The Council of Neighborhood Organizations (CONO), a local group led by realtor Robert Fox, hijacked a workshop-style city meeting that was intended to provide answers about the City of Long Beach’s proposed Land Use Element in an informal setting.
A city’s Land Use Element serves as a blueprint for its goals and policies concerning the area within its limits. It includes a map of allowable land uses, building types and heights. It is one element of the General Plan, which is a comprehensive guide to development in a city. State law requires cities and counties to have one, according to information from the City of Long Beach.
Robert Fox addresses the crowd at Veteran’s Park as Amy Bodek looks on. Fox claimed his group represents 124 neighborhood associations. (Business Journal photograph by Anne Artley)
The meeting, which was organized in response to residents’ concerns regarding proposed building heights and increased density in certain neighborhoods, took place on Saturday, September 30, at the Veterans Park Community Center. Information about the Land Use Element and General Plan was displayed on posters around the room. Maps of each city council district outlined the proposed changes, and city representatives were on hand to answer questions.
About 20 minutes into the meeting, a series of sharp whistles came from the back of the room. Fox and others from his organization shouted into the crowd, demanding a town hall format. He accused Amy Bodek, the city’s director of development services, of organizing the meeting as a series of stations to “spread us out and conquer us.”
“It’s so we don’t hear each other asking questions that we haven’t thought of asking,” he told a packed room of about 200 (between 50 and 100 other people were not able to enter the room due to fire codes). “This is how the city treats residents. As residents, we need to stand together and let them know how you feel about this. The city wants to divide and conquer us. What they ought to do is have the city up front. If the city has something good to sell us, they would be up there, but they’re not.”
Members of the crowd began clamoring for Bodek to step up to the stage, which she did, amidst chants of “AM-Y, AM-Y,” “Chicken!” and “You’re on the payroll!”
Bodek took to the stage to address the crowd. “The purpose of today’s meeting was to spend time in different areas of the city so we could answer very specific questions that individuals might have over concerns that they’re hearing or very specific questions related to the neighborhoods they live in,” Bodek explained. “The format of this meeting is to talk about what the General Plan is, what economic development is, what housing requirements are placed on us, and then spend some time focusing on the individual districts within the city.”
“I care about all the districts!” an audience member shouted.
“Exactly!” another replied.
Bodek clarified that the city does not plan to change any single-family residential areas but rather aims to explore increasing the density and building heights in certain commercial corridors.
“When I say density, it could range from two to three stories or four to five stories,” she said.
She also told the audience that the maps are subject to change based on resident input, which was the purpose of the meeting.
“If you can tell us very specifically if you want your corridor or your shopping center – if it ever gets redeveloped in 20, 30 or 40 years – to be kept at two or three stories, please let us know that,” Bodek said.
Bodek said though the development department would consider holding a town hall or a question-and-answer style meeting, the other three land use meetings planned for October would take the same workshop format to allow one-on-one interactions with city staff.
Audience members shouted “No!” and Bodek exited the meeting to attend what she said was a previous obligation.
From there, Fox began serving as a self-appointed moderator, fielding questions from attendees for the three development services representatives who replaced Bodek on the stage: Oscar Orci, Carrie Tai and Christopher Koontz.
One concern regarded the proximity of the commercial centers to the neighborhoods with single-family homes. Tai aimed to reassure audience members that the city would consider instating “transition areas” as a buffer between redeveloped commercial centers and residential areas.
She cited the Urban Design Element, a policy guide that focuses on “the stuff in between” building units, according to information from the city. This includes open and pedestrian space, building design and the spacing between projects.
The meeting continued in this impromptu question-and-answer format, with Fox serving as an intermediary, until about 15 minutes before its scheduled ending time.
Fox said he started CONO in 1993 as a response to the economic downturn that followed the military downsizing in Long Beach. At first, he said he was part of the Bluff Park Neighborhood Association until they re-drew the district lines in 1992. He said he then went on to form another neighborhood association in Alamitos Beach.
“There were neighborhood associations springing up all over the place,” Fox said. “We had a lot of common interests.”
Fox said he established CONO as a forum for the leaders of these associations to meet and address their concerns with the city. The group died down at the turn of the millennium, but Fox said he decided to re-activate it nine months ago when friends began expressing concerns about the Land Use Element.
At the meeting, Fox said CONO represents 124 neighborhood associations. However, he later admitted to the Business Journal that he does not have bylaws nor a board of directors, and said he has purposely stayed away from obtaining nonprofit status.
The Business Journal reached out to eight neighborhood organizations to verify their involvement with CONO. The presidents of the Wrigley Association, Belmont Heights Community Association, Bluff Heights Neighborhood Association and Willmore City Heritage Association responded and said CONO does not represent them.
Belmont Heights Community Association President Maureen Neely said she “supports the public process” and that her organization currently has no need for CONO.
Willmore City Heritage Association President Kathleen Irvine wrote a letter to the city denouncing the conduct of Fox and his organization at the Veterans Park meeting. An excerpt of the letter, which she shared with the Business Journal, stated:
“As I was looking for a space to see the boards and maps more clearly, someone began blowing a whistle and a person began speaking. Assuming that the meeting had started (although I thought more time should be given to look at those boards), I went toward the center of the room, where all the chairs (apparently not a planned staging) were, and much to my surprise, instead of city staff speaking and answering questions, Robert Fox, of the Council of Neighborhood Organizations (CONO), was talking as though it was HIS meeting – to the point where it had to be explained to some of the residents that he was not employed by the City! There were many half-truths and outright misrepresentations being spoken. The hostility of the folks in the room towards staff and other opinions was palpable, and there was so much yelling and turmoil that I did not see it being a productive event. Perhaps things calmed down later. But I, and a few others were not willing to be subjected to the vitriol, and left.”
She also wrote that, “CONO does not represent Willmore City Heritage Association, and we will be sending an email to the organization stating this.”
Wrigley Association President Adam Wolven said that although his organization shares some of the same values as CONO, “we just weren’t comfortable joining.”
He said these commonalities extend to “considering density and the negative ways it could affect the community of Wrigley,” such as a lack of parking.
The next community meeting will take place on Saturday, October 14, at 11 a.m. at Best Western Golden Sails Hotel, 6285 E. Pacific Coast Hwy. A final meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, October 18, 6 p.m. at Expo Arts Center in Bixby Knolls. For more information, visit: www.longbeach.gov/pages/city-news/long-beach-general-plan-update-is-here/.