Facing a potentially bruising ballot fight over real estate development next year, Los Angeles' political leaders announced Wednesday that they will seek a sweeping update of the plans that govern the size and density of new buildings that go up in scores of neighborhoods.
Mayor Eric Garcetti and several council members said they want the Planning Department to revise nearly three dozen "community plans" by 2026, a task that will require the hiring of 28 new employees at a cost of $4.2 million a year.
Updating the plans, Garcetti said, will help communities focus on ways of making housing more affordable, improving commutes and protecting the character of residential neighborhoods.
"It's not just a question of if we're going to grow, but how we're going to grow," he said.
The push to change so many plans could intensify a debate over development in Los Angeles — how to build much-needed housing while also addressing complaints from neighborhoods about real estate "mega-projects."
Garcetti said his proposal is not a response to the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which has drafted a ballot proposal for March 2017 that would impose a two-year moratorium on most large-scale developments. But he said the initiative would address a key complaint from that group: that far too many of the planning documents that determine how neighborhoods should develop are out of date.
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation is targeting the city's frequent practice of granting developers increases in height and density — moves that can greatly enhance the value of a piece of property — and exceptions from rules that require a certain amount of parking and open space.
Garcetti says there will be fewer requests for those types of rule changes if the community plans are up to date. Michael Weinstein, the top executive at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, said his group is not impressed with the mayor's proposal — and will press ahead with its ballot measure.
Weinstein said the community plans should be updated over two years, not 10. And updating the neighborhood plans, he added, won't do anything to stop scores of projects already in the pipeline that are seeking breaks from existing planning rules.
"It's basically a plan to close the barn door after all the animals are out," Weinstein said.
Los Angeles has 35 community plans — documents prepared by the Planning Department, in consultation with neighborhoods, and approved by the City Council — covering areas from Wilmington to West Hills. All but six are more than 15 years old.
The moldy state of those plans was called out two years ago by the LA 2020 Commission, a civic group formed to examine L.A.'s most pressing problems. In a report, that panel said the lack of up-to-date neighborhood plans had left developers at the mercy of "special interests, 'nimbyism,' and individual elected officials."
Community plans "set the rules for what can be done in terms of land use" in every community across the city, said Occidental College professor Mark Vallianatos. An update of those plans would help the city confront its need for more housing and respond to the changes that have taken place in many neighborhoods over the last two decades, said Vallianatos, co-founder of the advocacy group Abundant Housing L.A.
"If they do it, they should do it right and look to the future — how many units of housing do we need so that the city isn't so ridiculously expensive? How do we make the city evolve to adapt to climate change? How can we allow more density close to transit?"
Councilman Gil Cedillo, who represents part of the Eastside, said new community plans are needed to ensure "responsible housing production" for working families. But Laura Lake, a board member with the Westside advocacy group Fix the City, said she fears city leaders will use the process to carry out a major "upzoning" of neighborhoods — changing the rules to permit larger development projects.
Such a strategy would not make sense in a city facing rising crime and struggling to address broken sidewalks, abandoned trash and broken water pipes, Lake said.
"Looking at what's on the horizon, I don't know that it would be good to update the plans," Lake added. "I'm very concerned about densification when the infrastructure is collapsing."
Three years ago, Lake's group went to court to challenge the city's approval of a new community plan for Hollywood, which allowed taller and denser buildings near public transit stops. A judge sided with the neighborhood groups, forcing the council to rescind the plan and revert back to planning rules that were adopted for Hollywood in 1988.
Planning officials are now preparing a new environmental impact report for the Hollywood plan and hoping for a council vote in 2017.
Former County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who spent nearly two decades on the council, said Wednesday's announcement is clearly a response to the proposal drafted by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. That proposal has given a voice to residents who feel the planning process is "rigged in favor of developers and against communities," said Yaroslavsky, director of the L.A. Initiative at UCLA's Luskin School of Public Affairs and Department of History.
To address those residents' concerns, Yaroslavsky said, L.A. leaders will need to show the public that they're willing to halt the "willy nilly ad hoc planning that has taken place over the last decade or two."
"That's been the problem. A developer buys a property for twice what it's worth, and then to make it pencil out, goes to the city and says, 'I need to double the zoning,'" he said. "And the city's been granting it."
Yaroslavsky also thinks the mayor and council will need to move more swiftly to update the neighborhood plans.
"An accelerated schedule, not a decade-long schedule, would convey the impression and the reality that the city is dead serious about doing this, and not just trying to buy some time and get out from under the political pressure," he added.
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