Unaffordable exemptions

IN THE 1980S, the last time developers dreamed that downtown L.A. could be a place to live instead of a bleak urban movie set, city officials adopted a plan designed to keep the surrounding area livable for residents and profitable for developers. Yes, there were to be more housing units, but builders who wanted to take part in the land rush would have to provide yards, trees, open space -- and some affordable housing. Developers also would have to help pay for new onramps and offramps to handle the traffic that new housing would bring.

Things change -- especially in Los Angeles, where buildings come down or spring up so quickly that it’s often hard to remember what stood on any given spot just a week ago. The vision for the area, known as Central City West, never quite came to fruition. The real estate crash of the early 1990s brought such development to a near-standstill. The city’s program of developer enticements and guidelines was still on the books, but with little interest in the area, it began to appear irrelevant.

Fast forward to 2006. Residential real estate downtown is booming (though less so than it was just a year ago). Central City West has lost what affordable housing it once had, and three high schools have gobbled up much of the space, increasing the need for housing on the remaining land. To attract development, the city eased up on some of its requirements.


The plan for Central City West, however, remains in place. Developers know this -- in fact, they helped write it -- but that hasn’t stopped Geoff Palmer’s G.H. Palmer Associates from demanding to be exempted. You may remember Palmer. He was charged with a misdemeanor in 2003 after his company illegally demolished an 1887 Queen Anne-style cottage near the construction site for his Orsini apartments. He entered a diversionary program and settled a civil suit.

Now, on the new development, the city lessened mandated alley widths, reduced the open space and cut back the number of required trees. But it did not give in to Palmer’s demands to eliminate the plan’s requirement that 15% of his units be priced below market.

The City Council last week again rejected further special deals for Palmer. It was right to do so. This is not a case of the city layering new requirements on hapless property owners as a sort of economic blackmail. Quite the opposite. The Central City West plan encourages development, allowing greater density -- and greater economic returns -- than zoning laws allow in other parts of town. The trade-off includes some affordable units to make up for those that were lost.

Builders who invested in the land, such as Palmer, did so with their eyes open. They can’t now credibly claim that the area’s development template is government regulation run amok.