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What's Measure S? A breakdown of the ballot measure to restrict development

The biggest issue facing Los Angeles voters on March 7 is Measure S, which would dramatically remake the city’s planning rules.

The ballot measure seeks to rein in development and determine where new projects — condo towers, office buildings, and more — can be built. Land use is a complicated subject, so we’re going to explain the measure.

What would Measure S do?

First, it would put a two-year moratorium on development projects that need a zone change, height district change or General Plan amendment. Those changes are typically needed to build projects larger than what existing rules permit.  

The measure also targets General Plan amendments by drastically reducing the city’s ability to change city planning rules for a single project. For example, a developer looking to build a residential tower on a piece of property designated for industrial use would no longer be able to do so. 

Additionally, all General Plan amendments would no longer be allowed for smaller geographical areas, or those not defined by specific planning boundaries.

As it is now, City Hall routinely grants zone and height district changes, and General Plan amendments for housing, commercial buildings and other projects.

Wait, what’s the General Plan?

The General Plan is the city’s overall guidebook for land use. It includes 35 community plans, which govern building rules for each neighborhood. The Venice Community Plan, for example, calls for low-rise buildings along commercial areas such as Abbot Kinney Boulevard.

The measure comes as the city has failed to regularly update its community plans to keep up with changing real estate and transportation patterns. That’s prompted developers to seek zone changes and other deviations from planning rules.

Got it. So what types of development would be affected by Measure S?

Housing complexes, office buildings, private schools, museums, stores, and any other type of development that seek to use the changes targeted by Measure S.

Those types of projects could still be built if the ballot measure passes, but only in areas where such development adheres to existing land use rules.

OK. Would there be any exemptions to these new rules?

Yes. Projects with 100% affordable housing that apply for a zone or height change but don’t seek a General Plan amendment would be exempt.

Developments with protected rights to build or those that require construction for safety reasons or because of a natural disaster could also go forward.

Now, opponents argue that the exemption for affordable housing is meaningless because those types of projects frequently require General Plan amendments. Measure S would dramatically affect the city’s plan to build 10,000 units of affordable housing, an initiative backed by voters last fall, opponents say.

In response, Measure S supporters contend the city can continue to allow housing for homeless people in residential and commercial zones.

Is there anything that would lift the moratorium and the General Plan amendment ban?

Yes. Those restrictions would be lifted if the project adheres to the respective community plan. 

Supporters argue that Measure S would force the city to focus on updating its community plans, rather than spend city resources on approving developments that need zoning changes or amendments.

Opponents counter that because it takes years to update a community plan — the process involves performing numerous studies — Measure S could halt some development for 10 years or longer.

Keep in mind that an updated community plan doesn’t necessarily end disagreements about development. The city's new Hollywood Community Plan resulted in several lawsuits from groups concerned about more density in the Hollywood area.

OK. So, what else would Measure S do?

The measure states that the city can’t reduce parking in a development by more than one-third from the number of spaces that current rules allow.

Developers argue that parking is expensive to build, and the city shouldn’t require so many parking spots. The city sometimes lowers parking regulations for developments, which can anger groups who say new residents will park in their neighborhood.

Critics contend the parking provision in Measure S could make it harder for affordable housing and senior housing to be built because those types of projects can rely on reduced parking.

The measure also would require the city or one of its approved consultants to perform an environmental impact report for a development. Such reports, which analyze the traffic caused by a new apartment building, for instance, are now done by developers.

Opponents argue the issue of environmental impact reports was addressed earlier this month by a new law backed by the City Council. The law states that only city-approved consultants can write those reports.

Finally, the measure would force the city to review its community plans every five years. 

All right. So, how much development would be affected by Measure S?

First off, developers routinely build hotels, apartments and other large projects in Los Angeles and don’t seek a General Plan amendment, zone change or height change for their projects. Measure S would have no impact on those types of developments.

But supporters and opponents disagree about the effect of Measure S, however, and have used different metrics to calculate how much development would be affected.

Supporters argue that the ballot measure would only affect about 5% of projects.

Abundant Housing L.A., an advocacy group that opposes Measure S, predicts 22,000 units in the planning pipeline won’t be constructed if Measure S passes. 

Who supports and who opposes Measure S?

AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Los Angeles Tenants Union, Federation of Hillside and Canyon Assns., Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. and former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan are among those supporting Measure S.

The opponents include United Way of Greater Los Angeles, Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, labor groups, homeless advocacy groups, and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.

dakota.smith@latimes.com

Twitter: @dakotacdsmith

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UPDATES:

3:10 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information about the City Council’s action on environmental impact reports.

This article was first posted at 3 a.m.

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