PLATKIN ON PLANNING-Three things predictably happen in years divisible by four. 1) If you were born on February 29, you celebrate your real birthday. 2) We watch the spectacle of the summer Olympics. 3) We are endlessly subjected to lesser-evil arguments. This time Donald Trump is raising alarm bells with his supporters about Hillary Clinton, while the Democratic establishment is scaring the bejeezus out of its faithful with stories of Trumpian hell and damnation.
In 2016 we can luckily put some of these lesser evil claims to the test because we live in a state, California, and a city, Los Angeles, where mainstream Democrats totally rule the roost. While officially non-partisan, nearly every elected official in Los Angeles is a Democrat, and it is hardly different in Sacramento. There the entire elected Executive branch and a super-majority of the State Legislature consist of Jerry Brown-friendly Democrats.
This is in sharp contrast to the Federal government, where Republicans control the Senate and the House, and where Democrats routinely blame their lack of progressive legislation on the power of this greater (not other) evil.
But, what happens when Democrats are free to do what they want, without those irksome Republicans boxing them in?
I think a great litmus test would be the Democratic Platform Committee, especially its treatment of climate change. This issue is, after all, humanity’s greatest threat at the global, national, state, and local level.
At the Democratic Platform Committee, Bernie Sanders was able to appoint this country’s best-known environmentalist, Bill McKibben. Unfortunately, even with help from the other Sanders’ appointees, he completely struck out on all platform planks regarding climate change. This how Bill McKibben summed up the pushback against his proposals from Clinton appointees.
“We all agreed that America should be operating on 100 percent clean energy by 2050, but then I proposed, in one amendment after another, a series of ways we might actually get there. A carbon tax? Voted down 7-6 (one of the DNC delegates voted with each side). A ban on fracking? Voted down 7-6. An effort to keep fossils in the ground, at least on federal land? Voted down 7-6. A measure to mandate that federal agencies weigh the climate impact of their decisions? Voted down 7-6. Even a plan to keep fossil fuel companies from taking private land by eminent domain, voted down 7-6. (We did, however, reach unanimous consent on more bike paths!)”
Although the Platform Committee was a Republican-free zone, it is possible that the specter of a knock-down, drag-out election against Donald Trump pulled the Democratic platform to the hard right on climate issues to win over waffling independents and Republicans. That is why I think the climate change litmus test should also consider Sacramento and LA’s City Hall.
In Sacramento, Californians have world-class climate legislation, such as AB 32 and SB 375. It is the envy of climate activists and environmentalists from coast to coast. But, even more importantly, Californians have CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act. It is one serious piece of environmental legislation, and it requires all major projects, whether public or private, to submit a rigorous environmental review, including climate change impacts. With this information at hand, decision makers can then make an informed choice.
So far so good, but unfortunately a year does not go by without Governor Brown, in close cooperation with the Democratically controlled State Legislature, pitching bills that would erode CEQA, including its ability to inform decision makers of the climate change impacts of all major projects.
For example, this year, Governor Brown and his legislative counterparts are champions of SB 734, legislation that would fast track the environmental review of controversial high-rise mega-projects, like 8150 Sunset.
Other efforts to erode CEQA are proposed amendments to Governmental Code sections 65400.1 and 65913.3. They would exempt multiple-residential developments from environmental review by considering them to be by-right projects in order to increase housing production. This is based on an urban legend I have previously debunked: the production of luxury housing miraculously increases the supply of affordable housing.
In Los Angeles, where the Mayor, City Attorney, City Controller, and 14 members of the City Council are all Democrats, we can conduct an even stronger test to see if our local officials qualify as a lesser evil when it comes to the environment.
What is their approach to the most important climate change legislation on the books, CEQA? The answer: City Hall is rife with proposals, some already implemented, to circumvent CEQA, even though LA has the worst traffic congestion and worst air pollution in the entire country. In fact, I can count at least five separate efforts to undermine CEQA advanced by our local branch of the lesser (not other) evil consortium.
- The City Planning Commission and the City Council adopt Statements of Overriding Consideration whenever a project’s EIR reports unmitigatable adverse environmental impacts. A perfect example is the overturned Hollywood Community Plan. Its EIR reported that it would generate uncontrollable amounts of the Green House Gases responsible for climate change and global warming. In this case, and in other EIRs, the City Council could reject outright or downsize a project to stop or reduce it deadly production of Green House Gases. Instead the City Council routinely adopts Statements of Overriding Considerations so these harmful plans and projects can go forth, despite their plumes of planet-killing gases.
- Lengthy Amendments to Amend Community Plan Zones and Land Use Designation. Even though Superior Court Judge Alan Goodman threw out the Update of the Hollywood Community Plan, it contained over 100 pages of up-zoning and up-planning amendments. Until stopped by the judiciary, this complex ordinance would have suddenly allowed nearly all, otherwise illegal large, tall buildings in Hollywood to slide through Building and Safety as by-right projects exempt from CEQA.
Win or lose, this is the template for future Community Plan Updates, some now underway, with more on deck. Their many pages of policy language will become the appetizers before the main entrée: wide scale increases in by-right density and height that avoid CEQA.
- Re-code:LA will eventually rezone all private parcels in LA. Its approach is called form-based zoning, which means the range of uses allowed in each existing or new zone will expand. The result will be far fewer variances and zone changes to permit land uses not allowed under the current zoning code. Once in place, developers will then seldom require these discretionary actions, both of which trigger CEQA.
- SB 1818/Density Bonuses are discretionary actions that have been crafted to circumvent CEQA. The decision to subject density bonus projects to an environmental review is strictly the call of the developer or Department of City Planning. If neither volunteers to submit an environmental review, which happens 100 percent of the time, there are no grounds for opponents to successfully raise environmental issues, including CEQA.
- McMansions, as I have often written, are the only land use process I can identify in Los Angeles where the size of a project can expand by up to 42 percent through a totally secret ministerial decision at Building and Safety. This is still another way to avoid CEQA since such increases in an energy-guzzling building’s mass should be processed through a variance, another trigger for CEQA.
Final thoughts: This brief overview of the Democratic Party, from its high rollers in Philadelphia and Washington, to the aspiring hustlers in Sacramento and Los Angeles, reveals the same thing. Left to their own devices in a Republican-free political environment, the Democratic Party’s officials – as opposed to its progressive voting base/Sandernistas – are just another evil when it comes to the environment. They, too, willingly roll over for real estate speculators despite the severe dangers of climate change. When the speculators ask them for a way to jump through CEQA, their typical reply is, “How high?” No different than the Republicans they belittle, they consistently support short-term commercial gain for their patrons, even when the health and safety of the planet is at stake.
(Dick Platkin is a former LA City Planner who reports on local planning issues for City Watch. He welcomes comments and corrections at [email protected].) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.