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.
When nearly seven out of 10 Los Angeles voters punched the "Yes" next to Proposition U on their ballots last Nov. 4, they were sending a clear and long-overdue message to their local government:
"We're tired of the overdevelopment, the excessive traffic and the inadequate planning that are increasingly plaguing the people of Los Angeles, and we want something done about it--now."
In approving the reasonable limits initiative, the voters were rejecting as scare tactics the predictions of economic gloom and doom recited by many developers and other special interests--interests whose bottom line has seemed to depend on squeezing the last square foot of development out of every parcel.
To its credit, the City Council seems to have gotten the message. In fact, the council has shown a willingness to consider even further reforms, including the 10-point Planning Reform Program we introduced shortly after the election.
Firmer Public Control
So, the density-halving Proposition U and the reforms it has spawned, are fresh, new indicators of a major trend toward much firmer public control over our city's development process and away from the city's long-held laissez faire attitude toward development.
How had that attitude manifested itself?
In the past, the city had given little consideration to the effects of very large, high-intensity buildings on adjoining residential neighborhoods; it automatically issued building permits without informing the public or giving the people an opportunity to express themselves, and without the professional staff of the Planning Department giving its best judgments on the consequences of the project on traffic and the surrounding area.
Increasingly, this has meant new mini-downtowns cropping up all over the city, adversely affecting adjoining residential neighborhoods.
More Rational Policy
Into this milieu of overdevelopment, Proposition U has introduced a more rational land-use policy for the city. This policy establishes new density levels for commercial areas not designated as high-intensity centers--levels which can be better absorbed into the communities that surround them.
The short-term impact of Proposition U will be to make sites that had been targeted by their owners as high-rise office property candidates, instead for smaller, mixed-retail and office buildings.
Medium-sized projects (under 50,000 square feet) can offer high-scale retail on the ground floor, with offices above, and provide an attractive package both to owner and lessee.
Expansions, conversions and rehabilitation of neighborhood centers will continue to occur within the scope of Proposition U. Examples are the redevelopment of Melrose Avenue on the Westside and Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley.
Downtown Not Affected
Proposition U does not affect the downtown central business district and other projected growth centers. This acknowledges, appropriately, the strong reinvestment market visible in these areas.
Proposition U did provide the voters of Los Angeles their first opportunity to say what kind of city this should be. During the debate over the initiative we often heard from people about additional issues that affect their quality of life.
These ranged from mini-mall proliferation to the lack of sign controls; from preservation of our hillsides to the onset of freeway gridlock. These and others led us to make 10 proposals to the City Council to further the goals of Proposition U.
Foremost is the effort to make all commercial projects of more than 50,000 square feet go through a public review process.
Decide City's Future
Today, such commercial projects are automatically allowed to be built without review. No notification to nearby residents, no design standards, no consideration of adjoining land uses and their scale is required.
But perhaps the most significant impact of Proposition U and its related planning reforms is that developers, citizen groups and elected officials now realize they must come together to determine what kind of a city Los Angeles should become.
Proposition U does not reflect a no-growth mentality; it is an attempt to alter the policies of past unbridled growth. The deterioration of life in the city, whether measured by longer commute times, daylong traffic congestion or the destruction of privacy in our homes, is real.
Another exciting result of Proposition U and its discussion is the growing support for urban design development standards. Tangible results of good urban design would be projects of appropriate human scale and balance and a sense of a streetscape for people, not automobiles.
We already have some interesting examples of this kind of development; Melrose Avenue, San Vicente Boulevard and the parts of Ventura Boulevard as yet unaffected by the office building construction boom.
Proposition U and its subsequent planning reforms are a very real and positive force that will help alter and shape the face of our city into the 21st Century. Public sentiment demands better development and greater involvement by the community in shaping that development.
Building will not stop, nor should it. But as the quality and siting of development improve, the quality of life in the whole city will improve, and the economic vitality of the city will keep growing.
As the authors of Proposition U, we knew it would not solve all our planning problems. But it was the embodiment of an idea whose time had clearly come, and the people of Los Angeles warmly embraced it.
Rather than fear their mandate, we see it as an exciting opportunity for the people of Los Angeles to come together to decide what the look of Los Angeles in the 21st Century should be.