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Finally, Happy News from City Hall: Council Motions Oppose Scott Wiener’s Senate Bill 50

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-In 2018, Los Angeles, like most California cities, formally opposed SB 827, the YIMBY California/Senator Scott Wiener bill to upzone (i.e., unplanned unappealable increases in the height, size, and density of privately-owned parcels). Because their opposition to SB 827 was carefully supported by detailed studies, the bill went down to quick defeat. 

As reported previously in CityWatchLA, YIMBY California, again working through Senator Wiener, has resurrected SB 827, but with a new name, SB 50, along with cosmetic changes that camouflage the bill’s even more threatening impacts on California cities. 

City Hall’s response is not yet clear, but hat’s off to Councilman Paul Koretz for his Dec. 12, 2018, City Council motion directing the Department of City Planning to determine the impacts of SB 50 on Los Angeles, and his follow-up February 27, 2019, Resolution calling on the City of Los Angles to formally lobby against SB 50 in Sacramento. 

So far, there is no evidence that City Planning has yet analyzed the impact of SB 50, although the City’s Legislative Analyst (CLA) submitted a two-page report to the Council’s Planning and Land Use Committee (PLUM) on March 7, 2019.  This report concluded: Opposition to SB 50 is consistent with the City’s policy to oppose legislation that constrains its local control.” 

What remains, however, is a final action by the City Council on Councilman Koretz original motion and resolution. Furthermore, the December 12 motion identifies five specific research questions that may, or may not, be eventually answered by the Department of City Planning. These questions about SB 50 impacts on Los Angeles include the following: 

  • LA’s land use regulatory process and zoning?
  • Historic Preservation Overlay Zones?
  • Affordable housing incentive programs, such as Transit Oriented Communities (TOC)?
  • Community Plan Updates?
  • Proposed concepts of major transit stops and job-rich areas? 

There is no reason to dawdle in answering these questions, especially because the bill is quickly worming its way through the State Senate, supported by a sophisticated public relations campaign.  This is why other cities – unlike Los Angeles -- are moving quickly to analyze and oppose SB 50: in particular San Francisco and Palo Alto.  

Real estate scams, large and small: More importantly, the answers to Councilman Koretz’s questions also apply to the local versions of SB 50, in particular the Transit Neighborhood Plans that City Planning is now preparing, with support from Council Offices, including Paul Koretz’s Council District 5. These mini-SB 50s are based on the same free market logic of SB 50. They will, therefore, have similar, unintended impacts on Los Angeles neighborhoods: unplanned, over-height, over-sized “Wienervilles.” Like SB 50, these real estate projects will be disconnected from City Council-adopted planning goals and policies, including their basis in carefully documented demographic trends, large amounts of existing untapped zoning capacity, and nearly tapped out public services and infrastructure. 

If the City Council adopts Councilman Koretz’s motion and resolution – which is likely -- it will place itself in the awkward position of simultaneously opposing and supporting legislation that awards the owners of private parcels highly valuable and untaxed up-zones for their commercial lots, without even a head fake to the legally required planning or monitoring process.  

The bottom line is that SB 50 and its local counterparts, like Transit Neighborhood Plans, are fancy real estate scams based on the same spurious free market assumptions and the same beneficiaries: commercial property owners and real estate developers. Furthermore, if adopted, both SB 50 and its local counterparts will fuel gentrification, without ever meeting its three politically-concocted goals: 

-  Increasing transit ridership.

-  Increasing affordable housing.

-  Reducing Green House Gases. 

The likely impacts of SB 50 on Los Angeles: Note: As SB 50 changes and more research becomes available, some of these findings may be updated. 

  1. Land use regulatory process and zoning? Since most of Los Angeles qualifies as being transit rich or jobs rich, legally adopted land use regulations -- Plan Designations and Zone -- would become irrelevant under SB 50. Furthermore, Los Angeles General Plan Framework’s Goal 3.3, that changes in zoning must be contingent on a demonstration of adequate public services and infrastructure, would be cast aside. This requirement would be jettisoned, and since SB 50 real estate projects are not discretionary, they also would not be subject to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). They would, therefore, sail through without public notices, environmental assessments, public hearings, debates and votes by the City Planning Commission and City Council, and appeals from the public. 

Likewise, existing neighborhoods that are transit and/or jobs rich would be subject to similar de facto upzoning in which developers could waive existing restrictions on height, mass (FAR), and density.  This would allow buildings with a height up to 55 feet, Floor Area Ratios as high as 3.25, with density restrictions (i.e. units per acre), and no or minimal parking requirements. 

The current discretionary land use processes to allow carefully-vetted deviations from municipal laws regulating the use of land: zone variances, zone changes, and General Plan amendments, have already been compromised by SB 1818 and TOC Guidelines. In the case of SB 50, this process of land use deregulation will advance to the next step. Local parcels will become exempt from most zoning laws, including overlay ordinances, since developers could avoid land use regulations through an unappealable ministerial (administrative) process imposed on all California cities by the California State legislature through SB 50 and kindred “housing” bills. 

  1. Historic Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZs)? SB 50 contains no protection for existing neighborhoods that have HPOZs, Residential Floor Area Districts (RFAs), or one of LA’s 16 new re:Code LA R1 anti-mansionization zones. Unless homeowners go through the laborious process to add their house to the California Register of Historic Resources, they cannot protect their historic neighborhoods from SB 50. 
  1. Affordable housing incentive programs, such as Transit Oriented Communities (TOC)? SB 50 expands LA’s two density bonus programs, TOC Guidelines and SB 1818, by increasing the number of by-right bonuses, areas where these programs could be used, and removing any local right of appeal to communities or individuals who oppose SB 50 zoning waivers. Most importantly, however, SB 50 retains the same critical weakness of the two existing programs. It has no required inspection process to assure that pledged affordable units charge low-income rents and house low-income tenants. It is ripe for abuse, especially because landlords do not have easily accessible databases to determine who is eligible to rent their affordable units, and potential renters have no easily accessible database to determine where the SB 50 affordable units are located. Furthermore, low-income tenants who have obtained a Section 8 voucher cannot use their vouchers for affordable housing created through SB 1818, TOC Guidelines, and SB 50. 

Another weakness is that SB 50 has no monitoring program to determine if its upzoning schemes create new housing, if the new housing is affordable or reduces the price of market housing, if the pledged affordable units actually exist, if future SB 50 tenants utilize transit, and if SB 50 apartments reduce Green House Levels beyond existing levels. Nevertheless, SB 50’s long list of incentives to private investors will remain intact, regardless of their actual outcomes, which, as I predict, will be increased gentrification, traffic congestion and air pollution, and economic inequality, supplemented by collapsing public infrastructure and services

  1. Community Plan Updates. The New Community Plans program has been underway since 2005, and to push back against Measure S the City Council mandated that LA’s 35 Community Plans and two District Plans (Port and Airport) be subsequently updated on a six-year cycle.So far, however, this update process is listing badly for several reasons. 

First, Community Plans apply citywide General Plan elements to local neighborhoods, and nearly all of LA’s mandatory and optional citywide elements are out of date. The program to update them has ground to a halt, and there is no evidence on City Planning’s website that the Department is updating these relics from the previous century. For example the mandatory Open Space element was adopted in 1973, and recent efforts to update it so far consist of several 2017 private and public meetings. 

Second, since 2005 about six Community Plans have been fully updated and 16 are now going through an accelerated and truncated updating process. The deadline for updating the remaining Community Plan is 2024, but there is no public information on the update schedule and work program, assuming it exists. 

Third, updated Community Plans are implemented through public improvements, called the Capital Improvement Program and appended land use ordinances (e.g. zoning). But, no capital improvement program are attached to any Community Plan, old or “new”, and adopted zoning laws are routinely by-passed through many real estate schemes, such as re:code LA, Transit Neighborhood Plans, density bonus ordinances, and SB 50, all independent of any local analysis or adopted Community Plan policies, goals, or land use designations. 

The conclusion is unmistakable. If adopted, SB 50 will hammer the final nail into the coffin of LA’s faltering Community Plan update process. At that point, land use, as legally established through (General) plan designations and zones, will be permanently severed from a careful analysis of under-utilized existing zoning, population and transportation trends, infrastructure capacity, and the California Environmental Quality Act. Turbulent market forces will then become the de facto criteria determining the use of land in Los Angeles. Short-term business decisions will undermine zoning laws, and these actions, in turn, will supplant the General Plan elements and processes required by City of Los Angeles Charter Sections 554-558, and the State of California’s planning laws.  

While some investors will undoubtedly make out like bandits, the quality of life in Los Angeles will plummet even more. 

  1. Proposed concepts of major transit stops and job-rich areas. While we soon expect new maps identifying neighborhoods in Los Angeles that are jobs and transit rich (i.e., within a half mile of light rail, heavy rail, and frequent bus lines) maps prepared for SB 827 indicate that most of Los Angeles would be subject to the provisions of SB 50, including the historic core, East LA, South LA, and most of the Westside. In the case of the San Fernando Valley all major transit corridors would include at least half of its neighborhoods, with more folded once Senator Wiener identifies “jobs rich areas.”  When this happens, many other Los Angeles neighborhoods will also pop up on SB 50 impact maps.  Few Los Angeles communities will remain intact, only governed by General Plan Elements, Community Plans, and City Council-adopted zoning ordinances. 

What comes next? 

First, this legislation is rapidly moving through the State Legislature, buoyed by a well funded, carefully crafted lobbying campaign. Angelinos and their City Council do not have the luxury to wait for the Department of City Planning to eventually draft a report on the legislation’s impact. Instead, community groups and Council offices should undertake their own independent reviews, and I offer this column as a starting point. Please extend my analysis and make whatever corrections are warranted. This is the best way to determine what will happen in Los Angeles if the California State Legislature adopts SB 50. 

Second, City Hall hypocrisy of opposing SB 50, while supporting its local equivalents, like the Purple Line Transit Neighborhood Plan, needs to go. In case anybody is still not clear on their similarity, let me spell it out. They both contend that existing plans and zones block increased transit ridership and the supply of affordable housing. Their solution is deregulation that circumvents adopted plans and zones with up-zoning schemes that increase the value of underlying properties, resulting in new market apartments whose upscale residents will miraculously ditch their cars and switch to buses and subways for most of their trips. Furthermore, both SB 50 and its local equivalents assume that the price, quality, and accessibility of mass transit is irrelevant, while supporting public services and infrastructure are so elastic that examining and monitoring them is unnecessary. 

Third, both programs hide behind the same deception. Incentives to developers will “unleash” private investors, whose pursuit of profits will fix serious problems of low transit ridership and over-priced housing through a transit-adjacent building boom. Since this is self-evident to these density hawks, neither proposal contains any inspection and monitoring requirements. As a result, their up-zones would exist in perpetuity, regardless of their actual, as opposed to imagined, impacts.

 

(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 rhplatkin@gmail.com. Previous articles are available at the City Watch LA archives.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.