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03
Sun, Jul

LA’s Parallel Universes are on a Collision Course

PLATKIN ON PLANNING - The universe that Angelinos live in. If you live, work, or visit Los Angeles, you have undoubtedly witnessed the following, and can add other categories of your own: 

  • The rents are too damn high. A combination of weak rent control, rampant gentrification and evictions, slashed or underfunded affordable housing programs, and housing construction confined the upper reaches of the housing market have created a housing crisis, including a sharp rise in homelessness and homeless encampments. 
  • Climate change has arrived. We are in the midst of a mega-drought in which average rainfall has fallen from 15 inches per year to 5.  And, severe heat waves, year-round wild fires, and urban forest die off -- just as predicted – are not just the new normal. All forecasts indicate that these climate change indicators will get much worse. 
  • Infrastructure is failing. Electrical black outs, brown outs, bursting water mains, and clogged sewer lines have become routine. City Departments, like LADWP and Street Services, are working full time to patch up these breaks, but don’t have the capacity to keep one step ahead of them. 
  • Traffic congestion is getting worse. Despite new transit lines and fads, such as electric scooters, LA’s traffic congestion remains the world’s worst. Older remedies, such as flexible work hours, home occupations, car pooling, van pooling, reduced fares, and subsidized transit passes, are no longer discussed, while bus and rail ridership is declining. 

The universe that the Density Hawks – and their progeny -- have in mind for you.

If you’re are active in local neighborhood groups, such as Neighborhood Councils, Homeowner Associations, of block clubs, then you know that Los Angeles is the midst of a City Hall-supported real estate bubble, also spun as a boom. 

This bubble is fueled by enormous amounts of investment capital headed to LA, looking for higher rates of return through risky real estate speculation. The bubble is also assisted by a “growth” coalition, also called the urban growth machine or – more directly -- density hawks. This coalition consists of elected officials, academics, corporate media, City Hall and Sacramento administrators, private sector labor leaders, business advocacy groups, some non-profits, and new Astroturf organizations.  Despite their apparent differences, they share a fervent belief in the power of real estate investment to magically cure all manner of urban ills, even homelessness, rent gouging, and gridlocked streets. 

This belief is closely linked to their opposition to government regulation of land use, such as planning and monitoring, zoning ordinances, and environmental acts.  For them, these carefully prepared laws are only nuisances standing in the way of their business models. Such critical public policy issues as climate change and failing infrastructure are only hooks they can exploit to advance their “build, baby, build” real estate agenda. 

If these density hawks were to keel over, this is what they would hope to find in heaven, or any other place they ended up. 

  • Up-Zoning. Wide urban swaths would have the height, size, and density of privately-owned parcels increased, prior to the update of any citywide or local plans. In fact, this windfall for owners of commercial property is already underway in LA through “transit neighborhood plans,” especially the proposed Purple Line Extension’s “neighborhood transit plan.” This is a brazen real estate scam that I have previously debunked through a series of CityWatchLA planning columns.   
  • Slow-walking plans. The density hawks would stall any updates of local Community Plans and General Plan Elements as long as possible. In fact, in LA the New Community Plans program to update local Community Plans is entering its 14th year. So far it has managed to update less than half of LA’s 35 Community Plans and two District Plans. Meanwhile, the City Council committed the Department of City Planning to update all community plans on a regular six-year cycle, which means that some of these “new” plans are already old and due for a second update. 
  • Putting the cart before the horse. In this hog heaven, real estate speculation would guide the minimalist, shrunken planning process. Zoning would precede any up-date of local plans, which in turn would precede citywide General Plan elements – if or when they were ever updated. As for monitoring plans after the City Council adopts them, “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.”  

  • Construction of transit lines without adjacent public improvements. While the density hawks welcome mass transit, it is because they can use it as a justification for real estate speculation. This is why their planning efforts, like the Purple Line “transit neighborhood plan” only up-zone private lots and exclude any public improvements, even those that would make transit, walking, and bicycling more convenient. Their objective goal is not to get Angelinos out of their cars, but to lend a helping hand to property owners and investors in expensive apartment buildings. 
  • Elimination of single-family homes. The density hawks salivate over the opportunity to build these apartment houses in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes. And big surprise, their upzoning schemes, such as SB 827, never hinge on the parallel expansion of public services and infrastructure in these same neighborhoods. Presumably, their hulking new buildings, their occupants, and their nice cars would never utilize streets, water, electricity, garbage pick-ups, or other public services. 

When universes collide: These two universes are already on a collision course, and without enormous local opposition, the many alarming trends already visible in Los Angeles will get much worse, especially the housing crisis. For example, if developers had free access to single family neighborhoods, it would not solve LA housing crisis. The supply of affordable housing would NOT increase, nor would those already too damn high rents decline. This is why. 

Many of the investors would continue to build McMansions, since they are highly lucrative, with a steady stream of buyers and flippers. While these McMansions are larger and more expensive than the smaller houses they replace, they only add bulk, not density. They house the same number of people, though richer, in the same neighborhoods. There are least two differences through. First, the new mega-houses reduce LA’s tree cover. Second, they use much more energy and water, which is why the Miracle Mile/Beverly Grove areas -- epicenters of mansionization and new apartment construction -- have repeated power blackouts, brownouts, and cracked water mains and sewage lines. 

Plus, if developers could readily replace single-family homes with four-plexes and Small Lot Subdivisions, the new housing would still not be affordable. In fact, LA’s two affordable housing density bonus programs, SB 1818 and TOC guidelines, only apply to buildings with five or more rental units. Therefore, these new units would be expensive market housing. They would not contain any money-losing affordable housing. 

If the density hawks, like California State Senator Scott Wiener, managed to totally up-zone single-family neighborhoods to allow apartment buildings, the results would be even worse. The infrastructure would be more quickly pushed to the breaking point, more evicted residents could become homeless, and new residents would pay top dollar for their new rental apartments. But, this increase in the supply of housing would not reduce the price of housing for two simple reasons. First investors like to make money, not lose it. Second, vacant units would be easily filled through short-term rentals. 

The only winners of this up-zoning scheme for single-family neighborhoods would be the investors, which is the real agenda of the urban growth machine.  

If the density hawks – whether from the press, real estate blogs, public officials, academics, or astroturf lobbying groups – were truly committed to increasing the supply of affordable housing, they would stop calling for the up-zoning of single-family neighborhoods.  Instead they would be champions of the following: 

  • Restoring eliminated Federal Housing programs, such as 236 and 221.d.3.
  • Adequately funding Section 8 housing.
  • Reinstating the public housing role of Community Redevelopment Agencies.
  • Reforming the Ellis Act to reduce evictions.
  • Supporting State Measure 10.
  • Downzoning Los Angeles to force more developers to apply for affordable housing–linked density bonuses, and
  • Requiring LA’s Housing and Community Investment Department to send on-site inspector to affordable housing sites to confirm landlords are charging low rents to certified low-income tenants. 

Since the chance that the density hawks would support these affordable housing programs, careful and comprehensive planning, enhanced environmental review of new projects and plans, infrastructure monitoring and investing, and the full spectrum of climate change mitigation is nil, LA is on the path decline. The parallel universes are already colliding with each other. 

But none of this is preordained, and there is a clear record of Angelinos fighting back to protect their city against the density hawks, old and new. That is why we had the first General Plan in 1970, Proposition U in 1978, the AB 283 zoning consistency program in the 1980s, the General Plan Framework in the 1990s, and many Specific Plans and Historical Preservation Overlay Zones adopted over this entire period. 

While we cannot prevent the two parallel universes from smashing into each other, we can control the pace and nature of the collision.

 

(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning controversies for City Watch. Please send any questions or corrections to [email protected].) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.