For developer Billy Ruvelson of Icon Company, Los Angeles City Council’s incoming president Nury Martinez is a welcome presence.
Martinez was a strong supporter of Icon at Panorama, the firm’s residential and retail redevelopment project planned in a blighted area of Panorama City. Martinez stood by the Beverly Hills-based developer after the local carpenters and laborers unions sued to stop development of the 623-unit complex at the former Montgomery Ward shopping center.
“We’ve worked with Councilmember Martinez in a very productive and positive manner,” Ruvelson said.
The Council last week elected Martinez to succeed Herb Wesson, whose complicated record on development saw him generally favor market-rate projects but also champion an affordable housing plan that seeks citywide guarantees for all new projects. Martinez was Wesson’s choice to follow him.
Martinez, who has represented the San Fernando Valley for six years as council member, will be L.A.’s first Latina council president. In the powerful post, she sets the legislative agenda — along with Mayor Eric Garcetti — and will control which bills make it to the Council floor.
“She has been in the Council’s background, so I was very surprised when she was made Council president,” said Casey Maddren, executive director of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles, an affordable housing advocacy group.
Martinez has pushed for the creation of environmentally-friendly jobs through a local “Green New Deal,” and advocated for raising the minimum wage. She has been less vocal on housing and development issues, although the council member has backed development projects in long overlooked parts of her district.
Now, she will lead the Council as it increasingly focuses on perhaps the city’s most urgent problem, a lack of affordable housing. Martinez also takes the helm — officially Jan. 14 — after the Council voted to ban development companies and their executives from contributing to city officials’ election campaigns. That Dec. 4 vote made L.A. the first city in the nation to take such a step, though good government groups criticized it for not banning indirect campaign contributions.
Through a spokesperson, Martinez declined to answer specific questions about her record and position on housing and development issues and developer influence in city elections.Martinez’s office said in an emailed statement that she would “be releasing her agenda/plan once her term” as Council president begins. That plan will include “a number of issues, including homelessness and affordable housing.”
Pushing for development
Developers, local business associations and affordable housing advocates interviewed said when it came to her district, Martinez saw big development projects as a means to revive working-class communities including Panorama City, Sun Valley, and Arleta.
“She has been pro-development,” said Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, a group that advocates for San Fernando Valley businesses and local development.
Waldman contrasts Martinez to Councilman David Ryu, who presides over a more affluent neighboring district, and who was instrumental in pushing for the developer donation ban.
“Her district isn’t a district filled with NIMBYs,” Waldman said, referring to those who oppose larger developments. “I think if David Ryu tried to enact the same policies in his district, the constituents would be up in arms.”
Added Maddren, “It’s been a real struggle to lure both businesses and residential developers to places like Panorama City.”
Deep in the Valley
Martinez has spent almost her entire life in working-class areas of the San Fernando Valley. Born in the U.S. to Mexican immigrants, she attended public schools in Pacoima before graduating from California State University-Northridge.
Martinez served on the San Fernando City Council for six years, and spent four years on the L.A. Board of Education before winning a special election to the L.A. Council in 2013.
The council member perhaps lacks a signature bill — housing and development or otherwise — but she recently co-authored a measure barring no-fault evictions prior to the state rent control law going into effect in January.
Martinez has shown a willingness to shepherd market-rate apartment developments in her district through the Council. Despite union objections, she maintained support for Icon’s Panorama project, which passed the Council unanimously in August 2018.
Going against organized labor can be a tough choice for a Democratic politician in L.A., Waldman said. “But the council member enjoyed broad local support for the project,” he said, because it targeted “one of many buildings in her district to fall into disrepair.”
Martinez also helped downtown developer Izek Shomof with his plan to create a residential and mall complex out of the 13-story Panorama Towers, which has sat vacant since the 1994 Northridge earthquake, but is now listing apartments for lease.
And she pushed through plans to tear down hotels that Waldman claimed were a site of drug dealings and prostitution. IMT Residential razed the Voyager Motor Inn at 6500 Sepulveda Boulevard, replacing it with a 160-unit apartment complex where construction is expected to be completed early next year.
“I think that she wants to change the face of the district,” Waldman said. “If you drive down Van Nuys Boulevard, there are bars on windows, and pawn shops and bail bondsmen. She wants to build more housing and complete new projects.”
Martinez became a councilwoman in 2013, a year after Wesson took the reins as Council president.
Martinez supported Wesson’s policies, but so did everyone else on a unified City Council in which 99 percent of votes are unanimous. In a motion to nominate Martinez, Wesson focused on his own legislative record. He said of Martinez, “I have no doubt that the good governance that has helped to make Los Angeles the greatest city in the world will carry on under our next president.”
Maddren and others interviewed posit Wesson may have nominated Martinez president to shore up support among Latino voters during his run for a County Board of Supervisor post. Multiple messages left with Wesson’s office were not returned.
Wesson’s track record on development was complicated to the end. In October, a Los Angeles Times investigation revealed that Wesson helped steer Michael Hakim’s Rosewood Corp.’s high-rise apartment project through the planning commission at the same time the company was providing rent breaks for his son on a different property.
Meanwhile, Wesson last month opposed a 577-unit market-rate project by Arman and Mark Gabay’s Charles Co. because it didn’t have any affordable units. The city subsequently killed the project.
That came at the same time as a sweeping plan Wesson has proposed that would require all multifamily construction in the city to have an affordable component.
Previously, Wesson had aligned himself with Councilman Jose Huizar, who led the powerful pro-development Planning Land Use and Management Committee. But Wesson stripped Huizar of his post last year, days after an FBI raid of his home and office. Huizar is under investigation for possible bribery, extortion, money laundering and conspiracy in a case that involves Downtown development projects.
Amid that probe, the Council passed its developer donation ordinance last week, which does not take effect until 2022, and does not limit indirect campaign contributions from developers to political committees.
Despite the recent measure, Maddren criticized Wesson for being too close to developers. He said the councilman was “basically shutting L.A. communities out of development issues.”
But James Elmendorf, policy director at Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy — a group that often works with council members on drafting economic and housing legislation — praised Wesson for what he called innovative work on policies that include “leading on the development of temporary housing shelters.” Elmendorf, who is an affordable housing advocate, was hopeful Martinez would continue on that path. Martinez, who has been a guest at one of LAANE’s gala dinners, is a “dynamic leader,” Elmendorf said, but one who has “big shoes to fill.”