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L.A. Proposals on Building Limits Receive Fresh Impetus

Times Staff Writer

Backers of a proposed initiative that would limit the size of commercial buildings in much of Los Angeles are closely watching a flurry of legislative proposals at City Hall that could compete with and possibly undercut the measure.

As debate about overbuilding heats up, city officials critical of the controversial initiative last week sped up work on long-stalled ordinances dealing with many of the same development issues.

The critics, including Council President Pat Russell and Councilman Howard Finn, insist that their actions were unrelated to the initiative.

“This is something we’ve been talking about a long time,” Russell said.

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Names Gathered

However, proponents of the initiative, who say they have gathered more than 50,000 signatures in the last two months, suspect a counteroffensive.

“It’s beyond the wildest stretches of the imagination to say it was mere coincidence,” said Councilman Marvin Braude, who co-authored the initiative with Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky. “I think it is much more likely that there was a recognition by Finn and Russell that they are behind the times, the public is way ahead of them and they better catch up.”

The Yaroslavsky-Braude initiative, which responds to concern among homeowner groups over large commercial developments near residential areas, would cut in half the allowable size of such buildings over an estimated 75% of the city. All are in Height District 1, planning jargon for most of the mid-rise commercial areas of the city. It does not affect major high-rise centers, such as downtown and the Wilshire District.

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Proponents hope to qualify the initiative for either the November, 1986, or April, 1987, ballot. It was too late for the next election on June 3.

Political Distinction

Co-authorship of the measure has allowed Yaroslavsky to draw a political distinction between himself and Russell, an expected future rival for mayor who has been criticized by some neighborhood groups for catering to developers.

The sweeping nature of the initiative has drawn strong opposition from two of the most influential lobbying groups at City Hall: the building industry and organized labor. In addition, some minority council members have attacked it as elitist and unfair to poor areas of the city, which they say need large commercial developments, and some slow-growth groups have complained that the initiative does not go far enough.

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Precisely how the proposed ordinances would affect the initiative remains unclear. Generally, however, they would give council members more flexibility in development decisions and developers more ways to boost the size of their buildings.

A lot depends on the final version of the ordinances, which deal with complex planning formulas and zoning designations that determine what size buildings can go in what parts of the city.

Council Ally

Finn, chairman of the Planning and Environment Committee and a Russell ally on development issues, said he believes that one of the pending ordinances could render the initiative “meaningless.”

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Bottled up in the city attorney’s office since being approved by the Planning Commission four years ago, that ordinance would re-label and re-categorize all height districts in the city.

Depending on how the ordinance is written, it could take much of the commercial property in the city out of the category affected by the initiative.

“It can be written to moot the initiative or not moot the initiative, and that is something we are going to have to make a decision on,” Finn said.

Finn and Russell, who also sits on the Planning Committee, last week ordered the ordinance readied for consideration at today’s committee meeting. Finn acknowledged that the timing “looks very bad,” but he insisted that the surfacing of the ordinance and promotion of the similar initiative was coincidental. He said the ordinance proposals show that city officials have been addressing concerns about overdevelopment.

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Draft of Measure

City planners say the ordinance, a draft of which was released by the city attorney’s office late last week, will not undercut the initiative. However, Finn complained that the ordinance’s language appeared to be intentionally worded so that it would not conflict with the initiative.

Finn said he wants to “ignore the initiative entirely in trying to craft the ordinance. . . .”

“I don’t think we can legislate out of fear or anticipation that something else would happen,” he said.

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Braude charged that any action that would undercut the initiative would “abort the will of the people.”

Yaroslavsky is watching developments in Finn’s committee but said he would be “shocked” by any serious attempt to “sabotage” the initiative.

Meanwhile, another slow-moving measure to curb development recently sped forward and was re-dubbed “The Neighborhood Protection Ordinance.” It also has been given a top priority by Finn’s committee and the Planning Commission and, some officials say, could be adopted by the council before the November election.

‘Centers’ Plan

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The measure, which is still being drafted, is similar to the initiative in that it would reduce the size of commercial buildings near residential areas. It is a comprehensive and long-awaited mechanism for implementing Los Angeles’ 15-year-old “centers” plan, which would steer commercial development into specified, limited areas intended not to intrude on residential neighborhoods.

Planning Director Calvin Hamilton, the architect of the centers plan, said he is pushing to have the ordinance advance before he retires later this year.

Planning Commissioner William Luddy, a labor leader and critic of the initiative, called the ordinance a “serious planning effort” that he said would accomplish what homeowner groups want in a more reasonable manner than the initiative.

Yaroslavsky, Braude and Planning Commission Chairman Dan Garcia, who supports the initiative, said the Neighborhood Protection Ordinance, as proposed by city planners, would indeed accomplish much of what they are seeking with the initiative.

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Prediction Made

They also predicted, however, that it would have no teeth to truly reduce commercial development by the time it is finalized.

“In my 10 years of experience, I’ve seen at least a half-dozen major reforms (proposed by city planners) and every single one has been defeated or tabled . . . subverted and overturned by lobbyists,” Garcia said. “I’ve never seen one case where the council made it more restrictive.

“I submit very strongly that we never would have seen this ordinance again” if it were not for the initiative, Garcia said.

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