Lincoln Heights locals, organizers and advocates run for neighborhood council on land justice platform

View from Flat Top Park at sunset. Saturday Feb. 21, 2021. Mira Tarabeine/The Occidental.

In Lincoln Heights, a slate of locals, community organizers and advocates are running for their neighborhood council on a platform built on land justice. In particular, Flat Top, a 38-acre hilltop bordering Lincoln Heights and Montecito Heights, has been a site of major tension between community members and residential developers seeking to convert the land into luxury homes, according to members of the slate.

The Lincoln Heights Intel Slate is composed of community members and organizers, including Sara Clendening and Fernanda Sanchez, active members of the Lincoln Heights Intel and FreeFlatTop community organizations. According to Clendening and Sanchez, who are running for President and Secretary of the neighborhood council respectively, the slate’s platform centers issues such as community management of land, renters’ rights, anti-gentrification, anti-displacement and protections for unhoused people. 

Lincoln Heights Intel Slate of neighborhood council candidates. Image from Feb. 23, 2021

“Our slate is composed of a bunch of these people who happened to live in the areas that need representation,” Clendening said. “We’re running for 11 seats, and six have already been won, pretty much, because they’re unopposed.”

According to Clendening and Sanchez, developers seeking to build on Flat Top could not garner community support during Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Council meetings if they did not have prior connections with community members.

“During the public comments section, there were so many community members speaking out against [these projects] because they completely disrupt the integrity of our community and [they’re] encroaching on the land that’s up there,” Sanchez said. “And all of the people that spoke in favor of [these projects] were either associated with the developers, or they were friends.”

According to Roy Payan, president of the Montecito Heights Improvement Association since 2007 and longtime community member, a portion of Flat Top was previously owned by Aimee Semple McPherson’s Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Payan said church board members approached him in 2011 with a proposal to build 50 luxury homes on the land.

“At the time, we were going through a big real estate meltdown,” Payan said. “We were not selling, so when they came up with a proposal to build these homes for 1.3 million, we said, ‘No, absolutely not. You’re going to create a bigger problem for us because we already have 150 homes that we have to try and keep protected.’”

Payan said he communicated to church officials that any attempt to build luxury homes on the land was going to cost them a large sum.

“We finally told them, ‘Look, it won’t be worth it, you’re not going to make that much money and in the process, we’re going to smear your name for doing this because you’re doing something to impact our community that’s not favorable to us,’” Payan said.

In response to his efforts, Payan said the Church of the Foursquare Gospel gave up the land, and the property on Flat Top was eventually acquired by Northeast Trees, a Los Angeles-based land conservation organization, with the goal of improving the natural environment on Flat Top. According to Diego Zapata ’19, nursery manager at Northeast Trees, and Area 4 Representative candidate on the Lincoln Heights Intel Slate, Flat Top is a critical habitat for the bioregion.

“The Southern California black walnut is one of our most endangered trees in Los Angeles,” Zapata said. “It’s actually a protected tree [on Flat Top], but that doesn’t stop people from cutting them down and building houses over them.”

Zapata, whose family has lived in Lincoln Heights for three generations and whose job at Northeast Trees is to produce the local plant material that gets planted at Flat Top, said the fragmentation of the land between multiple jurisdictions has negatively impacted the plant and animal biodiversity on Flat Top. According to Zapata, ownership has been split over the years among various entities, including the Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation, Northeast Trees and private individuals.

“The habitat is fragmented into isolated patches — there’s less gene flow, so genetic bottlenecks are occurring. Invasive plants that are colonizing the area are posing a threat to native plant life as well,” Zapata said. 

Payan echoed Zapata’s concern over the consequences on Flat Top’s wildlife as a result of development.

“Throughout the decades, because of encroachment from development, a lot of the wildlife up there has died,” Payan said. “I remember going up there with my brother when we were kids, we were getting chased by different types of roadrunners and pheasants that would nest in the ground. All of that is gone. The trapdoor spiders, the tarantulas, the alligator lizards, they’re all gone.”

According to Clendening, there is also a lack of environmental protection standards in place to protect the Flat Top land from development. 

“You have to get environmental clearance so they let the developers hire their own environmental people,” Clendening said. “In environmental cases for these houses, the city says that there are no redeeming qualities about the landscape, that it’s an urban landscape with gas stations and no wildlife or habitats that need to be protected. It’s crazy.”

Clendening and Sanchez said that not only is building on Flat Top and its hillsides not desired by community members, but it is not practical and poses a risk to the solidity of the land itself. According to Clendening, Flat Top is made of the sedimentary rock sandstone, making it more susceptible to both mud and landslides in the area.

Clendening said it was important to consider the effects development will have on the land long after the shelters are gone. 

“It becomes like a table with three legs,” Clendening said. 

According to Zapata, residential development on Flat Top poses a major risk not just to the animal and plant life on the hilltop, but also to the well-being of the Lincoln Heights community. 

“It will just add to the environmental justice [issues] that Lincoln Heights faces,” Zapata said. “We have two major highways that run along our borders, we have a legacy of the impact of heavy metals from the industrial activity that ran along the Los Angeles River. We have among the lowest tree canopy in our community, so we have lots of urban heat island effect and horrible air quality, and if we were to lose Flat Top, then I can’t even imagine what that would do to the day-to-day lives of Lincoln Heights residents.” 

Clendening, Sanchez, Zapata and Payan said they all believe preserving Flat Top is vital to defending the rights of local Lincoln Heights residents. 

“If we were to lose Flat Top, we lose our identity, and if you lose your identity, you lose a sense of community and then there’s no way of really organizing ourselves and advocating for ourselves,” Zapata said. “It all comes down when Flat Top comes down