Despite all the noise and fury over density, traffic and out-of-scale development this election season, the battle over Measure S turned into a rout.
Business, political and labor leaders who warned that the measure would devastate Los Angeles’ economy secured an overwhelming victory, with nearly 69% of voters rejecting it. The measure’s defeat paves the way for Mayor Eric Garcetti to continue pursuing his vision of a denser, more transit-oriented Los Angeles.
Yet in the wake of that lopsided victory, some foes of Measure S sounded wary about taking too much of a victory lap. City leaders, they say, still need to confront the issues that fueled the campaign, such as the high cost of housing and the need for better planning.
“We want to be excited about the win. But ultimately, this doesn't fix anything,” said Shane Phillips, policy director for the advocacy group Abundant Housing L.A. “Beating Measure S just means we don't make things worse.”
Gary Toebben, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, struck a similar note.
“We have nothing to be cocky about," he said. "The fact is, we should just be so thankful and appreciative that the voters understood the importance of continued construction of residential and commercial projects in our city.”
Measure S took aim at the city’s practice of rewriting its planning rules — granting extra height and zoning changes, for example — for developers on a case-by-case basis. The proposal also would have recommended updates to the city’s 35 community plans, most of which are more than 15 years old.
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which sponsored Measure S, argued repeatedly that City Hall was greenlighting out-of-scale, luxury residential projects that drive up rents and are too expensive for working-class families. Developers have secured approval for those projects after showering politicians with campaign money, they said.
Opponents of Measure S consistently argued that the status quo at City Hall was undesirable, with out-of-date zoning and a lack of funds to do proper planning. But they argued that the remedies offered by Measure S would be even worse, choking the supply of new housing and causing rents to spiral even higher.
That balancing act could be seen on a website set up to oppose Measure S, goestoofar.com. The Coalition to Protect L.A. Neighborhoods and Jobs, a campaign group that set up the site, acknowledged public concerns about money in politics but argued that Measure S would do nothing to ban developer donations.
Even as they cast their ballots against Measure S, some voters made clear they were dissatisfied with the city’s handling of planning issues.
Kevin Gobuty, who lives in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, said he is concerned about special interests influencing development at City Hall. But the 25-year-old student teacher said he feared the measure’s two-year ban on zoning changes would make a housing crisis worse.
Much of Measure S seemed like "common-sense stuff about fixing up zoning," he said. "But the moratorium was just a big no-go for me."
Foes of the measure also credited the mood of the electorate. Polling showed voters were upbeat about L.A.'s future and therefore less likely to back measures that could jeopardize the city’s progress, said Mike Shimpock, the coalition’s campaign manager.
“When people feel that Los Angeles is on the right track, they are not as open to things that are going to derail it," he said. "And this certainly would have derailed a lot of the resurgence that’s happening.”
City lawmakers also sought to undermine the Yes on S campaign’s critique of the city by voting to update its community plans by 2024. And they called for a prohibition on campaign donations from developers to city candidates.
Larry Gross, who heads the tenant advocacy group Coalition for Economic Survival, said the city’s elected officials should view Measure S as a warning sign. The ballot proposal got as far as it did, he said, because of inaction by the city’s elected officials.
With the campaign over, city lawmakers now need to focus on protecting tenants, by halting the demolition of rent-controlled apartments and developing more affordable housing, said Gross, who campaigned against Measure S.
“These developers need to recognize they can’t go into communities and just bulldoze them and put up luxury housing,” he said. “Because the next time around, there will be another initiative which will deal with these issues directly, and will gather more support.”
Meanwhile, fights over development will rage on.
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation is continuing to pursue lawsuits against two multistory projects in Hollywood that received key changes in city rules. The group’s allies also have challenges against projects in Koreatown, South Los Angeles and the city’s Westside.
Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn., predicted more lawsuits in the wake of the Measure S defeat.
“The city doesn't follow its own rules,” said Close, who campaigned for Measure S. “So you’re going to see even more litigation throughout the city.”
In the campaign’s final days, Michael Weinstein, the top executive at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, argued that the Yes on S camp had already wrested major changes out of City Hall. On election night, he described the campaign as “the opening gambit” in a much longer fight over planning and neighborhood preservation.
With L.A. now working to rewrite its community plans, the debate over where to put high-density housing will likely move to the neighborhood level, advocates say.
Those community plans are central to the city’s effort to accommodate population growth.
Phillips, the policy director for Abundant Housing L.A., said city leaders should build on Tuesday’s election result by ensuring that those plans allow for much more housing along major transit corridors.
L.A.’s boulevards, Phillips said, represent the city’s best chance to build homes without displacing existing renters. But any push to allow more density could face pushback from neighborhood groups worried about traffic and increasing the burden on out-of-date infrastructure.
“These fights aren't going to stop,” Phillips said. “Figuring out where housing should go — where it's appropriate and where it's not appropriate — that's not going to go away.”
2:50 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from Measure S opponents and supporters.
This article was originally posted at 9:40 a.m.