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LA City Hall: Putting the Brakes on Developer Deals

PRESERVING LA--Who decides what LA’s 114 diverse neighborhoods should be like? Those who call the communities home? Or real estate developers? In Los Angeles, “density” deals among developers, elected leaders and planners are destroying the character of beloved and livable neighborhoods, and steamrolling communities. 

 

The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, aimed at the LA city ballot in November, will give residents a reasonable voice, ending a backroom process driven by developer greed and the failed new-age urban renewal theory that dense and crowded areas have less congestion. 

Los Angeles in 2016 resembles Los Angeles of the 1960s, when decisions about how to shape communities were made in smoke-filled rooms by city officials, planners and developers. Developers sought rezoning for their individual projects without regard to the environmental effects upon neighborhoods or infrastructure. And they got it. 

Planning lawlessness is back in Los Angeles, leading to devastating results: L.A.’s net loss of thousands of units of affordable housing to bulldozers and condo conversions, the related tragic upswing in homelessness, extreme neighborhood congestion, and the destruction of cherished neighborhood livability and character. 

In the bad old days, officials who cut deals with developers behind closed doors got exposed during the rezoning scandals of 1966 through 1970. A grand jury found evidence that LA’s planning and zoning process was corrupt, and news media covered the juicy story — and the convictions for bribery and corruption that followed. 

At the sentencing of a corrupt LA city councilman, then-Superior Court Judge Pearce Young, himself a former state assemblyman, warned that the power to rezone individual parcels of land was “the power to create great wealth.” 

We’re back at that low point again today. Vast wealth is being created for one-percenter developers through “spot rezoning” deals made by City Council members and city planners. The decisions are presented to communities as all-but-inevitable deals that communities must either fight, often all the way to court, or live with. 

No corruption probe is underway, perhaps only because today’s city officials and planners have found ways to get around the City Charter, LA’s constitution. In 1969, voters reformed the city charter to ban parcel-by-parcel rezoning. Voters said that if the City Council wanted to rethink how to develop LA, it must approve a new General Plan, the cohesive framework for the city’s future. 

But that would be a highly public process — residents would have a say. So instead of updating the old general plan, as the charter intended, city officials are using an outrageous workaround. The City Council simply “amends” the LA General Plan — sometimes dozens of times a week — whenever a developer convinces his local council member to let him get around LA zoning laws. 

This “spot rezoning” has created a land-flipping war. Affordable housing? Impossible to build, with the City Council and developers gaming the value of the underlying land. Skyrocketing homelessness? It’s being exacerbated by LA’s widespread destruction of older, livable housing in “hot” areas spot-rezoned for dense luxury developments.

Clearly, this is no way to run a city. 

The people, in reforming the city charter years ago, said that zoning amendments to the general plan can be approved only for substantial geographic areas of “significant social, economic, or physical identity.” Residents were smart – they intended to force city officials and planners to create broad, cohesive plans. 

But instead, Mayor Eric Garcetti, the City Council and city planners have engaged in a furious level of backroom dealing to justify endless spot rezoning. 

Garcetti was a key proponent of this practice as a councilman and he has sturdily backed spot rezoning as mayor. City officials and city planners have made livable neighborhoods unlivable, creating stunning gridlock on surface streets and wiping out huge net numbers of affordable, older apartment units. 

Angelenos are not against business or development. Neither are backers of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, the Coalition to Preserve LA. 

Our measure forces the City Council to prepare a comprehensive and long-term general plan — simply put, it forces the City Council to follow the law. During this effort, the measure creates a two-year moratorium on overdevelopment: developers must live with current zoning until City Hall gets its act together. 

We’ve taken a look at the zoning in LA’s existing, 1980s-era General Plan, and we think the business community might be surprised by what we found. The existing zoning allows for a tremendous amount of construction, construction jobs and development — but it does not allow 15-story luxury towers on land zoned for two stories, or massive big boxes on land zoned for small business. 

During the brief, two-year moratorium, developers would have more business than they could handle, just by following the rules. 

We’ve been asked why the Coalition for LA is underwritten, in large part, by AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a $1.3 billion non-profit whose legions of doctors and nurses are caring for more than 570,000 HIV/AIDs patients in 35 countries. AHF also takes on social justice and fairness issues unrelated to AIDS, and in the U.S. it is sponsoring ballot measures that aim to remove the Confederate flag from the Mississippi state flag, and to lower high pharmacy costs in California and Ohio. 

Not a dime of money granted for the care of AIDS patients is spent on the organization’s ballot campaigns — AHF raises its own advocacy funds to tackle issues which are in harmony with its mission: Cutting-edge medicine and advocacy regardless of ability to pay. 

Now, AHF has set its sights on the soft corruption at LA City Hall that is destroying neighborhood character, creating outrageous congestion, wiping out affordable housing and feeding LA’s shameful spike in homelessness. 

Without the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, decisions about livability in LA’s 114 neighborhoods will be driven by developers’ desire for “great wealth,” as Judge Young warned so long ago.

 

(Jill Stewart, managing editor of LA Weekly, is stepping down from her position to become campaign director for the ballot measure. Michael Weinstein is a founder of the Coalition to Preserve L.A. and president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

 

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