Sunday, November 29, 2015

No More McMansions in Los Angeles

Breaking news!
Reform is finally getting started on the city’s failed Baseline Mansionization Ordinance and Baseline Hillside Ordinance (BMO/BHO). The  Planning Department has now published its draft amendments. 
To read the full draft, go to the web page of the city’s Office of Historic Resources; click on Updates and then on BMO/BHO Draft Amendments.  Or follow the link from our website.  (Address at the bottom of this page.)
The timetable
The Planning Department is aiming for Council adoption of the amendments sometime late next summer, following a comment period, environmental analysis, more public comment, a staff report, and hearings before the City Planning Commission and the Council’s Planning & Land Use Management (PLUM) committee.  
The first step is a series of public outreach meetings held in different parts of the city. 
The outreach meetings are coming up fast: 
Wednesday, December 2 - Mid-City
Thursday, December 3 - Westside
Tuesday, December 15 – Downtown
Wednesday, December 16 – Van Nuys
On the following pages, you will find a summary of the draft amendments, a position statement, and sample emails and talking points. 
For background info, contact info, a point-by-point pushback against mansionizers’ bogus arguments, a link to the draft amendments, or info on yard signs go to: 
Overall, the city’s draft amendments stick pretty close to Councilmember Koretz’s original council Motion. And they eliminate the single most damaging provision of the BMO, the 400 sq foot freebie for attached garages. 
The city’s draft amendment
The current code
Our position
Includes square footage of attached garages when calculating size of house.
Excludes up to 400 sq feet of attached garages when calculating size of house.
Yes!  This gets rid of 400 sq feet of bloat and discourages designs that violate the character of many older neighborhoods.
Drops base floor area ratio to 0.45 for lots below 7500 sq feet and 0.40 for lots above 7500 sq feet. 
Uses 0.50 percent for lots below 7500 sq feet and 0.45 for lots above 7500 sq feet.
Yes!  These ratios are much more compatible with the scale of residential neighborhoods.
Eliminates most, but not all, of the bonuses. 

Grants bonuses of 20 percent of base FAR for “green” building materials, “articulated” walls, and “proportional” stories (second story smaller than the first).
Losing the self-defeating bonuses for “green” building and “articulation” definitely moves us in the right direction.
Keeps the 20 percent bonus for proportional stories, if the second floor is no more than 60 percent the size of the first floor. 
Gives the bonus if the second floor is no more than 75 percent the size of the first floor. 

Better formula, but needs to clearly define the size of the first-floor and handle bonuses through open Planning Dept. hearings.
Eliminates the exemption for “double-height” space. 

Allows up to 100 square feet of “double height” rooms, usually entryways.
Yes!  This eliminates another 100 sq feet of bulk.
Keeps the exemption for roofless or “lattice top” patios, balconies, breezeways.  But sets no limit on the size of the exempted patios etc. 
Exempts uncovered patios, etc. up to 250 square feet.

! Danger !  Exemptions  invite manipulation and abuse.  Need to close this loophole.
Zoning Administrators can grant 10 percent “adjustments” with no public oversight.   
This is the same as in the current code.
In addition to variances, the city is creating flexible zoning tools tailored to individual neighborhoods.  We don’t need more “adjustments.”

Our position
·      Eliminate the exemption for patios, breezeways, balconies, etc. 
·      Base the “proportional stories” bonus on the net footprint of the first floor, excluding any space not included in the FAR calculation.  As with other “discretionary” matters, have the Planning Dept. handle bonuses in a
    properly-noticed public hearing.
    Eliminate the 10 percent “adjustments.” 
·      The BMO amendments will take effect before the ICOs expire.  Confirm that once amendments are adopted, ICO neighborhoods will be subject to either their ICO or the BMO/BHO, whichever is more restrictive.
The Game Plan:  Speak up and show up!    
·      Rally your neighbors.
·      Ask your Council office, homeowners’ association, residents’ association, and/or neighborhood council to speak out for meaningful reform of the mansionization ordinance.
·      Go to the public outreach meetings in December.
·      Follow up with comments of support.
We prepared sample talking points and emails.  Use them as-is or put the message in your own words.  The key is to take action. 

Subject line should include:  BMO/BHO Amendments, CF #14-0656
Distribution should include Hagu Solomon-Cary (
Sample text could be:
Loopholes ruined the mansionization ordinance in 2008, and the city has paid a heavy price ever since.  The Planning Department’s draft amendments make a very good start, but they need a few crucial changes: 
Uncovered patios, breezeways, and balconies must be counted as floor space.
The “proportional stories” bonus must be based on the net footprint of the first floor, excluding any uncounted floor space.  And bonuses should be subject to public review by the Planning Department.
The City already offers variances and is now creating many other flexible zoning tools and options.  Get rid of discretionary 10 percent “adjustments” made by zoning administrators.
The city got mansionization very wrong the first time.  This time, we need to get it right.  And we have no time to lose. 

Talking Points
The city’s Baseline Mansionization Ordinance and Baseline Hillside Ordinance (BMO/BHO) failed, and mansionization is ruining neighborhoods all over the city.  Now the Planning Department has proposed important amendments to the ordinances. 
Overall, the city stayed pretty close to Councilmember Koretz’s excellent Council Motion and eliminated the single worst provision of the BMO/BHO: the 400 sq foot freebie for attached garages.  But the draft amendments have a few flaws:
Uncovered  (or “lattice roof” patios, breezeways, and balconies are not counted as floor space.  This is just the kind of loophole that turns houses into McMansions.  With or without a roof, these spaces add bulk.  We need to close this exemption.
The “proportional stories” bonus does not clearly define the first-story “footprint.”  The draft amendments do set a tighter limit on the second story: 60 percent versus 75 percent now.  But there’s a complication:  If space is excluded when the city calculates floor area, it makes the first floor bigger.  So the second floor would be measured against a bigger number.  The Beverly Grove RFA provides a precedent:  The bonus must be based on the “net” footprint of the first floor. 
“Adjustments” of 10 percent can be granted by zoning administrators behind closed doors.  The city already has a process for variances, and now it’s creating all kinds of zoning tools tailored to the needs of individual neighborhoods.  We do not need additional “adjustments.”
Loopholes ruined the mansionization ordinance the first time, and the city has paid a heavy price ever since.  We need to get it right this time.

For further information:

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Mobility Plan 2035: Is the Road to Hell Paved with Good Intention?

By Dick Platkin*

(Published by CityWatchLA on Nov. 12, 2015)

In general, the public pays little attention to the City of LA’s legally required General Plan, including its mandatory and optional Elements.  But the required Circulation Element, called the Mobility Plan or MP 2035, is different, at least among that small minority of Angelenos who care about local government.  This might be why the Los Angeles Times and KPCC have regularly reported on the Mobility Plan.

I find this new General Plan Element problematic, but not for the reasons presented publicly and privately by the Element’s critics, including those who have filed a lawsuit to overturn it.

To understand why MP 2035 is problematic, let’s take a broad look at LA’s transportation realities:

·      Los Angeles continues to have the worst traffic congestion and the worst air in the entire United States.

·      The city’s built environment heavily favors automobile driving through its road system and its auto-centric buildings.

·      METRO and related bus systems are over-priced, unreliable, and uncomfortable, with bus fares steadily rising in conjunction with service cutbacks.  As a result, transit ridership is flat.

·      Even though LA is an ideal urban area for bicycling because of its wide, flat roads and balmy climate, most bicyclists are reluctant to take to the streets because of potholes, the lack of protected bike lanes, and missing bicycle infrastructure at public and private buildings.

·      The City of Los Angeles is subject to numerous statewide laws and regulations in California regarding planning.  In particular, the Complete Streets Act requires each city to plan for all transportation modes (options), not just cars. In addition, the State’s far-reaching climate change legislation and regulations also shape local transportation planning.

·      People’s transportation behavior invariably reflects a city’s built environment. It not only shapes everyone’s realistic transportation options, but it forms our personal habits.  As a result, most Angelenos rely on private cars for the bulk of their local trips.  The exceptions are the transit dependent (disabled, elderly, students, and poor), as well as the early adapters, those who have consciously moved to Downtown LA or the Wilshire Corridor to use subways, busses, and their feet.

Debate over the Mobility Plan: I have followed the debate over the Mobility Plan closely, and I have yet to hear what the critics propose as an alternative plan, other than an implicit call for more-of-the-same.  Since more-of-the-same was considered in the Mobility Element’s EIR as Alternatives 1 and possibly 2, we can predict their consequences.  They would perpetuate a city in which the existing street system and auto-centric buildings promote endless automobile driving, reinforced by beat-up sidewalks, expensive and reduced bus service, and few truly safe bike lanes.  As a consequence, Angelenos would continue to suffer from toxic air, industrial strength traffic congestion, and high accident rates, especially for pedestrians.

If we look at other criticism’s of the Mobility Element, nearly all of them deal with complaints about bureaucratic procedure, not substance based on the most basic transportation question of all:  Is the purpose of LA’s transportation system to move cars or to move people?

Other complaints are peripheral, such as objections to the addition of a bicycle lane to specific streets, such as 6th Street in the Miracle Mile, Westwood Boulevard in West LA, or Central Avenue in South LA.

And, other complaints are just plain mindless, such as the charge that an elitist minority of bicycle riders have imposed their youthful lifestyle of the rest of Angelenos, whose choice to drive their car is, by now, a life-ling habit.  Really?  In reality the car still reins supreme in Los Angeles, whether one looks at streets or buildings.  In fact, City Hall only has a few employees who deal with bicycle lanes and bicycle infrastructure.  This for a simple reason.  The City budget ignores bicycling, while the lion’s share of public resources are devoted to maintaining 6,500 miles of roadway, with the goal moving cars as fast as possible.  Despite all the hoopla, Los Angeles only has about 500 miles of bike lanes, most of which are just a line painted on the street, not the protected lanes that are already common in New York and other bicycle-friendly cities.

Lurking behind many of the procedural and anecdotal charges about the Mobility Element is the belief, I think, that the bicycle, pedestrian, and transit advocates who strongly support the Element are unwitting proxies for developers.  Since the Element endorses Transit Oriented Development (TOD) and since these advocates of alternative transportation modes support the Mobility Element, they are, whether they know it or not, the cheerleaders for real estate speculation. 

This suspicion, however, is baseless for several reasons.  First, for the past 20 years adopted public policy in Los Angeles called for Transit Oriented Development (TOD).  When it has appeared, however, it is not because of a few pages in the General Plan Framework’s Transportation Chapter, but because a real estate speculator saw a financial opportunity.  Second, when their projects needed discretionary zoning approvals, they were granted reflexively at a “business-friendly” City Hall, not because the Framework had a TOD policy.

The Mobility Element’s Real Problems:  If the objections to the new Mobility Plan are largely based on anecdote and procedure, rather than substance, what, then, is so problematic about this Plan, which otherwise seems to be so well-intentioned and consistent with the principles of sustainable city planning?

The answer is that in Los Angeles the General Plan is nothing more than a legal requirement imposed by the State of California and repeated in the City Charter.  It is not taken seriously by any branch of City government, whether the Executive or Legislative, as evidenced by the following:

·       The General Plan is not kept up to date. As one looks through its seven required elements, as well as optional elements, such as the General Plan Framework, they have different base years and different horizon years.  To their credit, though, they often have overlapping policies.  This means that the very policies that irked the Mobility Plan’s critics, such as Transit Oriented Districts, as expanded in the Framework’s Transportation Improvement and Mitigation Program (TIMP), have been on the books for years in other General Plan Elements.  These precursors of the Mobility Element have quietly gathered dust, to the point that both professional planners and neighborhood planning activists pay no heed to them.
     The City of Los Angeles’s budgeting process is entirely separate from the planning process.  The vast array of policies and programs presented in the General Plan’s elements, including the new Mobility Element, are totally ignored when the City Administrative Office, the Mayor’s Office, and the City Council divide up the pie.
     Likewise the City’s legislative process is totally disconnected from the General Plan, other than tacking on voluminous ordinances to up-zone and up-plan swaths of LA through Community Plans Updates.
     The land use approval process in Los Angeles also proceeds on a parallel track, independent of adopted General Plan policies.  Nearly every application for an entitlement is “Approved with conditions.”  While these approvals require a finding of consistency with the General Plan, this finding is nothing more than boilerplate language habitually copied from one approval to another.
     Despite the State of California’s general plan guidelines, elaborate monitoring programs detailed in the General Plan Framework and its EIR, and several law suits, the City has no way to determine if any Mobility Element programs will have been implemented or if any of its policy goals will have been achieved.  This is because the monitoring program does not exist.

What these gross deficiencies mean is that the new Mobility Element is a stand-alone shelf document.  Its only implementing ordinance addresses street standards.  It has no attached budget allocations or departmental work programs, and there is no systematic way to know if any of it programs are implemented or the Mobility Element’s goals have been achieved.  Will it make walking, biking, and driving safer?  Will people switch transportation modes when they are offered better options?  Will congestion go up or down in different neighborhoods? Will emergency vehicles be hemmed in by worsening traffic jams?  Will air quality improve?   Other than by anecdote, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, these will be, “Unknown unknowns.”

Both the gloom and doom predicted by the Element’s critics, as well as the important safety features, enhanced transportation options, and sustainable behavior foreseen by the Element’s supporters will remain speculation.  Like budget allocations, implementing ordinances, and work programs, the data and supporting analysis will not be there.

This is the real problem facing the Mobility Element and the other General Plan elements in Los Angeles.  They are totally oblique to a planning process that is entirely driven by market forces and delivered to City Hall by well-paid and, in turn, generous land use attorneys, lobbyists, and expediters.

*Dick Platkin reports on city planning and related issues for City Watch.  He welcomes questions, corrections, and comments at