PLANNING WATCH - Like most Angelenos, I have been glued to weather reports, but still waiting for stories that link one of the wettest years on record to the climate crisis. As for City Hall’s response, other than swift water rescues, removing downed trees, and repairing hot electric wires, there is little else. The lead story remains how local government can use its self-imposed homeless crisis to justify lucrative up-zoning changes for big real estate owners and developers. Even though these handouts make the climate crisis worse --because they lead to energy-intensive and auto-dependent luxury apartments -- this is what concerns City Hall.
While City Hall averts its eyes from the obvious -- droughts, wildfires, invasive species, storms, and sea level rise – they cannot claim, “Nobody ever told us.” The new IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) climate report from the UN was dramatically summarized by the UN’s Secretary General, António Guterres:
Today’s report is a code red for humanity. The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse‑gas emissions from fossil-fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk. Global heating is affecting every region on Earth, with many of the changes becoming irreversible.
The internationally agreed threshold of 1.5°C is perilously close . . . We are already at 1.2°C and rising. Warming has accelerated in recent decades. Every fraction of a degree counts. Greenhouse‑gas concentrations are at record levels. Extreme weather and climate disasters are increasing in frequency and intensity . . . All nations, especially the G20 and other major emitters, need to join the net-zero emissions coalition and reinforce their commitments with credible, concrete and enhanced nationally determined contributions and policies. . .. If we combine forces now, we can avert climate catastrophe. But, as today’s report makes clear, there is no time for delay and no room for excuses . . (Edited for brevity.)
Unfortunately, if you wait for City Hall’s response to the latest UN climate report, you will wait in vain. Despite detailed guidelines from the Governor’s Office of Research and Planning, Los Angeles does not have a Climate Change Element in the City’s Charter’s required General Plan. City Hall has also ignored a new California law requiring all cities and counties to adopt a General Plan Environmental Justice element. Instead, Los Angeles has put its eggs in the basket of up-zoning, which allows real estate investors to easily build highly profitable, auto-oriented market rate and luxury apartments. This approach is based on three absurd, data-free justifications that new expensive infill apartments built on expensive land magically trickle down to:
- House the overcrowded and homeless,
- Increase transit ridership, and
- Reduce the Green House Gases emissions responsible for climate change.
What price do Angelenos pay for this negligence? There are at least five ways that City Hall’s non-response to the climate crisis degrades the quality of life for Los Angeles residents:
- Upzoning inflates the price of land and – big surprise - the cost of housing.
- Upzoning increases economic inequality, another cause of the housing crisis.
- Because most new apartment buildings consist of market rate or luxury units, their tenants have high incomes, own cars, and rarely use mass transit. This is a major reason for declining transit ridership in Los Angeles, especially in neighborhoods like Hollywood, where many new, infill, auto-dependent luxury apartments are near subway stations.
- When real estate investors pay cash for homes and apartments, the cost of housing, homelessness, overcrowding, and out-migration all increase.
- If/when upzoning leads to an increase in a neighborhood’s population, existing infrastructure and services fail since the densification of older neighborhoods ignores parks, schools, fire stations, streets, sidewalks, street trees, water mains, electric grid, storm drains, sanitary sewers, and related systems.
What should City Hall do in lieu of its inaction on the climate crisis? This list is only a beginning, a starting point for municipal efforts to reduce the Green House Gas emissions responsible for the climate crisis:
- Immediately prepare and adopt General Plan Climate Change and Environmental Justice Elements, and then apply them to the future updates of LA’s 35 Community Plans and two District Plans.
- Increase the budget of the Bureau of Street Services Urban Forestry Division. Comparable cities spend four times as much on their street trees.
- Follow the example of Kansas City and make transit free.
- Design, pay for, and build First-Last Mile public improvements at all METRO light and heavy rails stations. Without parking facilities for cars, bicycles, and scooters, as well as smooth, shaded sidewalks, way-faring signs, and streetscape, transit ridership will not increase.
- Repair LA’s broken-down sidewalks and streets to increase walking for short trips.
Even though the climate crisis is headed for the point of no-return, there is plenty that Los Angeles can do to mitigate and adapt to the new normal.
(Dick Platkin is a retired Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatchLA. He serves on the board of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA). Previous Planning Watch columns are available at the CityWatchLA archives. Please send questions and corrections to [email protected].)