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Boning Up on the Fight for Neighborhood Integrity

PERSPECTIVE-The year 2016 will offer some local drama to Los Angeles, complementing the spectacle of the national elections. In what may be the most far-reaching ballot measure of this century, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative will affect how the city does business with developers. The backers have targeted the November ballot. 

I sat down with Jill Stewart last Saturday to get some insight and clarity on the measure.  She is the campaign manager for the initiative who believed that its objectives were important enough for the good of the city that she resigned as managing editor of the LA Weekly to lead the effort. 

It is an understatement to say that anything to do with land use is a very technical subject; therefore, this article is only a start in understanding the complexities. I hope to discuss it further with Stewart and others. 

In her view, spot general plan amendments are creating congestion and reducing affordable housing.

Today, such amendments are granted on a piecemeal (spot) basis. They have led to spurious, disjointed development. 

She explained that this approach favored the financial return to a developer over the needs of the residents. Contiguous areas generally lose their character as a hodgepodge of architectural styles and transformation of demographics replace the harmonious nature of established neighborhoods, which is what happens current residents and businesses are banished. The high-density nature of these one-off projects almost assures congestion. Even when situated close to a major transit route, the occupants are unlikely to give up their cars in numbers sufficient to reduce traffic. If anything, there will be more cars as the neighborhood population increases. 

In addition, the number of affordable units are low in relation to the total. 

From my own experience, I have witnessed the displacement of middle-class residents as a result of projects with density bonuses granted under SB1818. The bonus is in return for the developer setting aside a few units as “affordable.” Unfortunately, the buildings which were replaced contained far more affordable units. For the record, the affordable units that were destroyed in my community were not substandard. They lacked the bells and whistles of newer units, but they were very livable and within reach of most budgets. Recently passed AB2222 closed the gap somewhat, but projects built under spot amendments are another matter. 

Stewart emphasized the importance of “significant areas” in determining how and if a General Plan amendment could be approved. Amendments must encompass an area which, as defined in the measure, has significant social, economic or physical identity. That translates to an entire community, district plan or specific plan area, an entire neighborhood council, or an area not less than 15 acres. 

She believes this allows ample leverage to address blighted areas. Carefully planned amendments could offer a coordinated revitalization process over wide swaths (as opposed to disparate projects.)

One controversial action, if the measure is approved, involves an up to two-year moratorium on amendments (unless required by the Department of Building and Safety.) A staff person for a Councilmember expressed concern if this should happen. He told me it would probably kill a major deal that’s in the early stages. 

According to Stewart, the moratorium is designed to allow a systematic review the General Plan (this review will be performed periodically as a requirement under Section 5 of the proposal.) It appears to me that this would amount to an undertaking which would likely attract the attention of every conceivable interest group with a stake in the city. The review could be as important as passing the measure itself. 

She indicated that the city’s current approach to development has pushed the working class farther out, created a boom-or-bust construction economy and replaced industrial zones with gentrified communities. 

Developers or their agents will not be allowed to prepare Environmental Impact Reports (EIR) under the measure’s rules. This will eliminate a blatant conflict of interest. Only the public’s lead agency can prepare the report, recovering the cost from the applicant. 

As I see it, the current system invites widespread corruption. There are simply insufficient checks and balances. Spot amendments can serve as the liquid currency of municipal political quid pro quo and create temptation some officials find irresistible. This is one reason why former mayor Richard Riordan is supporting the initiative.  

Councilmembers trade amendments for contributions. According to Stewart (and consistent with Riordan’s observations,) the net result of these deals are higher rents. So-called affordable units are priced starting at $3,000 per month. 

Stewart plans to develop a web of supporters representing a diverse cross-section of residents and interest groups to educate the public, collect signatures and otherwise promote the initiative. Her background as a journalist for a widely-read publication seems well-suited for reaching out to the many component groups of Los Angeles. She anticipates the full-court challenge the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative will face from elected officials and their allies. 

So much needs to be shared with the public. Case studies providing clear examples of what to expect would be most helpful. 

There will be much more to come on this subject, from any number of sources. Reform is needed; the initiative could be a catalyst to that end. It deserves our attention.

 

(Paul Hatfield is a CPA and serves as President of the Valley Village Homeowners Association. He blogs at Village to Village and contributes to CityWatch. The views presented are those of Mr. Hatfield and his alone and do not represent the opinions of Valley Village Homeowners Association or CityWatch. He can be reached at: phinnoho@aol.com.) Photo: Talbot Troy/Flickr. Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.