Smearing the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative: Big Real Estate is No ‘Grassroots Organization’

NEIGHBORHOOD POLITICS

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-The opposition to the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative pawns itself off as a grass roots coalition, but it is, in fact, an astroturf organization funded by four major Big Real Estate players.  These large enterprises have a global reach, with billions of assets stretching far beyond their Los Angeles operations. 

  • Westfield Group, based in Australia, owns and operates shopping centers throughout the world, including 38 malls in the United States. In Los Angeles their malls include Century City and Warner Center. 
  • Crescent Heights, based in Miami, builds and operates up-scale commercial and residential projects throughout the United States, including the proposed Palladium high-rise tower in Hollywood. 
  • Lowe Enterprises is headquartered in Los Angeles and invests in commercial and residential real estate projects throughout the United States. 
  • Eli Broad, based in Los Angeles, has not completely moved on from insurance and tract housing to philanthropy and museums.  He did find time to donate $25,000 to oppose the Initiative. 

Last week CityWatch republished a Real Deal (real estate site) article, “How did LA’s Planning Process become such a Mess,” that went after the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative with a vengeance. But, this article was so filled with inaccuracies that my annotated notes had 31 separate corrections. Let me present the most egregious errors and corrections: (Anyone who wants to see the full 31 can shoot me an email at rhplatkin@gmail.com.) 

Claim: “The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative is an effort by NIMBYs to put the breaks on most development in Los Angeles.” 

Correction. NIMBY is a pejorative term used by Big Real Estate to smear their critics when they raise legitimate zoning, planning, design, and environmental objections to their mega-projects. The critics’ objections are based on violations of legally adopted policies, laws, and regulations. Furthermore, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative only impedes a small percentage of real estate projects, about 3-5 percent, because they require parcel level legislative actions (e.g., spot-zoning) from the Department of City Planning and the City Council to turn illegal projects into legal ones. As for the rest, the Department of Building and Safety quickly issues building permits to 90 percent of applications because they are by-right projects. As for the remaining five percent of building permits, the Department of City Planning internally reviews and approves them since they do not require City Council legislative actions. 

Claim: “…The County’s zoning code itself has not been updated since 1946.”  

Correction: Location, location, location. The General Plan addresses the City of Los Angeles, not Los Angeles County. They share the name, Los Angeles, but that is it because the County’s General Plan only applies to unincorporated areas. 

Claim: “29 of LA’s 35 plans are currently more than 15 years old. Beyond money, updating the plan would entail heavy input from the community and approval from City Council.”

Correction: Thirty-five plans refer to the Community Plans, not the entire General Plan. But, short-staffing only explains some of the delays in updating the General Plan’s elements, including the Community Plans. A bigger part of the explanation is LA’s elected officials. They have little interest in planning since they view Los Angeles through a project-by-project, contribution-by-contribution lens.

A comprehensive, long-term perspective would gum up their system of campaign contributions, shakedowns, and political influence. 

Finally, the biggest impediment to timely updates was the City’s misuse of the Hollywood Community Plan update. Its not-so-hidden agenda was to promote real estate speculation, regardless of underlying demographic trends and public comments. As a result, the City lost three legal challenges, and the courts threw out the entire Hollywood update, its EIR, and its implementing zoning ordinances and planning amendments. Since the Hollywood Update was the up-zoning, up-planning template for the remaining 34 Community Plans, the Planning Department was left high and dry for many years as it regrouped from this major legal defeat. 

Claim: “Up until 1960, LA had a residential capacity of 10 million people … But as real estate politics shifted toward the stronghold of homeowners associations, capacity diminished. Between the 60s and the early 2000s, LA was effectively “downzoned” by 60 percent …”  

Correction: The one major planning and zoning program during the 1980s and early 1990s was AB 283. It resulted from local lawsuits and California State Assembly legislation that required the City of Los Angeles to ensure consistency between its plans and its zones. When this project concluded in 1991, the AB 283 staff calculated that LA’s amended zoning could accommodate another 5 million people. Several years later the General Plan Framework’s technical consultants confirmed these findings. They determined that Los Angeles had enough remaining commercial zoning (which can also be used for apartments) for all conceivable growth scenarios in the entire 21st century. Their technical reports also reported that the build-out of the city’s residential zones would transform Los Angeles into a city of 8,000,000 people.

Since Los Angeles has had virtually no population gain over the past two decades, and only tiny amounts of down-zoning, the city still has sufficient zoning for all foreseeable growth scenarios. What it does not have, however, is the exact zoning that a few high stakes real estate investors require to build luxury high-rise towers at the most lucrative locations. 

Claims: “The Coalition to Preserve LA … believes a two-year moratorium on all developments seeking a zone change will light a fire under the Council.” 

Correction: The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative’s two-year moratorium is on General Plan Amendments, Height District changes, AND zone changes. But, 100 percent affordable housing projects would be exempt from the spot-zoning ban. After this two-year hiatus, legislative land use actions would then be allowed for entire Community Plan areas, Specific Plan areas, and for local areas that are 15 acres or larger. This approach is also consistent with the City of Los Angeles City Charter, which states that these legislative actions must be for geographic areas that have significant social, economic, and physical identity. Spot-zoning and spot-planning, therefore, does not conform to the City Charter. 

Charter Section 555 (a)   Amendment in Whole or in Part. The General Plan may be amended in its entirety, by subject elements or parts of subject elements, or by geographic areas, provided that the part or area involved has significant social, economic or physical identity. 

Claim: “While developers may be gung-ho for higher building capacities, density alone will not heal LA. It takes community discussions, which are easier when the rules are clear. The real need, planners say, is just a little bit of certainty, from which both community members and builders can benefit.” 

Correction: The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative provides absolute certainty by stopping legislative actions that allow mega-project developers to define their own rules for separate parcels, usually in tandem with their campaign contributions. But, as should already be obvious, Big Real Estate has NO interest in such certainty. It is anathema to them. They want total flexibility to build whatever they want, wherever they want, as long as it pencils out to their advantage. That is why they oppose the certainty created by the Neighborhood Integrity Ordinance. It also explains why they are spending vast sums to defeat it, including planting info-mercials in real estate trade journals and City Watch..

A LESSON: Is there a lesson in this list of corrections? Yes, the bigger they come, the harder they fall. Money can buy you lots of things, but so far, basic facts are not for sale.

 

(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angele city planner who reports on local planning issues for City Watch. Please send any comments or corrections to rhplatkin@gmail.com.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.