When developers want to build more than zoning allows, L.A. planning commissioners almost always say yes, Times analysis finds

The parcel at Jefferson and La Cienega boulevards might not seem like an obvious place to put an upscale 30-story residential tower. Zoned for industrial use, the West Adams intersection near the new Expo Line is surrounded by low-rise warehouses and businesses.

But when a developer proposed a high-rise tower and a shopping center at the site last year, Los Angeles planning commissioners — appointees of Mayor Eric Garcetti — approved the project even though it was 10 times taller than existing building rules allowed.

Such exceptions to zoning laws have become commonplace across L.A., a Times analysis of nearly 1,000 cases found. About 90% of requests for general plan amendments, zoning or height district changes heard before the city’s Planning Commission and local planning commissions have been greenlighted since 2000, city documents show. 

The high volume of these amendments has eroded the role of zoning regulations as a true guide to what development is allowed across Los Angeles, critics say. By frequently permitting larger and denser projects, the city has frustrated some residents who erroneously believed the established zoning rules dictated what could be built in their neighborhoods.

City officials and developers say the exceptions are essential to building more housing amid soaring rents and a shortage of apartments. They argue that the zoning rules are out of date for a city of nearly 4 million people and that denser development will help meet rising demand. 

The issue has taken on more urgency with Measure S, a March ballot measure that seeks to temporarily halt all projects for two years that require general plan amendments, zoning or height district changes — changes that are typically needed to build bigger projects than would otherwise be allowed. Supporters say the city has flouted its zoning rules by approving so many amendments.

But even opponents of Measure S, who believe the city needs denser development, said the current system doesn’t work.

Former City Councilman Michael Woo, who served as a planning commissioner for six years, said that general plan amendments and zone changes should be the exception rather than routine, as they are now.

“The planning process in the city of L.A. has gotten out of balance,” said Woo, who opposes Measure S. “There shouldn’t be so many requests for discretionary decisions moving through the system.”

Woo and others say the city needs to do a better job updating its planning rules. But they contend the measure goes too far and would worsen L.A.’s housing shortage and hurt the economy.

The Times review found that when planning commissioners raised objections to some projects, developers were able to secure approval by including more affordable housing or agreeing to add sidewalks, landscaping or other conditions.

Despite concern about building next to a freeway, the Planning Commission in November backed a zone and height district change for a 335-unit Woodland Hills apartment complex next to the 101 Freeway after the developer agreed to add more affordable housing units.

The Planning Commission votes to approve or reject condominiums, schools and other projects. The seven area planning commissions typically hear smaller developments. (The Planning Commission also routinely approves changes sought by the city itself when it puts forward new building and land use policies. Such cases represented about 5% of those analyzed by The Times.)

The commissions don’t necessarily have the final say. Major projects and zoning changes typically go before the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee and the full City Council.

City planners work with developers to give feedback on projects and suggest approval or denial to the commissioners, said Yeghig Keshishian, spokesman for the Planning Department.

“We work as citizen volunteers to do our best job in reviewing every policy and project that comes before us,” said David Ambroz, the Planning Commission’s president. “I listen, I do all my research and I make independent decisions based on all the materials, findings and testimony.”

The Planning Commission also regularly votes to protect neighborhoods, Ambroz said, backing historic preservation zones and regulations to rein in the size of homes.

If cases come with a planning staff recommendation for approval, “the planners usually get it right,” Ambroz said.

Developers say they’re forced to apply for zone changes and other amendments because the city’s community plans — land use instructions for each Los Angeles neighborhood — haven’t been updated in years.

Land use consultant Craig Lawson said his developer clients want certainty but often enter Planning Commission meetings unsure of the outcome. 

“They don’t know what the conditions [put on the project] will be,” Lawson said. “They don’t know if there will be an appeal, and they don’t know if they will be sued.”

The City Council voted this week to back an effort to update community plans more frequently. Councilman Jose Huizar, who chairs the planning and land use committee, said through a spokesman that the city’s current planning guidelines don’t reflect neighborhood needs and that “zone changes will dramatically decrease once our community plans are updated.”

Seeking changes is so routine for developers that the Planning Department offers an illustrated pamphlet that provides step-by-step instructions on how to file requests.

The flier, available at department counters, depicts a cartoon figure walking down a flight of stairs, each representing a month of the process from application to mayoral approval.

Cities vary in their approach to allowing general plan amendments or other changes, said John Terell, vice president for policy and legislation for the California chapter for the American Planning Assn.

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The Times analysis of cases in which rules changes were sought shows approvals are on the high side, Terell said, but acceptable in his view. Compared with other California cities, “exemptions are much more common in Los Angeles,” he said. “They have these big projects.”

In cases where the citywide and local commissions reject a request, the city can overturn those decisions.

The Times review of cases that have gone before the commissions since 2000 found at least a dozen denials by commissioners that were reversed by elected officials.

One of those cases was the Sea Breeze apartment project in the Harbor Gateway neighborhood, where a developer sought a zone change to build a 352-unit apartment complex in an area zoned for industrial use. The Planning Commission rejected the proposal, but it later was approved by the City Council and Garcetti.

The project was the subject of a Times investigation last year that found donors with direct or indirect ties to real estate developer Samuel Leung gave more than $600,000 to support L.A.-area politicians as the project was being reviewed.

In the case of the West Adams tower — called the Cumulus project — the Planning Commission sought to add 55 units of workforce housing in the 1,200-unit residential building. When the tower went to the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, council members eased that recommendation after the developer said the community wanted other perks.

A group associated with Measure S was part of a lawsuit against the city last summer over the project, saying the City Council approval violated state and local laws.

Jill Stewart, campaign director for Measure S, said the planning commissions’ approval rate is a result of the city’s “broken system” for reviewing land use changes that often favors more growth.

“Sometimes they stop really outrageous projects that the local neighborhood can’t absorb, but way too often they rubber-stamp,” Stewart said.

Ambroz, the Planning Commission president, declined to respond to those criticisms.

Garcetti spokesman George Kivork said in a statement, “All development projects proposed in Los Angeles are considered carefully on their merits, and they are put through a rigorous, multi-layered approval process that prioritizes feedback from the public.”

Kivork said the mayor’s budget this year includes funding for community plan updates, and Garcetti supports efforts to speed the process.

West L.A. resident Barbara Broide testified against Casden West L.A. apartment complex when it came before the Planning Commission in 2013.

The commission granted a general plan amendment for the project, which ultimately was the target of a lawsuit by Broide’s homeowners association.

Today, she continues to speak at Planning Commission hearings. Her comments and other opponents’ remarks are considered part of a public record and can be cited in case a lawsuit is brought, she said.

She also testifies in the hope a commissioner will hear her criticisms about the next office tower or condominium complex, but she’s realistic about the outcome.

“It isn’t always clear it makes a difference,” Broide said. 

Times staff writer Andrew Khouri contributed to this report.

ben.poston@latimes.com

Twitter: @bposton

dakota.smith@latimes.com

Twitter: @dakotacdsmith

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