The Battle of the Ballot Measures Will Change Your Quality of Life

DEEGAN ON LA-Wealth creation for developers is directly related to how land is used. Their road to that wealth can be greatly helped by the independent zoning decisions made by our politicos, the 15 members of the LA City Council through a process called “spot zoning” and/or “variances” – actions that allow developers to skirt zoning regulations.

Massive amounts of profits can result from these independent decisions, so it’s no wonder our elected politicians are, like diamonds, the developers’ best friends. Such special interventions make the elected officials’ treasuries sparkle and shine. And they also make the developers wealthy. 

Zoning lays out a master plan; it also creates firewalls that are designed to protect against abuses – to bring order, logic and thought to how we build, infill and develop our city. Unfortunately, though, the city’s “General Plan Framework and Elements” and “Community Plans” are broken. 

Both developers and politicos have learned how to navigate cracks in the firewall, reaping huge rewards. For the developers, there is the creation of wealth by turning empty land or buildings they tear down into private piggy banks. And for the politicos, it’s guilt (or gilt!) by association. Their coffers brim with campaign funding from developers. 

However, the public has caught on to this. It’s no secret the developers consider City Hall as a cash register. That understanding helped a recent council candidate, David Ryu (CD4), win his seat by running on a platform that included not taking money from developers. Once elected, Ryu created a page on his website identifying all his contacts with developers. Not too many of his council colleagues are in touch with him and none are duplicating his transparency. By some accounts from inside City Hall, he lives in isolation, a politico who will not “go along to get along.” But all that may soon change: the Ryu model of transparency, the refusal to take money from developers, and a requirement that neighborhoods “buy-in” before making zoning decisions could all become the norm. 

Our neighborhoods have paid the price for all this two-teaming against them. Politicos, fueled by campaign contributions, have become the handmaidens to the desires of their developer benefactors. But this may change as voters become educated about two competing ballot measures that relate to development and zoning. Both will probably qualify for the November 8 election. 

Los Angeles voters will have a chance in November to support either the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative (backed by the Aids Healthcare Foundation) or a competing ballot measure called the Build Better LA Initiative, advanced by a coalition of Big Labor and Business. Gaining an understanding of land use in the city -- how politicos make it easy for developers to skirt the General Plan with their opaque deals -- will help all voters understand these two ballot initiatives and to grasp just what’s at stake. 

The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative is already gathering signatures. The Build Better LA group, formed by a nucleus of unions, labor, construction and business interests, submitted their ballot measure to the City Clerk on February 17. They will have their own story to tell, and we can count on them providing an alternative to the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. This is fair. All sides must be represented and be given an opportunity to make a case. By the time the election arrives, almost eight months from now, the picture should be black and white, with the reasons to support each measure carefully spelled out. Then, it will be up to the voters to decide. 

Toward that end, all voters are urged to make up their own minds, to use as many factual resources as possible to educate themselves about zoning. There is a lot at stake. 

Richard Platkin, who was a City Planner in the Los Angeles Department of City Planning for twenty years, and is currently Adjunct Instructor at USC’s Price School of Social Policy, recently provided a “Zoning 101” tutorial to several dozen activists on both sides of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. 

His informative and professional presentation should be required study for anyone who wants a voice in the looming debate over how zoning is used and abused in our city. Tuition to this master class is free: You can link to it on this YouTube site and spend an hour getting familiar with zoning terms and concepts. 

Platkin, in his one-hour presentation, makes it easy to understand Zoning Terms and Concepts. First he sets the groundwork with the vocabulary of zoning, including:

  • General Plan Framework and Elements
  • Zone Changes
  • Community Plans
  • Specific Plans
  • Land Use
  • Housing
  • Capital Improvement Program
  • Lot-by Lot Zoning
  • Up-Zoning
  • Spot Zoning
  • Zone Changes
  • Appeals by the Community as Pushback to Zoning Decisions
  • HPOZ (Historic Property Overlay Zone)ß
  • RFA (Residential Floor Area)
  • Bootlegged and Illegal Construction
  • Conditional Use Permits
  • City Planning Commission
  • Zoning Administrator
  • Variances
  • Subdivisions
  • CDO (Community Design Overlay)
  • Zoning Director’s Exceptions. 

After explaining the zoning vocabulary, Platkin lays out the concepts such as:

  • Panning Assumptions and Justifications
  • Incentivizing Real Estate Speculation
  • Re:Code LA
  • Growth
  • By-Right Development
  • General Plan Amendments
  • CEQUA (the California Environmental Quality Act)
  • Financial Value of Densification
  • Legal Densification
  • McMansions
  • SB1818 Density Bonus Ordinance
  • Small Lot Subdivisions
  • Consequences of Unplanned Real Estate Projects
  • Long Term Fatal Consequences of Bad Planning
  • Repetitive Crises
  • Community Responses to New Community Plans
  • Logic of Specific Plans
  • Correct Rationale for Up-Zoning and Up-Planning 

Sound like a lot? It’s only an hour, it’s easily understood, and will immediately deal you into the conversation about land use and how it affects your quality of life. In addition, it will help you to make an informed decision when you are called upon to vote on what may end up being competing ballot measures on November 8. 

But first, you have to know what you’re talking about!


(Tim Deegan is a long-time resident and community leader in the Miracle Mile, who has served as board chair at the Mid City West Community Council and on the board of the Miracle Mile Civic Coalition. Tim can be reached at [email protected].)   Edited for City Watch by Linda Abrams.