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Slow-Growth Initiative Would Affect All Major Valley Streets

Times Staff Writer

A slow-growth initiative that has qualified for a public vote in Los Angeles may not be needed to limit excessive development on traffic-clogged Ventura Boulevard because of action already taken by the City Council.

But the controversial measure is needed, its backers in the San Fernando Valley say, to keep other Valley streets from becoming like Ventura Boulevard.

The initiative would affect just about every major street in the city by cutting in half the allowable size of new commercial and industrial buildings.

Its proponents concede that the controversial measure also would put severe limits on construction in Warner Center in Woodland Hills, long designated for high-rise development.

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The initiative’s backers say they intended Warner Center, or at least its core area--like downtown Los Angeles and some commercial centers in the Valley--to be exempt from the measure.

If the initiative passes, the council would retain the option of approving certain projects larger than allowed under the initiative’s limits.

Council Members Divided

Valley homeowner groups helped gather 105,567 voters’ signatures to qualify the initiative for the November ballot.

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However, Valley members on the City Council are evenly divided on the issue.

Councilman Marvin Braude, whose Encino constituents have complained about blocked views, traffic congestion and other problems from high-rise development on Ventura Boulevard, is a co-sponsor of the initiative. Valley Council members Joy Picus and Joel Wachs support it.

But Valley Councilmen Ernani Bernardi, Hal Bernson and Howard Finn have criticized the initiative as a “meat ax” approach to planning that would not accomplish what homeowners really want.

Bernardi said: “What disturbs me about it is that it picks on the wrong areas. It affects low-income areas like Pacoima, where we need to encourage development, but it exempts the places that contribute so much to the problem, like downtown” Los Angeles.

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Bernardi also refers to the measure as a “rich man’s initiative” that he said would allow well-financed, politically connected developers, with the aid of campaign contributions and lobbyists, to get approval of their projects.

Rival Measure

Meanwhile, Finn is pushing a rival measure to control growth. Called the neighborhood protection ordinance, it would, like the initiative, halve densities in much of the city. But it would exempt more areas, including 16 “urban centers” in the Valley.

Even if Finn’s measure is approved by the council, however, the initiative, if passed, would supersede it, according to the city attorney’s office.

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Currently, the ratio of a building’s maximum square footage to the square footage of the lot on which it stands is 3 to 1. The measure would make this ratio 1 1/2 to 1, except in certain commercial centers.

Now, a developer can build a three-story building on an entire lot, a six-story building on half a lot, a 12-story building on a quarter of a lot or build in any other variation of the 3-1 ratio.

Exempt under the initiative would be areas designated for high-rise centers, including the Wilshire corridor, and, in the Valley, the corners of Sepulveda and Ventura boulevards in Sherman Oaks and of Reseda Boulevard and Sherman Way in Reseda, and stretches of Lankershim Boulevard in the North Hollywood redevelopment project and portions of Van Nuys Boulevard in Van Nuys.

Ironically, Ventura Boulevard, one of the Valley areas that helped provide the impetus for the initiative, may not be affected by it at all.

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Buildings on Ventura Boulevard are already restricted to 1 1/2 times the lot size--the same limits contained in the initiative--under a moratorium approved by the City Council last year.

The moratorium, which affects Ventura Boulevard from Studio City to Woodland Hills, is designed to afford time to prepare a plan that ties future development to traffic improvements along the congested thoroughfare. The plan is expected to go before the council for approval next year.

Braude said the initiative could be needed as a “fallback” if the council fails to adopt the new development plan for the boulevard.

Supporters of the initiative say Warner Center was not exempted because of the city’s failure to update its 1946 zoning code to designate the 1,100-acre center as a high-rise area.

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Called a ‘Flaw’

Dan Garcia, Planning Commission president and a co-sponsor of the initiative, said not exempting Warner Center is “clearly one of the flaws” of the initiative.

Picus, whose district includes Warner Center, said that, if the initiative passes, she would probably ask the council to rezone the Warner Center core area to allow for greater development.

The initiative does not preclude the council from rezoning property to allow for greater development than permitted by the measure.

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But Finn, who chairs the council’s influential Planning Committee, said he would be “very reluctant” to rezone any property.

“I think that would be thumbing my nose at the public,” Finn said.

The initiative would reduce the potential amount of commercial development in the Valley from nearly 500 million square feet--about half of the total citywide--to about 250 million square feet, according to a city Planning Department report.

The Valley now has 39 million square feet of commercial development. That is substantially less than the amount permitted, because many developers erected smaller buildings than allowed for a variety of reasons, including economic ones.

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Under existing zoning, Ventura Boulevard in Encino, which has about 5 million square feet of commercial development, could get another 18 million square feet--twice the size of Century City.

City officials could think of only about a dozen buildings in the Valley that exceed the limits in the initiative.

Fujita Building

The best known of these--and the one most often cited by initiative supporters on the need for tougher controls--is the massive Fujita building on Ventura Boulevard in Encino. The building, constructed to the maximum 3-to-1 ratio permitted, is six stories high and, critics complain, is built right up to the backyards of homes, blocking out the sun and views of the mountains.

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Had the initiative been in force, its supporters say, the Fujita building would have been substantially smaller and its resulting negative effects would have been much less.

The building could have been six stories--although, under the moratorium now in place, there is a three-story height limit on Ventura Boulevard--but could have taken up only half the land.

While there have been few Fujita-like buildings constructed in the Valley, supporters of the initiative say it is needed to stop even one more from springing up next to a residential neighborhood.

“Many of the areas that are serious problems today were not problems a few years ago,” Picus said. “But as economic conditions have changed, areas previously developed at minimum commercial density have drawn the attention of developers, and high-density buildings have been constructed.”

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Finn contends that the initiative would not prevent another Fujita-like building.

He argues that, because developers would be able to build less under the initiative, they would be less willing to spend the extra money required to build underground parking. Instead, he said, developers would put parking above ground. Under the city’s zoning code, parking is not calculated in the ratio of size of building to size of site.

“You could have a Fujita building again,” Finn said. “Same size. Only half would be used for parking” instead of office space.

Increased Building Foreseen

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Finn also contends that the initiative will cause twice as many projects to be developed, affecting twice as many areas.

“If you can only build half as much in one place, you’re going to need twice as many places to do the same building,” he said.

He also asserts that the initiative does not stop construction of high-rise buildings. For example, the 20-story Voit building in Warner Center would be allowed under the initiative because it is on a large lot.

In response, Braude said: “I don’t represent that this is going to solve all of the planning problems.” But, he said, Finn’s measure “exempts far too many areas from control,” including Ventura Boulevard in Encino where, Braude said, there is already too much development.

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As for Bernardi’s criticism that the initiative would hinder development in areas that need it, Braude replied: “This initiative is not going to stop development in Pacoima.” Most of the development there, Braude pointed out, consists of one-story buildings--well within the limits of the initiative.

Braude also said a developer who wants to build a larger project than permitted by the initiative can ask the council for an exemption.

Braude concedes that the council can approve a lot of high-rise projects even if the initiative passes.

However, he said, speaking of developers’ rights: “That risk is relatively minor compared with the right to just walk in and get a permit automatically.”

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