City Planning Should Hold Off on Project Approvals Until Virus Outbreak is Over

VOICES-Suddenly we're living with a new reality. It's no longer business-as-usual in the City of LA, or anywhere else.

As the scope of the coronavirus pandemic has become brutally clear, we've had to drastically change the way we live. Mayor Garcetti has issued an emergency order, closing down businesses that are considered non-essential and directing Angelenos to stay in their homes as much as possible. City Hall and the various agencies that conduct city business have either cancelled or postponed public meetings until the situation changes. Obviously, this is going to make it more difficult to get things done, and City departments are looking at different ways to do business in order to keep things moving forward. Certainly, there are necessary services that need to be provided, and hopefully City Hall will find ways to perform these functions without posing a health risk to City employees or the public. 

But in the drive to get things done, City Hall should not be sacrificing public engagement or transparency. One of the measures taken to combat the spread of the virus was cancelling all Neighborhood Council (NC) meetings. This step was necessary, but a number of NC board members have voiced concerns about how this will impact their oversight of development applications. While many types of projects require public hearings, there are many others that don't. If a developer is requesting approval for a Transit-Oriented Community project, a Density Bonus or a Site Plan Review, the law doesn't require that any hearings be held. This means that the only opportunity for communities to learn about what's in store for their neighborhood is when the project is reviewed by the Neighborhood Council. 

The Department of City Planning (DCP) is still grappling with how to adapt to the pandemic, and at this point it's unclear how it will function for the time being, but it is clear that City Hall sees the DCP as an essential service and wants the Department to keep doing business. The question is whether the DCP will continue to issue approvals on projects that don't require public hearings. With the NCs out of the picture, this means that many projects could be approved with absolutely no public engagement. No opportunity for communities to meet with developers and offer input. No opportunity for citizens to raise concerns about how these projects might affect the community. When it first looked like NC meetings might just be cancelled for a couple of weeks, this may not have seemed like an issue. But now it's clear that they will be cancelled at least through mid-April, and possibly much longer.

No doubt City Hall will argue that housing projects are vitally important, and that approvals should not be delayed for any reason. That may sound reasonable, but let's remember that over the last five years about 90% of the residential units approved in LA have been for Above Moderate Income Households, in other words, households that earn 120% or more of the Area Median Income. While the percentage of affordable units approved has gone up somewhat in the last several months, still the large majority of new units greenlighted by the DCP are for households that can already afford housing. There is no desperate need for new luxury apartments. We already have plenty of those.

While no developer wants to see their project delayed any longer than necessary, there are a number of developers who willingly engage with the Neighborhood Councils and take their input seriously.  When I served on the Hollywood Hills West NC, it was not uncommon for project applicants to say they appreciated getting input from residents. In many cases they incorporated suggestions made at NC meetings. Certainly, that's not always the case, and sometimes the process gets contentious, but giving residents a chance to learn what's going on in their community is crucial. People want to have a voice in the process. They want to be heard.

Our elected officials have repeatedly claimed that the public has ample opportunity to participate in the planning process and that they make every effort to ensure transparency. It is true that the DCP does hold a lot of hearings. So, is the process really transparent? Is the public really being heard?

You can get your answer by looking at the recent headlines about the ongoing corruption investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ). Earlier this month former LA City Councilmember Mitch Englander was charged by the Feds with having tried to cover up the fact that he accepted tens of thousands of dollars in cash and gifts from a businessman during a trip to Las Vegas. When he was on the Council, Englander had served on the Planning & Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee. Accompanying Englander on the trip to Vegas was John Lee, then an aide to the Councilmember. Lee was recently elected to the seat formerly occupied by Englander on the Council. He has denied any wrongdoing. 

Just last week the Feds announced that real estate appraiser Justin Kim had admitted to facilitating a $500,000 cash payment to an LA City Councilmember for help in resolving an appeal that threatened to stop a high-profile project. While the plea agreement does not name the Councilmember, it does disclose that this person was a member of the PLUM Committee. The DOJ's press release says that Kim delivered the first installment of the payoff, $400,000, in a paper bag during a meeting in Downtown. It should also be noted that Kim is a former member of the City Planning Commission. 

These revelations do not appear to jibe with the City's claim that the planning process is open and transparent. On the contrary, they seem to confirm the suspicions held by many Angelenos that at least some elected officials participate in a pay-to-play system, and that planning decisions are often made behind closed doors with no public input. 

A great first step in restoring public confidence in City Hall would be for the Department of City Planning to announce that they will refrain from issuing project approvals until the NCs are able to meet again. This would show that, rather than trying to rush approvals through with no public engagement, the DCP is truly committed to openness and transparency. If you would like to share your views on this issue with your Council rep, you can find their contact info by clicking on the link below.

City Council Directory.


(Casey Maddren is President of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA), a community group advocating for better planning and better governance, and a CityWatch contributor.) Photo: LA Times.  Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.