One of the reasons that L.A.’s progress in building housing and upgrading its civic infrastructure remains so sluggish is that there are certain political and economic tools we’re not allowed to use — reforms we can barely propose, let alone enact. The term of art for one of these off-limits policies, borrowed from the electrified part of a train line, is of course the “third rail,” which is to say that touching them even briefly in a debate about the future of the city, region and state is guaranteed to fry your argument. And maybe your reputation.
The most dangerous third rails in Southern California politics are as follows: the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, passed in 1970; Proposition 13, approved by state voters in 1978, which put a cap on property taxes for certain fortunate homeowners; parking minimums for new construction, which make building housing costly and burdensome, and more broadly the parking supply as a whole; and the single-family residential zoning that blankets large sections of Los Angeles and other big cities.
Because the first two of those rails, CEQA and Proposition 13, have shaped statewide law in California for nearly half a century, they also help us answer one of the most intriguing questions about the politics of land use in Southern California: Why is it that recent attempts to tamp down urban and infrastructural change and define development as out of control have fared so poorly at the ballot (see last year’s Measure S in L.A. and Measure LV in Santa Monica) but so well in court (see the half-built Target on Sunset Boulevard, the star-crossed Hollywood Community Plan, etc.)?
In short: Judges have to answer to CEQA. Voters do not.
(Also: Judges tend to be older than the average California voter and therefore more likely to belong to the generation that passed those two measures in the first place and continues to benefit from them.)
(Oh, and: The Target and Hollywood plan cases have a very skilled attorney in common, Robert P. Silverstein.)
A good rule of thumb is that any story that combines at least two of the third rails is especially explosive, or maybe just especially telling about the land-use paralysis that has gripped much of California since the tax and homeowner revolts of the 1970s.
A recent case in point is a lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles by TPS Parking Century and TPS Parking Management, which run the Parking Spot garages. Filed this month in Los Angeles Superior Court, it alleges that a new traffic-management plan at Los Angeles International Airport violates CEQA. Specifically, the lawsuit charges that the environmental impact report for the plan, which includes a new Metro stop on the edge of LAX as well as a new offsite facility for rental cars, was based on flawed data about traffic patterns, among other problems.
A spokesman for LAX, Trevor Daley, told my colleague Dan Weikel that the legal challenge was “a clear attempt for the Parking Spot to preserve their parking revenue” in facilities near the airport.
This is not a column about the merits of the Parking Spot’s case, whose details involve much parsing of the differences in the airport congestion created by commercial shuttles (like those that carry Parking Spot customers) and services like Uber and Lyft. It is a column about the irony of using the California Environmental Quality Act to protect the interests of a parking franchise at the moment Los Angeles is trying to bring light rail to (or at least very near) LAX.
CEQA’s track record includes an impressive number of victories in support of the “environmental quality” at the center of its name. It has been especially useful in curbing the extension of suburban and exurban housing and other development into environmentally fragile terrain. CEQA defenders will tell you — rightly — that major developers and would-be polluters would be the first to celebrate if it were repealed.
But like Proposition 13, which has given homeowners whose properties have jumped as much as 100 times in value the second windfall of rock-bottom tax rates, CEQA is badly in need of reform. Here’s why: In the 1970s, when the law was young, the development that was shaping Los Angeles most dramatically was the rapid expansion of residential subdivisions and the freeways built to serve them.
Now Southern California’s chief infrastructural investments are united in trying to undo some of that postwar damage. The expansion of Metro, which remains in its earliest phases, and infill development in the region’s heart are both an attempt in macro terms to retrofit the region for less car-dependent, post-suburban future.
To the extent that CEQA remains an attractive and useful vehicle for the opponents of that retrofitting progress — a means of protecting the status quo that voters have repeatedly expressed a desire to move past — the need for reform is self-evident. (Among the victory-lap statements on the website for Silverstein’s law firm is this gem: “Mr. Silverstein prevailed in a CEQA trial against the Gold Line.”) A good place to start would be updating the law to reflect the important differences, in terms of environmental quality, between the kind of construction that boosts mass transit ridership and the efficient use of water and other resources and the kind that promotes sprawl at the urban periphery.
As it stands the law remains an exceedingly blunt instrument for slowing the rate of regional change. It’s easy to see why that goal seemed appealing in its very simplicity in 1970, as the notion of California as a natural paradise was in danger of being buried in the rubble of headlong, heedless new construction.
These days, the most ambitious changes to the built landscape of the region involve digging out from under that rubble, clearing out space for new ways of living in and moving through Southern California. A law that slows that progress in the name of environmental quality is a broken law.