LA’s City Hall Dems have Become the Party of Big Real Estate … It’s Crocodile Tears for the Rest of Us

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-Here’s an election curiosity: Why did the big real estate companies dedicated to keeping pay-to-play for Los Angeles City Council spot-zoning in motion, hire Parke Skelton’s and Michael Shiplock’s Pasadena-based SG&A campaign firm? Since that firm’s clients are Democrats, on the surface it looks like an odd fit. On one side you have a high profile campaign firm, SG&A, who knows how to sway voters who care about social justice issues, like progressive Bernie supporters, and whose clients are Democrats. 

But, on the other side there is their current client, the 10 large real estate firms opposing measure S and whose business operations have nothing to do with social justice issues. These companies are totally focused on making as much money as possible through highly profitable real estate investments (e.g., mega-projects), some of them speculative. In the past, their businesses used to build tract housing and strip malls, but, responding to new real estate realities, their in-fill projects now range from high-rise luxury mega-projects, like 8150 Sunset, to McMansions and Small Lot Subdivisions. 

My explanation, largely derived from well-known studies by NYU’s and UC Santa Barbara’s Harvey Molotch is that municipal level Democratic Party officials, like Mayors Villaraigosa and Garcetti, are a lynch pin of big city urban growth machines. Once you understand this, it makes perfect sense that the big real estate firms opposed to Measure S would hire SG&A. They need someone who can convincingly dress up greed, corruption, and sweet heart deals in liberal-appearing garments, and they found it. 

SG&A is a campaign firm that can square this circle. They can take vast sums from real estate firms showering City Hall officials with campaign contributions and still mobilize the liberal Democratic base through a laundry list of disingenuous claims. They have mastered the art of appealing to low information liberal voters, especially those who follow the lead of well-meaning non-profits unwittingly on the same wave length of Big Real Estate. What SG&A apparently figured out through their focus groups is that these two groups share a faith in market magic, and their “No on S” campaign has exploited this to the hilt with these themes: 

  • In the name of affordable housing, we should green light all types of housing, even illegal residential projects for the very rich that the LA City Council approves through spot-zoning.
  • In the name of environmental sustainability, we should green light luxury housing complexes proposed for low density areas because they sometimes happen to be near transit corridors and subway stations.
  • In the name of job creation, we should green light mega-projects built by companies who claim they are job producers, yet could care less about unions or their own employees. 

My term for this campaign strategy is crying buckets of crocodile tears. At other times I have called it a liberal head fake. Either way it means that SG&A has mounted its campaign against Measure S by alleging, in so many words, that LA’s spot-zoning, pay-to-pay status quo is progressive, while recurring efforts to reign in uncontrolled real estate speculation in LA through law suits and voter initiatives represent a conservative, right-wing, “NIMBY” agenda. 

In this upside down world, regulation of land use through planning and zoning is a scheme hatched by an entrenched old guard, while scuttling planning and zoning is the truly progressive approach. The beneficiaries of this deregulation, Democratic Party officials at City Hall and real estate speculators, of course, disappear completely through this slight-of-hand deception. 

To get a better understanding of how the No on S campaign fills their buckets with crocodile tears, let’s critically examine five of the major faux “liberal” claims against Measure S. They are all couched in progressive-sounding themes that camouflage the Wild West land use model that the Big Real Estate firms and their well-compensated City Hall abettors so appreciate. 

Crocodile Tears Claim 1: Measure S will stop development in Los Angeles. 

The term “development” has a nice progressive ring to it, but this allegation is flat-out wrong. Even though the No on S campaign only addresses the concerns of its paymasters, getting approvals for private real estate projects, Measure S would not impact any public works projects, such as the Purple Line Subway Extension. As for private real estate projects, it only affects a small percentage, mostly luxury buildings. Each year, LA’s Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) processes about 100,000 permits. Of these, about 600 projects depend on the City Council legislative actions targeted by Measure S. These are almost entirely luxury projects, and with few or none affordable units. 

This is why City Planning’s recent Citywide Metrics Report notes that only two percent of new housing units in Los Angeles are affordable, and they result from density bonuses in which they City Council plays legislative no role. They are in-house quasi-ministerial cases, and they do not require the spot-General Plan amendments and spot-zone changes blocked by Measure S. 

Crocodile Tears Claim 2: Measure S is a housing ban. 

Many of LADBS’s 100,000 annual permits involve housing, and they will continue to process these by-right projects. Their plan checkers and field inspectors will be as busy as ever. This work also includes residential projects with affordable rental units built on commercial lots, where LA’s zoning laws allow by-right construction. Furthermore, about 80 percent of the 3000 annual building permit cases that City Planning reviews do not involve any City Council legislative actions. These cases, too, are exempt from Measure S, as are 100 percent affordable housing projects. 

Crocodile Tears Claim 3: Measure S stops the construction of affordable housing. 

As discussed above, this allegation, too, is totally wrong. Only two percent of new housing in Los Angeles is affordable, and according to the Department of City Planning’s Citywide Metric’s report, this two percent is built through density bonuses, not the parcel-specific City Council land use ordinances that Measure S blocks. 

For that matter, Measure S is fully consistent with the construction of Measure HHH affordable housing on all City of LA-owned lots that are already zoned for residential and commercial uses. In the words of City Controller Ron Galperin, The City of Los Angeles—on behalf of its residents and taxpayers—owns a vast portfolio of real estate, encompassing nearly 9,000 distinct parcels within the County of Los Angeles alone. These include parks; libraries; municipal facilities; parking lots, and commercial, industrial, retail, office and residential buildings and vacant land.” 

Crocodile Tears Claim 4: Measure S is a job killer. 

This claim is based on a Beacon Economics study paid for the big real estate companies funding SG&A’s No on S campaign. But, it is built on a faulty assumption: if real estate firms can no longer obtain pay-to-play spot-zones for their unplanned projects in Los Angeles, they will bolt to other cities. 

There is no evidence for this claim. Nearby well-planned cities that do not engage in these unethical political practices, such as Santa Monica and Pasadena, generate many construction jobs without handing out zone changes and General Plan amendments to real estate developers LA-style. 

Crocodile Tears Claim 5: Measure S promotes urban sprawl and undercuts sustainability. 

This claim harkens back to old land use disputes in Los Angeles, as well as a critique of zoning in some urban planning circles that planning and zoning are tools of the rich. In LA, however, reality is just the opposite. It is the big real estate firms, and those connected to them who have become anti-zoning and anti-planning, not LA’s residents. Furthermore, if these anti-zoning groups bothered to look at the adopted plans they disparage, they would discover that they are all anti-sprawl. Measure S calls for these official documents to be updated and then meticulously followed, not ignored or overturned on behalf of big developers with big pockets who prefer an un-planned Los Angeles. 

Furthermore, sustainability policies and programs are woven through the new Mobility Element, as well as the older elements, such as the General Plan Framework, Land Use, Air Quality, Open Space, and Conservation. Anyone who claims that a voter initiative to strengthen LA’s General Plan and City Charter is really a stalking horse for sprawl has clearly never studied the planning documents they so glibly malign and are ready to dispose of.


(Dick Platkin is a former LA city planner who reports on local planning issues in Los Angeles for CityWatch LA. Please send your comments and corrections to Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.