PLANNING WATCH-If City Hall’s density hawks and their cronies, both local and in Sacramento, had their way, they would unabashedly up-zone vast swaths of Los Angeles.
They would alter adopted plans, height districts (which control building mass), and zoning ordinances to permit larger, taller, denser buildings – oblivious to the climate, infrastructure, and social consequences.
To justify these changes, the density hawks have put forth a series of flimsy arguments. They can be boiled down to four myths, all of which are easily debunked.
Myth 1: LA’s existing zoning is inadequate. As I have pointed out in many CityWatch columns, all of LA’s long, low-rise, north-south (e.g., Vermont) and east-west transit corridors (e.g., Ventura Boulevard) allow large, by-right R-3 and R-4 apartment houses. In these locations, developers can build large structures without any discretionary approvals. If these and other under-utilized parcels were built out to their maximum, according to the General Plan Framework’s EIR, Chapter 7 - Alternatives, LA’s population would reach 6.9 million people. This is three million more people than now live in Los Angeles, and it would nearly double the city’s population. If these residential projects also applied for density bonuses, LA’s population could reach nine million people, or around 5,000,000 more people than now live here. Of course, Angelinos would not have enough water, food, electricity, and emergency services to survive, but these are only issues raised by the city’s residents. The density hawks readily dismiss them as “NIMBY’s” to avoid addressing their points.
Myth 2: LA will soon experience a population boom. This, too, is nonsense. As reported by The Atlantic and Bloomberg News, according the Bureau of the Census, Los Angeles is losing, on average, 200 people per day. The city’s population is declining, not growing, just like New York City and Chicago.
Myth 3: Up-zoning increases transit ridership and the supply of affordable housing. This, too, is nonsense because LA neighborhoods, like Hollywood, that have the greatest amount of new (market) apartment construction near transit also have declining transit ridership and growing homelessness. This is because the rental units in the new apartment houses are expensive and often displace existing residents. Furthermore, the new tenants drive cars, seldom relying on subways or buses for mobility.
Myth 4: Up-zoning slows down climate change. Los Angeles could, in theory, reduce its Green House Gas emissions, but promoting the construction of expensive apartment achieves the opposite result. These high rent buildings accelerate climate change because they are auto-centric. Most of their tenants drive cars or depend on Lyft and Uber for mobility.
Instead of using re: code LA, Community Plan updates, and Transit Neighborhood Plans to up-zone Los Angeles, City Hall’s land use strategy should be to reduce zoning, plan designations, and Height Districts. This is the case for such a down-zoning land use strategy:
- Infrastructure: By recognizing that LA is already a slow growth or even a no growth city based on its stagnant population, City Hall can focus on repairing and upgrading the city’s collapsing infrastructure and public services. This will require billions in public investment, and the sooner City Hall takes on these monumental tasks, the better. Every delay drives up the costs even higher.
- Two additional benefits. First, by repairing dilapidated sidewalks and intersections, upgrading undergrounded and above-ground utilities, planting trees, installing bus shelters, and building bicycle lanes, Los Angeles can get people out of their cars. This will reduce traffic congestion and promote transit ridership. Second, unlike the construction of expensive market rate apartment buildings, this approach can reduce the city’s per capita and collective carbon footprint.
LA’s failing water mains urgently need repairs and replacement.
- Affordable Housing: By capping and reducing zoning on commercial corridors, developers will more frequently need to apply for density bonuses to build money-making larger, denser, taller residential buildings. Because these projects face mandatory inclusionary affordable housing requirements, downzoning increases the amount of low-income housing available for those most harmed by the housing crisis. Of course, the catch is that LA’s Housing and Community Investment Department must finally undertake on-site inspections.
Undoubtedly, the commercial property owners whose business models of flipping their properties or building expensive apartment houses will not take kindly to these policies. But existing zoning already allows them to build large residential and commercial buildings, without any discretionary reviews. Plus, by using the density bonus option, they can build much larger, taller, denser buildings than those allowed out-right by the Los Angeles Municipal Code.
Given these two broad options, LA is approaching the point of no return. Will it finally opt for carefully prepared and legally required plans, with rigorous monitoring of climate, infrastructure, population, and housing trends and programs? Or, will it continue to throw planning and monitoring under the bus to green light a short-term building boom that makes climate change, homelessness, and traffic congestion much worse?
For LA residents, this is an easy choice, but for the denizens of City Hall, their patrons, and their cheerleaders, life is not so simple. Will they continue to spin their myths to justify up-zoning, ignoring its consequences, or will they finally put their feet on the ground, take their heads out of LA’s money-tinged clouds, and address the needs of the city’s residents, not fly-by-night real estate investors.
They can listen to the legitimate concerns of the city’s residents and prioritize infrastructure repair and downzoning. Or they can they can dodge these concerns -- to which they have no answers -- by dismissing Angelinos as “nimbys,” hoping repeated smears will make the concerns of LA’s residents about the city’s future vanish.
(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatchLA. He serves on the board of United Neighborhoods of Los Angeles (UN4LA) and welcomes comments and corrections at firstname.lastname@example.org. Selected previous columns are available through the CityWatch archives and the Plan-it Los Angeles blog.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.