When neighborhood activists and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation unveiled a ballot initiative in November that would have slapped a two-year moratorium on major developments and a permanent freeze on taller, more densely populated buildings in most of Los Angeles, this page urged Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council to confront the initiative head on. The proposal spotlighted a glaring weakness in the way the city approaches development — the council's habit of routinely waiving zoning rules — but was so ham-handed that it cried out for a reasonable alternative to reform the city's broken planning and land-use system.
Four months later, what have city's leaders done to address a potentially ruinous ballot measure that could worsen the housing crisis and slow job-creating investment? Nothing of consequence.
Now, however, the mayor and City Council have another opportunity. Proponents of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative announced last week that they were postponing the effort, aiming for the municipal election in March 2017 instead of the statewide one this November. They also rewrote the proposal, removing one of the most troublesome elements of the measure: a requirement that new land-use plans be written to prohibit projects that are taller or denser than the surrounding neighborhood, even in communities that want taller or denser development. What's left is a mixed bag.
The new version of the initiative would still hold off any project that is denser or taller than allowed by current zoning rules through a two-year moratorium, which is a blunt instrument that would slow housing construction at a time when rents are up and vacancies are down. It would still limit the city's ability to reduce the required number of parking spaces, adding unnecessary costs for developers of housing for low-income and homeless Angelenos, and for projects designed to serve transit riders.
Nevertheless, the heart of the initiative has real merit. It would force city leaders finally to reform L.A.'s outdated planning and Byzantine, borderline corrupt development approval system. The measure would require the city to regularly review its general plan, the city's master planning document that hasn't been updated in 20 years, and the localized community plans that are, in some cases, decades old. Because the plans are outdated, projects are often considered on a case-by-case basis, with council members dictating what's appropriate on particular sites based on the desires of developers, many of whom are influential campaign donors. The initiative would forever limit City Hall's ability to do that kind of “spot zoning,” or changing the land-use rules for a property to allow a specific development. If L.A. consistently worked with communities to update land-use plans, there should be little legitimate need for spot zoning.
But why impose a potentially harmful moratorium to get good planning reform? While the rewritten initiative is better than the previous version, having voters set development rules into stone is a terrible way to plan L.A.'s future. The initiative delay gives Garcetti and the City Council a second chance — and frankly, the obligation — to come up with something better. City leaders have to recognize that they oversee a seriously flawed system that doesn't produce enough housing, doesn't result in well-planned neighborhoods, and worse, breeds distrust in city government because carefully crafted rules are meaningless when every project is a political negotiation.
Garcetti, in particular, has to take the lead. The mayor has called himself a consensus builder and touted his vision for a new Los Angeles — of more dense development and taller buildings near transit stations, of walkable neighborhoods where people don't need to drive, of 100,000 new homes by 2021 to alleviate the housing crisis. He ought to lead a conversation about what Los Angeles should look like in the future. How can the city have more housing, more affordability, more urban renewal, while preserving the history and neighborhoods that make Los Angeles unique?
The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative offers a template for reform, but there are plenty of good ideas among planners, residents and developers on how to fix L.A.'s broken land-use system once and for all. The only thing missing so far is political courage.