PLATKIN ON PLANNING-You may think you live in a community or neighborhood, and you would not be wrong.
But, if you log on to typical real estate websites, such as Niche, it is hard to find information about local communities. At best, you learn about test scores at nearby schools and crime statistics. Unfortunately, this same mindset also applies to the adjuncts of the real estate industry, including most elected officials, corporate media, and real estate industry lobbyists, such as Chambers of Commerce and YIMBYs.
To better understand how their outlook shapes land use decisions in Los Angeles, I have prepared a guide to the 1-2 punch combination they have energetically supported.
Punch #1: Up-zoning and Up-planning. Although real estate investors lead a topsy-turvy life because of unstable interest rates, sources of capital, consumer tastes and demand, and zoning and environmental regulations, there is a constant underlying their business model: Investors want to make sure their business ventures sail through the City’s bureaucracy as by-right projects. To this end, their strategy is to change the laws instead of changing their projects.
When this happens, Building and Safety deems their projects by-right, and the developers then rarely need to pitch them, along with campaign donations, to finicky elected officials. They also do not need to prepare for public hearings, potential appeals, and occasional lawsuits. It also means that City Hall officials will not ask them to present their projects to nosey Neighborhood Councils. Plus, these developers can also get a restful night’s sleep since few by-right projects are subject to the California Environmental Quality Action (CEQA.) Once sound asleep, they are likely to dream about the following:
- Community Plan Updates contain plan area maps that present broad planning categories called Plan Designations. These updated Plan Designations allow larger, by-right projects when translated into zoning regulations. Furthermore, updated Community Plans always append an ordinance that increase the height, mass, and density of hundreds to thousands of local parcels.
- Specific Plans are zoning overlay ordinances that City Planning prepares, and the City Council adopts, usually at the request of local communities wanting protection from over-development. Los Angeles currently has 51 Specific Plans, some with Design Review Boards that publicly examine local real estate projects. But Specific Plans are now being turned on their head by Transit Neighborhood Plans (TNPs). These new Specific Plans are not initiated by local communities but are imposed on them by the Department of City Planning, with a bare-bones outreach effort that leaves community groups in the dark.
For example, the proposed Purple Line Extension Transit Neighborhood Plan increases the height, size, and density of privately owned lots in the Fairfax, Beverly Grove, Miracle Mile San Vicente, Pico, Little Ethiopia, and LaBrea areas. These dramatic changes would be adopted prior to the impending update of the Wilshire Community Plan for the exact same areas. Once adopted, City Planning would then exclude this Specific Plan from its parallel Community Plan Update process for the very same neighborhoods. This is because its Update’s outreach and analysis would reveal that existing zoning is more than capable of meeting all growth scenarios, but local public infrastructure and services are not.
- Re:code LA is a multi-year, multi-million dollar zoning program that will, in part, reduce many developers’ needs for zone changes, zone variances, specific plan exceptions, and other discretionary actions for their real estate projects. For this to happen the new re:code LA zones will allow a greater range of uses for each zone, while reducing other requirements, such as parking and set-backs.
- Density Bonuses are issued to apartment projects where developers agree to include affordable rental units. Under SB 1818, the size of these buildings can expand by up to 35 percent. Furthermore, the City Planning Commission-approved guidelines for Measure JJJ, dubbed Transit Oriented Community Guidelines, allows the height, size, density, of new apartment project to expand by up to 80 percent. While most of these bonuses are technically discretionary, City Hall presents them as unappealable ministerial decisions. Then, once granted, no developer ever needs to provide data that he/she charges affordable rents or that his/her tenants are low income transit riders.
- Statewide Planning Legislation. In early 2018 residents of cities in the entire State of California mobilized to stop Senate Bill 827. Written by YIMBY California and submitted to the California State Senate by San Francisco’s Scott Wiener, this legislation would have forced cities to automatically approve currently illegal projects because they were a quarter-mile from existing or proposed transit and bus lines. As shown in this LA Times map below, SB 827 would have up-zoned most of Los Angeles south of the Hollywood Hills, and about half of the San Fernando Valley. While SB 827 was soundly defeated, Senator Wiener has already announced that he will submit SB 827 2.0 in early 2019.
Punch #2: Accelerated reviews and approvals of discretionary actions. At present, the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) processes about 100,000 building permits per year. Of these, LADBS sends around 3,000 cases to City Planning because they require a discretionary approval. About 10 percent of these cases are categorized as major projects. They require multiple approvals from City Planning, as well as an Environmental Impact Report. To assist these high-profile projects, City Planning has developed several mechanisms to speed them along.
While 90 percent of all cases that LADBS transfers to City Planning are eventually approved, the approval process still takes too long for many developers. They perpetually demand that the review process be sped up. Hence, the following helping hands have been rolled out for these anxious deal makers:
- Project Streamlining has taken many forms, including some false starts, such as a failed proposal to merge the Departments of City Planning and Building and Safety. In the end, too many vested interests at City Hall killed this streamlining proposal. But, one streamlining effort that went into effect in 2012 is the Multiple Approvals Procedure Revisions Ordinance. It mandates that one City Planning official will handle all entitlement requests for a large, complex project.
- Expediting, established in 2003, allows developers to pay extra fees so City Planning’s Expediting Processing Section (EPS) handles their case. This unit quickly reviews a project’s discretionary actions and moves them as a single package to decision makers. Basically, for a sizeable fee it pushes these complex projects to the front of the queue. Simpler cases, such as a Specific Plan approval, begin with a $5000 deposit. In contrast, complex cases, such as those involving the City Planning Commission and the Office of Zoning Administration, require an initial deposit as high as $17,500.
- Re: code LA’s enormous Municipal Code Process Ordinance, was recently renamed the more innocuous “Zoning Code / Los Angeles Municipal Code (LAMC) / Reorganization of Administrative Provisions / Amendment.” As analyzed in great detail by attorney Hydee Feldstein in her recent CityWatch article, The Political Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: Planning’s Power Grab, it is a game changer. This large, complex ordinance ensures that those projects requiring discretionary approvals smoothly sail through City Hall. Once adopted, case processing timelines will be compressed, fewer public notices will be posted, and the public will have reduced opportunities to submit comments.
According to attorney Feldstein, these are the main threats from these proposed re:code LA amendments to the Los Angeles Municipal Code.
- “The Ordinance represents a major shift in powers and duties away from the City Council, the electorate, Neighborhood Councils, and residents to the Director of Planning. The Ordinance gives the Director of Planning the final call over many projects, authorizing him or her to spot zone and approve numerous projects that do not provide affordable housing, but that may nevertheless receive incentives or bonuses … by allowing the Director to be the "interpreter" of Specific Plan provisions and Zoning Code provisions for the City.”
- “This Proposed Ordinance amends the Los Angeles Administrative Code and the Los Angeles Municipal Code, in addition to indirectly amending the City Charter. . . . It severely restricts the ability of stakeholders to participate in that process, and it eliminates some notifications, Neighborhood Council participation, and other protections that currently exist to challenge inappropriate land uses.”
- “This ordinance provides developers with access to upzoning, density bonuses and incentives without providing a single unit of affordable housing. Even worse, this ordinance permits stacking of bonuses and incentives under different laws, which is prohibited by the current code, and is the path to ever larger unfettered developments.”
Taking action: With knowledge and organization LA’s residents do not have to take a beating, like Rocky Balboa did after a series of punishing 1-2 punch combinations.
The first step is forceful political and legal challenges to the up-zoning schemes listed above, as well as those are still a twinkle in some speculator’s eye. This means extra vigilance when up-zoning proposals, like Transit Neighborhood Plans, falsely claim to curtail climate change by boosting affordable housing and transit ridership. In fact, even a superficial look reveals that they do just the opposite, which is why these transit neighborhood plans never include a monitoring requirement.
The second step is to make sure that the newly renamed “Zoning Code / Los Angeles Municipal Code (LAMC) / Reorganization of Administrative Provisions / Amendment” is properly fixed before it tiptoes into the City’s formal adoption process.
(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles City Planner who reports on local planning controversies for City Watch. Please send any comments or corrections to firstname.lastname@example.org.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.