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Cooking Up Fake Support: How Big Real Estate Manufactures Consent


PLATKIN ON PLANNING-Big real estate interests, such as developers of shopping centers and high-rise complexes, do not leave things to chance. The only difference between them and Big Pharma, Big Oil, and Big Finance is that Big Real Estate mostly operates at the local and state levels, not the Federal level. 

So what are the many tricks up their sleeve -- all on view in Los Angeles? 

Altering land use laws to grease the wheels of real estate speculation. 

Sometimes Big Real Estate takes the long view to avoid project-by-project battles. These knockdown, drag-out fights force them to waste considerable time and money wooing elected officials and employing land use experts. Instead, they make a concerted effort to work with these same City Hall officials to revamp underlying zoning and planning laws. This long-term approach allows Big Real Estate to later skip lengthy and often costly applications for such discretionary actions as zone changes, as well as associated environmental reviews. 

In Los Angeles this Big Real Estate tactic is proceeding on several fronts. The most advanced program is re:code LA [[[ http://recode.la/about/project-files ]]] since it will ultimately rezone all private parcels in Los Angeles. This program’s approach is called form based zoning. If adopted, it would expand the range of uses permitted for each parcel. These free zone changes, worth many billions in increased property values, then eliminate the need for future zone variances or zone changes to green-light otherwise illegal real estate projects. 

Another similar program is Community Plan Updates. If prepared and adopted correctly, Community Plans are the final step in updating the entire multi-element General Plan. But, in Los Angeles these local updates are prepared first. This is done to append long, intricate land use ordinances that up-zone and up-plan hundreds of local parcels. Once adopted, these ordinances allow developers to quickly march ahead with their otherwise illegal projects. The Update amendments eliminate the future need for developers to legalize their projects, one-by-one, through General Plan Amendments, zone changes, variances, as well as related environmental reviews. 

Another strategy is to gut the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), hidden behind such high-minded words as reforming and streamlining. Current statewide strategies, which are resurrected yearly by Governor Brown and the State of California legislative would reduce EIR appeal periods and grant CEQA exemptions to favored projects, especially sports stadiums and high-rise apartment buildings.  

Sidestepping land use laws to grease the wheels of real estate speculation 

But, if you really want to see how Big Real Estate does not leave things to chance when they dodge local land use laws, just examine such proposed mega-projects as Warner Center, the Palladium, 8150 Sunset, Cumulus, or the Caruso luxury high rise near the Beverly Center. 

In all these cases the developers pull out every stop, beginning with the easiest marks, City Hall’s elected officials. Like the people they appoint to Commissions and hire to manage City departments, they have all drunk deeply from the well of real estate speculation. They live and breathe City Hall’s institutional culture of elevating real estate projects to the municipal pantheon. When it comes to gaining the support of these elected, appointed, and hired officials, Big Real Estate regularly turns to campaign contributions (i.e. legal bribes), polished lobbyists and architects, and ingratiating back slapping and scratching. 

As for the City’s technical staff who review and habitually approve their projects, Big Real Estate relies on expensive land use attorneys, planning and environmental consultants, expeditors, and experienced architects and engineers. Their first job is to identify all discretionary actions and other municipal requirements that must be overcome to approve their projects. After that these pens-for-hire grind out applications, Environmental Impact Reports, and appeals. Their third job is to ensure that all possible bases are covered because a handful of land use lawyers are willing to represent local residents, and they have recently won many land use and environmental cases against the City of Los Angeles. 

The next step is outreach, conducted by either the developer’s staff or by hired consultants, including those who expertise is creating such astroturf organizations, as the Coalition to Protect L.A. Neighborhoods and Jobs. In this case, two kingpins of Big Real Estate, the Palladium and Westfield Shopping Centers, created and funded a “grassroots” organization to oppose the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. For a contact address though, the astroturfers goofed when they listed their own location, that of the Stephan Kaufman Legal Group. Its political clients include LA’s most prominent booster of Big Real Estate, hizzoner Eric Garcetti. 

As they play serious dodge ball, Big Real Estate hires architects to prepare color renderings that never show traffic congestion, and who sometimes join outreach operatives at community meetings. Together they sing a duet of praises for their pet project, and whenever someone raises an objection, they creatively explain how their complaint can be mitigated by minor design changes or off-site improvements. When combined, these off-site amenities are called community benefits. In reality, thought, they are deal-sweeteners to gain community support for projects that depend on quasi-judicial and/or City Council legislative actions to legalize them. 

The purpose of these community meetings – often recommended by City Council offices — is to identify and disarm potential community critics who might submit damaging testimony, appeal a discretionary action and its related Environmental Impact Report, or even resort to law suits. 

Of course, sometimes developers are so dedicated to their project’s bottom line that they will not budge to adequately respond to community critics. In these cases, such as the Hollywood Community Plan update, the staff planners and private supporters glibly told the City Planning Commission and the City Council that a project had substantial community input prior to its final form. This deceptive answer was enough to get a thumbs up from the City Planning Commission and City Council. 

Another purpose of community outreach is to convince local residents that either they personally or their community will benefit from a project. In cases where charm, good looks, expensive suits, and car-free renderings are not up to this task, developers will then offer a “community benefits” package, but usually with a clause that acceptance forfeits the right to future public criticism of a project. 

Once these supporters are lassoed, they are then offered talking points for public hearings, and in a few cases, act as trolls on websites. For example, last week I received about two dozen comments, many critical, in response to my article about the Caruso Affiliated project at 333 S. La Cienega. This is in sharp contrast to my previous CityWatch article. It leveled similar complaints against three Miracle Mile museum projects, and that column hardly generated any comments. Since the comments supporting the Caruso project parroted the developer’s own talking points, this is a powerful demonstration of how sophisticated developers leave nothing to chance. In this case, they made sure there would be a group of neighbors who would publicly support their project. They knew that without an advanced full court press, that few nearby residents would voluntarily step up to a microphone or keyboard to defend a project which violates zoning and planning laws, clashes with community character and scale (in direct violation of the General Plan) and taxes existing public services and infrastructure. 

Finally, in almost all of these cases, there is no shortage of opportunistic academic and journalistic cheerleaders who cheer for “business-friendly” planning legislation and speculative mega-projects because of their alleged benefits. Regardless of a project’s actual specifics, rest assured that they just know it will produce a cornucopia of affordable housing, transit ridership, employment, sustainability, and a sense of community. 

In all of these cases, though, there is a catch. There is no requirement to monitor approved projects to determine if their predictions materialized. And, there are no consequences if the promises are not kept, such as the revocation of building permits or the demolition of improperly approved structures. Once built, Big Real Estate projects are here to stay, at least until the next real estate bubble leads to their demolition and replacement with yet another 8th Wonder of the World.  

But, they can’t always get what they want. 

Despite their deep pockets and access to expensive lawyers, planning and environmental consultants, and public relations and outreach operatives, Big Real Estate continually drops the ball in Los Angeles. Why? It is because so many community groups oppose their projects, have a fast learning curve, and sometimes manage to out-organize and out-litigate them. 

It is a hard job, but not an impossible job, to beat the house. Furthermore, the struggles over land use are escalating in Los Angeles. On one side are outside investors especially from China, who regularly outbid their local Big Real Estate frenemies. 

But, on the other side is the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. If passed by LA voters in March 2017, it would force the City of Los Angeles to properly plan and to stop dishing out parcel-level approvals for Big Real Estate projects that conflict with zoning laws and with the General Plan. 

(Dick Platkin is a veteran city planner. He reports on local planning issues for CityWatch, and he welcomes comments and questions at [email protected].) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

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