Weekly Report – January 25, 2016

The most important tools of local government for shaping the economy are indirect but very powerful over the long term – land use and transportation.

A newly formed group – Coalition to Preserve LA – contends that L.A. city government is not doing a very good job adhering to its General Plan, which provides the framework for land use and traffic policies.

They feel so strongly about the issue they are advancing a ballot measure – Neighborhood Integrity Initiative – for the November 2016 election, that if passed, would establish a moratorium of up to two years for any development project that requires a City Council vote to increase the number of housing units allowed on a particular site. The moratorium would be lifted more quickly if city officials show they have updated various “community plans,” documents that spell out how individual neighborhoods may be developed.

More specifically the measure would:

  • Halt individual parcel-by-parcel or ‘spot zone’ amendments and/or building exemptions;
  • Enact a temporary, two-year moratorium on building or demolition permits for projects that do not adhere to existing City planning regulations and/or for which the City granted a General Plan amendment, or zone or height change;
  • Take the preparation of a project’s required Environmental Impact Report (EIR) out of the hands of developers; and
  • Limit a developer’s ability to reduce required parking for building developments.

The Coalition to Preserve LA will need to collect 61,486 valid signatures to qualify the proposal for the ballot and if they prevail, the city council will need to decide whether to adopt the proposal as an ordinance or put it on a future ballot.

Supporters’ Argument 

For the past decade multistory residential buildings have been going up in downtown L.A., Hollywood and other neighborhoods to develop more housing units for L.A.’s growing population and to connect these residences to current and future public transit options.

Community groups contend that politics is trumpeting sound planning through City Hall’s use of “spot-zoning”, which grants exceptions to the city’s planning requirements or changes to the general plan for a single project – i.e. – bigger and taller structures on already-occupied land that contains older, livable and affordable housing. They also contend that these developments are increasing traffic congestion and eroding “neighborhood integrity” and their quality of life.

Opponents’ Argument

The initiative, if passed, would slow new developments in L.A. by requiring city planners and developers to stick to L.A.’s General Plan, a set of city planning guidelines that are now more than two decades old and don’t align with the needs for denser communities that will better accommodate the need for more housing units and create connectivity with L.A.’s expanding public transportation system.

Secondly, there are 18.6 million parking spaces occupying valuable land throughout the City and current zoning rules require developments to provide a larger than needed amount of parking to tenants and visitors, which incentivizes more driving, increasing traffic and deters the use of public transportation. If passed, the measure would restrict officials from reducing the amount of on-site parking required at new developments, ensuring that new developments remain small, favoring horizontal sprawl over vertical growth.

Approximately 200,000 people live within a quarter-mile of a transit stop in L.A. County, but six times that number – 1.24 million – live within one mile of a transit stop. Research shows that if these people used transit as often as those who live a quarter-mile from a stop, ridership would increase by 70,000 riders – a 19 percent increase on Metro rail lines.

Thirdly, by limiting growth in L.A.’s jobs centric communities, like Hollywood, housing remains in high demand, home values remain high and fewer opportunities exist for younger workers and people new to the city to live closer to job opportunities. A recent UCLA study found that restricting the density of a neighborhood increases housing prices overall, “exacerbating the concentration of affluence.” Finding affordable apartments is especially tough in Los Angeles, where 52 percent of people are renters and residents need to make $33 an hour to afford the average apartment.

The Backstory 

California law requires that all cities and counties prepare a general plan that includes such elements as land use, open space, housing, seismic safety and public safety. In 1971, the city adopted its first “specific plan” as a means of implementing the general plan. State law requires cities to update their general plans periodically.

L.A.’s general plan is divided into 35 community plans, and some of the community plan areas are larger than some of the 88 cities in L.A. County. In the case of Hollywood, one of the more contentious areas, the plan was last updated in 1988.

In 2006 Gail Goldberg became planning director for the City of L.A. and she proposed to embark on a program of “real planning,” updating three community plans at a time and including Hollywood in the first round of updates. There was a clear rationale for this since the existing Hollywood Community Plan was outdated, there was a lot of development pressure in Hollywood, and the development of the Metro Red Line had changed the context for planning and development.

After that came years of staff work and more than 120 community meetings. The new community plan proposed denser, taller developments, emphasizing areas by the new transit stations. It also added 13,000 new residential units over a period of about 18 years.

That plan was adopted by the L.A. City Planning Commission and adopted by the L.A. City Council in June 2012, but three community groups decided to sue to stop the plan. They alleged that the City had violated the California Environmental Quality Act and they alleged that the City had relied upon unfounded population projections and failed to consider alternatives.

Then in December 2013 Superior Court Judge Allan J. Goodman ruled with the plaintiffs and threw out the plan. As a result, about 18 projects entered the legal zone known as limbo and were to be considered under the provisions of the 1988 Hollywood Community Plan.

Other cities in Southern California such as Santa Monica and Pasadena have been able to keep their general plans up to date, and yet the City of L.A. doesn’t seem to have the political will to do this? Why is that?

Some experts contend that community plans are kind of like the stepchild of planning. Planners don’t like having to do them, but they must. Cities don’t like following them. Planners do the community plan, put it in a drawer, and never really look at it again.

One of the things Gail Goldberg talked about was the idea that L.A.’s community plans in the update process would be individualized and unique to the neighborhood. They would anticipate infrastructure, schools, churches, fire, and police.

The hurdle? L.A. is a vast city and city councilmembers have a large amount of constituents within a huge geographic variations making the fabric of L.A.’s 35 community plans. Hollywood, for example, has hillsides, dense urban areas, and ethnic neighborhoods, that makes the planning process a lot more difficult.

Big developers know this and have more resources to go through the long, arduous process with a good lawyer, a good Environmental IR consultant, and a good community relations consultant – i.e. the Hollywood and Vine project in Hollywood was successful only after a multi-year process and millions of dollars were spent. The reality is Hollywood projects has a 90 percent litigation rate and some people are doing it for environmental outsourcing and personal benefit.

The medium and little projects are the most impacted, having to go through a general plan amendment and zone change to change those now outdated pieces embedded in the old plan. So a project that might pencil with a shorter and more administrative process might flounder on the lengthy general plan.

Final Thoughts

Christopher Hawthorne, the architecture critic for the L.A. Times, sees this issue through the lens of history. L.A.’s success was always based on continuous growth and has always been in flux, prizing newness and change. At the same time it formed as a horizontal City that passed municipal height limits before WWI and doubled down on privatization after WWII.

The remarkable thing about L.A. is that it was for a long time roomy enough to accommodate both sets of ideals, even though they’re clearly at odds. But now something has to give and all Angelenos from the private and public sectors need to have a more substantive conversation about what precisely we are trying or want to preserve.

It would be helpful if L.A.’s longtime homeowners who are in opposition to L.A.’s further development acknowledge that they are among the most fortunate property owners in U.S. history, thanks to the magical combination of Prop 13 and skyrocketing values.

It would also be helpful that those residents who think density and a more vertical city are goals worth pursuing should consider how often in L.A.’s history think through the ideal of low- and mid-rise cosmopolitanism and whether it has been an affirmative, positive and even forward-looking one, rather than reactionary one.

Finally, and perhaps most important, we should ask that the dedicated opponents of the planning status quo, with all its flaws, put forth a set of ideas about what kind of city they want L.A. to be in the future, relating to industry, affordability, sustainability, environment impact, etc.

One person leading the charge, L.A. City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who has been leading an effort to limit the scale of development in some locations, winning approval of more restrictive height limits in sections of Echo Park and Elysian Valley. At the same time he argues that denser development makes sense in the Hollywood section of his district, which has a series of subway stops and Rapid bus lines.

The L.A. Coalition has the ability to weigh in on this issue and if you would like to know more please let me know.