PLATKIN ON PLANNING--If you get vertigo trying to understand how the City of Los Angeles deals with mansionization, in particular how so many ordinances could be so totally useless in stopping McMansions, you are not suffering from an inner-ear infection, you are suffering from reality. Furthermore, I hate to tell you, but your vertigo is going to get much worse in the years to come, especially in 2016 and 2017.
So get ready for a wild ride since the need for a strong and resolute public voice to finally stop the mansionization of LA’s neighborhoods is, as I hope to explain, greater than ever.
Let’s first understand where we are, before we chart where LA is going.
Where we are: At present, when a McMansion contractor marches off to City Hall to submit plans, Building and Safety undertakes a review of the underlying zoning, as well as the building plans.
If the proposed house is in a Specific Plan, such as Valley Village, Mulholland Corridor, or Mount Washington, then the case is sent to the Department of City Planning, sometimes for a public hearing before a Design Review Board.
If the proposed house is in one of LA’s 30 Historical Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZs), the case is also sent over to the Planning Department. Furthermore, four more HPOZ’s are ready for adoption, with several more in the hopper, and many other neighborhoods lining up for their own HPOZ. This zoning overlay option may also soon expand as Survey LA identifies many more historically significant residential buildings in Los Angeles neighborhoods.
After this first sort, Building and Safety must next determine if the proposed McMansion is in one of the 21 Interim Control Ordinances areas, with several more ICOs on the verge of adoption. Their purpose is to slow down mansionization until early 2017, when City Planning will prepare and the City Council will adopt permanent zoning ordinances. Unfortunately, the ICO’s only cover about 11 percent of single-family homes in Los Angeles, leaving at least 80 percent of the city out in the cold.
Likewise, if the house in another special overlay district, such as a River Improvement Ordinance (RIO) District, City Planning must make the call.
Next, Building and Safety must determine if a site is regulated by one of three Residential Floor Area Districts, such as the recent Beverly Grove RFA District.
In addition, Los Angeles is disaggregated into 35 Community Plans, and each of them has a land use map with footnotes that could add additional restrictions on home construction. Furthermore, according to KCET, 60 percent of the private parcels in Los Angeles have zoning restrictions in the form of Q, T, and D conditions, and Building and Safety also needs to determine if any of them effect a potential McMansion.
Despite all of these layers of potential regulation, the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance for the flats and the companion Hillside Mansionization Ordinance are the only protection that most neighborhoods have from mansionization. Unfortunately, these two ordinances are so crammed with loopholes in the form of bonuses and exemptions that they permit the very McMansions there were supposed to stop. Furthermore, these bonuses and exemptions can increase the floor area of a house by as much as 42 percent through a secretive ministerial process tightly controlled by Building and Safety.
In fact, as far as anti-mansionization activists can determine, these two phony mansionization ordinances contain the only ministerial processes in Los Angeles that increase the size of a proposed structure without any public notification, publically accessible files, potential public hearings and debates, written determinations, and appeals to a higher decision making body, such as an Area Planning Commissions. In all other cases, City Planning handles comparable cases in an open and public process called a Discretionary Action (e.g., zone variance).
Where we are going: This complex process, which has already allowed the demolition of thousands of smaller, affordable homes despite the hodgepodge of Specific Plans, HPOZ’s, RFA’s, ICO’s, Q Conditions, Community Plan footnotes, BMO, and HMO, will soon be remembered for its simplicity.
This is because over the next few years, the Department of City Planning, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council will amend the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance and the Baseline Hillside Ordinance.
In fact, City Planning’s Neighborhood Conservation Unit released these draft BMO and BHO amendments on October 30, 2015, and it will soon announce open houses and public hearings on these amendments. While their draft generally adheres to the City Council’s Motion directing City Planning to remove the loopholes from the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance, the draft preserves the BMO’s most critical flaw. It is still based on an inaccessible Building and Safety ministerial review and approval, not a public discretionary process through City Planning.
Furthermore, if adopted as now proposed, houses would continue to bulk up through a 20 percent design bonus and an unlimited amount of semi-enclosed balconies, decks, and breezeways. Voila! True to form, the amended BMO and BHO could still produce McMansions, turning the Council Motion on its head.
Then, on a parallel track, the 23 Interim Control Ordinances and 35 Community Plan Updates will also trigger wave after wave of detailed zone changes. In their cases, the re:code LA process, which I have previously analyzed in CityWatch, will produce six alternative zones for each existing single-family residential zone. Through a consensus process that City Planning proposes to achieve by conducting community meetings, these six alternative zones, beginning with the 23 ICO’s, will replace existing residential zones.
Then, as City Planning updates each of LA’s 35 Community Plans, they will replace all of the existing residential zones with the new, significantly more complex re-code LA zones. For example, 77 percent of single-family homes are now in the R-1 zone. This single zone will be divided into six new zones, ranging from R-1A to R-1F, with significant differences between areas in the flats and in the hills. Each of these options will have varying restrictions on height and number of stories; FAR and overall square footage; front, side, and rear yards; number of curb cuts; driveway width and location; bulk planes; parking requirements; and garage location.
This means that the Updated Community Plans would have a mosaic of many more residential zones, some changing block-by-block.
In addition, even though existing Specific Plans, HPOZ’s, and RFA’s will remain the same, their underlying zoning will change to the most similar new re:code LA zones.
Since the process of replacing the existing ICOs with the new zones, and then the 35 Community Plans with the same new zones, will unfold over many years, the zoning of residential neighborhoods, including subareas with duplexes and apartments, will be in flux for years to come.
So far, City Planning has devoted 10 years to the Updates of the 35 Community Plans, with nothing to show for its efforts. The City Council has only adopted one Update –Hollywood -- but Superior Court Judge Alan Goodman quickly rejected it. While no one knows how long the current Update process will eventually take for all 35 planning areas, ten more years is a reasonable guess.
This means that between early 2017, when the new re:code LA residential zones are scheduled for City Council adoption, until 2027, when City Planning might have implemented them, the residential zoning of Los Angeles will not only be far more complex than at present, it will also be in continuous flux.
Whether any of these new plans and ordinances will finally prevent mansionization remains to be seen, especially after drafts and proposals are tweaked through public hearings and debates, and well as by an even larger number of back-room deals finagled by the reborn “urban growth machine.”
Since Building and Safety, not City Planning, will be in charge of enforcing these new, complex, and continuously changing zoning laws and regulations, we can truly expect an adventure that will put the wildest rides at Magic Mountain and other amusement parks to shame. After all, can a City Department unable to enforce such basic requirements as posting demolition and building permits at construction sites, some how master new, far more complex, and continuously changing rules and regulations?
(Dick Platkin is a former LA city planner who writes on planning issues for CityWatch. He serves on the Board of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association and welcomes questions and comments at [email protected].)
Vol 13 Issue 90
Pub: Nov 6, 2015