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 Land-use rules are outdated and routinely ignored.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.
[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.
[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.
[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.