Los Angeles’ Least Cool Councilmember Kills Its Coolest Street
Do you remember when Melrose Avenue was the coolest street in the world? Paul Koretz should.
Koretz is an Angeleno of a certain age. Today, he’s the city councilmember representing Los Angeles Council District 5, which includes Melrose. Thirty-five years ago, he would have known the heyday of Wacko, Delicious Vinyl, l.a. Eyeworks, the Matrix Theater, and Aardvark’s Odd Ark. Green hair, mohawks, chains, nose piercings, knee-high boots, movie stars, drag queens, weathered leather jackets, small dogs on studded leashes, boom boxes, New Wave blaring from convertibles, and the future Red Hot Chili Peppers cutting class at Fairfax High.
Koretz would have known when rising rents pushed out some of the stores and when that moment of cool got just a little overripe. By the time Melrose got its own TV show in 1992, the scene was played out, the new malls had taken over, and no one was quite sure where pop culture or counterculture were headed. (As it turns out, they converged in grunge.)
What Paul Koretz was doing all this time, I have no idea. I am certain, though, that he wasn’t hanging out on Melrose. Because Paul Koretz is just about the least-cool person I can imagine. Even if he was cooler 35 years ago than he is now, his coolness is so astoundingly imperceptible today that it’s impossible to think that at any point in his existence he would have been anything other than terrified of, and resentful toward, Melrose.
Unfortunately, some very uncool people grow up to be city council members. Even in Los Angeles.
Especially in Los Angeles.
The old Melrose was odd and organic, with almost zero setbacks between storefronts and the sidewalk and surely the longest unbroken stretch of retail frontage in Los Angeles—more than 15 blocks of it. The storefronts are too small for chains, and almost none of them have parking. Which is, of course, what makes it so great. Its heyday has passed, however, inherited by other streets in other neighborhoods, other cities—but none with the mystique, or the sheer length, of Melrose.
Melrose will not be cool again any time soon. But formerly cool places can still become nicer places. Melrose could have been $50 million nicer.
That’s how much the California Department of Transportation might have granted the city of L.A.—granted, not loaned—to turn Melrose into Los Angeles’s most complete, highest-profile Complete Street. Uplift Melrose would have replaced a lane of traffic with bike lanes, seating areas, and sidewalk bulb-outs. It would have planted shade trees and installed new streetlights and crosswalks.
The rendering looks like it’s from the cover of a Complete Streets manual. And the project generated the type of consensus that planners dream about.
It was sponsored by the local business improvement district and, according to Streetsblog, it “enjoyed broad local support, including from the Mid-City West Community Council and the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council.” Storekeepers wanted it. Pedestrian advocates wanted it. Bike advocates wanted it. YIMBYs wanted it. L.A.’s Bureau of Street Services collaborated on it. I can guarantee you that members of the planning and transportation departments supported it. It would have furthered the city’s Vision Zero goals.
Then Paul Koretz crashed the party.
Koretz’s Council District includes Melrose, and he single handedly killed Uplift Melrose. Why? Because although he represents 260,000 Angelenos, Koretz has traditionally hewed to the city’s most vehemently obstructionist homeowners in, perhaps not coincidentally, one of the city’s whitest districts (74% vs. 49% citywide).
Koretz has previously killed housing and bike lanes. He opposed Senate Bill 50. He was among the handful of Los Angeles–area elected officials who led the opposition to SB 1120, the otherwise popular bill that would have permitted widespread development of duplexes on lots currently zoned as single-unit.
Streetsblog reports that one of the main opponents to Uplift Melrose was Fix the City, which Streetsblog describes as a “notorious NIMBY group” that has routinely opposed active transportation. It’s no wonder that Koretz’s district includes Westwood, which, thanks to the imposition of restrictive zoning, has distinguished itself as simultaneously the worst college town and most underperforming urban district in America. UCLA’s student newspaper called him “perennially out of touch.”
Council District 5 is one big lawn, and Koretz and his supporters want everyone else to get off of it.
In a statement, Koretz writes vaguely, “As more outreach was done, and discussions of positives and negatives have taken place, concerns have been expressed by many in the residential community.” He then cites a litany of safety-related objections, claiming that narrower streets and scourges such as raised crosswalks would impede emergency response vehicles. In other words, Koretz is taking a page from the age-old auto-centric playbook: When threatened by something awesome, always contrive a safety-related concern.
None of this will surprise planners who have spent any amount of time advocating for complete streets and pedestrian improvements. Obstruction happens all the time. What’s so astounding, though, is the degree to which Kortez’s decision runs contrary to everything that progressive urbanists have been fighting for—especially during the pandemic—and contrary to everything Los Angeles supposedly stands for.
Not every city has a Melrose. But every city has a Paul Koretz. And that’s the problem. For every Paul Koretz, there are countless residents, planners, and designers who want their cities to be better. Maybe not global trendsetters. But a little nicer. A little more fun. A little more distinctive. Their goals wither in the presence of a dork with a gavel. (Granted, a lot of architects are probably a little too cool sometimes.)
Let’s set aside the insult to the planners who worked on Uplift Melrose and consider how monumentally tragic it is that a city that is a major pop culture trendsetter for the world has some of the lamest city government officials in the world.
Richard Florida has made a career out of promoting coolness and, allowing for some legitimate criticisms of him, he’s at least half-right. Quality of life and even economic prosperity (though not necessarily equity) usually go hand-in-hand with dining, entertainment, nightlife, creative arts, design, shopping, and public life. An urban politician—especially one in a global media capital—should appreciate what it means to have a drink, eat a meal, take a stroll, ride a bike, go shopping, see a play, or get hearing damage at a club.
Aside from simple civic pride, economic vitality, aesthetics, social justice, and all the other benefits that stem from simple awareness of the world, it matters because an uncool government is a repellant government, and a repellant government correlates with a disengaged citizenry. When soporific bumblers like Koretz are in charge, only the most dedicated gadflies and self-interested homeowners are going to pay attention. This creates a vicious cycle of civic indifference among everyone else.
I realize that all of this sounds like high school. So be it. To quote noted political scientist Amanda Bynes in What I Like About You: “Everything is high school.” The fact is, cool matters, and cool matters in cities. Just ask Flea and Anthony Kedis. Ask the city’s early-career planners who are working hard to promote everything from equity to housing to pedestrianism. Ask the remaining ’80s-era storekeepers who are trying to hang on. Ask the young Angelenos who, despite everything, still believe Los Angeles is a place where dreams come true. Ask Heather Locklear, who’s probably still around here somewhere.
Just don’t ask Paul Koretz.
Featured image: Melrose Avenue via YouTube.