Monday, March 27, 2017

Corrections to LAT's “Time for a new conversation about L.A.’s future”

The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board, March 21, 2017
Corrections appear as footnotes below.

For what may be a brief moment in Los Angeles, planning is hot. Measure S, the slow
[RP1] -growth, anti-development initiative, failed at the ballot box but succeeded in one very big way: It drew attention to the city’s broken land-use process and the need for a new[RP2]  comprehensive vision for how Los Angeles should grow.

Measure S forced city leaders and voters to confront the very real challenges facing Los Angeles, such as the lack of affordable apartments, homelessness, gentrification and how to manage the transformation of once-suburban Los Angeles into an increasingly urban city. There was near-universal agreement among proponents and opponents of “S” that the status quo isn’t working. Land-use rules are outdated and routinely ignored. Every new project is a political negotiation and a fight over[RP3]  height, density and community impact, making housing[RP4]  construction a high-stakes gamble and turning[RP5]  residents reflexively into NIMBYs.

Yet voters overwhelmingly rejected the solution offered by Measure S: a[RP6]  two-year construction moratorium on certain developments. Clearly, voters do not want to stop building[RP7] . But what do they want built? Where do they want it built? And can Los Angeles finally fix this broken system that doesn’t produce enough housing, erodes public trust[RP8]  in government and doesn’t result in well-planned communities?

The answer is yes, but only if Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council embrace the opportunity created by the failure of Measure S. The initiative created a chance to have a transparent, inclusive and wide-ranging civic dialogue about how Los Angeles should grow and evolve.

Yes, the mayor and council have committed to updating the General Plan and the 35 community plans, which set goals and rules[RP9]  for development in a neighborhood. Those are good long-term reforms, but they’ll take four to six years to achieve. In the meantime, all the urgency, advocacy and momentum for change[RP10]  spurred by Measure S will fade away, and Los Angeles runs the very real risk of repeating what it has done time and again: The city[RP11]  develops a plan for growth, homeowner groups oppose it, and then elected officials ignore it.

In the 1970s, Planning Director Calvin Hamilton developed the “Centers Concept” as the city’s official vision for growth in the General Plan. The idea was to concentrate denser development in regional centers — including downtown, Hollywood, Century City and Warner Center — and connect the centers with rapid transit, while largely leaving the surrounding suburban single-family neighborhoods alone. (The plan also called for creating more recreational[RP12]  space by turning flood control channels into streams and lakes, an idea that’s been revived with the Los Angeles River restoration project.)

But the rapid transit wasn’t built, in[RP13]  part because voters kept rejecting sales tax hikes to build rail lines. Real estate interests and City Council members largely dismissed the vision in favor of developing on a case-by-case basis.

The city revised its approach to growth in 1996 with the Framework General Plan, a name that told Angelenos absolutely nothing. The Framework said L.A. would[RP14]  channel most new development onto 5% of the land in the city, mostly dense commercial boulevards such as Wilshire, Ventura, Pico and Venice. In those targeted areas, the plan called for dense, walkable neighborhoods where shops and apartments would be mingled rather than separated as in suburban development.

It’s now 20 years later, and some of the ideas in the Centers Concept and the Framework are still relevant. For instance, it makes sense to concentrate growth in areas served by rapid transit and to mix residential and commercial development to reduce the need to drive for every errand.  But Los Angeles as a whole needs to be far more walkable, bikeable and transit-oriented, with most communities within easy reach of frequent bus or rail service and amenities such as parks, libraries and grocery stores.

Since[RP15]  2008 voters have twice approved sales tax increases for public transit. That money will help the county double the size of its rail network, as well as build more bus lanes, bike lanes and pedestrian projects, making it easier for people to get around without a car.

Downtown now has added thousands of apartments and condos, becoming a hub of 24-hour activity. And once-industrial parts of downtown like the Arts District are becoming residential neighborhoods. There are ambitious plans underway to restore the Los Angeles River and create a 32-mile swath of green space through the city. Recent elections — not only Measure S, but also the decisions in November to raise taxes to build rail lines and homeless housing, and to require affordable housing in certain new developments — suggest that Angelenos are open to a more urban[RP16]  city. So it’s time to take pulse of the residents again and start writing better guidelines[RP17]  for the future L.A.

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 [RP1]Measure S was about the General Plan.  It did not advocate anti-development or slow growth policies. It imposed no limits on the size, amount, or location of real estate projects as long as they adhered to adopted plans.

 [RP2]Measure S never called for a new comprehensive vision for Los Angeles.  It called for following the existing vision of planned growth.  It is also called for updating the General Plan, but never linked this to real estate investment.

 [RP3]No, only between 3 to 5 percent of new projects involve negotiations.   Furthermore, there is nothing reflexive about targeted local opposition to selected high profile projects.  It is based on both environmental impacts identified through the California Environmental Quality act, as well as concerns for citywide quality of life issues.

 [RP4]The only housing that local groups have opposed is luxury housing whose location and scale conflicts with adopted plans and zones.

 [RP5]Local groups who want the City to follow its own laws and CEQA are opposed to unplanned projects.  They are not reflexive in their criticisms of these projects, and as demonstrated by Measure S, they have broad citywide concerns.

 [RP6]The moratorium was only one of 5 provisions in Measure S.  The reasons for the building moratorium was that it established a timeout that would allow the City Council to create a new General Plan finding for ministerial decisions, adapt to clearer Charter findings for General Plan Amendments and zone changes, and prepare regulations for variances granting reduced parking reductions.

 [RP7]Measure S created a formal process for not just a vast citywide discussion, but to transform it into adopted policies and laws.  City Planning claims it has already begun to update the General Plan, and the real question is whether the elected officials and the LA Times want to strengthen this process or intend to undermine it.   

 [RP8]Pay-to-play erodes public trust, and as long as spot-zones continue, public trust will wither.

 [RP9]By rules the LAT apparently means the land use ordinances (laws) that the City Council adopts to implement the General Plan.

 [RP10]There is no reason why updating of the General Plan will result is more permissive zoning.  This is what real estate developers and the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board want but realistic demographics and better information about infrastructure, freeway health dangers, climate change, seismology, and geology should might lead to down-planning and down-zoning in some areas.

 [RP11]This is simply wrong.  Homeowners groups did not oppose the development of the General Plan Framework and its implementation through zoning ordinances, including specific plans, RFA's and HPOZ's.  They welcomed it.  It was the City Council that ignored and often violated the letter and spirit of the General Plan, which now appears to be the same "changes" that the LAT editorial board promotes.

 [RP12]Los Angeles needs much more recreational space, but the barrier to this is the City's budget, not its General Plan.   Furthermore, spot General Plan Amendments allow the City to transfer Open Space for luxury housing and hotels rather than for new parks.

 [RP13] More importantly, what the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board left out is the massive cuts in Federal funding for transit in recent decades, placing the bulk of financing on the backs of local tax payers through bond issues subsequently paid off through higher regressive sales and parcel taxes.

 [RP14]The Framework repeated and expanded the policies of the Centers Concept,” which former Planning Director Calvin Hamilton developed; and he was a visionary who the LAT editorial board embraces.  The Framework also was clear that General Plan Amendments must demonstrate sufficient public infrastructure and services to support greater un-planned density.

 [RP15]There are no existing planning policies that stand in the way of these bond issues.

 [RP16]The vision of a more urban city, including areas that have already been designated for high density buildings, is baked into the existing General Plan, beginning in 1970, and reiterated in 1996 and 2001.  Furthermore, the zoning ordinances adopted to implement these plans do not block inclusionary housing.  Where the plans fall short is their failure to consider the capacity of the city’s infrastructure and services to support greater density, as well as health threats from proximity to freeways, earthquakes, and climate change.  This, plus State laws and accurate population data, is why they must be updated.

 [RP17]The City Planning Commission (CPC) adopts Guidelines, not the City Council.  These guidelines also include “Do Real Planning” a visionary planning policy document that the CPC approved but has rarely followed.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Just when you think it cannot get any worse in LA, it does. Why 333 S. LaCienega is such a striking example of bad city planning.

By Dick Platkin*

“Look ma, no cars at one of the most congested intersections in Los Angeles.”

Several weeks ago in Can the Cheap Perfume of "Approve with Conditions" Mask the Stink of Bad Planning? I explained how the real purpose of lengthy “conditions of approval” for large, controversial real estate projects, like 333 S. LaCienega, is to neutralize community opposition.  These endless promises are intended to defuse challenges to mega-projects, like the one pictured above in a shorter form than proposed.  These promises, transformed into “conditions of approval,” are nearly worthless, but often succeed in persuading neighborhood critics to drop their opposition to bad projects.

This sordid process thrives in Los Angeles because decision makers routinely approve controversial projects once they receive campaign contributions and once community opposition has been sidelined by developer promises.  In these situations, the decision makers never bother to ask such obvious planning-related questions as:

  • Does the project conform to the very plans and zones that the City Planning Commission and the City Council legally enacted after an extensive preparation and adoption process?
  • Does the design of the proposed project match the character and scale of surrounding residential areas, as required by the City Council-adopted Community Plans, as well as the design guidelines now included in the General Plan Framework Element?
  • Do public infrastructure and public services have sufficient capacity – per Framework Policy 3.3 -- to meet future user demand stemming from the approved project?
  • Will the project’s Environmental Impact Report conclusions be monitored and updated once the City Council adopts approval ordinances?
  • Will project approvals be phased, ensuring that later phases are contingent on certified compliance with the original Conditions of Approval?
  • Will a developer’s multiple promises to community groups and elected officials, such as job generation and transit ridership, be accurately and regularly monitored?
  • Will there be real-world consequences, such as revocation of certificates of occupancy or partial demolition of structures, if promises are not kept?

Because these obvious questions are never asked, the legislative actions, such as spot-zoning, blocked by Measure S, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, predictably lead to truly bad city planning.  For example, the proposed luxury high rise at the former Loehman’s site – 333 S. LaCienega -- perfectly illustrates how these bad planning practices proliferate in Los Angeles, with cascading adverse consequences.  Consider the following:

·      Clash with character and scale of nearby areas:  As should be obvious the rendering above, this project does not comply with the legally required General Plan findings that the structure be consistent with the scale and character of the neighborhood’s residential area.  More specifically, the project will be 240 feet high and have a Floor Area Ratio/FAR (i.e., building mass) of 6.0 on a lot where height is restricted to 45 feet and building mass is limited to an FAR of 1.5.  As for compatible character, the proposed tower has a nautical design, reminiscent of a cruise ship, while the surrounding residential buildings have Spanish Revival architecture.   Admittedly, a cruise boat might come in handy when massive earthquakes and climate-change induced sea-level rises permanently flood the greater Fairfax area, but for now this nautical design is totally at odds with the area’s character.

·      Traffic congestion: The project is located at one of the most congested intersections in Los Angeles.  Called the Bermuda Triangle, the site is the convergence point of San Vicente Boulevard, Third Street, LaCienega Boulevard, Burton Way, and LeDoux.  No combination of street signs, signal lights, and traffic officers has managed to keep this intersection clear during rush hours, and the construction of an auto-centric luxury tower at this location can only make a bad traffic situation worse.

·      Unconvincing public necessity:  Los Angeles City Charter, Section 558, clearly states that to qualify for General Plan Amendments and zone changes, a project must conform to public necessity, convenience, general welfare, and good zoning practice.  In this case, the tenants will be extremely rich, paying an average rent of $12,000 per month for lavish apartments in a building with five star amenities, including on-call luxury cars and drivers.  These are certainly wonderful features for the 1 percent who can afford them, but the Wilshire Community Plan area has no demonstrated shortage of parcels that can accommodate such luxury apartments.  The use of spot-zoning and spot-planning to jack up a 45-foot height limit to 240 feet may meet a private need to maximize profit, but it does not meet any public need.  There is no public necessity for a spot-General Plan Amendment and spot-Zone Change to build a luxury apartment tower where it is strictly illegal and unwarranted.

·      Poor Zoning Practices eliminate certainty:  The related City Charter finding of good zoning practice is also sharply at odds with this project. The City Council must take three separate actions to legalize this project: a spot-zone change, a spot-height district change, and a spot-General Plan Amendment.  Not only is City Charter Section 555 clear that these legislative actions must apply to socially and geographically significant areas (i.e., not single parcels), but these poor planning practices totally eliminate certainty from the planning process.  When individuals, families, or companies move into an area, they have clear expectations of what can be legally built near their homes and businesses.  But, spot-zoning completely removes this certainty.  Cities like Los Angeles then become the Wild West.  Spot-zoning through a City Council vote to permit a 240 foot high rise tower where 45 feet is the law eliminates all predictability from the planning process.  The zones and plan designations that people assumed about their neighborhood when they moved in can vanish at the snap of a deep-pocketed developer’s fingers.

·      Affordable housing hype:  The project claims that it needs a major economic incentive, much greater building mass, to accommodate large luxury apartments, through LA’s Density Bonus Ordinance.  More specifically, the developer intends to replace 13 of 145 luxury apartments with low-income units to build a much larger building.  Yet the developer has owned this building site for many years and has virtually no land acquisition costs.  In this case, LA’s genuine need for more affordable housing has become a thin cover story for the construction of 130 luxury rental apartments where less than half of that figure is legally permitted.

·      Misuse of on and off-site improvements:  The project’s conditions of approval, as voted by the City Planning Commission and the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Committee, include adjacent street trees, bicycle infrastructure, and a quasi-public fountain.  Yet in nearby Los Angeles and Beverly Hills neighborhoods, there are many existing pedestrian-oriented projects and corridors.  Some have been built and operated as basic municipal services, not as extensions of mega-projects. Others are linked to by-right buildings that conform to plans and zones, and that do not need City Council spot-zoning rescue ordinances to usher in public improvements.

·      Bad Precedents:  To justify height and mass far above legal limits, the project invokes other nearby buildings that exceed 45 feet.  Yet, most of these over-height buildings also required spot-zoning approval from elected officials to be built.  For example, one of these projects, across the street, at 8500 Burton Way, is a prototype for this project and owned by the same developer.  Yet, when it was permitted, its neighbors were told it would not become a precedent for more ad hoc zone changes and general plan amendments.  Nevertheless, the genie is out of the bottle.  If the City Council eventually approves 333 S. LaCienega, it is only a question of time until nearby property owners make parallel requests.  They will quickly realize that similar zone changes and General Plan amendments can green light more lavish and lucrative high-rise apartment towers on their properties.

The take away from this case study is that a few poor planning practices eventually open up the flood gates for more more bad decisions.  Their cumulative impact is municipal demise, but good planning practices can move a city in the opposite direction.  Los Angeles can still become the progressive, highly livable city that most of residents and visitors truly desire.  It might even eventually become the global city that its City Hall boosters magically believe can be achieved through real estate speculation.

*     Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles City Planner and also a Board Member of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association.  He welcomes comments and corrections at