A half-built Target store in Hollywood is the latest example of how planning and land use in Los Angeles can go terribly wrong. This week, the Department of Building and Safety ordered the retailer to halt construction of a three-story complex on Sunset Boulevard at Western Avenue after a judge ruled that the City Council had erroneously OKd a 74-foot-tall structure, which is twice as tall as the rules allow for commercial development there.
Now the community is left with a construction-zone eyesore while Target appeals the court decision. The community groups that filed the lawsuits want Target to tear down the existing structure, which already has a foundation, walls and roof, and rebuild a store that meets the area's 35-foot height limit. Target wants the city to rewrite the area's zoning plan to allow a taller building. Neither option is satisfying.
The City Council and Mayor Eric Garcetti — who was the councilman representing Hollywood when the project was approved in 2012 — could have avoided this mess if they'd followed the area's planning rules. Instead, Garcetti urged Target to scrap plans for a standard big-box store and build a larger complex with restaurants, more shops and a plaza fronting the sidewalk.
Garcetti was right to push for a project that would help revitalize a dull corner of Sunset Boulevard and encourage pedestrian activity in a neighborhood less than half a mile from a subway station. But why did he and Target have to ignore the area's planning rules to do it? Development guidelines are laid out in the Vermont/Western Station Neighborhood Area Plan, which despite being 13 years old is considered one of the city's more pedestrian-oriented and design-savvy local plans. But if Garcetti believed the rules made it impossible to build something better than a big-box store on a prominent street, he should have worked with the community to update the plan, not simply pushed through exceptions for one project.
Sadly, that's not unusual. Planning in L.A. has too often been done project by project, with council members dictating what's appropriate on a particular site based on the whims of developers or neighborhood groups. That encourages abuse: Influence fills the vacuum left by the absence of clear rules. To remedy this, the city needs to embark on a comprehensive overhaul of its 35 neighborhood plans, which establish appropriate local development standards and which in some cases are decades old. The timing is right for such a review: The Planning Department has more money and staff this year to help rewrite several plans, and the city has a grant to draft transit-oriented development standards around the new Expo Line and Crenshaw line stations.
Good plans developed with community consensus are supposed to provide certainty and help avoid the kinds of disputes that result in a half-constructed Target. Developers know what they can build, and neighbors know what to expect. Once a plan is place, developers, resident groups and council members should respect the rules.
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