Newly proposed rules meant to smooth the way for vetting big developments in Los Angeles are stirring up alarm among community groups that say the plan doesn't do enough to protect poor households or small businesses from being displaced.
Planning officials say the rules would simplify — but not shorten — the review process for large, complicated projects, allowing planners to focus on the merits of a development instead of "the minutiae of navigating through obscure code provisions," according to a planning department report.
The change would create a new, alternative and customizable zoning classification that developers could apply for when building big, "campus-like" projects that don't fit easily within existing zones.
Instead of having to ask permission to make a long list of adjustments from codes written for simpler developments, developers would make an overarching case for their projects, listing their desired building heights, floor areas and other details and how and why they would differ from current regulations.
Planning officials said that under the alternative process, big developments would still need to be vetted by the city planning commission and approved by the City Council and would also have to submit an environmental impact report, in addition to several other plans not required if the same projects went through the ordinary process.
The alternative zone would be available only to complex projects with three or more buildings that would sit on at least five acres. Ten upcoming projects are believed to be eligible, according to a staff analysis. The planning commission voted 5 to 2 Thursday in favor of the ordinance, which still must be approved by the council.
Officials with Los Angeles World Airports, which includes LAX, Ontario and other local airports, cheered the plan, saying in a letter that the "current archaic and cumbersome zoning code can sometimes serve as an inhibitor to progress" on airport projects. The Valley Industry & Commerce Assn. also voiced its support Thursday, saying L.A. has lacked consistent ways to assess big projects.
But other groups have pushed against the idea, arguing that the existing plan does too little to protect affordable housing and ensure that communities benefit from big developments.
"The city is creating this entirely new, special program for large developments and promising that it will provide public benefit," said Doug Smith of Public Counsel, a nonprofit law firm focused on economic-justice issues. "But as it stands, the ordinance doesn't have all the tools to make sure that occurs."
Nearly two dozen community groups and nonprofits, including Public Counsel and Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, penned a December letter arguing that the rules should require all such projects to submit plans to minimize or prevent the displacement of poor residents and small businesses and sign development agreements that could spell out community benefits.
They also contend that the new rules would do too little to promote affordable housing. In some cases, they argue, the zoning change could end up discouraging some big projects from seeking a bonus that allows extra density in exchange for more affordable housing, by allowing high density for big projects converted from industrial to residential use.
The proposed new zone "is nothing but an accelerated gentrification ordinance," Thelmy Perez, coordinator of the L.A. Human Right to Housing Collective, argued before the commission Thursday.
In light of those concerns, Commissioner Maria Cabildo asked Thursday if the proposal could restrict density more tightly in order to nudge big developments toward the affordable-housing bonus. Raising similar worries, Commissioner Marta Segura questioned whether the city could also require a study of how major developments would affect neighborhood stability.
Planning officials rejected those ideas, arguing that adding more requirements would discourage developers from pursuing the alternative process at all. Cabildo and Segura were the only commissioners to vote against the zone Thursday.
Critics also questioned why the city is pressing to adopt the plan before it finishes reexamining all of its zoning rules — a sweeping project known as Recode LA. In response, deputy planning director Alan Bell said that those broader changes are still at least five years away.
"This is way too complicated to throw into that huge pot," said senior city planner Tom Rothmann. "We need this today."