PLATKIN ON PLANNING--If you follow social media, like CityWatch or the mainstream media, like the LA Times, then you have probably heard of the recently proposed Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. If not, expect to hear a great deal about it, both pro and con, over the next year. Its sponsor is a new civic organization, the Coalition to Preserve LA, although many other citywide and neighborhood groups will soon line up in support of the initiative. Developers, of course, will dig deep into their pockets to oppose it.
This is because the initiative would comprehensively amend the City of LA’s planning and zoning ordinances. Once adopted, it would quickly take the wind out of the sails of runaway real estate speculation in Los Angeles. Depending on where you live or work, this speculation takes many visible forms that are already impacting your lives, such as mansionization, small lot subdivisions, SB 1818 Density Bonus incentives, and high-rise buildings, especially in Hollywood.
In nearly all of these cases local communities are opposed to projects that not only clash with local character and scale, but also overwhelm LA’s rickety public infrastructure and inadequate public services.
Despite these glaring problems, local communities must nevertheless undertake large-scale local mobilizations to flood Council offices and the Department of City Planning with written comments. At the same time, they must also attend workshops and public hearings in mass to present testimony. In some cases, local communities are forced to hire attorneys to thwart the various slights-of-hand the City undertakes to approve many of these projects, often in cahoots with investors and expediters.
Should City Hall follow its own laws? It is a great irony that the essence of these communications, public testimony, and lawsuits invariably boils down to a basic unifying principle. The City of LA needs to follow the law, both its own municipal ordinances and State of California’s legislation, regulations, and legal precedents.
For those who have lived in Los Angeles for more than a few decades, this situation is hardly new. In the immediate post-WWII period developers quickly turned the small farms of the San Fernando Valley into endless suburban tracts. In the Valley this building boom proceeded so quickly and carelessly that important urban amenities, like sidewalks and rain gutters, were never built. While this cost cutting lined the pockets of the investors, it also left many Valley neighborhoods with permanent, subpar infrastructure.
Later, in the 1960’s other real estate speculators replaced thousands of single-family homes with “ding-bat” apartments. These are those plain, boxy, two and three story wood frame apartments with ground floor parking. As revealed by the 1992 Northridge earthquake, many of the ding-bats are too spindly to withstand serious ground shaking. The City is now requiring them to be seismically upgraded, but no one knows if the Big One will hit before landlords complete this massive job.
Still later, in the 1990s, there was another real estate boom in Los Angeles, this one – still ongoing -- moved from the far reaches of suburbia to older neighborhoods on both sides of the Hollywood Hills. This time, however, after “Sprawl hit the Wall,” many local communities quickly organized and then extracted minor concessions form City Hall. This is one reason why Los Angeles has such a crazy quilt of small overlay districts, such as Specific Plans, Historical Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZs), Residential Floor Area Districts (RFAs), and Community Plan Implementation Overlay Districts (CPIOs).
While these and related acronyms may differ, these special zoning districts all have something in common. They are small areas. They address an immediate problem by, essentially, oiling a squeaky wheel. Where real estate speculation is most rampant and where neighbors are most organized, City Hall reluctantly responds with a compact overlay district. Think of it as a band aid for a scraped knee when the underlying problem is a broken leg.
What City Hall does not fix is the actual problem, a planning process that is so low key that City Hall’s major planning activity is site-specific amendments to existing General Plan maps. This is why the City Planning Department has historically had more planners devoted to these project-specific General Plan amendments than to updating General Plan elements or preparing new ones, such as Climate Change.
But, an outdated and overlooked General Plan is only part of the problem. The other part is zoning laws that conflict with the needs of some real estate projects. In LA Building and Safety sends at least 3000 cases per year to City Planning for the underlying zones and/or plan designations to be altered. These all require unique approvals, and this is the bulk of City Planning’s day-to-day work program.
While this approval process can temporarily slow down individual projects, it seldom stops them. This is because LA’s elected and appointed officials approve nearly every project that comes their way. Almost all get a green light, but with a long list of conditions, few of which are enforced until local residents submit multiple complaints of code violations.
Purpose of the Initiative: The purpose of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative is to stop these many backdoor processes that undermine LA’s legally adopted plans and zones.
I invite all readers to take a careful look at the initiative. If you agree, then get ready to roll up your sleeves when the initiative goes before the voters because there will be a ferocious campaign against it from the reborn Urban Growth Machine. All of the vested interests whose business model depends of what they self-servingly call “growth,” will pay handsomely to keep the growth machine in motion.
We can count on them to spend millions, spinning their projects as “change,” “progress,” and “infill.” But it will be hard to fool LA’s voters since they can plainly see behind the curtain. They know that gentrification, mansionization, and densification are now pervasive in Los Angeles. Furthermore, they also know that the growth machine only cares about its pet projects, not the public services and infrastructure (e.g., streets) required to support all of those new buildings, along with their tenants, employees, and customers.
To help you, these are the most important provisions of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative:
Section 2 is a four page tour de force itemizing the multiple, overlapping planning and zoning issues facing Los Angeles.
Section 4 only allows the City Council to amend the General Plan for fixed geographical areas, not for individual properties.
Section 5 addresses the City’s need to quickly and systematically update its 37 Community Plans and their implementing zoning ordinances.
Section 6 requires the City to either prepare Environmental Impact Report (EIR) in-house or assign them to contracted firms. Developers would no longer be able to hire firms that prepare their projects’ EIRs.
Section 7 prohibits most building permits for projects depending on General Plan amendments that exceed existing zoning limitations.
Section 8 offers detailed parking requirements.
Win or lose, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative places Los Angeles at a critical juncture:
- Will LA halt or continue its long-term practice of re-zoning and re-planning small, lot-sized sections of Los Angeles at the behest of generous real estate entrepreneurs?
- Will LA update its General Plan, including the Community Plans, and then adhere to them, or will it repeatedly cave in to proposals put forward by well-groomed, beautifully attired representatives of affluent clients?
- Will LA see through the growth machine’s claims that they are the bearer of progress through projects that supposedly benefit everyone, especially the ill-housed and ill-served? Or will the city continue to be bamboozled by thin, self-serving arguments that overlook how the growth machine’s projects make its members even richer?
(Dick Platkin is a former LA city planner who writes on planning issues for CityWatch. He serves on the Board of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association and welcomes questions and comments at email@example.com.)
Vol 13 Issue 96
Pub: Nov 26, 2015