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Sun, May

Speculation: The Achilles Heel of LA’s ‘Business-Friendly’ Zoning and Environmental Deregulation

LOS ANGELES

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-In Los Angeles there are now so many programs and proposals to deregulate zoning and environmental regulations, all hiding behind a “business friendly” cover story of promoting affordable housing, that it can make your head spin. The real story, though, promoting real estate speculation, is always kept deep in the shadows. 

Along with other CityWatch writers, I have frequently tried to shine a light on these programs, including rebuttals of their unsubstantiated claims that the deregulation of zoning and environmental laws magically produces affordable housing for an impending population boom. 

By now, City Watch readers have read about many of these sand castles, including Community Plan Update land use ordinances, Community Plan Implementation Ordinances (CPIO), SB 1818/Density bonuses, Value Capture policies, Transit Oriented Districts (TOD), re:code LA, Second Units, Home Sharing and Short-term rentals, Transit Neighborhood Plans, Small Lot Subdivisions, and Baseline Mansionization Ordinance loopholes. 

Furthermore, year-in and year-out, Governor Jerry Brown and the California State Legislature pitch similar proposals. If adopted, they would exempt an expanding range of local real estate projects from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and local discretionary reviews. These statewide proposals, too, are based on the same bogus claim: deregulation increases the supply of affordable housing. 

While all of these programs are different, the same threads run through them. They neglect to consider the following in their pursuit of a quick buck: 

Public Services and Infrastructure: The politicians, planners, and publicists pushing these programs never bring up the increased public services and public infrastructure that these new buildings and their occupants require. Even though this concern is clearly spelled out in LA’s legally adopted General Plan Framework’s policy 3.3, it is always ignored. Policy 3.3 should: 

Accommodate projected population and employment growth within the City and each community plan area and plan for the provision of adequate supporting transportation and utility infrastructure and public services. 

The increases in building mass, traffic, and population resulting from this laundry list of real estate schemes are totally disconnected from daily life in Los Angeles. Will the new buildings, cars, and people need more street capacity? More street parking? More sidewalks? More bicycle lanes? More schools? Parks? Playgrounds? Animal Shelters? Electricity? Water? Fire and police protection? Garbage collection? Libraries? Street cleaning and garbage collection? In the blinkered world of the deregulators, their fevered predictions of soaring population only head down one path: sparking a building boom by eviscerating zoning and environmental laws. They never lead to expanded public services and upgraded public infrastructure. 

By also separating out the consequences of building permits from the legally required General Plan, these many real estate hustles also lead to a cascade of other municipal failures. They not only divorce zoning from the General Plan, but also the City’s Capital Improvement (CIP), which is another essential (but ignored) General Plan implementation program. Likewise, another overlooked plan implementation program, the City’s budget, which folds in the staffing levels and work programs of all City departments, is severed from the willy-nilly granting of otherwise illegal building permits. 

Urban Design: The deregulators’ version of the “urban growth machine” also ignores the design implications of their real estate investments. Even though the City Council unanimously adopted the General Plan Framework Element, which has an entire chapter on Urban Form and Neighborhood Design, as well as appended design guidelines for residential, commercial, and industrial projects, the visual impact of these helter-skelter projects flies below the decision makers’ radar. In some cases there are even local design guidelines, such as Miracle Mile’s Community Design Overlay District, that deep-pocketed political muscle easily dispenses with, approving such hideous buildings as the Peterson Museum and currently-under-construction Museum of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (rendering photo above) 

Deemed consistent with the Miracle Mile Community Design Overlay District! 

Likewise, the City’s official planning documents all indicate that new projects must be consistent with the character and scale of existing neighborhoods. For example, this is standard language in all Community Plans. 

1-3.1 Promote architectural compatibility and landscaping for new Multiple Family residential development to protect the character and scale of existing residential neighborhoods. 

Great words, but they have absolutely no bearing on the luxury mega-projects supposedly offering affordable housing. Such high-rise structures are at least three times the height of surrounding buildings, like the upscale residential complexes proposed for 333 LaCienega, 8150 Sunset, and the Cumulus Project at the corner of Jefferson and Fairfax. 

As a result, LA’s residents not only have to endure such pervasive visual blight as bootlegged signs, billboards, super-graphics, overhead wires, and streets barren of trees, but also new, over-sized projects that clash with neighborhood character and scale. 

Monitoring: These out-of-character, out-of-scale, under-supported projects typically make pie-in-the-sky claims to obtain their official approvals. Promises of transit use, sustainability, and jobs flow like the first flush of wastewater into Santa Monica Bay after an early autumn deluge. But, there is no requirement that developers verify any of their wild-eyed claims. There are no consequences if they don’t pan out, even when they are the basis for City Council decisions, such as Statements of Overriding considerations to sideline Environmental Impact Reports. Likewise, no building permits or Certificates of Occupancy are ever revoked since no one at City Hall ever double-checks the developers’ crystal balls. 

Next Steps: The pell-mell efforts of real estate speculators to deregulate zoning and CEQA means the planning process and its implementation through zoning, environmental reviews, Capital Improvement Programs, and the City’s Budget are all being thrown under the bus. The resulting mishmash of unrestrained market-driven projects is fraught with dire consequences that surpass their plug ugliness. They endlessly degrade the physical environment and quality of life for LA’s residents, employees, and visitors. Despite their short-term profits quickly whisked away to offshore bank accounts in the Caribbean and Panama, LA’s persistent economic decline will speed up and possibly enter free fall. 

From my perspective, the only local solution in sight is the coalescence of many isolated movements separately opposing numerous local projects. At this point this means the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative and its sponsor, the Coalition for Preserve LA, and its supporters, such as United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles. 

(Dick Platkin reports on city planning issues for City Watch. He welcomes comments, criticisms, and corrections at [email protected].) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

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