Senator Wiener’s Sacramento Real Estate Bill is Even Worse than You Imagined

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-Last week I heard from a number of readers about my recent CityWatch column critical of California Senate Bill 827. They told me that Scott Wiener’s proposed legislation would inflict far more damage on Los Angeles than imposing taller height limits, eliminating parking requirements, and gutting zoning overlay districts, such as Historic Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZs). They told me it would also allow the construction of by-right apartment buildings on parcels that the City Council previously zoned for single-family residences. And, it will put the on-going, City Hall-supported gentrification of Los Angeles on steroids. 

This is my correction, which I expand below. 

Correction: I carefully looked at what they wrote me, and they are correct. More specifically, SB 827’s text conflicts with its Legislative Summary. The latter incorrectly invokes an affordable housing bonus for residential projects to qualify for Wiener’s vast planning and zoning exemptions. But, the bill’s text contains no such requirement, even for a minimal amount of affordable housing in new residential projects. 

Furthermore, Senator Wiener’s staff confirmed this interpretation. This means his bill would eliminate residential density restrictions (i.e. units per parcel) – among other zoning waivers -- on all properties, including lots zoned for single-family homes, as long as they are a half-mile from rail or a quarter-mile from express bus lines. 

This convoluted language means that SB 827 automatically grants Zone Changes and General Plan Amendments to countless properties in LA and elsewhere, even if they are subject to more restrictive zoning requirements, including zoning overlay ordinances, like Specific Plans.  

Now, to build apartment houses on lots zoned for single-family houses, developers must apply for and obtain a General Plan Amendment and Zone Change. This lengthy process requires complicated applications, large fees, public mailings, CEQA reviews (including Environmental Impact Reports for large cases, such as this), optional workshops, mandatory public hearings, debates and votes by the City Planning Commission and the City Council, and potential appeals and law suits.  

SB 827 obliterates this process. While State laws still require cities to prepare a General Plan, cities could no longer implement these plans through zoning in SB 827 areas. If SB 827 passes, in cities like Los Angeles, the city’s General Plan and its legally adopted zones will again conflict with each other. In fact, in Los Angeles the Planning Department spent more than a decade and hired 50 planners to implement Assembly Bill 283. Through this 1978 legislation the State of California forced the City of Los Angeles to make its zoning and General Plan land use designations consistent with each other.  

Since zoning implements planning, SB 827 will totally undermine the legally required planning process throughout the entire state of California. This is why at a time when good planning is absolutely essential; SB 827 is a giant step in exactly the wrong direction.” 

Additional reasons why SB 287 is worse that you could have previously imagined. At its core SB 827 is not just a sweetheart bill for gentrifying real estate speculators building apartment houses and McMansions. Its even greater threat is that it will devastate the planning process in California, at a time when serious planning is essential. This is why SB 827 is so threatening. 

First, municipalities need to adopt, implement, and then monitor their General Plans because these carefully prepared, reviewed, monitored, updated, and legally-binding documents are essential to govern something as large and complex as a city. They are also a legal requirement in California, and the new 2017 California General Plan Guidelines succinctly summarize the case for preparing and implementing General Plans: 

“Why the General Plan Matters: California state law requires each city and county to adopt a general plan “for the physical development of the county or city, and any land outside its boundaries which in the planning agency’s judgment bears relation to its planning” (Gov. Code 65300). The general plan expresses the community’s development goals and embodies public policy relative to the distribution of future land uses, both public and private. The California Supreme Court has described general plans as the “charter to which [zoning] ordinance[s] must conform”, but the general plan extends far beyond zoning and land use.” 

Furthermore, the Los Angeles City Charter, adopted in 1999, explains these General Plan requirements in further detail:  

Sec. 554.  General Plan – Purpose and Contents:  The General Plan shall be a comprehensive declaration of goals, objectives, policies and programs for the development of the City and shall include, where applicable, diagrams, maps and text setting forth those and other features. 

The General Plan shall serve as a guide for: 

  • the physical development of the City;
  • the development, correlation and coordination of official regulations, controls, programs and services; and 
  • the coordination of planning and administration by all agencies of the City government, other governmental bodies and private organizations and individuals involved in the development of the City.

Content. The General Plan shall include those elements required by state law and any other elements determined to be appropriate by the Council, by resolution, after considering the recommendation of the City Planning Commission. 

Second, there are serious, adverse consequences for not properly planning a major city, like Los Angeles. In addition to ignoring older crises, such as imminent major earthquakes, decaying infrastructure, unhealthy air quality, and unbearable traffic congestion, Los Angeles also faces many newer crises, especially declining transit ridership, homelessness, and climate change – including mega-droughts, heat waves, wild fires, and sea level rise. 

Third, the main ways cities implement their General Plans is through their capital budgets, operational budgets, and land use regulations: Community Plan map footnotes, General Plan land use designations, zoning ordinances, and discretionary actions. This, too, is spelled out in State law and the Los Angeles City Charter: 

Sec. 558.  Procedure for Adoption, Amendment or Repeal of Certain Ordinances, Orders and Resolutions. 

  1. The requirements of this section shall apply to the adoption, amendment or repeal of ordinances, orders or resolutions by the Council concerning: 

(1)  the creation or change of any zones or districts for the purpose of regulating the use of land; 

(2)   zoning or other land use regulations concerning permissible uses, height, density, bulk, location or use of buildings or structures, size of yards, open space, setbacks, building line requirements, and other similar requirements, including specific plan ordinances; 

Fourth, while Los Angeles has never linked it budgeting process to its General Plan, it has linked the regulation of land to its plans, largely through zoning and the California Environmental Quality Act.  City Hall, though, is increasingly severing these ties, and whatever little remains will be totally eradicated by SB 827 in most of Los Angeles. A small part of this frontal assault on planning and environmental review results from negligence, but the primary reason is that planning, and its implementation through zoning and environmental laws, conflicts with the short-term business model of real estate developers. 

While real estate interests have always been a major player at LA’s City Hall, SB 827 signifies major escalation. Nothing – especially land use and environmental laws – is to interfere with the real estate sector’s short-term business model of maximizing their profits. At present their most lucrative investments are in apartment buildings, so their investors, contractors, real estate bloggers, “friendly” elected and appointed officials, and cheerleaders are focusing their political energy on the wholesale elimination of any zoning and environmental laws that interfere with the construction of apartments. 

Fifth, SB 827 is the frosting on the cake of planning, zoning, and environmental deregulation. It builds on other ordinances that also sever the link between the City’s approved General Plan elements and its adopted zoning ordinances. Other layers in this deregulation cake include the following: 

  • RAS zone 
  • Community Plan Update’s appended land-use ordinances 
  • Re:code LA 
  • Transit Priority Areas 
  • Transit Oriented Communities 
  • Transit Neighborhood Plans 
  • Permit streamlining 

The role of SB 827 in this systematic process of deregulation is to ensure that municipal zoning ordinances are pared to the bone and what remains is totally decoupled from the planning process and CEQA. While SB 827 begins with transit-adjacent neighborhoods, my crystal ball says future statewide legislation will expand it outward to the rest of the city. In effect, SB 827, in combination with related land use and environmental deregulation, returns Los Angeles to the mid-20th Century, before LA adopted it first General Plan in 1970.

Shortly after that, in 1978, the California State Legislature approved AB 283, a bill that forced Los Angeles to hire over 50 planners, who then spent a decade plus reconciling the city’s existing zones with its new Genera Plan land use designations.  

If the State Legislature adopts SB 827, it will completely sabotage these successful zoning-consistency AB 283 efforts.  It will give birth to a Los Angeles whose legally required but weak General Plan can no longer be implemented through City Council-adopted zoning ordinances. 

To add insult to this injury, the short-term real estate business plans propelling this process are divorced from its consequences. The investors, developers, and contractors, like coal companies strip-mining Appalachia, don’t stick around. They pocket and then reinvest their profits elsewhere, leaving Los Angeles with many gentrified, but decaying neighborhoods. Their quickly built McMansions and high-priced apartments will accelerate LA’s multiple crises, while these shadowy profiteers will have flattened many more hills and changed the names of their shell companies umpteen times. Not much remains of the enabling public officials either. Term limits soon remove them from public memory. 

As for Senator Wiener, he will have been termed out, either kicked upstairs or returned back to San Francisco to practice law. Who knows, he may eventually follow other former legislators, working in Sacramento as a well-paid lobbyist, figuring out how to gentrify what remains of California’s cities.


(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning controversies for CityWatchLA. Please send comments and corrections to Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.