Los Angeles voters resoundingly rejected Measure S, the slow-growth, anti-development proposal on Tuesday’s ballot. That was the right choice. The initiative would have imposed a destructive two-year moratorium on real estate projects that require exemptions from the city’s existing (albeit outdated) land-use rules. It also would have worsened the city’s housing shortage by, among other things, making it harder to build low-income and homeless housing.
But even the most adamant opponents of Measure S have conceded that it highlighted very real problems with Los Angeles’ planning and land-use system.
For years, mayors and City Councils have failed to do comprehensive land-use planning. The General Plan, the city’s blueprint for growth, hasn't been updated in 20 years, and the 35 community plans, which spell out what can be built where, are decades old in some cases. Because the plans are outdated, proposed developments are often considered on a case-by-case basis, with council members dictating what's appropriate on particular sites based on the desires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 campaign donors.
It’s a system that produces too little housing to meet population needs, results in poorly planned communities and feeds distrust and NIMBY attitudes because there are no firm rules, just political negotiation.
Proponents may have failed to pass Measure S, but they can rightly claim victory for forcing the mayor and the City Council to get serious about doing real planning. The council has voted in recent weeks to require community plans to be updated every six years and to increase developer fees to pay for that work. The dedicated funding is especially important because past attempts to update community plans fell victim to budget cuts during the recession.
The council also voted to bar developers from picking their own consultants to produce traffic studies and environmental impact reports. And several council members have proposed banning political contributions from developers with projects currently or recently before city decision makers. These are all good steps toward rebuilding trust in City Hall.
But this is just the beginning. Measure S tapped into the angst that many Angelenos feel about how growth and development are changing their communities, and in some cases displacing their inhabitants. The concerns over density, traffic and gentrification are not going away because the forces behind them are not abating. Planners, residents and city leaders must figure out how to reconcile those concerns with the need for housing, jobs and economic growth.
In the coming months, the Planning Department will begin the four-year process of updating the city’s General Plan, which will lay out how the city will provide the housing, water, open space and public services sought by local residents. This is a once-in-generation chance to set the big-picture vision for how Los Angeles should grow. To succeed, the process must be inclusive and transparent. The department has already begun updating community plans, giving city officials and residents the opportunity to reach consensus on which streets and neighborhoods can accommodate more housing (and which should not), as well as to identify the infrastructure — such as sidewalks, parks and libraries — needed to support new housing. There will be fights over density and building heights in communities, but residents can’t just say no to growth and new development; they have a responsibility to figure out where the city should say yes.
But all these new plans will be useful only if developers and the City Council and mayor abide by them. Developers cannot treat zoning as a mere suggestion. And council members cannot continue to run their districts as fiefdoms, allowing themselves to grant exceptions regardless of what the plans say. “Spot zoning” — changing land-use rules to accommodate a specific project — should be reduced to a rare exception.
This is a huge cultural shift for a city built on speculative development, but a necessary change if Los Angeles leaders want to prevent another destructive attempt at ballot-box planning. The failure of Measure S should be the beginning of reform, not the end. City leaders promised to finally fix the broken land-use process, and they need to follow through. Voters are watching.