Real estate developers seeking exceptions from city land-use laws to build multimillion-dollar projects have poured money into campaign accounts and other funds controlled by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Council members.
How much money? Mall developer Rick Caruso, along with his family, employees and his charitable foundation, has given nearly half a million dollars to city elected officials and their pet projects in the last five years, according to a Times analysis. Some $125,000 of the total was solicited by Garcetti for his nonprofit organization, the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles, that he created to fund his civic initiatives. Why has Caruso given so much money to politicians? He says it’s part of his company’s regular philanthropic mission. But it’s also true that he needs the approval of the City Council and the mayor for his proposal to build a 20-story residential tower on a site in Beverly Grove currently limited to a height of 45 feet.
And we don’t mean to be singling out Caruso. The entertainment company 20th Century Fox, for instance, gave $1 million to Garcetti’s nonprofit while one of its subsidiaries is seeking land-use changes for a 1.1-million-square-foot expansion of its studios in Century City. And the shopping mall company Westfield Corp., which needs dispensation from the city to build two hotels and 1,432 homes in Woodland Hills, gave nearly $1 million to campaigns supporting the Measure M transportation sales tax hike and the city’s bid to host the 2024 Olympics — two efforts spearheaded by Garcetti.
And then there was the troubling case of developer Samuel Leung, whose friends, relatives and associates donated more than $600,000 to Los Angeles elected officials’ election campaigns and office accounts while he successfully persuaded city leaders to rewrite zoning rules so that his $72-million apartment complex could be built in the Harbor Gateway neighborhood. Some of those donations may have been made without the knowledge of the supposed donor or with the promise that the donor would be reimbursed (which would be illegal).
Garcetti and other city officials, as well as most developers, routinely insist that such political contributions have absolutely no effect on City Hall land-use decisions. No, no, no, the officials insist, we make our decisions entirely on the merits. But even if you believe that they somehow manage to ignore the contributions when they make their decisions, the mere exchange of money between people seeking city favors and the people granting those favors fuels widespread community distrust — distrust that has now allowed the so-called Neighborhood Integrity Initiative to get on the March ballot as Measure S. That slow-growth measure would impose a two-year moratorium on development projects that require exceptions from the law while the city rewrites its local community land-use plans. Unfortunately, it would also slow housing construction during a housing shortage.
Garcetti and the City Council have offered some reform proposals, but if they are serious about rebuilding public trust in the development system, they’re going to have to go further. Here’s a suggestion they won’t like, but which would be entirely appropriate under the circumstances: Why don’t they offer their own moratorium — on taking money from developers with projects pending before the city?
It’s pretty widely believed that developers write checks to local officials because they think the contributions will get them the land-use exemptions they want and greatly increase the value of their projects, often at the expense of neighboring residents and property owners. For decades, mayors and City Councils have allowed this soft corruption to continue by refusing to fix the city’s broken planning system. That puts a cloud of suspicion over all development in L.A. — even when projects are ultimately good for the city by creating housing and jobs and investment.
Garcetti and the City Council have increased the Planning Department’s budget so it can finally update the city’s General Plan — its master plan that sets out a vision for the city’s development — and rewrite the city’s 35 community plans that set specific rules for what can be built in neighborhoods. But that effort will take a decade (possibly seven years if the city boosts the budget even more.)
However, if Garcetti and the City Council agreed to a temporary moratorium on accepting developer contributions, they could send an immediate message to skeptical Angelenos that this time they are serious and committed to changing the pay-to-play culture that has allowed every land-use rule to be negotiable. Consider it an experiment. Take the money and the suspicion out the decision making process, and perhaps — just perhaps — there can be a rational conversation about how Los Angeles should grow.