Multistory residential buildings going up in downtown, Hollywood and other Los Angeles neighborhoods have been hailed by backers as a way to ease the city's housing crunch while getting more people to live close to public transit.
But increasingly, those projects have also sparked a backlash from community groups who say those developments are too big, cause too much traffic congestion and stray from the city's planning rules.
Now, L.A. voters might get a chance to decide the issue.
A group of Los Angeles activists said Wednesday that it wants voters to crack down on real estate “mega developments” by putting limits on changes to city planning rules that can be granted for such projects. The Coalition to Preserve L.A. said its proposed ballot measure would establish a moratorium of up to two years for any development project that requires a City Council vote to increase the number of housing units allowed on a particular site.
The proposal also would make it more difficult for local politicians to amend the city's general plan, which spells out the city's policies on growth, for individual development projects. The measure, called the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, is being targeted for the November 2016 election.
The stakes for such a referendum would be high. Mayor Eric Garcetti, in an attempt to address the rising cost of rents, has promised to add 100,000 housing units by 2021 in Los Angeles, considered one of the least affordable rental markets in the country. By putting housing near rail and bus lines, city officials also hope to get more Angelenos out of their cars.
To critics, the burst of multistory residential buildings is undermining their quality of life. They say many of those projects were approved because elected officials granted exceptions to the city's planning requirements — or changed the
general plan for a single project.
“Planning and zoning is meant to maintain the integrity of communities,” said Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. “And what's happening in Los Angeles — in Hollywood, in downtown and other areas — is destroying the character of communities.”
The foundation, already known for its success in qualifying proposals for state and local ballots, is a key member of the coalition looking to rewrite the city's planning rules. Although its most high-profile policy initiative is its push to require condom use at adult film shoots, the group is also waging a campaign against the Palladium Residences, two 30-story residential towers planned for Hollywood.
Weinstein said the 731-unit Palladium project, like many being planned or approved in the area, is too tall for its surroundings and will add to the neighborhood's traffic and parking woes.
The Palladium project cannot be built without a change in zoning and an amendment to the general plan. The AIDS foundation's headquarters are next to the project site.
Backers of the ballot proposal say the city's elected leaders repeatedly make exceptions to city laws in hopes of satisfying developers, who in turn provide them with campaign contributions. Opposition groups have persuaded judges to invalidate approvals of a handful of projects in Hollywood, including the Millennium skyscraper project.
“This is a ‘Please obey the law' initiative, in my view,” said Miki Jackson, an AIDS Healthcare Foundation consultant who lives in Highland Park. “We want the City Council to obey the existing process.”
City Councilman Mitch O'Farrell said he has been working to limit the scale of development in some locations, winning approval of more restrictive height limits in sections of Echo Park and Elysian Valley. But he argued that denser development makes sense in the Hollywood section of his district, which has a series of subway stops and Rapid bus lines.
“This ballot measure is bad for L.A., and bad for the economy,” he said. “It's bad for transit-oriented neighborhoods. It will also cost thousands of good-paying jobs.”
Other critics of the proposal also voiced alarm, saying it would prevent much-needed apartments and condos from being built.
“We have a housing crisis, and this would make the problem worse,” said Mark Vallianatos, policy director of Occidental College's Urban and Environmental Policy Institute, and an advocate for “upzoning” — increasing the number of homes that may be approved on a particular street.
Developer Mott Smith agreed that the city's practice of granting exceptions for development projects is problematic. But he said the reason City Hall gives so many exceptions is that it relies on an outdated suburban model for such decisions. The ballot measure, he added, “would basically stop residential development, except at the smallest scale” over a two-year period.
Under the proposal, the moratorium would be lifted more quickly if city officials show they have updated various “community plans,” documents that spell out how individual neighborhoods may be developed.
Backers will need 61,486 valid signatures to qualify the proposal for the ballot, according to an official in the City Clerk's office. If they prevail, the council would need to decide whether to adopt the proposal as an ordinance or put it on a future ballot.
The ballot coalition has supporters from groups in Hollywood, Koreatown, Mid-Wilshire and other parts of the city. But proponents spent much of their time Wednesday discussing real estate projects in Hollywood. Ged Kenslea, a spokesman for the foundation and the ballot campaign, said the Palladium project is one of several that are “destroying the quality of life and increasing the Manhattanization of Hollywood.”
Jamarah Harris, spokeswoman for the Palladium project, said the two residential towers are supported by more than 3,000 Hollywood residents.
“We find it deeply puzzling that the AIDS Healthcare Foundation is straying so far from its core mission, spending its resources on a misguided political battle that's entirely inconsistent with what the community wants,” she said.
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