THE TWO FACES OF LAT--According to the Los Angeles Times editorial page, “Measure S isn't a solution to LA’s housing woes, it's a childish middle finger to City Hall.” Later, similar articles made the same and related points when the paper took the lead in opposing Measure S, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative.
Yet, the same newspaper’s investigative reporters have performed a tremendous public service by unearthing an extensive city planning pay-to-play operation at City Hall. In what the Times called soft corruption, deep-pocketed developers make extensive contributions to elected officials in order to get their mega-projects permitted in locations where they are by barred by LA’s planning and zoning laws. Instead of telling the developers to move their projects to parcels where they are legally permitted, or to scale their projects down so they can legally build them in their preferred spots, the elected officials vote to change the planning and zoning laws for the individual lots where the mega-projects are proposed.
Voila! Spot-zoning and spot-General Plan Amendments for those who pay-to-play.
How can we make sense of this two-faced approach by LA’s most prominent newspaper?
On one hand, the newspaper has totally substantiated one of the main arguments of the Yes of S campaign, City Hall pay-to-play to has become LA’s land use planning process. On the other hand, the same newspaper has repeated, nearly verbatim, the no on S campaign’s talking points.
The easy part of my analysis – at the end of this column -- is to debunk the Times’ growing list of claims about Measure S. The harder part is to explain the paper’s two-faced approach. This is my explanation.
For over a century, LA's land use planning process has been little more than real estate speculators calling the shots at City Hall. Los Angeles has experienced many waves of municipal reform – such as the adoption of the first zoning code in the United States in 1909 -- since the end of the 19th Century to control this type of corruption. Nevertheless, after each reform, such as the new City Charter in 2000, AB 283, and The General Plan Framework Element, City Hall methodically undermined each of them.
When Los Angeles was a new city with raw land, real estate speculation focused on housing construction. Despite occasional victories by good government forces in Los Angeles, there was never much concern about the environment, infrastructure, and public services at City Hall. Now, in 21st Century LA there is hardly any raw land left. In a famous essay from former city planning professors at USC, the end of this economically-induced low-density development model was described as "Sprawl Hits the Wall." Their account also dovetailed with Mayor Tom Bradley’s LA 2000 – A City for the Future report, which attempted to transform Los Angeles from an unrestrained fast growth city to a controlled growth city. Both visions were then turned into an official plan, the General Plan Framework.
But, what these scholars and civil leaders did not fully realize was that the end of raw land Los Angeles hardly meant the end of real estate speculation. The old Urban Growth Machine simply put on a new set of clothes. The same Growth Machine real estate investors turned their attention away from tract housing to infill housing, including luxury towers, McMansions, and small lots subdivisions.
While the schemes to demolish and replace existing, affordable homes with more expensive residences do not require any spot-zones from the City Council, most new high-rise luxury apartment buildings do. They are usually tall, dense structures because of real estate economics – high profits follow high buildings. This, then, is the old Growth Machine’s new real estate model: private infill projects regardless of social consequences adopted plans and zones.
But, even though tract housing and luxury towers look much different, their political and economic content are the same. Real estate speculators need to move fast on their projects. They lose money when they are hemmed in by planning, zoning, and the California Environmental Quality Action (CEQA) laws and regulations. Like before, they want a pliant City Hall and are willing to liberally contribute to elected officials to make sure they get it.
If they can’t wangle this through widespread up-zoning and up-planning ordinances, such as those appended to the overturned Hollywood Community Plan, they then move on to their Plan B. They resort to pay-to-play and spot-zoning to legalize their new lucrative projects, one-by-one, in all the wrong places.
How Measure S fits into this history.
This is what Measure S is all about, the historic struggle in Los Angeles between good governance types who know that large cities need to be carefully planned versus commercial real estate interests bound together in the Urban Growth Machine, including boosters from local newspapers.
The updated Urban Growth Machine, though, has learned a few lessons through focus groups and strong voter support in Los Angeles for two affordable housing initiatives, Measures JJJ and HHH. One is that they should present their old free market Reaganesque arguments about deregulation with liberal buzzwords. This is why the “no on S” campaign frames their case around affordable housing, jobs, and transit. It also explains why they claim that spot-zoning and spot-planning is necessary to build affordable housing (it isn’t). It also accounts for their claim that the strong planning and zoning championed by Measure S is really a clever tool of the haves to wage class struggle against the have-nots, largely racial and ethnic minorities.
But, these election ploys are just window dressing for the hidden agenda of the real estate firms enmeshed in pay-to-play, including their partners in the press. Their priority was and still is maximizing return on their real estate investment. It is not about carefully planning cities, and this is the conundrum of the Los Angeles Times editorial board. They are caught between these competing narratives, even when one side of the argument comes from their own reporters.
Do they side with their traditional Urban Growth Machine allies in the real estate sector, or do they side with their own reporters, as well as the advocates of good government? Will the paper continue to side with topsy-turvy real estate markets, as they have since the days of Otis Chandler, Harry Chandler, and Harrison Gray? Or will they line-up with the solid planning and zoning that has been the best option for Los Angeles since the 1980s?
Torn by these conflicting forces, the LA Times has taken a Solomon-like approach when it comes to Measure S. The first half of their editorial approach gives credit to their own reporting, and the second half ignores their own reporting, and parrots the talking points of the no on S campaign. In so many words the paper states, as do many no on S advocates, “Yes, LA’s City Hall is corrupt and yes, the City’s planning process is broken, but we still need pay-to-play to overcome our problems of becoming a world-class city.”
The LA Times Editorial Board approach, though, ultimately fails.
To pull off this two faced approach, through its own editorials, and subsequent feature stories by its own reporters and guest columnists, the Times simply became a megaphone for the no on S campaign. Since these talking points are well known, I have selected the most prominent ones to debunk.
“Measure S would enact a permanent ban on General Plan amendments for any property less than 15 acres.”
Really? The LAT should review their own editorials supporting the new year 2000 Los Angeles City Charter. It is the updated City Charter that states that all General Plan Amendments must be for geographically significant areas. Measure S simply clarifies this Charter provision to mean significant areas must be 15 acres of larger, a specific plan, or a community plan.
“Because the existing city’s land-use plans are so out of date and so riddled with inconsistencies that it’s not unusual to need a zone change to build a simple apartment building in a row of existing apartment buildings.”
Really? The Times’ own reporter’s summary of Measure S notes that commercial zones in Los Angeles permit the by-right construction of apartment buildings. The only impediment in some cases is Proposition U, and this is routinely avoided through density bonuses. They do not require a City Council-spot zone or spot-plan amendment. This is why Measure S is not a barrier to the construction of apartment buildings, other than high-rise luxury towers located in areas with low-rise planning and zoning.
“Measure S would worsen the housing shortage.”
Really? No argument that Measure S could hinder the construction of luxury apartments in low-rise areas because in these locations the building permits depend on spot-zoning. But this luxury housing market is totally disconnected from the middle income and low income housing in short-supply. Any developer who wants to build for these markets has massive pent-up demand, many by-right building sites, and lenders around the world interested in the Los Angeles real estate market. Measure S does not stand in the way of any of this since the only barrier is, essentially, self-imposed. Affordable housing has such low profit margins that developers avoid it. No change in local zoning laws will be able to change this basic feature of real estate economics, the need to make a profit.
“The measure would do nothing to create more affordable housing or to protect existing affordable housing.”
Really? Measure S requires that all land use decisions be consistent with the General Plan: “5) Require the City to make findings of General Plan consistency for planning amendments, project approvals and permit decisions.” This legal finding alone has the power to pull the rug out from underneath many types of speculative real estate leading to displacement, especially McMansions, Small Lot Subdivision, some mid-rise projects built through the demolition of older structures and the evictions of their tenants. For example the General Plan Framework’s Policy 4.3 is clearly one criteria that can and should be used to slow down gentrification and displacement, “Objective 4.3: Conserve the scale and character of residential neighborhoods.”
Furthermore, LA’s Community Plans, all part of the General Plan, contain anti-displacement policies, such as Policy 1.4-2 from the Wilshire Community Plan. It could easily be used as a finding to block gentrification, “Ensure that new housing opportunities minimize displacement of residents. Program: Decision-makers should adopt displacement findings in any decision relating to the construction of new housing.”
Measure S will make it nearly impossible to convert a parking lot, a defunct public building or a strip mall into housing.”
Really? Strip malls are built on commercially zoned lots, which allow by-right apartment buildings. As for public buildings and parking lots, it depends on the underlying zoning, but Los Angeles has no shortage of parcels on which apartments, both market-rate and affordable, can be built. In fact, the General Plan Framework Element concluded that Los Angeles has sufficient commercially zone land (which include apartment buildings) for all 21st century growth scenarios: “The Plan's capacity for growth considerably exceeds any realistic market requirements for the future. For example, there is sufficient capacity for retail and office commercial uses for over 100 years even at optimistic, pre-recession, market growth rates.”
Building on underused sites is the best way to create more housing without displacing existing residents.
Really? LA Open Acres has created a searchable map of thousands of vacant lots in Los Angeles, including 3000 in South Los Angeles. Per the Times preference, most are suitable for residential construction without displacement, and Measure S does not affect them. But, since the year 2000 Los Angeles has lost 20,000 rest stabilized units, as well as many more affordable units, through demolitions and evictions.
This is the dysfunctional city planning status quo that no on Measure S protects. In contrast, a Yes on S vote allows the city to slow down dislocation and gentrification through findings of inconsistency with the General Plan, as discussed above.
In addition, Measure S would make it harder to address homelessness. Just three months ago, LA voters passed Measure HHH to build 10,000 units of low-income and permanent supportive housing for the homeless.
Really? Measure S supporters also strongly supported Measure HHH. This is because the City of LA already owns thousands of parcels where affordable housing can be constructed by-right. It does not need to use private parcels or city-owned sites where the zoning does not allow residential. This is why the City of LA, which has had a program to use city-owned sites for housing since 1988, has never bothered to change the zoning or plan designations of sites not zoned for residential uses.
Don’t hold hostage badly needed housing with this overly broad ballot measure.
Really? An updated General Plan can identify where in LA there is the greatest need for middle income and low-income housing. It can also determine where there is sufficient infrastructure and services capacity for increased housing, as well as which parts of the city have the greatest amount of zoning suitable for residential development. This information, especially if coupled with housing programs like HHH or a restoration of Federal and CRA housing programs, can address LA’s housing crisis. It is a much better model than the status quo, which almost entirely depends on the ups and downs of private real estate investors to provide a barely detectable trickle of affordable housing.
In light of LA’s history, we know that a Measure S election victory will not be a permanent defeat for the Urban Growth Machine, but it will be a serious set back. Nevertheless, it will try to slowly worm its way back into City Hall with backdoor pay-to-play for spot-zones. Supporters of strong planning must, therefore, be vigilant.
We also know that an election defeat of Measure S will quickly lead to backsliding over City Council promises to quickly update the General Plan, refuse campaign contributions from real estate investors, and improve Environmental Impact Reports.
But, we also know that the process that Mayor Tom Bradley began in the late 1980’s to turn LA into a planned city will only grow. This is because Los Angeles’ future will become a dystopian world like Blade Runner if market forces continue to substitute for a strong, adhered to General Plan.
As a result, either by choice or by urban implosion, an infill-focused Urban Growth Machine will lead to LA’s demise. The city will then have no choice but to fully embrace a planned future.
(Dick Platkin is a former LA city planner who reports on local planning issues in Los Angeles for CityWatch LA. Please send your comments and corrections to [email protected].) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.