For more than 100 years, no major political challenge was mounted to the growth ethic that transformed Los Angeles from a dusty frontier cow town to a sprawling metropolis reaching to become the nation’s largest city.
But that changed when Proposition U, a slow-growth initiative, qualified for the city’s Nov. 4 ballot with more than 100,000 petition signatures.
If approved--and if its limits are not diluted by legal challenges or preempted by last-minute legislative actions--the initiative would cut by 50% the size of new buildings permitted on about 70% of the city’s 29,000 acres of commercial and industrial property. It is the most extensive one-shot effort to limit future development in the city’s history.
The initiative’s primary target is the sprawling, high-density commercial and office construction rising in the city’s hottest real estate markets--most notably along major boulevards in the Westside and the south San Fernando Valley. However, its actual impact will vary from place to place.
The real power--and controversy--of the initiative appears to be related more to the message it may send and the planning-by-initiative precedent it may set than to its practical, long-term ability to bridle growth.
Supporters, including a vocal network of Westside and Valley neighborhood groups aroused by traffic snarls and office buildings and shopping centers popping up next to their neighborhoods, see the initiative as a landmark in Los Angeles’ grass-roots politics. They compare it to Proposition 13, which launched the property tax revolt in the state six years ago. Proposition U is the opening salvo of a land use revolt in the city, they say.
“We are saying if we grow the way (developers) want to grow, communities will die,” said Laura Lake, a founder of Not Yet New York, a coalition of community groups from the Valley to San Pedro that want to limit development. "(Proposition U) sends the political message that people in the city do care about density.
“This initiative is the first step along the way.”
Critics, including developers, labor leaders and several City Council members, charge that the initiative is a sledgehammer that will fall on good and bad development alike, undermining economic growth and jobs. “I think it will have exactly the (effect) proponents want,” said Doug Ring, a Westside attorney who represents several large developers. “It will make Los Angeles a far less desirable place to build in. . . . It will discourage businesses from locating here.”
Dick Wirth, government affairs director for the Building Industry Assn., said: “The precedent it sets is a great concern, a tremendous concern to us. The planning process in California is one that is well defined. This (initiative campaign) disbanded all the traditional ways of going about it.”
Despite some extreme rhetoric, Proposition U is not a choice between growth and no-growth, high-rise and low-rise buildings, or gridlock and no-gridlock.
It is a narrower and more complex choice about where Los Angeles’ intense commercial development should be allowed to take place, and how to go about it.
Even some of the initiative’s harshest critics agree that the overall capacity for commercial development in many areas of city is too great for the streets, sewers and other public works to handle. “At this particular point in time, I think it is obvious certain areas of the system are overburdened,” Wirth said. “The question is how do you change.”
Just as Proposition 13 frightened the Legislature into producing a major alternative tax overhaul package before the 1978 election, the building limits initiative has triggered a City Hall rush to put in place sweeping, but less severe, growth control ordinances. In fact, even if the initiative is defeated it already will have succeeded in forcing action on major commercial development restrictions that might never have been approved.
At this point, even many critics concede that Proposition U is likely to pass.
The only organized campaigning has been by the proponents, who have spent more than $200,000--most of it contributed out of the campaign funds of the measure’s authors, Councilmen Zev Yaroslavsky and Marvin Braude. What was expected to be a well-financed development industry campaign against the measure has not materialized, in part because many large donors reportedly were not directly affected or did not feel they could win at the polls.
In any event, the real campaign so far has been over the critics’ legislative counteroffensive. How that effort may affect the initiative will not be resolved until after the election, when the battle is expected to move to the courts.
The counteroffensive consists of two ordinances pushed by Council President Pat Russell and supported by Mayor Tom Bradley and development interests. One sets height limits on commercial construction--even stricter than the initiative--but also carves out far more areas of the city for exemption from growth limitations than the initiative. The other ordinance sets up exempt areas by rewriting the zoning regulations so that the initiative cannot touch them.
The hurried effort to ram through those changes has led to bitter charges from the initiative proponents that those supporting the ordinances are thwarting the rights of the voters and creating “loopholes” for special interests.
The legislative battle has been intense because the outcome has far-reaching political implications. Yaroslavsky and Russell are potential rivals in a future mayoral campaign, and both are dueling for leadership on what could be the dominant issue in Los Angeles politics for years to come: How should the city grow?
Proposition U addresses the issue with a single, citywide swipe at zoning--symbolized by the code letters that determine what can be built on each piece of property. Conceptually, the one-paragraph proposal is simple.
On most of the commercial and industrial property in Los Angeles, landowners may--without obtaining any special permits from the City Council--build floor space up to three times the square footage of the lot. For example, on half the lot they can put up a six-story building; on a quarter of the lot, a 12-story building.
The initiative would slash those limits in half--meaning a commercial developer could not go above three stories on half a lot.
The initiative does not affect areas where far higher densities are permitted, such as downtown, along Wilshire Boulevard and in parts of Hollywood, Ventura Boulevard, Century Boulevard near Los Angeles International Airport, Century City and Universal City.
In many areas of the city, the initiative’s foreseeable effect would likely be minimal because most commercial development is low-rise, one- and two-story buildings. Development tends to go where development is, and the market for large-scale office and commercial space simply does not exist in many areas.
City planners say that much of the city’s current zoning is out-dated and is based on planning concepts that date to the post-World War II building boom.
Consider this: All that now sprawls across the commercial properties of Los Angeles outside the major high-rise centers is less than 10% of what could be built under zoning laws. Even under the initiative’s limits, the unused capacity for commercial development--outside downtown and other large centers--would still be more than 1 billion square feet. That is more than 30 times the high-rise office space built in all of Los Angeles and Orange counties between 1979 and 1985.
Those big numbers are a key part of the Proposition U debate.
“We are not curtailing, hampering or hemming in the city . . . a five-fold growth in (the affected areas) gives us enough room to grow,” said Cindy Miscikowski, a top aide to Braude who helped draft the initiative.
But critics say that type of analysis ignores the real effects of the initiative--the specific job and economic losses it could precipitate in areas where intense development may be occurring or is needed. "(It’s) the equivalent of taking the gross national product of this country and dividing it by the number of people and saying the average person has $40,000,” said Ring, the attorney who represents developers.
“If you ignore downtown Los Angeles, what you really have to say is, ‘Can a lot of the high-rise construction that has gone on--the privately financed redevelopment--can that economically take place if you (cut the building size in half)?’ And the answer is no.”
City planners say the areas most likely to be affected by the initiative are high-rise pressure spots, including parts of the Westside, the Valley and the airport area--where the most protests have been heard about overdevelopment.
If the measure’s effects are not diluted by court or legislative actions, areas near the Beverly Center, along Olympic and Sepulveda boulevards and north and east of the airport could be affected. In the Valley, sections of Ventura, Van Nuys and Sepulveda boulevards and Warner Center could feel the impact.
But the initiative also would impose building limits where there have not been major protests, such as the west side of the Harbor Freeway downtown and the large middle-height industrial park rising at the junction of the San Diego and Harbor freeways.
It also would limit projects in a variety of redevelopment and urban renewal areas from San Pedro to Pacoima where the city has, as a longstanding policy, been trying to stimulate more intense economic development.
The sweeping, one-shot rollback is needed, proponents say, because the overall density of city development needs to be limited rapidly. “It takes too long to do it the normal way,” said Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. and a leading spokesman for the measure. “If you’re going to limit growth, it’s going to take you two or three years per area to do it the normal way. On Nov. 5, we’ll have the job done.”
But cutting back an industrial park at the intersection of two freeways and limiting development in places like the Crenshaw Center, where the community has fought for years for revitalization, is where the initiative goes too far, critics contend.
“By indiscriminately erasing established redevelopment and commercial areas, the initiative would erode our ability to provide future economic opportunities,” Russell said. “Balance is essential to responsible planning.”
Some critics of the initiative, most notably former Councilman David Cunningham, who represented Southwest Los Angeles, contend that the initiative is an elitist measure primarily pushed by homeowners in predominantly white, affluent areas of the city. Cunningham said the concerns of those people should not be allowed to dictate growth decisions in low-income, minority areas where the community wants more jobs and development.
Proponents say there is little evidence that the type of intense development the initiative seeks to limit is likely to occur in low-income areas in the near future. They say inner-city residents also want controls on development and point to the support of Concerned Citizens of South-Central Los Angeles, a group fighting a proposed city trash burning plant in South Los Angeles.
As for those who feel victimized by the initiative, Yaroslavsky said they will have the opportunity to “fine-tune” its restrictions after the election by seeking zone changes case by case.
That is where the battle over the best and fairest process is joined.
Critics say it is obvious that more intense development than allowed by the initiative will be needed in some areas.
“If people are saying the initiative is what ought to control forever more, we are giving up on the economic future of Los Angeles,” said Dan Garcia, veteran president of the city Planning Commission. Garcia is a co-sponsor of the initiative, but he drafted much of the City Council’s alternative ordinance, arguing that additional exemptions must be put in place before the election to ensure that the city has adequate room to grow.
Russell and Garcia, with the support of Bradley and major business and development interests, say it makes no sense to reduce density in areas where it is likely to be restored later by the council. Projects will be delayed, costs will be higher and developers may go elsewhere, they say.
“An awful lot of the . . . economic stability of the region is based on people’s and business’s ability to count on what’s going to happen,” Russell said. “When things are uncertain, they can’t hang in there.”
Yaroslavsky said the initiative will not drive away jobs or development. “Nobody believes this. It is rhetoric.”
Citing piecemeal height restrictions enacted in the past, Yaroslavsky said, "(There) is no down-zoning in this city that ever negatively affected the economics of the city. It affects individuals. . . .
“We cut density by one-third on Melrose Avenue. The only thing that happened is rents have continued to skyrocket.”
Between the high-density areas not affected by the initiative and the generally pro-development council’s ability to restore density increases after the election, Yaroslavsky said some slow-growth advocates are concerned that Proposition U does too little to restrict development.
Traffic congestion also is a major issue. Proponents say the initiative’s density reductions would curb increases in traffic, particularly near neighborhoods.
Martin Wachs, a professor of urban planning at UCLA who specializes in transportation, said, “Since the density of new development is the single most important determinant of new traffic, it makes sense to protect the quality of life in Los Angeles by limiting traffic through the control of density on new development.”
Donald Howery, director of the city Department of Transportation, has taken no position on the measure, but he agrees with Wachs. “Whatever it pushes out would (reduce) traffic impacts,” Howery said. Even some critics of the initiative agree that its limits would curb increases in traffic through or near neighborhoods.
But how the initiative’s limits might redistribute that traffic is less clear.
One of the arguments used by the initiative’s supporters is that it will, in Yaroslavsky’s words, “have intense development move into areas designed to handle them.”
Chief among those area would be the downtown-Wilshire-Hollywood commercial core of the city, much of which is not affected by the initiative. Pushing high-rise development from the suburbs to such areas as these would be a reversal of a strong dispersal trend. Between 1975 and 1985, high-rise office space grew by 131% in the airport-Marina del Rey, San Fernando Valley and Westwood-West Los Angeles areas.
In the downtown and Wilshire districts it grew by 43%, while Hollywood grew by just 2%.
And to the extent that the initiative would force more intense development into the core of the city, it may worsen commuter congestion, some critics contend. That is because there would be more and longer trips to jobs in already snarled areas, they say.
Peter Gordon tends to agree. A USC associate professor of urban planning and economics, Gordon has studied the effects of sprawl on traffic patterns in the Los Angeles.
“From the travel-to-work vantage point, sprawl or dispersal has worked to the advantage of this region. . . . Most suburban residents are getting suburban jobs and I’m not sure I’d want to do anything to interfere with that,” he said. While the initiative may help some neighborhoods, it “on balance probably would hurt” traffic conditions in the region, he said.
Sherman Oaks activist Close predicted that the initiative would tend to disperse traffic by spreading development more thinly over the city. But even if it does not, he said, homeowner groups are chiefly concerned about improving their local traffic conditions. “We have one goal: to protect our community,” he said.
That is a fundamental flaw of the initiative, critics contend. It attempts to solve complex and varying neighborhood traffic and overdevelopment problems with a single quick-fix zoning change. “The problem is that the entire concept of zoning recognizes that all property is not equal,” said Ring, a developers’ attorney and leading spokesman for the Proposition U opposition. “We, in fact, do want to treat property differently.”
The initiative’s solution would have the unwanted effect of driving major developments to other cities and would send a “very strong message to businesses along the entire Pacific Rim that we don’t want them here,” Ring said.
But the time has come to pause and reevaluate the whole issue of commercial development, Proposition U backers say. Los Angeles’ attractiveness is “very much in danger of being lost” because of uncontrolled development and traffic, Yaroslavsky said.
“If this is going to be the big city of the 21st Century, then we better learn the lessons of the big cities of the 20th Century that have gone under,” he said. “And that is that there is a bottom to these pits.”