Wednesday, October 5, 2016

LA Community and Developer Caruso Struggle with Caruso’s ‘Dream Project’ WITH PLATKIN CORRECTIONS IN CAPS


TIM DEEGAN , CityWatchLA, 26 SEPTEMBER 2016

DEEGAN ON LA-Rick Caruso has a long and sentimental history with his property at 333 S. La Cienega Boulevard (currently the site of the shuttered Loehmann's department store.) It’s the first property he owned. It’s where he washed cars as a kid at his dad's dollar-a-day car rental business. And, it’s where he dreams of building his newest project that will make a statement about contemporary high-end housing by including an affordable housing component that could make it a landmark building in more ways than one. (See above photo of rendering.) HIGH-END HOUSING MEANS LUXURY HOUSING, OR RENTS OF ABOUT $10,000 TO $20,000 PER MONTH FOR 137 OF THE PROPOSED 145 APARTMENTS.
Rarely have developers allowed low income housing units to be part of the mix in their high-end luxury buildings, preferring to subsidize affordable housing at off-site locations in return for the zoning variances they receive. But Rick Caruso, founder and chief executive officer for Caruso Affiliated, has a new take on that.  SB 1818 DENSITY BONUS PROJECTS IN WHICH A SMALL PERCENTAGE OF UNITS ARE AFFORDABLE IN EXCHANGES TO ZONING EXEMPTIONS ARE COMMON IN LOS ANGELES. THERE IS NOTHING UNIQUE OR SPECIAL ABOUT THEIR USE.
Already a pioneer in trend-setting, open-air shopping experiences like the Grove and the Americana, Caruso could become a leading figure in egalitarian housing if he’s able to deliver on a pledge he made to a community group a few weeks ago, when he went on public record at the Mid City West Community Council's land use committee meeting, stating, “The affordable units will be treated like all other units, and serviced like all other units. There will be a lot of pride about the project, a lot of dignity and respect for the affordable housing tenants that will be interspersed throughout the building. They’re going to be just like everybody else. The same level of service, for free.”   THERE IS NO EVIDENCE THAT INCLUDING 7 AFFORDABLE UNITS IN A 145 LUXURY APARTMENT HOUSE MAKE RICK CARUSO A LEADING FIGURE IN EGALITARIAN HOUSING. THIS IS A LEGAL REQUIREMENT FOR S.B. 1818 PROJECTS, AND THE DEVELOPER DOES NOT HAVE THE OPTION OF TREATING THE AFFORDABLE UNITS DIFFERENTLY THAN THE MARKET RATE UNITS.
He’s a man with a dream to have his luxury housing tower shared by all walks of life -- rich and poor – in a residence building that is both elegant and equitable, where the 1% and the 99% come together. If Rick Caruso pulls this off, it will be groundbreaking; it will change the development and affordable housing paradigm, and could make him the very first billionaire-populist in the city.  THIS WAS NOT PART OF THE ORIGINAL PROPOSAL, WHICH MADE NO OFFERS OF AFFORDABLE HOUSING.  THIS WAS ONLY ADDED WHEN MR. CARUSO FAILED TO WIN THE SUPPORT OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD COUNCIL OR THE BEVERLY WILSHIRE HOMES ASSOCATION.
Caruso’s struggle to bring the community along into his over-scale dreamscape, that will make his tower one of the tallest buildings in sight, was evident at Mid City West Community Council’s recent land use committee meeting.  OVERSCALE IS MISLEADING.  THIS PROJECT REQUIRES A SERIES OF SPECIAL LEGISLATIVE ACTIONS BY THE CITY COUNCIL FOR IT TO BECOME LEGAL.
Description: http://www.citywatchla.com/images/stories/Sept-2016/078i1.png
As democratic-sounding as this may be -- housing the rich and the poor in the same building, with equality of service for all -- there’s a big downside: Caruso wants to build a 240 foot tall building in a zone that has a maximum height of 40 feet (see graphic, left.) That’s a huge increase in what’s permitted, which has many asking how much is too much? It requires a “spot zoning” variance which is anathema to many. In fact, “spot zoning” is one of the key reasons the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative is on the March 2017 ballot, having qualified with more than one and a half times as many signatures as necessary, illustrating the public’s hunger for zoning redress that has tapped the very nerve that Caruso is trying to soothe.   THE FIVE PERCENT AFFORDABLE HOUSING COMPONENT PROPOSED BY CARUSO AFFILIATED IS PALTRY COMPARED TO 30 PERCENT IN NEW YORK CITY FOR REZONING PROJECTS.  FURTHERMORE, IF THE BUILD BETTER L.A. INITIATIVE PASSES IN NOVEMBER IT WOULD IMPOSE A 15 PERCENT AFFORDABLE HOUSING REQUIREMENT ON PROJECTS SUCH AS THIS.  LIKEWISE THE CITY’S PROPOSED VALUE CAPTURES ORDINANCE WOULD ALSO IMPOSE A 20 PERCENT AFFORFDABLE HOUSING REQUIREMENT ON PROJECTS SUCH AS 333 S. LACIENEGA.
There’s a very good reason he must go up: he cannot go down. As he told the community meeting, “I cannot go underground with parking because of a massive storm drain. That forces parking to go above ground, and increases the height of the project. The parking will be three floors above grade and two floors below grade,” explained Caruso as the reason he is proposing a twenty floor building in an area that is zoned for four floors. And, he says, he cannot lose units. “I need the height because it’s very expensive to build there. I need 145 units. It’s already down from 165 units.” 
The way to bring the building down [in height] is to use more of the site, but lose setbacks,” said Caruso. “The alternative would be to make an office building, taking the existing building and re-leasing it, or taking it down and making a new building.”  THE PROJECTS ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT REPORT PRESENTED TWO ENVIRONMENTALLY PREFERRED ALTERANTIVES.  THE FIRST IS REUSE OF THE EXISTING BUILDING.  THE SECOND IS TO REPLACE THE EXISTING BUILDING WITH ONE THAT IS CONSISTENT WITH THE ZONING CODE AND GENERAL PLAN.  THE ARGUMENT THAT THE PROJECTS UNMITIGATED ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS SHOULD BE ACCEPTED BECAUSE OF ITS JOBS AND TRANSPORATION IMPROVEMENTS IS NOT CREDIBLE.  BY ITS OWN ADMISSION, THE PROJECT ONLY CREATED 83 PERMANENT JOBS, AND MOST OF THESE ARE IN THE SERVICE SECTOR, SUCH AS BUILDING MAINTENANCE OR CLERKS AT GROUND FLOOR RETAIL.
I would be disingenuous to say there is no leeway [on the height.] My strong preference is for 20 stories. I can’t lose units. When I lose floors I lose units. Then I’d have to decide not to build the building. There are ten units per floor. I can make the height of the floors less high.” 
How the community reacted to this, and how much of a gap between what he wants and what they will be comfortable with came out in over three hours of presentations, deliberations and a full court press by Caruso himself, who faced a sharply divided community audience. It took an hour just to hear all the public comment for and against the project. It was a passionate exchange, with Caruso spending lots of time at the microphone answering questions and putting forth his case. Questions keyed mostly to the height of the building and how Caruso would accommodate affordable housing. 
In the end, the gap between what he wants, and how much the committee is willing to give, was mostly about the height question, although the on-site affordable housing element was also subject of much debate. 
When the committee finally took a vote, it was deadlocked on a motion that would have advanced the project. Key elements of that motion were: 
Height:
·       The building should be ten stories maximum (currently projected at 20 stories.)
·       The maximum height should be 120-125 feet (not the projected 240 feet.)
·       The floor to area ratio should be doubled from 1.5:1 to 3:1. Floor area ratio (FAR) is the ratio of a building's total floor area (gross floor area) to the size of the piece of land upon which it is built.
·       It should be zoned “general commercial” instead of “regional commercial.” 
Affordable housing:
·       Should be consistent with SB1818 type conditions.
·       Should be mixed-income community of 50% very low and 50% low, representing 15% of total units in building.
·       Units should be on site, not off-site or a payment to the housing fund.
·       Affordable housing should be run as affordable by LA Housing Department.
·       A 55-year commitment to affordable units.
·       Parking included in rent, not a separate charge. 
The land use committee vote was a deadlock and the matter was tabled. The next scheduled meeting is on October 6, when a motion can be created to send to the full board for its October meeting. Not reaching consensus at this meeting squeezed the window for community review. At least two more sessions (another land use committee meeting and then a full neighborhood council board meeting) will be required before Caruso knows how much support he will receive from the neighborhood council. And, he must play Beat-the-Clock with the March 7 vote date for the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative which, if passed by voters, will result in a moratorium on “spot zoning.” 
A few weeks after that community meeting, Rick Caruso met with CityWatch to present some new information that specifically addresses some of the concerns raised in the deadlocked motion at Mid City, especially the affordable housing element. This may go a long way toward helping him align with the community -- that is, if he and the community can ultimately agree on height. 
He began by revealing a change in plans: “In response to community input, two years ago, we cut the retail square footage in half and reduced the number of proposed apartments from 162 to 145. In addition, we committed to creating new open space, building new crosswalks and bike lanes, and landscaping and maintaining the city medians. We are planning for a neighborhood-serving restaurant and market, ensuring community use of 333’s boardroom, and making a 55-year commitment to affordable housing. We also changed our entitlements to eliminate the Regional Center issue and become an SB 1818 project.” 
CW - Why are you dropping the “Regional Center” designation? 
R.C. - “The 333 La Cienega parcel is a unique island surrounded by four major streets (San Vicente, La Cienega, Burton Way, and 3rd Street) and is immediately adjacent to Cedars Sinai Hospital and the Beverly Center. It was logical to extend their Regional Commercial designation to the 333 parcel without negatively impacting single-family residences or setting a new precedent. However, we take community stakeholder recommendations seriously. They asked how we could both build this project without the Regional Center zoning and ensure that the affordable housing would be monitored as if it were an SB 1818 project. The new entitlements accomplish both.”  NO COMMUNITY STAKEHOLDERS EXPRESSED A DESIRE FOR A 20 STORY LUXURY HOUSING PROJECT AT THE LOEHMAN’S SITE THAT WOULD SET A PRECDENT OF PARCEL LEVEL ZONE CHANGES AND GENERAL PLAN AMENDMENTS FOR THE ENTIRE LACIENEGA CORRIDOR PRIOR TO THE UPDATE OF THE GENERAL PLAN.
CW – Are you changing the zoning so it will match that of your Burton Way building? 
R.C. - We seek to extend the zoning for 8500 Burton Way to its sister property across the street, 333 La Cienega. Instead of a GPA to Regional Commercial, the project would be amended to “General Commercial” which is consistent with nearly every other adjacent property on 3rd Street and San Vicente. The result is no new precedent for zoning, the entitlements simply bring 333’s zoning up to that of its neighbors. As with 8500 Burton Way, 333’s [zoning] will be height district 2.”  THE CHANGES TO THE ZONE AND THE GENERAL PLAN DESIGNATION ARE FOR THIS PARCEL ONLY, AN EXCEEDINGLY BAD CITY PLANNNG PRACTICE STRONGLY OPPOSED BY THE AREA’S HISTORIC NON-GOVERNMENTAL NEIGHBORHOOD CIVIC ASSOCIATION, THE BEVERLY WILSHIRE HOMES ASSOCIATION.
CW - Are you switching to SB 1818 (the state's density bonus law) status? How will that impact the number of affordable units? 
R.C. - Yes, the change is to both enshrine the affordable housing as an SB 1818 project and allow for the number of units needed to make the project work. This includes funding millions of dollars in street and safety improvements as well as building the new open space. 
The SB 1818 calculations are 5% “very low income” housing as seven (7) units. However, we have already committed to eight (8) units and that will be in our agreement with the City. These units will then be monitored by the City’s Housing and Community Investment Department (HCID) to ensure public oversight.”  THE FIVE PERCENT REQUIREMENT IS MUCH LESS THAN WOULD BE REQUIRED IF THE BUILDING BETTER L.A. INITIATIVE OR THE VALUE CAPTURE ORDINANCE PASSES.  THE S.B. 1818 OPTION COULD NOT ONLY PRECEDE THEM, BUT IS THE EQUIVALENT OF A VARIANCE, BUT WITH NOT EFFECTIVE RIGHT OF APPEAL BY THOSE OPPOSING THE PROJECT’S HEIGHT.
CW - Why is there no affordable housing at 8500 Burton Way? 
R.C. - “8500 Burton Way was entitled years ago. Our region now has a significant housing crisis. Thus, changing times led us to include those units in this project.”   THE AFFORDABLE HOUSING CRISIS MIGHT BE WORSE, BUT IT IS NOT NEW.  THE 8500 BURTON WAY WAS ABLE TO GET ITS ENTITLEMENTS WITHOUT A BONUS DENSITY REQUIREMENT.
CW - How important has been community feedback to your plans? 
R.C. - This world-class project will be one that the community is proud of and the market-rate for building units allows us to provide millions of dollars of public improvements and the ability to have affordable housing. Furthermore, I believe 333 La Cienega will set the new standard where these types of public commitments and community collaborations are the norm rather than the exception.” 
“I want the buildings (at 333 La Cienega and 8500 Burton Way) to be a brother and sister -- sympathetic to each other,” concluded Caruso. 
The dreamer-developer had one final word about the project: “I want to make it work for everybody.”   BECAUSE THE DEVELOPER OWNS THE PROPERTY THERE WILL BE NO CHANGE IN TITLE AND THE PROJECTS WILL THEREFORE BE EXEMPT FROM ANY INCREASE IN PROPERTY TAXES BECAUSE OF PROPOSITION 13.  IF CARUSO AFFILIATE WANTED THE PROJECT TO WORK FOR EVERYONE, IT WOULD BE BUILD THE ENVIRONMENTALLY PREFERRED ALTERNATIVIES OF THE E.I.R. AND VOLUNTARILY PAY PROPERTY TAXES ON THE INCREASED VALUE OF THE UNDERLYING PROPERTY ONES ITS ZONING, HEIGHT, AND GENERAL PLAN DESIGNATION ARE CHANGED BY THE CITY COUNCIL.
Caruso will find out if that dream can come true in the next few weeks, as the neighborhood council again weighs in on his plans.



In Cranes’ Shadow, Los Angeles Strains to See a Future With Less Sprawl WITH PLATKIN COMMENTS IN CAPS


By ADAM NAGOURNEY, New York Times, SEPT. 21, 2016
LOS ANGELES — The powerful economic resurgence that has swept Southern California is on display almost everywhere here, visible in the construction cranes towering on the skyline and the gush of applications to build luxury hotels, shopping centers, high-rise condominiums and acres of apartment complexes from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles.  INVESTMENT OF FOREIGN CAPITAL LOOKING FOR A SAVE HAVEN IN U.S. REAL ESTATE, INCLUDING LOS ANGELES, IS NOT THE SAME AS AN ECONOMIC RESURGENCE.

But it can also be seen in a battle that has broken out about the fundamental nature of this distinctively low-lying and spread-out city. The conflict has pitted developers and some government officials against neighborhood organizations and preservationists. It is a debate about height and neighborhood character; the influence of big-money developers on City Hall; and, most of all, what Los Angeles should look like a generation from now.  THE REAL DEBATE IS WHETHER LOS ANGELES SHOULD BE A PLANNED CITY OR ONE THAT BENDS AND IGNORES PLANS, REALISTIC DEMOGRAPHIC PROJECTS, AND THE CAPACITY OF INFRASTRUCTURE AND SERVICES TO APPROVE AND THEN ABSORB PROJECTS THAT ARE STRICTLY MOTIVATED BY THE MAXIMIZATION OF PROFIT.

This is a city that has long defied easy definition — at once urban, suburban and even rural — filled with people who live in homes with year-round gardens and open skies dotted by swaying palm trees, often blocks away from gritty boulevards, highways and clusters of office buildings. And it is no stranger to battles between entrenched neighborhood groups and well-financed developers seeing opportunity in a wealthy market; the slow-growth movement thrived here during the 1990s.  THE MOVEMENT OF THE 1990’S WAS NOT OVER THE PACE OF GROWTH, BUT THE CHARACTER OF GROWTH.  IF IT WAS CONSISTENT WITH THE GENERAL PLAN PRINCIPLE OF CONSISTENCY IN CHARACTER AND SCALE WITH EXISTING DEVELOPMENT, THEN THERE WAS NO ISSUE. 

But the debate this time has reached a particularly pitched level, fueled by a severe shortage of affordable housing, an influx of people moving back into the city center and the perception that a Southern California city that once seemed to have unlimited space for growth has run out of track. “What’s that old cliché?” Mayor Eric
M. Garcetti said in an interview. “The sprawl has hit the wall in L.A.”  SPRAWL HITS THE WALL WAS A FAMOUS STUDY WRITTEN BY U.S.C. URBAN PLANNING FACULTY IN THE 1990S.  THE CURRENT DEBATES ARE NOT OVER SPRAWL, BUT OVER THE ROLE OF PLANNING IN LOS ANGELES.  MUCH OF LOS ANGELES ALREADY HAS HIGH DENSITY AND MANY NEW BY-RIGHT PROJECTS ADD TO THIS DENSITY. BUT THE OBJECTIONS ARE TO ILLEGAL AND UNPLANNED MEGA-PROJECTS THAT EXCEED THE CAPACITY OF EXISTING INFRASTRUCTURE AND SERVICES AND THAT ARE NOT CONSISTENT WITH THE CHARACTER AND SCALE OF EXISTING DEVELOPMENT.

“It’s not whether or not density is going to come,” he said. “It’s whether we plan for it or not. People are like, ‘Oh my God, this is L.A., and they are going tall?’ Height makes you think it’s denser. And it doesn’t always compute that way. You have to convince people.”  THE APPROACH OF L.A.’S ELECTED OFFICIALS IS TO APPROVE NEARLY ALL UNPLANNED DEVELOPMENT BY TACKING ON CONDITIONS THAT ARE SUPPOSED TO MOLLIFY CRITICS.  BUT L A D B S  IS SELDOM AWARE OF THESE CONDITIONS, AND THEIR ENFORCEMENT IS STRICTLY PROACTIVE IN RESPONSE TO REPEATED PUBLIC COMPLAINTS, USUALLY ECHOED BY CITY COUNCIL OFFICES AND SOMETIMES PURSUED THROUGH LAW SUITS.

The resistance has been sharp, reflecting a widespread notion that much of the development has been disruptive and haphazard, as well as strong sentimental attachment to a city filled with handsome tree-lined neighborhoods and classic old homes.  IN NEARLY ALL CASES THE OPPOSITION POINTS OUT THAT THE PROJECTS ARE NOT CONSISTENT WITH ADOPTED PLAN AND ZONES, AS WELL AS THE CAPACITY OF EXISTING OR ANTICIPATED PUBLIC INFRASTRUCTUCTURE AND SERVICES

“Stop Manhattanwood” billboards have popped up in Hollywood, close to where two 28-story towers were approved by city officials — after a long battle by neighborhood groups — next to the Hollywood Palladium concert hall. In Beverly Hills, which is a separate city from Los Angeles, a proposal by the Beverly Hilton to build what would be that city’s tallest building, a 26-story hotel, has drawn opposition from the mayor in a high-profile battle that will be decided in a ballot measure this fall.  IN BOTH OF THESE CASES THE ISSUES REVOLVE AROUND PROJECTS THAT CAN ONLY BE MADE LEGAL BY A LEGISLATIVE ACTION APPROVED BY ELECTED OFFICIALS OR BY VOTERS.

In Los Angeles, neighborhood groups, including opponents of the Palladium project, are collecting signatures for a voter initiative that would impose a two-year moratorium on out-of-scale projects that require special city zoning variations.  THE NEIGHBORHOOD INTEGRITY INITIATIVE PLACES A TWO-YEAR MORATORIUM ON ZONE CHANGES, NOT ZONE VARIANCES.  THE CITY PLANNING COMMISSION AND THE CITY COUNCIL ADOPTS THE FORMER.  THE DEPARTMENT OF CITY PLANNING APPROVES THE LATTER.  



“You have huge buildings going on tiny little streets,” said Jill Stewart, who is directing the ballot initiative campaign. “Areas that cannot absorb the development. And communities that haven’t had the discussion about whether they want these buildings.”

The initiative needs 67,000 signatures to be placed on the ballot. It already has 104,000 signatures; among its more prominent supporters is Richard J. Riordan, a Republican and a former mayor of Los Angeles.

“Our city is rapidly being gentrified,” Mr. Riordan said. “The working poor — the lower middle class — are being pushed out of L.A. They are giving building permits to the developers, the ones that give money to the politicians, to build high-rise buildings.”

Mitch O’Farrell, a member of the Los Angeles City Council, called the ballot initiative an overreaction, saying the city needed to encourage growth and development.  THE QUESTION IS NOT GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT PER SE, BUT WHAT KIND OF PRIVATE INVESTMENT IN REAL ESTATE.  THE SUPPORTERS OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD INTEGRITY INITIATIVE SUPPORT PLANNED GROWTH, AS WELL AS EXTENSIVE SUPPORT FOR PUBLIC INVESTMENT TO ENCOURAGE GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT OF PUBLIC IMPROVEMENTS, SUCH AS NEW PARKS AND LIBRARIES, PEDESTRIANIZED SIZE WALK, BICYCLE LANES, A DROUGHT TOLERANT URBAN FOREST, ETC.

“People have real concerns about how projects will affect their neighborhoods, which are legitimate,” he said. “But there are a lot of additional factors in the equation: the opportunities to bring economic growth, to create projects that improve the look of a community, that enhance the safety and security of a community and that also help provide needed tax dollars.”  BECAUSE OF PROPOSITION 13 NEW COMMERCIAL PROJECTS, INCLUDING MEGA-PROJECTS DO NOT GENERATE NEEDED TAX DOLLARS BECAUSE THEY DO NOT CHANGE TITLE.  THIS IS THE RESULT OF PROPOSITION 13.

A number of factors have contributed to the tensions. Los Angeles, like many other big cities dealing with traffic, has been encouraging development along mass- transit lines, such as the one that cuts through Hollywood. The city has also been roiled by a wave of developer teardowns of picturesque homes in well-established neighborhoods, making way for big houses and stirring sharp opposition in many places.  IN NEARLY ALL CASES, THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS OF MEGA-PROJECTS THAT CAN ONLY BE MADE LEGAL BY A CITY COUNCIL-ADOPTED ORDINANCE ARE DISREGARDED BY THE CITY COUNCIL BECAUSE DEVELOPERS PROMISE THEIR PROJECTS WILL INCREASE TRANSIT RIDERSHIP.  NO EVIDENCE OR MONITORING IS REQUIRED, AND THERE ARE NO CONSEQUENCES FOR FAILING TO MONITOR TO ACTUALLY GENERATE TRANSIT RIDERSHIP.

“Los Angeles was built as a suburban city — it was always put forth as a suburban city,” said Jonathan M. Zasloff, a law professor at U.C.L.A. who teaches land use and opposes the ballot initiative. “You could be in the city and still be in the country at the same time. So when you got a situation where it’s now a city that looks very different, the people who like the old way are trying to stop it from changing.  THIS IS FLAT OUT WRONG.  MUCH OF LOS ANGELES IS DENSE AND WAS DEVELOPED BEFORE THE CITY BECAME PRREDOMINANTLY CAR-ORIENTED AFTER WORLD WAR II.  FURTHERMORE, THIS ISSUE OF APPEARANCE IS NOT SIMPLY A QUESTION OF TASTE.  ACCORDING TO THE GENERAL PLAN, INCLUDING ITS APPENDED DESIGN GUIDELINES, APPEARANCE INCLUDES CONSISTENCY IN SCALE AND CHARACTER WITH EXISTING DEVELOPMENT.

“Change is scary — urbanization is scary,” he added. “People don’t trust the city.  This is a way to stop it. But Los Angeles is not an example of a city where development has run riot. It just isn’t.”  LOS ANGELES IS ONE OF THE LARGEST CITIES IN THE UNITED STATES AND MANY NEIGHBORHOODS ARE STRUGGLING FROM THE BURDENS OF TOO MUCH UNPLANNED PRIVATE INVESTMENT.  THAT IS WHY THE CITY HAS SUCH A LARGE NUMBER OF SMALL OVERLAY DISTRICTS, ALL OF WHICH ARE INTENDED TO STOP DEVELOPMENT FROM CONTINUING TO RUN RIOT.

There is a long history here of historically distinctive buildings’ being torn down to make way for new construction, setting off battles with preservationists. Many of the 88 cities in Los Angeles County have historical preservation ordinances, but their effectiveness varies, and much of the construction is proposed for open lots and strip malls.

“The history of Los Angeles is in large part a history of ambivalence about dense development and especially about tall buildings,” Christopher Hawthorne, the architecture critic for The Los Angeles Times, wrote in an email. “We’ve always wanted to rank as a cosmopolitan, world-class city. At the same time, for more than a century we’ve had blue-ribbon committees, ballot measures and civic debates about height limits for new buildings.  LOS ANGELES’ ADOPTED PLANS CONTAIN MANY AREAS WHERE LARGE AND TALL BUILDINGS ARE ENCOURAGED, SUCH AS THE DOWNTOWN, THE WILSHIRE CORRIDOR, AND CENTURY CITY.  THE REAL QUESTION IS THE CONSTRUCTION OF THESE LARGE AND TALL BUILDINGS, SUCH AS 8150 SUNSET AND 334 S. LACIENEGA WHERE THEY ARE NOT INTENDED/PLANNED, AND WHERE THEY CAN ONLY BE CONSTRUCTED THROUGH PARCEL LEVEL ORDINANCES ADOPTED BY THE CITY COUNCIL.


“What’s driving the newest wave of construction and its backlash, more than anything, is geography: We’ve run out of open space to build and at the same time hit the limits of sprawl,” he wrote. “Los Angeles is doubling back on itself, building in its midsection as opposed to gobbling up new territory along its periphery. We have finally realized that there are real benefits — in terms of water use, for example — to be gained by living more densely and more vertically.” THE RE-USE OF EXISTING LAND IS FINE, BUT THE CITY’S GENERAL PLAN IS CLEAR THAT FOR THIS TO HAPPEN, THERE MUST BE SUFFICIENT INFRASTRUCTURE AND SERVICES.  TO SIMPLY MAINTAIN THE EXISTING INFRASTRUCTURE AND CRAM IN MANY NEW DENSE AND INTENSE BUILDINGS IS THE PATH TO URBAN FAILURE.  IT SUBSTITUTES SHORT-TERM MARKET WHIMS FOR LONG-TERM RATIONAL PLANNING.

Los Angeles has also not rewritten its master plan, which regulates what should be built where, in nearly 30 years. That has led city officials to approve many projects case by case, fueling long-held suspicions that council members are bending to the will of powerful developers. LOS ANGELES HAS A GENERAL PLAN WITH SEVEN REQUIRED ELEMENTS, AND MANY OPTIONAL ONES.  SEVERAL ELEMENTS ARE NEW, AND THE MOST BASIC ELEMENT, THE GENERAL PLAN FRAMEWORK, IS 20 YEARS OLD.

Richard Platkin, a planner who used to work for the Los Angeles Department of City Planning, said the so-called spot zoning decisions meant that “you have very politically powerful institutions, and occasionally someone with deep pockets, who spends a lot of money to change the zone for one individual parcel.”

“The skyline gets ragged instead of harmonious,” he added. “It’s out of character and out of scale.”

Mr. Zasloff said growth was critical for the future of Los Angeles. “When you have the average renter paying nearly half of his income in rent, that is just unsustainable,” he said. “It’s unsustainable for a city that wants to be a healthy city. You can’t have a healthy city without a healthy middle class. And they have to have a place where you can afford to live.”
LOS ANGELES DOES NEED GROWTH, BUT THIS GROWTH PRIMARILY NEEDS TO BE IN PUBLIC IMPROVEMENTS, NOT PRIVATELY OWNED BUILDINGS THAT ARE ILLEGAL ACCORDING TO ADOPTED PLANS.  THE ‘S GREATEST NEED IS FOR SUCH CATEGORIES AS A COMPLETE, DROUGHT TOLERANT URBAN FOREST, A COMPREHENSIVE MASS TRANSIT SYSTEM, ACTIVE CODE ENFORCEMENT, UNDERGROUNDING OF WIRES, MANY MORE PARKS, AND A MAJOR UPGRADE TO SCHOOLS AND LIBRARIES.


Tall vs. Sprawl — Build Better L.A. Proposition Will Determine Our City’s Future WITH PLATKIN CORRECTIONS IN CAPS



LA Weekly, TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 27, 2016 AT 6:30 A.M.


It was just the sort of attack that the fortress like walls of the Medici were designed to repel: a phalanx of 50 or so union members and affordable-housing advocates, wielding handmade signs (most in the same handwriting) with slogans such as "Good Jobs and Affordable Housing Now" and "NO more luxury development, NO displacement, NO homelessness. YES on Prop. JJJ."
A few bewildered residents of the apartment complex looked down from their balconies, as a clipped call came from a megaphone: "Palmer, Palmer, you can't hide. We can see your greedy side!" The crowd chanted the words back.
The Medici is one of those half-dozen or so faux-Italian apartment buildings built and owned by Geoff Palmer, perhaps L.A.'s most notorious developer, known for — aside from his predilection for gaudy architecture — his opposition to affordable housing. He also happens to be one of Donald Trump's biggest donors, thus the chant by protesters: "We want Prop. JJJ, not Trump's L.A.!"
Proposition JJJ also is known as Build Better L.A., though neither name will be all that familiar to Angelenos. The ballot measure has been rather lost in a riotous campaign season dominated by Donald Trump. The initiative will appear near the bottom of an impossibly lengthy ballot, which will include not only presidential, senate and congressional races but also no fewer than 17 statewide initiatives, including marijuana legalization, and a few local measures, among them two tax proposals to pay for mass transit construction and for supportive housing for the homeless.
Buried though it is, Proposition JJJ lies at the center of L.A.'s most critical and existential debate: What kind of city should it be? Should it be tall and dense, with more mass transit and bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly streets, or more like it was 30 years ago — wide, sprawling, dominated by single-family homes and freeways and cars?  THIS IS A FALSE DICHOTOMY.  THE REAL DICHOTOMY IS THIS: SHOULD L.A. BE PLANNED, OR IT SHOULD IT GROW, WILLY-NILLY, BASED ON THE WHIMS OF PRIVATE SECTOR INVESTORS, REGARDLESS OF EXISTING PLAN, EXISTING, ZONING, EXISTING INFRASTRUCTURE AND SERVICES, AND NEIGHBORHOOD DESIGN?
Both sides — the density hawks, or urbanists, and the preservationists, or suburbanites — have become increasingly polarized, and can be seen fighting pitched battles from Venice Beach to Boyle Heights.  ANOTHER FALSE DICHOTOMY.  MANY URBANISTS WANT PLANNED DEVELOPMENT, NOT SOMETHING BASED ON THE IMPULSES OF RICH INVESTORS.  AND MOST PRESERVATIONISTS LIVE IN OLDER LOS ANGELES NEIGHBORHOODS, NOT SUBURBANITES.
Perhaps neither vision is truly possible — at least, not in our lifetimes. But the debate has been given a sharp immediacy by the city's near-crippling housing crisis, which has sent home prices and rents soaring.
The debate may not reach its apogee until March, when the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative will go before voters. That measure seeks to limit development by curtailing so-called "spot zoning," the practice of giving construction projects special exemptions from the city planning code. It's being backed by a group calling itself the Coalition to Preserve L.A. (funded, controversially, by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation). They, of course, are the preservationists, and they're opposed by the urbanists. THERE IS NO EVIDENCE THAT OPPOSITION TO SPOT-ZONING AND SPOT-LEGISLATIVE ACTIONS HAS ANYTHING TO DO WITH BE A PRESERVATIONIST.  THE PRESERVATIONISTS ARE CENTERED IN THE CONSERVANCY AND THEIR FOCUS IS HISTORICAL PRESERVATION.
Meanwhile, Build Better L.A. is somewhere in the middle. Like the Coalition to Preserve L.A., it seeks to paint developers — or at least some of them — as the enemy. Hence the protest against Geoff Palmer.
But instead of trying to halt development (ANOTHER WHOPPER. THE NEIGHBORHOOD INTEGRITY INITIATIVE ONLY SEEKS TO STOP UN-PLANNED DEVELOPMENT, THAT IS PROJECTS THAT ARE ILLEGAL UNTIL THE CITY COUNCIL MAKES THEM LEGAL THROUGH SPECIAL, PARCEL SPECIFIC ZONE CHANGES, HEIGHT DISTRICT CHANGES, AND/OR GENERAL PLAN AMENDMENTS), it seeks to gain concessions from developers. It proposes to let developers construct apartment buildings taller than the planning code currently allows for, on two conditions: One, that the projects devote a certain number of units to affordable housing; and two, that they pay their workers according to something called the "area wage standard."  THEY ALREADY DO THE FIRST THROUGH S.B. 1818.
It's being backed by an unusual coalition of labor unions and affordable-housing advocates. They're all for density — as long as they get something out of it.
"Build Better L.A. says, in a situation where the city is giving value to developers, we want something back," says Alan Greenlee, executive director of the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing, which represents the builders of affordable housing. "The private sector is not engaged in a material way in solving the affordable housing crisis. They're not building for poor people. Build Better L.A. brings the private sector to bear on the problem."
Developers, of course, see things differently. They don't see spot zoning as a gift bestowed on them by the city. They see it as a necessary, if imperfect, remedy to the city's obsolete planning code, which nearly everyone (including Mayor Eric Garcetti) thinks is in desperate need of an overhaul.  WHAT IS OBSOLETE ABOUT THE PLANNING CODE IS THAT THE AUTHOR IS CONFUSING IT WITH THE GENERAL PLAN.   IT IS THE PLAN’S INFLATED POPULATION NUMBERS THAT ARE THE PROBLEM, NOT L.A.’S EXISTING ZONING, WHICH WAS COMPLETELY REVIEWED IN THE LATE 1980S AND EARLY 1990S THROUGH THE A.B. 283 ZONING CONSISTENCY PROGRAM. WHEN THE A.B. 283 PROCESS FINISHED IN ABOUT 1991, IT CALCULATED THAT THE RESULTING ZONING CODE COULD ACCOMMODATE 5,000,000 ADDITIONAL PEOPLE.  THE FRAMEWORK WROTE THAT THIS IS ENOUGH BUILD OUT POTENTIAL TO SUSTAIN ALL GROWTH SCENARIOS THROUGH THE 21ST CENTURY.
"We shouldn't be using inefficiencies in the system as a way of creating affordable housing," says Mott Smith, a developer. "We should just create affordable housing."  BUT, TO CREATE AFFORDABLE HOUSING IT IS NECESSARY TO REINSTATE FEDERAL PROGRAMS THAT WERE CUT TO PAY FOR THE VIETNAM AND SUBSEQUENT WARS.  TO USE LYNDON JOHNSON’S WORDS, IT IS NECESSARY TRADE-OFF BETWEEN GUNS AND BUTTER.
As for the backers of Build Better L.A., Smith says: "It's clear the people they're really serving are the people who build this stuff, not the people who live in this stuff."
Though most of Build Better L.A.'s campaign will focus on the creation of affordable housing, it's the unions that are paying for its campaign — which has a nearly $1 million war chest — and it's construction workers who likely have the most to gain from its passage.
"It's literally an initiative written by labor," says David Abel, publisher of urban planning trade publication The Planning Report. "It's a gift from the L.A. County Fed to their craft unions, who rarely get much from the Federation."

Rusty Hicks was an unlikely choice to be the head of the powerful union umbrella group known as the L.A. County Federation of Labor. His predecessor was Maria Elena Durazo, a short, charismatic organizer who came from the hotel workers union. She succeeded her late husband, Miguel Contreras, a wily kingmaker who turned Southern California's labor movement into a political dynamo.

Hicks is different. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, he's a political strategist. He has no natural connection to the labor movement; it's just where he ended up after running a few state assembly campaigns and running Assemblyman Ted Lieu's district office. He's been working for the County Fed since 2007, and he's run it since January 2015.
His first big fight was getting the city's minimum wage raised to $15 an hour, a task he achieved with startling efficiency. The victory was somewhat soured, however, after Hicks tried, at the last minute, to insert a clause into the bill absolving union labor from the new wage standard.
It was a strange provision, one that appeared to be "a weapon to pressure companies to unionize," in the words of the USA Today editorial board. After a sharp backlash, labor withdrew the opt-out provision, and the minimum-wage law passed (it will be phased in over the next four years).

For Hicks, the episode, which made national news (even Gawker took a jab at the County Fed, writing, "You are the shittiest labor leaders I ever heard of!"), still stings.

When asked about it by L.A. Weekly, he says, his languid cadence tightening a bit, "Well, the last time I commented on that particular moment in time, I think it was May the 26th of 2015. So you'd have to go back and look at my previous comments on that particular issue because I've got nothing else to say about it."
He says he doesn't remember what media outlet he said it to. But the date still sticks in his mind. In fact, he appears to have spoken with a group of journalists, including former L.A. Weekly reporter Gene Maddaus, on May 29, saying, "I take responsibility. ... I always assumed, incorrectly, that this standard legal language [would be included]. ... I assumed wrong."

Even before the minimum-wage law passed, Hicks says, he saw that the housing issue was becoming a crisis.
"We were hearing so many stories about how it didn't matter how high the wage went, that rents were moving faster than wages were ever going to move," he says. "And that addressing the housing conversation was the logical next step."
Los Angeles is often declared the nation's most unaffordable city in which to live. According to the rental website ApartmentList.com, the average cost to rent a two-bedroom apartment is the seventh highest in the country. Meanwhile, the city's wages remain well behind those in more expensive cities such as San Francisco and New York. And L.A. has the highest poverty rate — nearly 16 percent — of any big city in America.

That's why there are so many homeless people sleeping on the streets.
But the housing crunch has other knock-on effects. For instance, more people are sharing apartments, sometimes in cramped conditions.
"People are doubling up in buildings, which is bad for health," Greenlee says. "Or they're moving out to Riverside or San Bernardino. Have you seen the 10 West in the morning? It's a fucking nightmare."
Traffic also has helped to push the politics of housing to the forefront of voters' minds.
"It wasn't too many years ago that the most important issue to most voters was transportation," says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh School of Politics at USC. "There seems to be a dawning realization that you can't fix the transportation problem until you fix the housing crisis."

Build Better L.A. Coalition organized a protest against prolific local developer Geoff
Palmer at his new Medici apartments near downtown.
Soqui
Developers have a simple solution to the housing crisis: Build more, and build taller. Flood the market with supply, and the prices will drop. Traffic will get worse, sure, but then more people will use public transit.  THERE IS NO EVIDENCE FOR THEIR CLAIM, THAT MORE LUXURY HOUSING CREATES AFFORDABLE HOUSING IN LOS ANGELES EITHER THROUGH TRICKLE DOWN, CALLED FILTERING, OR BY REDUCING THE PRICE ON NON-LUXURY HOUSING TO CREATE AFFORDABLE HOUSING.

The approach has some pitfalls. Newer housing tends to be more expensive than older housing. And at a neighborhood level, new housing can displace lower-income tenants.
A study from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found that while "both market-rate and subsidized housing development can reduce displacement pressures ... subsidized housing is twice as effective as market-rate development at the regional level." In other words, to prevent displacement, you need to build affordable housing.
During the New Deal, the federal government built public housing projects to house people who couldn't otherwise afford a home. For example, Jordan Downs, in Watts, was built by the government, first as veterans housing, and is now run by the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles. Nearly 22,000 Angelenos live in public housing, paying an average rent of $352 a month.
Nearly 90,000 Angelenos receive rent vouchers, also known as Section 8, a program where the tenants pay 30 percent of their income in rent and the federal government covers the rest. That program, created in 1974, serves more than 2 million Americans, although it has been drastically cut over the years. In most cities there is a long waiting list to enroll, and more and more landlords are refusing to accept Section 8 tenants, especially in Los Angeles, where the amount of money the housing department pays isn't enough to cover the cost of most rental units.
In Los Angeles, 4,464 people are on the Section 8 waiting list — a list that has been closed to new applicants since 2004.
In 2004, the California Legislature passed SB 1818, a law that grants density bonuses to developers, allowing them to build up to 35 percent more units per square foot of lot size than the planning code allows if they set aside a number of units as affordable. In the last three years, density bonuses have created nearly 1,000 affordable units in L.A.      YET, ACCORDING TO JOHN SCHWADA’S  RESEARCH, THERE IS LITTLE EVIDENCE THAT THESE 1000 RESIDENTS ARE OCCUPIED BY LOW INCOME PEOPLE.  IT IS REALLY JUST A WAY FOR INVESTORS IN RESIDENTIAL PROPERTY TO GET A BACKDOOR VARIANCE, AS WELL AS MORE RENTABLE UNITS.
Proposition JJJ would, in effect, act as a density bonus law on steroids. Projects built within a half-mile radius of a "major transit stop" (light rail and certain bus stops) could be built taller and denser than the zoning code allows for — in theory, as tall as the developer wants (though in practice the height would be limited by the planning commission) — as long as the project fulfills a number of requirements.
First, the building would have to reserve 15 percent of all of its units for lower-income residents — those earning 80 percent of the area's median income. Of that 15 percent, some units would be reserved for even lower-income residents. Developers also could choose to pay money into an affordable-housing trust fund, in lieu of building affordable units.  AN INTERESTING CHANGE. AFFORDABLE HOUSING IS 60 PERCENT OF THE MEDIAN INCOME, NOT 80 PERCENT.  MAYBE THIS IS WHY THEY USE THE TERM LOW INCOME.
The project also would have to meet certain work requirements. All workers would have to be paid what Hicks calls an "area wage standard" — something akin to a prevailing wage, which would be set by the city. There are a plethora of other work requirements — at least 30 percent of the workers would have to live in Los Angeles.
And, crucially, at least 60 percent of the workers would have to have completed a "joint labor management" apprenticeship program — which all construction union members have — or have enough hours of on-the-job experience required to have graduated the program.
In practice, most of the people who qualify for either of these two provisions would be union members.
It is, in short, a very long (more than 10,000 words) and complicated law.
"You gotta be a planning guru to understand it," says city budget watchdog Jack Humphreville, a self-described "uber gadfly" and "professional bellyacher." "And even then, you have problems."
When the City Council passes a bill, it can amend the law at anytime. But a ballot measure, passed directly by the voters, can only be amended by another ballot measure. Which is what makes them so dangerous. Build Better L.A. has a sunset provision for this very reason — the law will cease to exist 10 years after going into effect.   BUT THE CITY COUNCIL RESERVES AT LEAST ONE PRIVILEGE.  IT CAN REDUCE THE AFFORDABLE/LOW-INCOME HOUSING COMPONENT IF A DEVELOP COMPLAINS THAT 15 PERCENT REDUCES HIS OR HER PROFIT TOO MUCH. NO CRITERIA ARE GIVEN, SO THE COUNCIL WILL HAVE TOTAL FREEDOM TO ADJUST THE AFFORDABLE HOUSING REQUIREMENT WHEN AND WHERE IT WANTS.
But until then, any unforeseen consequence would be impossible to weed out without another ballot measure.
The dual nature of the law is designed to follow the dual nature of L.A.'s unaffordability problem — housing and wages. Which means the law has two constituencies — affordable-housing advocates and labor.
"It's certainly a broad coalition," says Harold Meyerson, executive editor of The American Prospect. "If it were just construction unions, it wouldn't stand a chance in hell of passing."  It also has two sets of critics.

First there are the preservationists. They support the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative and regard new development as the enemy, a tool for displacing low-income tenants.  THIS IS TOTAL NONSENSE.  THE NEIGHBORHOOD INTEGRITY INTIATIVE SUPPORTERS MAY OVERLAP WITH PRESERVATIONISTS, BUT THAT IS NOT THEIR FOCUS SINCE PLANNED DEVELOPMENT IS THEIR FOCUS.  THEY HAVE MADE IT CLEAR AGAIN AND AGAIN THAT NEARLY ALL PROJECTS SUBMITTED TO LADBS WILL GO THROUGH THE CITY’S APPROVAL PROCESS WITHOUT DIFFICULTIES.  THE ONLY ONES FACING PROBLEMS ARE THOSE PROJECTS THAT WANT THE ZONING AND/OR GENERAL PLAN DESIGNATION AND/HEIGHT DISTRICT CHANGES FOR AN INDIVIDUAL PARCEL.
Elizabeth Blaney is co–executive director for Union de Vecinos, a tenants-rights group based in Boyle Heights. She says Build Better L.A. will create very little affordable housing, and doesn't give priority to tenants whose buildings are torn down to make way for new construction.
"Those tenants who are there, they need to have the right to come back," she says. "Otherwise, they're just being displaced." And, she adds, "It still allows for the demolition of rent-control housing."
But most of Build Better L.A.'s opponents come from the other side of the ideological spectrum — developers, business groups and urbanists who favor a more freewheeling densification.
"The initiative states, as its goal, to create affordable housing," says Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association. "In reality, it's a handout for unionized labor. It will mean increased labor costs, which will mean higher housing costs. Which adds to the problem."
It's unclear just how many future projects Build Better L.A. would affect. Large scale projects — the ones with hundreds of units, which take enormous cranes to build — already use union labor. Smaller projects of between 20 and 100 units, however, would likely see their costs increase (buildings with fewer than 10 units would be exempted from Proposition JJJ).
To this point, Hicks says: "I would probably disagree with the viewpoint that paying a qualified workforce to construct a project necessarily results in the project being more expensive and less affordable."
But a study from the UC Berkeley Program on Housing and Policy, published in 2005, concluded that a prevailing-wage law (which is similar but not identical to Hicks' "area wage standard) would increase the costs of projects by 10 to 35 percent.
Even Greenlee says smaller projects would see their labor costs "significantly increase" if Proposition JJJ passes.
"I do think there's some reason for concern in that context," Greenlee admits.
Developers say that California's panoply of building regulations and environmental laws — particularly the California Environmental Quality Act, which allows anyone to file a lawsuit against a development — serve to slow down individual developments for years. That means investors don't get their money back for years. Which means they demand an even greater return. Which incentivizes larger, more profitable projects — i.e., luxury towers, the very thing that the protest at the Medici was aimed at.
"We've demonized developers and made it so difficult to build, so that the only people who can develop are the developers we hate the most," says Shane Phillips, an urban planner. "We scared away all the little guys. [Build Better L.A.] is one more step in that direction, and that bothers me." IF A PROJECT BUILDS ACCORDING TO THE CODE, IT EITHER IS TOTALLY EXEMPT FROM CEQA OR IT WILL QUALIFY FOR A MITIGATED NEGATIVE DECLARATION (MND).