Friday, February 11, 2011

Untangling Zoning Code Amendments in Los Angeles

The Department of City Planning is undertaking a series of workshops on development reform throughout Los Angeles, which they also call zoning code streamlining, zoning code simplification, and zoning code amendments. This is my effort to untangle the maze of what is proposed under these confusing titles.

Furthermore, some of the promotional materials for these planning workshops reference extraneous issues, including alleged problems faced by home owners whose home improvement projects must be cleared by City Planning, and efforts to implement 12-2, a failed program promoted by the Central City Association to have all building permits cleared by two city departments, Building and Safety and City Planning.

The current proposals include the review and adoption of between six and 24 separate zoning code amendments, inventoried below. They are intended, according to their city sponsors, to simplify and streamline the Los Angeles Muncipal Code (LAMC). The numbers range so widely because of discrepancies among different memos or reports from City Planning about these code amendments.

But, before we inventory and critique this vast array of proposals, we should consider a few basics:

First, the purpose of amending the city zoning code is to reduce the hurdles and time lines faced by real estate investors and speculators when their real and imagined projects cannot be built “by right.” That means their projects and concepts do not comply with the city’s massive zoning code. To proceed they must therefore apply for a range of exemptions, also called discretionary actions. Many of these exemptions require an environmental review, public notice, and public hearings. They can also be appealed to a higher level of decision makers. These hurdles are often time-consuming, but they assure that efforts to circumvent the city’s zoning code are subject to a careful public review and debate.

Second, the city has no legal obligation to amend its zoning code, whether it is packaged as development reform, streamlining, or simplification. Its only legal obligation, based on California state codes, and reinforced by the City Charter, is to maintain a timely, accurate, and consistent General Plan. This is why the city is fending off two law suits for its failure to monitor the General Plan Framework Element.

Furthermore, the city could be subject to many more such law suits because the General Plan Framework Element was written to expire in the year 2010, while many other General Plan elements have not been reviewed or updated since the 1960s and 1970s. They are not only inconsistent with each other, but, like the Framework, nearly all of the General Plan’s other elements are out of date.

Now, what exactly is proposed? To begin, on September 11, 2008, the Department of City Planning presented a report to the Los Angeles City Planning Commission which listed nine separate zoning code amendments. Five of these original nine amendments were later singled out by City Planning’s Code Studies Unit for a master Environmental Assessment. Those five are italicized below, and an additional code amendment, Specific Plan/Supplemental Use District Streamlining, was also folded into the proposed Environmental Assessment.

1) Administrative Exceptions

2) Calculations Measurement

3) Commercial Development Standards and Neighborhood Protection

4) Core Findings

5) Multiple Entitlements/Approvals

6) Open Space and Setback Standards

7) Plan Approvals Process

8) Planned Unit Developments (PUDs)

9) Site Plan Review

Since the preparation and presentation of this 2008 staff report, neighborhood activists have cataloged an additional 13 proposed citywide zoning amendments to the Los Angeles Muncipal Code and one citywide amendment to the General Plan Framework Element. To further complicate this process, however, the 2010 Work Program of City Planning’s Code Studies Unit indicates the number of zoning code streamlining / simplification / development reform LAMC amendments has been reduced from nine to six, a number repeated in the recently released supplemental Core Findings staff report of January 13, 2011.

Regarding the environmental assessment of these six ordinances, local land use activists have not been able to locate or review any proposed environmental document(s). They also have no explanation of why up to 18 other citywide zoning code amendments were excluded from the simplification / streamlining

/ development reform list and the proposed Master Environmental Assessment document. Furthermore, three of the 24 zoning code amendments, the CPIO, Mixed use projects in R5 zones, and Floor Area Averaging, have already been adopted, but without any environmental review that the activists are aware of.

What are the additional proposals?

10) Proposed Citywide Design Guidelines

11) Community Plan Implementation Overlay District Ordinance (CPIO) (Adopted by Council on January 2, 2011, and under legal challenge)

12) Community Design Overlay Streamlining Ordinance

13) Community Care Facility Ordinance

14) Specific Plan/Supplemental Use District Streamlining

15) Comprehensive Citywide Sign Regulations

16) Green Building Ordinance Maintenance

17) Baseline Hillside Ordinance

18) Sign Code Revisions

19) Mixed use projects in R5 zones (Adopted by Council)

20) Floor Area Ratio Averaging (Adopted by Council)

21) ADU Ordinance (Rejected by Council)

22) Ground Floor Commercial Designator

23) Pedestrian Emphasis Design

24) Modified Parking Requirement (MPR) Supplemental Use District

It is unclear which citywide zoning code amendments are entirely new, which have been dropped, which other proposals should be added to this master list, which are other citywide code amendments not included in the list of comprehensive efforts to fundamentally rewrite the Los Angeles Muncipal Code, and which, if any, have had or will have an environmental review. For example, does the recently adopted Community Plan Implementation Overlay District Ordinance overlap with the proposed Specific Plan/Supplemental Use District Streamlining ordinance, and, if so, was the promised Environmental Assessment for the latter actually prepared, but then set aside?

These efforts to streamline the LAMC need to be fundamentally revamped in the following four ways to avoid the massive confusion which neighborhood organizations are experiencing regarding public workshops and understanding the interaction of and cumulative environmental impacts of these many code amendments:

1) The separate preparation, review, and adoption of so many separate zoning code ordinances must stop. They must be presented to the public and to decision makers as an integrated package, not as separate ordinances, all of which will nevertheless affect each other.

2) The entire package must be subject to a comprehensive CEQA analysis, preferably a full Environmental Impact Report to determine their long-term cumulative impacts. For example, by transforming many zoning approvals (e.g., CPIO, CDO) into ministerial actions – those approvals will no longer have any public notification, public hearings, and appeals – it is inconceivable to us that any decision maker could conclude a priori that these amendments to the LAMC will not have environmental impacts and do not, therefore, require a thorough CEQA review.

3) Such massive changes to the zoning code must be legally consistent with the city’s General Plan, in particular the General Plan Framework Element, which has a 2010 horizon year. It is now 2011, and the new 2010 census data for Los Angeles will soon be available. Once available, these data should be fully utilized to monitor and update the General Plan, as well as to prepare an EIR for the (up to) 24 separate zoning code or plan amendments.

4) Once this process is completed, but definitely not before, as is now happening, the city’s 35 Community Plans, as well as many Specific Plans, should be updated.

Dick Platkin is a Los Angeles based city planning consultant and blogger. Any comments or questions about this article can be sent to