L.A. officials push for new steps to address health risks from homebuilding near freeways

In a new push to address health risks from a surge in residential construction near freeways, Los Angeles officials have requested a study of development restrictions, design standards and other steps to protect residents from traffic pollution.

Planning, transportation and other officials should prepare “strategies to address the hazard of freeway pollution affecting residents of new and existing structures,” according to a motion filed this week by councilmen Jose Huizar and Paul Koretz. These could include buffer zones and barriers, air filtration requirements and regulations on building design.

The proposal cites a recent Los Angeles Times story that found the city keeps approving homes in high-pollution zones near freeways despite more than a decade of warnings from air quality regulators and scientists.

“I think it’s about time,” said Huizar, who represents a district stretching from downtown to Eagle Rock. “We’ve had report after report … about how living next to a freeway is detrimental to people’s health. We need to have a comprehensive study.”

More than 1.2 million people in Southern California already live within 500 feet of a freeway and suffer from higher rates of asthma, cancer, heart attacks, preterm births and a growing list of other health problems, according to the Times story, which analyzed U.S. Census data, building permits and other government records.

And the population is growing as Los Angeles and other cities approve thousands of homes within 500 feet of freeways, where California air quality officials have since 2005 advised against placing more residents.

Mayor Eric Garcetti said Friday that he supports Huizar’s plan to explore new regulations for development near freeways.

“We should look at both zoning requirements and technology to ensure that people who live in housing always live healthy,” Garcetti said. “I grew up next two freeways during leaded gasoline days. My family’s experienced cancer. We had a cancer cluster on our street, so I’m very personally sensitive to this. So absolutely. Whether it’s through spacing, or through technology and ventilation, we should be looking at ways of protecting Angelenos.”

Garcetti and other local politicians have opposed limits on how many homes can be built near freeways, arguing that such restrictions are impractical and will hinder efforts to ease a severe housing shortage.

Any discussion about new development regulations must include developers of affordable and market-rate housing, said Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn., a business group based in the San Fernando Valley. New restrictions, he said, have the potential to “devalue land and make it harder to build.”

“Anything that restricts the opportunity to build increases housing costs,” Waldman added.

Huizar’s proposal calls for the analysis to “consider the competing concerns of our current housing affordability crisis and the potential impact of limits to development near freeways.”

Los Angeles officials began considering the issue several years ago in response to mounting science linking traffic pollution to an array of illnesses, including childhood obesity, autism and dementia. In 2012 the planning department began sending health advisories to developers who filed applications to build housing within 1,000 feet of a freeway. About 600,0000 Angelenos lived that close to a freeway in 2010, according to Times analysis of U.S. Census data.

Those developers were informed that city officials had the power, in certain instances, to impose anti-pollution measures, such as changes in building designs to situate residents away from traffic, windows that do not open or additional trees and shrubs to provide barriers. But such modifications are not required.

Los Angeles officials, faced with continued development near freeways, went further last year, changing the building code to require enhanced air filtration systems in new homes within 1,000 feet of a freeway.

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City officials have faced criticism from neighborhood groups and environmentalists for continuing to approve freeway-adjacent apartment projects, including some with balconies directly overlooking traffic.

Cities have broad land-use authority and could limit home construction near freeways to protect public health if they wanted to, according to legal experts. Los Angeles officials have so far focused on improving air filtration, building design and vehicle emissions.

That doesn’t go far enough, health advocates and air quality regulators say, in part because it will take many years for stricter vehicle emissions standards to phase in and reduce health risks. Putting space between people and pollution through development restrictions, they say, is the only sure-fire protection.

“Until everyone drives electric cars, we need to stop building houses next to freeways,” said Joseph Lyou, a member of the South Coast Air Quality Management District board who heads the Coalition for Clean Air. He praised Huizar “for taking this public health issue seriously.”

Huizar said he wants city officials to develop a long-term approach to the issue by examining such options as regulations supporting electric cars and buffer zones that keep new housing a specific distance away from freeway.

Over the past decade, Huizar’s district has seen new multistory housing go up near freeways in downtown, Boyle Heights and elsewhere. One particularly noticeable example, he said, is the Da Vinci, a 526-unit apartment complex completed in 2016 alongside the 101-110 freeway interchange.

That development is too close to the freeway, Huizar said. “I ask myself, what planning policies allowed that to happen?”

tony.barboza@latimes.com

@tonybarboza

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