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To Keep Track of City Hall Corruption, Follow the Lies and Trust Your Eyes

PLANNING WATCH-The FBI’s investigation of corruption at LA’s City Hall, now in its third year, has, so far, focused on five individuals and lead to several arrests.

Former Councilmember Mitchell Englander is likely to spend five years in prison, and several City Council colleagues asked Councilmember Jose Huizar to either recuse himself or resign while he remains under criminal investigation. Real estate appraiser Justin Kim admitted to arranging a $500,000 bribe, and real estate “consultant” George Chiang agreed this week to plead guilty. Other corruption investigations continue for Raymond Chan, a former Deputy Mayor to Eric Garcetti and to aides for Councilmembers Herb Wesson and Curran Price and. Furthermore, the City of LA’s Ethics Commission fined former Director of Planning Michael LoGrande $281,000 for lobbying on behalf of real estate developers. 

None of this comes as a surprise to those who follow City Hall’s real estate shenanigans. Those paying attention -- hopefully through publications like CityWatch -- realize that City Hall’s repeated corruption stories follow the money. It always leads investigators through a maze of building, zoning, and planning decisions, highlighted by upzoning scams, spot-zoning ordinances for cronies, and selective enforcement of the City’s land use laws. Even without hard facts, we realize that the steady flow of press reports and criminal investigations is only the tip of the iceberg. 

What would a comprehensive investigation of City Hall corruption reveal? To answer that question, readers must go to the alternative press, especially Patrick McDonald’s investigative reporting, much of it available at CityWatch. In addition, I have several tools for those who want to go beyond the dribs and drabs of corruption stories that occasionally see the light of day in the mainstream press. 

Follow the lies. 

The flood of lies flowing out of City Hall to justify multiple handouts to real estate speculators leads to the rarely reported corruption cases often hiding in plain sight. For example, the congratulatory letters posted on City Planning’s website, from the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) and the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Planning Association reveals this technique. These organizations gave the Planning Department awards for two major upzoning schemes: Transit Oriented Community Guidelines (TOC) and Transit Neighborhood Plans (TNP), both of which are built on an edifice of lies. Like a house of cards, it doesn’t take much for these programs to stumble when a few cards are pulled away.  

Lie #1 - Regarding TOC Guidelines: Los Angeles voters adopted the TOC Guidelines. No, they did not. The voters adopted a confusing Initiative, Measure JJJ, also called Build Better LA, and the City Planning Commission approved a quasi-ordinance to implement Measure JJJ, the TOC Guidelines. The City Planning Commission’s version made significant changes from the voter approved measure. Even though the City Council never adopted these Guidelines, they have been illegally added to the Los Angeles Municipal Code as an ordinance. This slight-of-hand is one reason why Fix the City, has legally challenged the TOC Guidelines. 

Lie #2 - Regarding TOC Guidelines. The public rationale for Measure JJJ and its dubious spin-off, the TOC Guidelines, was to promote transit use. But there is no evidence that TOC projects increase transit use. No one administers transportation surveys to TOC project residents, and the mass transit lines that allow higher TOC tiers have long-term, declining transit use.  

Lie #3 - Regarding TOC Guidelines. A second public purpose of Measure JJJ and its TOC Guidelines was to address LA housing crisis by promoting housing production, especially low-income housing. But, the only housing data for the TOC Guidelines measures proposed projects. There is no data on approved projects. There is also no data on completed TOC projects with Building and Safety-issued Certificates of Occupancy. There is also no data on the number of low-income units available for renters. There are also no accessible databases on the location of these rentable TOC low-income units, nor can landlords log on to a list of tenants whose income has qualified them for low-income TOC units. Finally, no City of LA Department ever physically inspects completed TOC projects to verify that vetted low qualified low-income tenants occupy approved low-income units.  

Likewise, the Transit Neighborhood Plans (TNP) praised by SCAG and American Planning Association are also covered by out-and-out lies. For example, in a previous CityWatch column I identified 20 erroneous justifications for the proposed Purple Line Extension Transit Neighborhood Plan. Here are three of the most outrageous ones: 

Lie #1 - Regarding Transit Neighborhood Plans: The Purple Line Transit Neighborhood Plans (TNP) is part of the Metro’s Purple Line Extension subway project. No, the Purple Line TNP is strictly a City of Los Angeles up-zoning scheme. You cannot find any references to this “plan” on METRO’s website.  While METRO initially paid for the development of substantially different TNP proposals in 2013, since then most of the funding has come from the City of LA’s coffers. Most tellingly, Beverly Hills, which has two adjacent Purple Line Extension subway stations, refused to prepare a Transit Neighborhood Plan. 

Lie #2 – Regarding Transit Neighborhood Plans. The TNP’s purpose is to increase transit ridership by promoting new housing construction near subway stations. But, by increasing the zoning near the Purple Line subway, the TNP increases the value of these properties. These inflated land costs ensure that any new housing will be expensive, only suitable for tenants who can afford rents of $4,000 or more per month. Since the TNP does not include any funding for transit-related public improvements, reduced fares, or low-income apartments, it will further reduce METRO’s already declining subway ridership. 

Lie # 3 – Regarding Transit Neighborhood Plans. The TNP is part of the LA’s planning process, including the regular updates of its aging Community Plans. But this TNP lie is at odds with the City’s ongoing planning process, especially the update of the 19- year-old Wilshire Community Plan. The Purple Line TNP project would substantially amend the current Wilshire Community Plan, then ignore any Update research, outreach meetings, new policies, and land use changes. When the Wilshire Community Plan is eventually updated, already pushed back from 2019 in 2021, it would exclude the large TNP area. Nor will it include the broad range of public improvements that promote transit ridership, even though these are clearly presented in METROs adopted First-Last Mile Strategic Plan and in two LA City Planning manuals: Mobility Hubs and Complete Streets. 

Believe your own eyes

When you walk, bike, or drive through your Los Angeles neighborhood during the Pandemic, you will see extensive, speculative real estate construction because City Hall decided these private investments are essential. But your eyes will also tell you there is nothing essential about McMansions, luxury apartment buildings, home remodels, and office buildings. These projects are racing to completion before the real estate market totally collapses. The goal is to save the shirts of the Limited Liability Companies (LLCs) investors whose money is sunk into these doomed buildings. 

Your eyes will also tell you that these projects have For Rent signs and that owners resort to illegal short-term rentals conflicting with LA’s Airbnb ordinance. Based on the regular complaints in NextDoor about party houses, it is also clear that too many of these unsold McMansions and unrented luxury apartments become neighborhood nuisances. 

Your own eyes will also tell you that the number of homeless people and homeless encampments in LA are increasing, parallel to the visible housing boom that Mayor Eric Garcetti excluded from his multiple Pandemic closure orders. LA’s homeless population continues to grow, and it is projected to increase even further. Clearly, it is a lack of money that is at the root of LA’s growing housing crisis, not zoning laws restricting housing construction. In fact, the deregulation of zoning laws through TOC Guidelines and Transit Neighborhood Plans is a cause of the housing crisis because they replace existing and occupied lower-priced housing with expensive residential units that are hard to rent. 

Next Steps? The first step is to support the two resolutions that Councilmember David Ryu is submitting to combat endemic City Hall corruption. According to the Los Feliz Ledger, “The first motion would establish an office of anti-corruption and transparency that would act like an inspector general for Los Angeles. The office would have the power to subpoena city documents, compel testimony from city staff and elected officials and be staffed by independent auditors and investigators to prevent fraud, corruption and misconduct.” 

The second motion, “. . . seeks to remove City Council members’ power to override and rewrite land-use decisions made by the City Planning Commission. It seeks a charter amendment to be placed on the November ballot to strike the section that allows the City Council to overwrite the actions of planning commissions.” 

Beyond these two motions, Los Angeles needs continuous exposure – like articles in CityWatch -- of the many flavors of City Hall corruption that LA residents encounter every day: 

  • Executive Covid-19 orders that exclude speculative real estate construction. 
  • Slipshod Building and Safety enforcement of LA’s building and zoning codes. 
  • Exclusion of public participation from land use decisions. 
  • Planning and zoning ordinances that resort to lies to justify the up-zoning of private property outside the official planning process. 

 

(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatch. He serves on the board of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA) and is co-chair of the new Greater Fairfax Residents Association. Please email comments and corrections to rhplatkin@gmail.com or via Twitter to @DickPlatkin.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.