborhood councils established by the city since 2001, have made most homeowner groups less central to L.A. politics, Close has maintained his bully pulpit — appearing as a guest on public radio talk shows and being quoted on local politics in the Los Angeles Times.

“If you look at the history of Los Angeles in 50 or 100 years, you will find the name Richard Close. He has been and is an impactful community leader, not just in his neighborhood of Sherman Oaks, but for all of Los Angeles,” former City Councilmember Tom LaBonge, who represented Sherman Oaks, said.

At 70, Close continues to lobby politicians on behalf of Sherman Oaks homeowners, and in the 2015 4th District City Council election, which resulted in the election of David Ryu to replace LaBonge, his organization may have delivered enough votes to tip the balance in a neck-and-neck race.

Weeks before Ryu, a previously unknown community health director, defeated Carolyn Ramsay, a former chief of staff to LaBonge, in a May runoff to replace LaBonge as the representative from the 4th Council District, both candidates were eyeing Sherman Oaks. Although Sherman Oaks voters had cast roughly a quarter of all ballots in the 14-way March primary, neither Ryu nor Ramsay had won many votes in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood, and both knew voters might sway the election’s final results. 

“Sherman Oaks really mattered in this council race, because they were the balance of power between the candidates,” Sonenshein said.

Ramsay had garnered most of the City Hall endorsements, but she was also held responsible for complaints about LaBonge, who had polarized some of the Sherman Oaks voters in the three years since the neighborhood was assigned into his 4th District through citywide redistricting. Close was among the Sherman Oaks resident who felt LaBonge hadn’t adequately listened to community groups, particularly with regard to a proposed new development called Il Villaggio Toscano. The mixed residential-commercial project received significant zoning exemptions from the City Council, despite objections from SOHA and other homeowner groups. 

SOHA’s membership includes more than 2,100 families, and, even more impressive in a city that largely lacks in civic engagement, it consistently attracts upward of 150 people to each of its monthly meetings. For years, SOHA’s meetings have been a regular stop for civic leaders, City Council members, state Assembly members and senators, Congress members and political candidates. Their pre-election debates are known to be both rancorous and substantive. 

“His community meetings are a must-stop-by for any incumbent, not to mention people running for office,” said former City Councilmember and County Supervisor Yaroslavsky.

This spring, Ryu campaigned against the Il Villaggio Toscano development and for greater transparency during one of these debates. Close wanted change, and though he never endorsed in the City Council race — nonprofit homeowners associations are barred from doing so — Close made clear to his members that he felt the status quo wasn’t working. 

“Once you put [change] as the criteria of selection, I think most people said, ‘Well, if there is a need for change, David [Ryu] is more of a change-agent than Carolyn [Ramsay],” Close said during a recent interview at Jinky’s Cafe on Ventura Boulevard. “I’m not sure how important it is to say, ‘You should vote for Bob Smith.’ However, if I get a person focused on what the criteria should be, then they come to their own conclusion.”

Although Close has used his position to insert his voice in countless debates over the years, the recent 4th District election magnified his influence. Close said he met one-on-one with each of Ryu and Ramsay “eight or nine times” during the primary and runoff races. He is now one of a few community activists serving on Ryu’s transition team, advising on staffing and legislative priorities. 

Close grew up in the 1950s in a politically active Jewish family in Boston. His father was an attorney, and his father’s business partner was a Congress member. Close attended the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and then Boston University School of Law. As a young real estate attorney, Close and his wife moved to Southern California in 1971, and after spending a few years in the South Bay, they purchased a house in a neighborhood they could afford: Sherman Oaks.

On the East Coast, civic politics seemed to be “about how an elected official can make a community better: The better the community, the better the elected official is regarded by the community,” Close said. But in Los Angeles, he found that “politics is about politicians getting better jobs, not about doing a better job.” 

When a plan appeared to be moving forward to allow a major commercial development in the Santa Monica Mountains, a hotel on Mulholland Drive, Close decided to get involved. He joined SOHA in 1976 and took over as president a year later. 

In the mid-1970s, the largely white San Fernando Valley was a bastion of suburban conservatism. It was home to Bustop, an organization that opposed public school integration through mandatory busing, and to an early Valley secession movement led by Republican activists, some of whom went on to hold political office. Both campaigns generated accusations of racism. 

From the beginning, however, Close was less motivated by party allegiance than his Valley predecessors. Although he is a registered Democrat, he looks at issues through the lens of what he believes is best for his neighborhood, and has worked with politicians from both parties. 

“Party affiliation is not important to me,” Close said. “It’s issues that are important to me. And I’ve never been involved in political parties.”

A careful and evenhanded speaker, Close is an unofficial politician of sorts, though he has never run for office. In advocating for Sherman Oaks first and foremost, he can become a politician’s ally on one issue while simultaneously criticizing him or her on another — and though he enjoys friendships with many of those in office, he said he sees them all as a means to an end.

“I’m knowledgeable enough to know that politicians tend to be users. They use you for their goals, and then they disappear,” Close said. “But my goal is not to fight politicians. … My goal is to prove to a politician that if they support a particular project, it is good for them.” 

That way, Close said, politicians “realize that it’s better to work with the community, rather than decide that they are the decision-makers and the community hats to accept their point of view.”

And if politicians don’t listen, Close has no problem battling with them in the media and in the SOHA newsletter, or circumventing them entirely through the use of referendums. He has the ear of his community.

“A lot of people who represented the area were intimidated by Richard, and were afraid of him,” said Yaroslavsky, who represented Sherman Oaks for a number of years and was among Close’s closest allies. 

In 1976, soon after Close took over as president of SOHA, L.A. County Assessor Philip Watson began reassessing homes across Los Angeles to catch up with higher market prices. At the time, state property taxes were tied to home values, and real estate values were rising every year. Homeowners across the Valley, as in every other desirable neighborhood in the county, began receiving notices that their property taxes would double or triple with the new assessments. 

“A lot of these people were on a fixed income and could not afford the increase,” Close said.

For the previous four years, the state Legislature had discussed, but failed to implement, various proposals for property tax relief. Homeowners were up in arms, and protests began forming.

“[SOHA] organized an effort to get the state, which had a huge surplus, to use that surplus to reduce property taxes,” Close recalled. SOHA lobbied then-Gov. Jerry Brown, in his first time in the seat, to use the state’s surplus to alleviate property taxes. Protesters met with Brown, but the governor did not pursue reform. 

At the same time, Close said, anti-tax crusader Howard Jarvis had been hanging around SOHA meetings. “He had this petition, and I remembered him because he was very colorful,” Close said. Ultimately, “We viewed that his petition was the only way to get relief, so we joined with him in getting the signatures for what became Proposition 13.”

From 1977 to 1978, Close served as president of the Valley-based, independent campaign committee Californians for Proposition 13. 

Nearly two-thirds of California voters voted in favor of Proposition 13, the so-called “taxpayer revolt,” when it appeared on the ballot in 1978. In addition to limiting property taxes, Proposition 13 requires that two-thirds of both legislative houses support any future proposal to increase state tax rates, and that a two-thirds vote majority would be required for any new tax increases in municipal elections among local governments. Proposition 13 shifted the tax burden from property taxes to sales taxes in California. 

The severity of Proposition 13’s restrictions has for years made it a target among Democrats, who credit it with decimating funding for public schools and services. Despite minor changes to state and local tax rates over the years, Proposition 13 has continued to be the “third rail” of California politics since its passage. 

“I don’t blame the taxpayers and the voters for supporting Prop. 13. Prop. 13 came about because the legislature, which I was in, failed miserably to provide alternative tax relief to property owners,” said former U.S. Rep. Berman, another longtime Close ally who was a state assemblymember at the time of the Proposition 13’s passage. “We made a terrible mistake, and that’s what led to a taxpayer revolt that led to Prop. 13. We had the funds; we had a surplus at the time. We had the means to pass tax relief that wouldn’t have had the negative consequences, but we didn’t.”

Even Close acknowledges that Proposition 13 has had some negative aspects.

“Is it perfect? No. It’s not perfect because Howard Jarvis sat down and wrote it, and since local government and state government gave the public no choice, it was either Prop. 13 or tripling your property taxes,” Close said. “When government doesn’t act, the constitution in California allows the public to act.”

In the 1980s and early 1990s, however, affecting reform through government worked for Close. He became one of the leading voices of a “slow growth” movement that swept across Los Angeles at a time when the demographics of the city were changing rapidly.

In 1986, Close was a leading spokesperson for Proposition U, a ballot measure put forward by Yaroslavsky and former City Councilmember Marvin Braude that cut in half the overall size of new commercial buildings that could be built in most of Los Angeles. Former City Councilmember David Cunningham and others criticized the initiative as elitist — a case of affluent, white homeowners dictating development in low-income, minority areas of the city. 

Proposition U passed with nearly 70 percent of the vote. Fighting development remains one of Close’s primary causes.

In the late 1980s, Ventura Boulevard in Encino was the site of exactly that kind of change. High-rise office buildings were popping up all along the street. Close worried the Sherman Oaks stretch would be next.

“I come from New England. A main street is not supposed to be one shopping center after another. It’s supposed to be like Third Street Promenade [in Santa Monica], a place you walk down and there is retail, restaurants, not Ralphs, [not] Target,” Close said. 

The Ventura Boulevard Specific Plan, which Yaroslavsky championed in 1991 on behalf of SOHA and other Valley organizations, placed height restrictions and other constraints on all new developments on the Valley’s main thoroughfare from Studio City to Woodland Hills. The effect is most noticeable from the eastern end of the street, at Cahuenga Boulevard, through Studio City and into Sherman Oaks.

Close believes the specific plan “prevented the destruction of the South Valley.”

Despite these victories, Close continued to be frustrated by the way City Hall treated his region. He believed the Valley, home to about one-third of the city’s residents, did not receive its fair share of services, and that a smaller city would better respond to residents’ needs. In 1996, he joined with businessman Jeff Brian to create the pro-secession organization Valley VOTE.

The earlier Valley secession movement occurred at a time when the Valley was predominantly white. By the late 1990s, however, the San Fernando Valley had become more diverse, reflecting the demographics of the wider city; a plurality of the San Fernando Valley was Latino, and there were small Asian-American and African-American populations as well. The secessionists “had no chance of winning without reaching out to those people, but they weren’t very successful,” Sonenshein said.

“It was very difficult for [the secessionists] to make that transition. And, in fact, they were criticized for being white, moderate conservatives running the secession movement, trying to reach new minority voters,” Sonenshein added. 

Paula Boland, a Republican and a veteran of the first Valley secession movement, had for years been unsuccessfully pushing a state bill that would have made it easier for the Valley to secede by taking away the City Council’s ability to veto a proposal. Her bill died because a lot of legislators “thought it was all about Paula Boland and her political agenda,” Close said. 

But the following year, free of the racial tinge many associated with Boland’s politics, Valley VOTE persuaded one Democrat and one Republican from the state Legislature to support a similar measure. 

As Valley VOTE began collecting signatures, Yaroslavsky appointed Close to the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) for the County of Los Angeles — the board responsible for studying the viability of secession proposals.

The secession bid ultimately failed in the citywide election and received only 51 percent of the vote in the Valley, but Close believes the issue will rise again. He remains adamant in his belief that all Valley residents would be better served by an independent city.

Close supported charter reform, the city government’s 1999 overhaul, and its creation of neighborhood councils, but he says more power should be distributed to individual neighborhood groups. 

“I think the problems that created the Valley cityhood effort have not been solved,” he said. 

Although Richard Close speaks proudly of what he has accomplished by working with many politicians, he speaks most glowingly of Yaroslavsky.

Close said he and Yaroslavsky share the belief that if the public is being reasonable, then “an elected official needs to support the community unless there is some tremendously overriding reason not to.”

The admiration is mutual. “When Richard Close comes to the councilman and says, ‘Our association supports this and is against that,’ you know he is speaking for the community,” Yaroslavsky said. “That makes him a very effective community leader, and a councilmember who respects that process can only benefit from it.”

A politician who doesn’t respect the desires of SOHA, however, is a ready target for Close’s criticism. Right now he calls Ryu “a young Zev Yaroslavsky.” But Close has made his expectations clear. During the campaign, Ryu signed pledges to oppose a contested development at the Sunkist building, to sponsor an ordinance mandating that half of the revenue collected from Sherman Oaks parking meters will be used to ease traffic in Sherman Oaks, and to not grant exceptions to the Ventura Boulevard Specific Plan “except to a de minimis extent.” 

“[Ryu] made some pledges to the community that he is going to have to live with because they are in writing, and he knows that I will be the first person to raise it if he doesn’t — about transparency, about going into the community,” Close said. 

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