By Dick Platkin*
“Look ma, no cars at one of the most congested intersections in Los Angeles.”
Several weeks ago in Can the Cheap Perfume of "Approve with Conditions" Mask the Stink of Bad Planning? I explained how the real purpose of lengthy “conditions of approval” for large, controversial real estate projects, like 333 S. LaCienega, is to neutralize community opposition. These endless promises are intended to defuse challenges to mega-projects, like the one pictured above in a shorter form than proposed. These promises, transformed into “conditions of approval,” are nearly worthless, but often succeed in persuading neighborhood critics to drop their opposition to bad projects.
This sordid process thrives in Los Angeles because decision makers routinely approve controversial projects once they receive campaign contributions and once community opposition has been sidelined by developer promises. In these situations, the decision makers never bother to ask such obvious planning-related questions as:
- Does the project conform to the very plans and zones that the City Planning Commission and the City Council legally enacted after an extensive preparation and adoption process?
- Does the design of the proposed project match the character and scale of surrounding residential areas, as required by the City Council-adopted Community Plans, as well as the design guidelines now included in the General Plan Framework Element?
- Do public infrastructure and public services have sufficient capacity – per Framework Policy 3.3 -- to meet future user demand stemming from the approved project?
- Will the project’s Environmental Impact Report conclusions be monitored and updated once the City Council adopts approval ordinances?
- Will project approvals be phased, ensuring that later phases are contingent on certified compliance with the original Conditions of Approval?
- Will a developer’s multiple promises to community groups and elected officials, such as job generation and transit ridership, be accurately and regularly monitored?
- Will there be real-world consequences, such as revocation of certificates of occupancy or partial demolition of structures, if promises are not kept?
Because these obvious questions are never asked, the legislative actions, such as spot-zoning, blocked by Measure S, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, predictably lead to truly bad city planning. For example, the proposed luxury high rise at the former Loehman’s site – 333 S. LaCienega -- perfectly illustrates how these bad planning practices proliferate in Los Angeles, with cascading adverse consequences. Consider the following:
· Clash with character and scale of nearby areas: As should be obvious the rendering above, this project does not comply with the legally required General Plan findings that the structure be consistent with the scale and character of the neighborhood’s residential area. More specifically, the project will be 240 feet high and have a Floor Area Ratio/FAR (i.e., building mass) of 6.0 on a lot where height is restricted to 45 feet and building mass is limited to an FAR of 1.5. As for compatible character, the proposed tower has a nautical design, reminiscent of a cruise ship, while the surrounding residential buildings have Spanish Revival architecture. Admittedly, a cruise boat might come in handy when massive earthquakes and climate-change induced sea-level rises permanently flood the greater Fairfax area, but for now this nautical design is totally at odds with the area’s character.
· Traffic congestion: The project is located at one of the most congested intersections in Los Angeles. Called the Bermuda Triangle, the site is the convergence point of San Vicente Boulevard, Third Street, LaCienega Boulevard, Burton Way, and LeDoux. No combination of street signs, signal lights, and traffic officers has managed to keep this intersection clear during rush hours, and the construction of an auto-centric luxury tower at this location can only make a bad traffic situation worse.
· Unconvincing public necessity: Los Angeles City Charter, Section 558, clearly states that to qualify for General Plan Amendments and zone changes, a project must conform to public necessity, convenience, general welfare, and good zoning practice. In this case, the tenants will be extremely rich, paying an average rent of $12,000 per month for lavish apartments in a building with five star amenities, including on-call luxury cars and drivers. These are certainly wonderful features for the 1 percent who can afford them, but the Wilshire Community Plan area has no demonstrated shortage of parcels that can accommodate such luxury apartments. The use of spot-zoning and spot-planning to jack up a 45-foot height limit to 240 feet may meet a private need to maximize profit, but it does not meet any public need. There is no public necessity for a spot-General Plan Amendment and spot-Zone Change to build a luxury apartment tower where it is strictly illegal and unwarranted.
· Poor Zoning Practices eliminate certainty: The related City Charter finding of good zoning practice is also sharply at odds with this project. The City Council must take three separate actions to legalize this project: a spot-zone change, a spot-height district change, and a spot-General Plan Amendment. Not only is City Charter Section 555 clear that these legislative actions must apply to socially and geographically significant areas (i.e., not single parcels), but these poor planning practices totally eliminate certainty from the planning process. When individuals, families, or companies move into an area, they have clear expectations of what can be legally built near their homes and businesses. But, spot-zoning completely removes this certainty. Cities like Los Angeles then become the Wild West. Spot-zoning through a City Council vote to permit a 240 foot high rise tower where 45 feet is the law eliminates all predictability from the planning process. The zones and plan designations that people assumed about their neighborhood when they moved in can vanish at the snap of a deep-pocketed developer’s fingers.
· Affordable housing hype: The project claims that it needs a major economic incentive, much greater building mass, to accommodate large luxury apartments, through LA’s Density Bonus Ordinance. More specifically, the developer intends to replace 13 of 145 luxury apartments with low-income units to build a much larger building. Yet the developer has owned this building site for many years and has virtually no land acquisition costs. In this case, LA’s genuine need for more affordable housing has become a thin cover story for the construction of 130 luxury rental apartments where less than half of that figure is legally permitted.
· Misuse of on and off-site improvements: The project’s conditions of approval, as voted by the City Planning Commission and the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Committee, include adjacent street trees, bicycle infrastructure, and a quasi-public fountain. Yet in nearby Los Angeles and Beverly Hills neighborhoods, there are many existing pedestrian-oriented projects and corridors. Some have been built and operated as basic municipal services, not as extensions of mega-projects. Others are linked to by-right buildings that conform to plans and zones, and that do not need City Council spot-zoning rescue ordinances to usher in public improvements.
· Bad Precedents: To justify height and mass far above legal limits, the project invokes other nearby buildings that exceed 45 feet. Yet, most of these over-height buildings also required spot-zoning approval from elected officials to be built. For example, one of these projects, across the street, at 8500 Burton Way, is a prototype for this project and owned by the same developer. Yet, when it was permitted, its neighbors were told it would not become a precedent for more ad hoc zone changes and general plan amendments. Nevertheless, the genie is out of the bottle. If the City Council eventually approves 333 S. LaCienega, it is only a question of time until nearby property owners make parallel requests. They will quickly realize that similar zone changes and General Plan amendments can green light more lavish and lucrative high-rise apartment towers on their properties.
The take away from this case study is that a few poor planning practices eventually open up the flood gates for more more bad decisions. Their cumulative impact is municipal demise, but good planning practices can move a city in the opposite direction. Los Angeles can still become the progressive, highly livable city that most of residents and visitors truly desire. It might even eventually become the global city that its City Hall boosters magically believe can be achieved through real estate speculation.
* Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles City Planner and also a Board Member of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association. He welcomes comments and corrections at firstname.lastname@example.org.