Last November, Los Angeles voters--much to the chagrin of developers, approved Proposition U, which effectively halves the allowable size of most new commercial buildings in the city.
Now the authors of that measure, City Councilmen Zev Yaroslavsky and Marvin Braude, have unveiled a "10-point plan" that would put even tighter curbs on development. The City Council is expected to approve most or all of the points, although some adjustments may be made along the way.
In their commentary in the columns below, Yaroslavsky and Braude say Proposition U was needed, and the 10-point plan should be adopted, because the public should have greater control over the city's development process. But attorney Douglas Ring, who represents several large developers, says Proposition U and the new plan are bound to cost jobs, raise rents, create more traffic and hurt the city's economy.
The passage of Proposition U may mark a serious slowdown in the economic boom, fueled by the construction industry, which the City of Los Angeles has enjoyed for several decades.
Ironically, if this prediction is correct, it will be the byproduct of the politics of Proposition U, not the actual legal implications of the measure.
In order to understand Proposition U and its impact, it is necessary to understand the politics out of which it was born.
For several years, there has been growing public frustration over increased traffic congestion and the absolute inability of state and local officials to develop and implement meaningful relief.
Residents 'Mad as Hell'
In short, a lot of Los Angeles residents were and are "mad as hell and not going to take it any more."
With that as the political backdrop, City Council members Marvin Braude and Zev Yaroslavsky found fertile fields for the creation, support and ultimate passage of their "Initiative for Reasonable Limits on Commercial Building and Traffic Growth."
Unfortunately, Proposition U does nothing to reduce or eliminate traffic congestion. Arguably, as Proposition U reduces the density on individual sites, it will force greater urban commercial sprawl and, with it, greater transit demands on our already overcrowded freeways and streets. Even the proponents of Proposition U must admit that less more is not less.
Economically, Proposition U should have the most profound effect in the most desirable areas of Los Angeles. By limiting growth in those areas where people most want to be, Proposition U will cause upward spirals in commercial lease rates.
Discouraging Urban Renewal
In marginal and low-desirability areas, reduced density should make development opportunities even less attractive, hence discouraging unsubsidized urban renewal where it's most needed.
True, in both the desirable and less desirable areas, Proposition U does not prohibit developers from seeking greater density through general plan amendments, variances and other approval processes.
The benefits of these alternatives to Proposition U are, however, somewhat illusory. In an increasingly competitive marketplace, the cost of spending an additional year or more seeking authorization to develop properties to a competitive density is sufficient to discourage all but the bravest developers.
The political impact of Proposition U is far more dramatic. The "Spirit Of Prop U" is the justification for the Braude-Yaroslavsky 10-point plan.
Demand for Tough Controls
By interpreting Proposition U as a demand for tough controls on all development, this 10-point plan, in whole or in part, has a high likelihood of passage. Fortunately, most of the items are realistic, beneficial or at least benign. Only a few stand out as serious impediments to the continued growth of the Los Angeles city economy.
The 10-point plan includes a proposal requiring all non-residential developments larger than 50,000 square feet to go through "discretionary approval."
Discretionary approval, in this case, means that every structure the size of a new supermarket or larger, can anticipate additional months of delay, rounds of public hearings and the potential risk of further politicizing of the development.
While it guarantees employment for me and my fellow land-use lawyers, it also guarantees higher costs for developers, lower employment for the construction trades and, ultimately, higher costs for the consumers.
Likewise, the "urban design standards" proposal substitutes aesthetic judgment of the elected officials, or their appointees, for the aesthetic judgment of the architect.
It is not only time-consuming and expensive, but rarely improves the quality of architectural design. Uniformity is usually mediocrity, not excellence.
Unfortunately, of the entire 10-point plan only two items deal directly with traffic--the issue the voters are most concerned about solving.
And the long-term impact of all this? Less development . . . certainly. Higher costs and fewer employment opportunities for middle- and lower-income Angelenos . . . definitely.
Longer drives or more crowded streets and highways as each of us is forced to make our way to more distant employment centers dislocated from Los Angeles to areas friendlier to business and its benefits . . . of course. Proposition U and its progeny solve few of our urban problems; they merely relocate them.