‘Larchmont Survey’ stirs controversy

| December 30, 2021 | 0 Comments

“LARCHMONT 2021” webpage leads not only to survey but also to resources including recordings of June and July video meetings.

The Larchmont 2021 Survey [was to have been] now closed and the results being tallied (to be released later this month) but community leaders in Larchmont are warning constituents to disregard the survey and ignore its findings, due to a flawed process and misleading survey questions that ultimately have the potential to do more harm than good.

[Late breaking news: The survey may be extended. See last paragraphs of this article.]

The Windsor Square Association (WSA), whose community wholly surrounds the Larchmont Village shopping district below Beverly Boulevard, was not consulted during the process and was denied a chance to comment on survey questions before they were released, WSA President Larry Guzin told the Chronicle last month. He fears that the results of the survey — which was open to anyone with a computer, regardless of geography — will be used in the future to justify changes to the neighborhood without any significant outreach to the residents who actually live in the area.

As a result, the WSA declined to disseminate the misleading survey questions to its membership, disenfranchising from the process the 1,100 homes surrounding the shopping district, which, arguably, will be most impacted by any change to Larchmont.

“As the head of one of the two neighborhood associations that surround Larchmont, I received a draft copy of the survey secondhand,” said Guzin, noting that he was shocked that the WSA was not included in more outreach from the Larchmont 2021 group.

“We were clear from the beginning that we wanted the opinions of the residents that surround Larchmont Village to be heard,” said Guzin.

Guzin explained that, among his concerns, “there was not enough foundational information given” in regard to the survey questions, which involve complicated and sensitive issues such as land-use and alcohol-use permits.

“I raised the issue that we were having a board meeting and that we would like the opportunity to view the survey questions at that meeting; we wanted a reasonable amount of time to review the document,” said Guzin. But the questions were made public days later anyway.

SAMPLE QUESTION (one of 20) from Larchmont 2021 online survey.

Larchmont 2021
“I’m not surprised,” Guzin adds. “The mission statement for the Larchmont 2021 group has all along been the financial stability of the shopping district, not the interests of the residents that surround it.”

The Larchmont 2021 group was commissioned at the March 2021 board meeting of the Larchmont Boulevard Association (LBA), which represents the merchants on Larchmont from First Street to Melrose. Pandemic-related changes to Larchmont, such as outdoor table installations replacing metered parking spaces, were in full use at the time, and the LBA concluded that it would be a good moment to generate discussion about possible improvements to the Boulevard.

LBA Board Member Patty Lombard, publisher of the Larchmont Buzz website, was tapped by LBA President John Winther to lead the committee. She set up an organizing group of four people: architect, urban planner and Windsor Village resident John Kaliski, Windsor Square resident and writer Gary Gilbert, Heather Duffy Boylston, who represents property owners via the Larchmont Village Business Improvement District and Lombard herself.

At that time, Lombard told us that she was planning to conduct a series of learning and listening sessions, and once complete, she would “engage a larger working group of stakeholders representing the various other groups in the neighborhood,” as this paper reported in its May 2021 issue.

That promise was never fulfilled, according to people interviewed for this article, who say that the committee of four people has acted unilaterally without any significant outreach to the organizations that they are said to represent.

LBA left out
“Who they are surveying, I am not sure,” LBA President Winther told the Chronicle by telephone last month.

Winther says that Lombard has not reported back to the LBA on her work with the Larchmont 2021 group and that the LBA was never sent the survey questions when — much less before — they were publicly released.

“I was surprised to have received the survey from someone secondhand,” said Winther.

The LBA represents the people who run the businesses, explains Winther: “It’s a nice mix of people. But we have the most to lose and the most to gain in an enhanced Boulevard. Members are concerned about their businesses surviving, but we have to also fit into the community that we serve.”

Winther says that the Larchmont shopping district is a “balancing act” between businesses and residents. And he is adamant that small business owners be fully included in any debate on Larchmont’s future.

“Currently, our street closes down at a reasonable time. No liquor. And the Q conditions help to maintain small store-size to keep the scale down. These are small compromises between business and residents,” says Winther. The “Q” conditions, which have been in place since the early 1990s, limit the number of banks, real estate offices and food establishments on Larchmont to preserve the area’s character and local-serving retail uses.

“Larchmont is a small street with small problems. But it seems like these four people are seeking big solutions suited for big problems. I don’t know what they hope to accomplish,” Winther concludes.

Flawed process, survey
So, what’s so bad about the now infamous survey, anyway?

To find out, we contacted Windsor Square resident Amy Forbes, who is a partner at law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, where she serves as co-chair for the Land Use Practice Group. Forbes also serves on the WSA Board and has been following the Larchmont 2021 process with concern over the past couple of months.

“I am completely opposed to this unscientific, manipulative poll being used to achieve what appears to be a pre-determined end: bars, more restaurants and hard liquor on Larchmont, and a reopening of the Q condition,” said Forbes. “The questions seem innocuous enough, until you get to questions 13, 14, 15 and 16. Then it is clear that the survey has a purpose.”

Forbes points out that there is no way of knowing who the survey respondents are, if they actually live in the neighborhood or whether they have any background on the issues.

“It’s not a legitimate scientific survey,” says Forbes. That requires a random sample (you get a list of residents and reach them by phone or online, or both). Then you weigh results to the actual population per the local census data, she explains.

“The key is that you randomly interview — you can’t let people self-select and just take a survey off an email.

“And yet the proponents want this survey to be the underpinning of future policy decisions as if it truly represents the view of the neighborhood,” Forbes cautions.

The entire Larchmont 2021 process has focused on commercial interests, according to Forbes, who says that it then “isn’t a shocker” that the poll seems weighted towards things the property owners on Larchmont might want to see changed in the land use restrictions.

Things could have been different, explains Forbes, had the Larchmont 2021 group made more targeted outreach and offered a fair assessment of whether you can actually have “just one or two” hard liquor licenses issued (you cannot) and a clear acknowledgment that once a conditional use permit to allow liquor / bars has issued, it “runs with the land,” and there is no guarantee who the next operator will be.

At a minimum, the release of the survey should have waited for the WSA’s December meeting to allow the board to deliberate and thoughtfully review the questions, she insists.

“I have represented developers for 37 years. I support new development, and I believe in and support a healthy retail environment on Larchmont,” says Forbes. “But this small group of four should not be dictating the outcome and deliberately choosing to implement a process that is neither fair nor balanced.”

Lombard responds
In her response the night before the Chronicle was going to press — to the questions posed ten days earlier — Lombard said that she had no knowledge that the WSA was dissatisfied with the Larchmont 2021 process and survey questions, and she noted that nearly 600 survey responses had already been collected.

“We haven’t heard any complaints from the local HOAs,” said Lombard.

“Gary [Gilbert] has been dealing with his colleagues in WSA but I think many residents have received it [the survey] through the Buzz or on Nextdoor or through the GWNC [Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council] email list,” explained Lombard, noting that the survey also was posted on social media and in the windows of some Larchmont retailers.

“I think all our outreach demonstrates that we are doing what we said to engage as many people as possible in thinking about the future of Larchmont,” said Lombard.

She added that “we are thinking of closing the survey on 12/31 but [if] you would like to run the QR code … we would be happy to keep it open an extra week.” The QR code she sent is reproduced here, and maybe the survey will still be open when you read this.

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