A Pact to End Development Gridlock

<i> Mark Ryavec is a land-use consultant in Los Angeles</i>

In the last few years, the development landscape in Los Angeles has changed dramatically. Today, almost without exception, how we use our land and what we build triggers intense public reaction. Far too often the question is not how to build in harmony with the community but whether any building will be allowed at all.

For years the city building-approval process has been like swimming upstream; today, under our uniquely Balkanized system, we have hit fierce rapids. While many environmentalists have seen reason to cheer slower growth, this “concretization” of our land use and decision-making processes has negative consequences.

In too many settings, it denies us the tools to cope with the city’s many ills: traffic congestion, scarce affordable housing, visual blight and lack of open space. We are also impeded from rejuvenating the basic physical elements that comprise a city--its living quarters, commercial areas, its streets and sewers.


This “concretization” of the public decision-making process can be explained by the emergence of a new plurality in Los Angeles politics. The traditional decision-makers--the mayor, his appointees and the City Council--have less power now. The press of population, running up against limited public facilities in already congested neighborhoods, has galvanized community groups into forceful slow-growth stances. The defeats of former Los Angeles City Councilwomen Peggy Stevenson and Pat Russell--based on anti-growth sentiment--caused many of their council colleagues to defer significantly to pressure groups opposing anything in their neighborhood, from new homeless shelters to mini-malls.

In response to the loud public protests over growth issues, city elected officials greatly expanded bureaucracy that recommends and enforces development controls. In many instances, the staff replaced the elected official as decision-maker. On top of this came the voter-approved Proposition U in 1986, which cut the building potential of most of the city’s commercial property by half.

One other change finally tipped the scale of decision-making authority from developers and elected officials to neighborhood groups and the bureaucrats. The city imposed campaign contribution limits in June, 1987, and last year state voters passed Proposition 73, which prohibited the transfer of political funds and forced a candidate to declare which race he or she was raising money for. This lessened the role that developers, attorneys and lobbyists play in financing political campaigns, and resulted in elected decision-makers and their appointees increasingly deferring to community groups. Today the only certainty is that if developers do not go out and find those people who hold the decision-making power for a particular neighborhood to discuss and resolve local concerns, their projects will be held hostage.

In effect, the gridlock in our streets has jumped the curb to the rest of the city. But the solution is not found in blocking new development. In fact, our only vehicle for renewing the city and solving our problems, short of new revenue sources, is private development. But to continue attracting this private investment, we need a new social contract.

Under this proposed truce, property owners and developers would agree to fully mitigate all adverse impacts on a community from a new project. The environmental review mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act would be the process used to objectively determine impacts and subsequent mitigation measures. If particularly deleterious impacts cannot be alleviated, then the project would be limited or another use could be made of the site. A commitment to abide by such a process would be a substantial concession from developers.

For their part, city elected officials, planners and neighborhood activists would accede to the following: They would accept that owners have the right to develop their property (except in cases where proposed uses pose significant danger to life or limb); they would agree that a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision prevents cities from requiring developers to ameliorate pre-existing conditions (despite the decision, cities often go beyond it unless litigation is threatened); and finally, the city would establish a process to alert neighbors early and to choose representatives who understand the planning process and would speak with authority for their neighborhood. Too often developers negotiate in good faith with ad hoc community representatives only to be blind-sided by a second or third “neighborhood group” late in the process.

Builders need to be certain that their entitlements have a fixed life span. For example, since the permit process is so long and the expenses incurred in site acquisition, environmental reports and architectural drawings are so great, some means of locking-in the right to build prior to receipt of the actual building permit should be considered.

A city needs to remake itself or it dies. Just saying “no” is both irresponsible and compounds our problems. Since we are all in this together, it is only together that we can and will build our way out.