Saturday, February 6, 2016

How to Smoke Out Flacks for Luxury High-Rise Projects Who Masquerade as Friends of the Down-and-Out

LOS ANGELES
PLATKIN ON PLANNING-In the dystopian movie about Los Angeles, “Blade Runner,” the lead character, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), was an expert at sleuthing out Replicants. They are androids so human that only an expert can detect them with 20 to 30 questions triggering an emotional response through a "Voight-Kampff" machine. 
In the case of an experimental android model named Rachael, Ford/Deckard ultimately determines that she, too, is a Replicant…but it takes him 100 questions to do this. Nevertheless, he falls in love with her. 
While I cannot promise that you will fall in love with the flacks and shills promoting unsustainable, luxury high-rise buildings in LA, I can at least give you a list of my own “Voight-Kampff” questions. Then you, too, can quickly get to work revealing their secret identities. I can also assure you that it won’t take the 20 to 30 questions necessary to expose the Replicants of “Blade Runner,” or even the 100 questions Deckard required for Rachael, the super-Replicant. 
Six questions should do the job just fine. 
Q1. What are the addresses of affordable housing projects in Los Angles that required legislative actions by the City Council (zone changes, General Plan amendments, or both) to be built? 
Over the past week I have repeatedly posed this question to opponents of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative (NII) since they claimed that the NII would block the construction of affordable housing in Los Angeles. So far, no one has coughed up a single address, much less a list of affordable housing projects stymied by LA’s current zoning code and General Plan. 
Q2. Should Los Angeles update its General Plan elements prior to any legislative actions by the City Council to approve zone changes and/or Plan Amendments for specific parcels? 
Since most of LA’s General Plan elements are out-of-date, it is now impossible to know where future demand for housing, infrastructure, and services will appear. Likewise, it is impossible to know the status of the public facilities and services that future residents will need in these areas. To step into this mess with City Council legislative actions that will up-end the General Plan through amendments based on antiquated data opens the door to stunningly bad legislative decisions. 
Q3. Should Los Angeles carefully monitor its General Plan Elements prior to any legislative actions that amend them for single parcels? 
State of California planning guidelines and the provisions of the General Plan Framework Element and its Environmental Impact Report require a rigorous monitoring program and annual report. This report should examine the status of the LA’s infrastructure and services, including maintenance, as well as forecasts of changes in user demand. It also needs to determine which of the General Plan’s demographic assumptions have changed and which implementation programs have been rolled out, including their effectiveness. Until this happens, decades-old planning documents cannot be reliably used for legislative actions determining LA’s future land uses at the level of a single parcel. 
Q4. Should any legislative actions approving otherwise illegal projects for individual parcels, based on an applicant’s promises of future job creation and transit ridership, require regular reports confirming these promises? 
At present, applicants can promise the sky and the moon to the City Planning Commission and the City Council in order to get the legislative approvals that their mega-projects require. But the same applicants do not then need to conduct any subsequent studies to determine if the jobs or transit ridership they promised actually appear. If they do not appear, which is usually the case, there are no consequences, such as the revocation of building permits, zone changes, and General Plan Amendments. 
Q5. Should projects that promise the creation of jobs and generation of transit ridership be approved in separate, conditional phases? 
If the City Planning Commission and City Council’s legislative actions to approve special laws for individual parcels were broken into phases, the second or later stages could be rejected or postponed until the promised jobs and/or transit ridership appeared. In this way, liars and shady consultants would get their just rewards. 
Q6.  Should Proposition 13 be reformed by splitting the roles so cities can properly fund public services, such as affordable housing trust funds? 
Since single-family homes sell about every six years, while commercial properties, including apartment buildings, are rarely sold, the latter are the true beneficiaries of Proposition 13. The victims are not just owners of single-family homes, nearly all of whom bought their homes since 1978 and, therefore, pay high property taxes, but also the users of public facilities and services. Since many of these public facilities and services (e.g., affordable housing) have been downsized by perpetual public sector budget crises since California’s voters approved Prop. 13, splitting the roles would make sure that commercial properties were properly reassessed and then required to pay their fair share of property taxes. 
If these six questions are not sufficient enough for you to uncover the Rachael-style Replicants hiding among the advocates and pundits promoting otherwise illegal high-rise luxury apartments in the name of affordable housing, then I will happily provide you another six questions. 
Just remember to keep a hand on your wallet.

(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on planning issues in Los Angeles for CityWatch. He welcomes comments, questions, and corrections atrhplatkin@gmail.com.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Phony Sustainability Arguments Used to justify High-Rise, Luxury Buildings

LOS ANGELES
PLATKIN ON PLANNING--When investors decide to plunk their own money -- or more likely someone else’s money – into high-rise buildings, usually with luxury apartments or condos, their motivation is to turn a handsome profit. 
Despite their public persona, their investment decisions have nothing to do with self-serving claims about LA’s housing crisis, demographic trends, transit use, or land use policies promoting Transit Oriented Development. 
Developers invoke these arguments, especially proximity to transit, when they happen to coincide with their projects. This is why the same high-rise, luxury buildings shoot up in many neighborhoods where the only transit service is a bus line. Examples of these luxury buildings can be found in many LA areas, such as Warner Center and Century City, where the entire built environment is based on cars. 
In fact, in Century City a new 40-story luxury high-rise apartment building is soon opening, and it will be totally oriented toward automobile driving. It not only caters to the tiny percent of tenants who can afford its lavish apartments, but its full range of tenant services conspicuously includes on-call chauffeurs for its fleet of luxury cars. In addition to these and related amenities, it also offers Mayor Garcetti an opportunity to include its 283 rental units in his construction goal of 100,000 desperately needed new residential units in Los Angeles.  
For a precedent, the same LA Times article examines a new San Vicente Boulevard apartment building on the border of Beverly Hills and Los Angeles – not far from Century City. Already open, it offers concierge service for all possible needs, consciously mimicking the services provided by a five star hotel, including attendant parking and fully stocked pantries in each unit. If this luxury life style appeals you, be prepared to dig deep into your pockets. The typical apartment rents for $12,000 per month, and a penthouse unit is slightly pricier: $40,000 per month. 
To put this rent structure into perspective, once LA’s minimum wage reaches $15/hour and if you devoted half of your salary to rent, you would need at least 13 full time jobs to sign a lease for the basic units. The penthouse, in contrast, would require you to simultaneously work around 42 full time jobs. 
For moderate luxury units -- $2000 per month or more for a small single -- such as the many new, transit-adjacent apartments on the Miracle Mile, you would only need two full-time minimum wage jobs to make your rent. It is almost affordable in comparison to the San Vicente Boulevard project. To be fair though, you would have a Spartan life style if you had dependents or chose to spend less than half of your take home pay on rent in order to indulge yourself in a sumptuous life style, perhaps a full breakfast at the nearby International House of Pancakes. But, either way, in 2023 you would have walkable access to a future subway station, and you also could help the Mayor reach his goal of 100,000 new housing units for Los Angeles. 
When these high-rise, high-rent apartment buildings HAPPEN to be in Hollywood or on Wilshire Boulevard and similar places served by transit, they are only transit adjacent, not transit oriented. This is why we should not take the investors, builder, realtors, and their slick or naïve boosters at their word when they flaunt buzzwords like housing crisis, transit, elegant density, and transit-oriented development. They are just being opportunists who know little and could care less about affordable housing, transit, transit-oriented development, and sustainable city planning.  
If they truly believed in sustainable city planning – what I call the successful density of New York City versus the poorly performing density of Los Angeles -- they would insist that METRO engage in the same land use planning it once pursued through contracts with LA City Planning -- when they planned and built the original MetroRail subway in the 1980s. When done right, this planning should include heavily subsidized affordable housing projects at transit stations. 
This planning also needs to address the critical barrier to transit use, the first and last mile (i.e. getting people to the transit station). And, METRO and the City of LA need to make sure that all transit stations have a full range of standard amenities, such as snack bars, news stands and newspaper racks, dry cleaners, small grocery stores, bathrooms, and ATMs, as well as park ‘n ride, kiss ‘n ride, bus stops, cab stands, bicycle parking, and pedestrian friendly streets and sidewalks radiating out in all directions from transit stations. 
Furthermore, all of this should be built during mass transit construction, not ignored forever (Purple Line Extension) or only addressed several decades after the transit lines became operational (Blue Line and Green Line). 
The bottom line is that the real estate speculators, the City of LA, and METRO have yet to demonstrate any interest in the planning and construction that turns Transit Adjacent buildings into an important component of Transit Oriented Communities. If this is changing, then I hope diligent CityWatch readers can share the evidence. Until then, however, any claims that these projects are sustainable should be dismissed as phony baloney. They are nothing but super-sized buildings for super-well off people with super-sized cars.  
There is one thing, however, that is sustainable about these projects: their marketing campaigns.

(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on planning issues in Los Angeles for CityWatch. He welcomes comments, questions, and corrections atrhplatkin@gmail.com.)
-cw