Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Antonio to Eric Handoff: LA’s Quality of Life Disaster — Deregulating Planning, Zoning and Building Code Enforcement

Posted June 3, 2013 on Ron Kaye’s LA

EDITOR’S NOTE: Former LA City Planner Dick Platkin, now Adjunct Instructor of City Planning at USC’s Price School of Social Policy, originally wrote this article on the devastating impact of the merger of LA Planning and Building and Safety Department for KCET. This is the most far-reaching issue threatening the quality of life in every neighborhood, yet it is being rushed forward by the current mayor and the mayor-elect, with the unanimous support of the City Council and without the massive citywide protests from residents that it deserves.

By Dick Platkin (rhplatkin@yahoo.com)

Before the election the Wall Street Journal described Eric Garcetti as a business-friendly centrist Democrat. After the election, the same newspaper described the Mayor-elect as a business-friendly liberal Democrat.

Does either political label actually mean anything when it is now applied to municipal politics – especially when they are applied to the core issues of planning and zoning regulations and their enforcement, and building code regulations and their enforcement? Since the new mayor is one of the architects of the city planning culture and legislative structure that he will inherit, we can assume that these policies and practices will seamlessly continue from the Villaraigosa Administration to the Garcetti Administration.
Here’s your hint as to what is the most accurate political label to describe this planning legacy: The deregulation of land use is well on its way at City Hall, albeit obscured by such misleading phrases as “elegant density” or “transit-oriented districts.” In some policy circles government regulations are considered to be the bane of economic prosperity.  In fact, this was this outlook that gave rise to the deregulation of the telecommunications and aviation sectors under Ronald Reagan and the financial sector under Bill Clinton.
At the local level this siren song of deregulation is now focused on zoning, an administrative approach to regulate land uses approved by the United States Supreme Court in 1926 (Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co.).  Under zoning, local governments have the legal authority to control public and private land, including land use categories, as well as building use, size, height, parking requirements, and setbacks.

Zoning also means that speculators cannot easily and quickly move into and out of real estate projects based on rapidly changing market conditions.
To put it bluntly, rigorous zoning is a barrier to real estate bubbles, such as the Great Recession that began in 2008.  It cannot stop the business cycle, but cities with strong zoning ordinances and procedures can smooth out the bumps.
In Los Angeles, a city whose economy has been stagnant for over two decades, advocates of deregulation are now focused on the city’s elaborate zoning code, including its regulatory expansion through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Put simply, these advocates of deregulation – in and out of City Hall — believe that Los Angeles will flourish if its regulatory “impediments” to speculative investment are eliminated.
But all that glitters is not gold.  Zoning deregulation is already underway in Los Angeles, but it will not prove to be the economic cure-all proclaimed by its boosters for several reasons.
Most of Los Angeles is not privately owned land 

Only about 20 percent of the entire land area of Los Angeles is privately owned.   The remainder is freeways, railroad rights-of-way, streets, parkways, sidewalks, parks, schools, power lines, horse trails, and many other public and quasi-public land uses.   Therefore, these areas are neglected when planning is reduced to zoning, and zoning is abridged through deregulation.
Furthermore, zoning deregulation is not capable of rectifying the slow deterioration of the city’s public infrastructure and public services.
It can’t sweep streets, pick-up garbage, fill potholes, repave crumbling sidewalks, or construct ADA-required curb cuts.  It can’t plant an urban forest or implement the City’s bicycle master plan.  It can’t maintain public parks and revive cancelled recreation programs.   It can’t install streetlights on dark streets or sweep them during the day.
Zoning deregulation can’t address a complaint heard throughout the entire city:  Los Angeles is filled with zoning and building code violations that undercut the quality of life in neighborhood after neighborhood, problems that are seldom addressed through code enforcement and prosecution, even when residents submit multiple complaints.
But what about the city’s private owned parcels?  It is technically correct that many of these lots are overlaid with special zoning conditions (i.e., T’s, Q’s, and D’s imposed by prior legislative actions).
They give the appearance of a tough zoning regime, but the Department of City Planning administratively clears these conditions as part of the building permit process.  For better or worse, the public seldom knows about these conditions, their internal ministerial (administrative) approvals, and the resulting building permits.
This means that the city’s Department of Building and Safety approves most, certainly over 80 percent, of the city’s building permit applications “by-right”.   Among the remaining 20 percent of cases that need relief from the zoning code, the Department of City Planning quickly handles most of them behind closed doors.
While these cases technically require a formal decision, and the public could, in theory, appeal these actions, this seldom happens.  The primary reason is that no one is mailed a notice about these cases, and the written approval letters are only sent to immediately adjacent property owners.  This means that the first inkling that most neighbors have of a project’s official approval is the sound of bulldozers and hammers when construction begins.
Discretionary Actions
In contrast to these by-right and easily administrated cases, only a small percentage of building permits need formal relief from the city’s zoning code through major discretionary actions handled by the Department of City Planning.
In these cases, nearby property owners are mailed an official notice of such actions as a zone variance, a zone change, or a conditional use permit. Depending on the type of discretionary action, these reviews also allow public access to building plans, as well as public hearings, public testimony, environmental assessments, and the right of appeal to an Area Planning Commission, and in some cases all the way to the City Council.
Needless to say, investors, contractors, and realtors want to either avoid these requirements or make sure that they can quickly navigate through them. They have little to worry about, however, because decision makers approve nearly every application for relief from the zoning code, usually by tacking on a long list of supplementary zoning conditions.
But since the Department of City Planning has no enforcement authority and the Department of Building Safety does not undertake proactive code enforcement and only sporadically responds to complaints about code violations, most of these zoning conditions are simply decorative.
Their real purpose is to offset public objections to proposed discretionary actions with conditions that sound great, but are not reliably adhered to by contractors, building owners, tenants, and building inspectors.
The means that increasingly the real zoning and planning process that the new Los Angeles Mayor will inherit is market forces.
It is not the layers of zoning requirements and special zoning conditions that apply to most private parcels and that are imagined to hamper private investment.
When the City’s Department of Building and Safety, which will be fused with the Department of City Planning on January 1, 2014, (http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-city-merge-departments-20130529,0,5216560.story) cannot grant a building permit outright, developers and their “expediters” can almost always obtain these additional approvals with minimal effort.
The zoning rules and the official city plans that are alleged to hamstring their projects are, in fact, just perfunctory technical barriers that are nearly always skirted with few changes to the market-preferred project. At most, these requirements slow down a small minority of cases and occasionally require modifications in scale or design.
Casting Aside Zoning Restrictions

But, don’t worry; City Hall is casting aside even these modest barriers to unimpeded market forces, with all pols and department managers on board, at least publicly.
All of the deregulatory schemes begun in the Villaraigosa years will continue, and the new mayoral Administration will undoubtedly unveil additional forms of land use deregulation once the Departments of City Planning and Building and Safety are under one roof.
At present the Department of City Planning is revising LA’s traditional zoning code through a five-year process to institute form-based zoning. This means that the revamped zoning code will control a building’s “envelope,” but have little to say about its uses.
The real impact, however, of these changes is to eliminate the need for variances to allow formerly restricted uses.
Voila! Market forces will face even fewer barriers to the latest speculative investment fads. This is what is meant by the Wall Street Journal’s euphemistic term “business friendly.”
Likewise, other recent ordinances to “streamline” LA’s zoning code will have a similar impact. They cumulatively reduce zoning requirements faced by investors as they quickly move in and out or properties and projects based on the business cycle and the changing profitability of different real estate categories.
And, let’s not forget the contribution that the Updates of Los Angeles’s 35 community plans make to deregulation. Their slow but steady preparation and adoption is always accompanied by implementation ordinances amending the General Plan’s land use designations and their closely related zoning categories.
Since most of these General Plan and zoning code amendments will increase permitted, by-right densities, future investors will be able to obtain up-front administrative and legislative relief from the zoning code.
Environmental Review
Finally, we need to factor in the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Adopted 40 years ago, it requires decision makers to be informed of and consider the environmental impacts of proposed projects. But CEQA only applies to discretionary actions, and many of those, such as design review, are exempted from an environmental assessment. By amending, updating, and streamlining the city’s zoning code, investors and developers will also be able to evade CEQA for most of their projects because they will no longer require discretionary actions. They, therefore, won’t need to determine their projects’ environmental impacts, and decision makers will, therefore, no longer be provided this environmental information.
Unfortunately, environmental impacts do not go away because they are no longer measured or studies of them no longer provided to Zoning Administrators, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council.
As a result, the public will pay the price for this array of ploys to minimize the role of CEQA in future land use decisions. This is because CEQA requires mitigation of environmental impacts and occasionally leads to the denial or major modification of potentially harmful projects.
These programs of deregulation are the zoning and planning legacy that successive Mayors and the City Councils have incrementally developed over the past two decades. They have already been handed off to the Mayor-elect. Since he has already walked in those shoes, especially through the Hollywood Community Plan Update, the transition should be seamless.
If there is a conclusion to this examination of the real impact of Los Angeles’s vast array of zoning overlays and local zoning conditions, it is that they make little difference in actual land use decisions and investments. What appear to be enormous hurdles are, in fact, little more than minor administrative requirements than can be quickly complied with.
This is exactly the opposite of what the public needs (and what I would expect a truly liberal city government to pursue).
Building permits and land use decisions should be transparent. Neighbors should be notified of projects that are built in their neighborhood and that would affect their quality of life.
They should have full access to architectural plans and project details reviewed by the Department of Building and Safety. Similarly, decision makes need to know the environmental impacts of the projected presented them, so they can make truly informed decisions when they approve, approve with conditions, or reject a project.