Plan fails to curb growth in Valley

Times Staff Writer

A new city report found that developers could add 3 million square feet of commercial space to the Ventura Boulevard corridor under current zoning rules, despite concerns by residents and elected officials that the area is overdeveloped.

The long-awaited report, released this week by the Los Angeles Planning Department, comes as a new building boom in the southern San Fernando Valley has some residents pushing for new growth controls.

The report assessed commercial development in the area regulated by the city’s Ventura Boulevard Specific Plan, a landmark zoning effort enacted 16 years ago to control growth along the historic corridor.


It found that the corridor has added about 1 million square feet of commercial space since 1991. Although in planning circles that’s considered a significant amount, it represents only a fourth of the commercial growth allowed under the rules, the report said.

The study did not count residential growth -- including large mixed-use developments -- because the rules only limit commercial growth. Thousands of residential units have been added or approved for construction in the area over the last few years, and some community activists say the city should count these condominiums and apartments in assessing whether the area is overbuilt.

A recent Times search of city traffic records showed that while residential development on and near Ventura Boulevard was being planned and built, traffic worsened significantly at 10 major intersections.

Robert Duenas, senior city planner for the area, said that if the Ventura Boulevard Specific Plan area were being developed today, it would be very different. Planners would have used a more precise tool than square footage to estimate the size and effects of development, and most likely would have included housing and other development.

The plan as it’s written now, he said, could easily allow more congestion and overbuilding than was intended, particularly because development tends to be clustered in popular neighborhoods, rather than spread out along the entire 17-mile stretch from Studio City to Woodland Hills that is covered by the plan.

“Legally under the plan it shows that we have capacity, but in reality if somebody were to concentrate all that capacity in one little spot it could have a devastating effect on that area,” Duenas said. “People don’t anticipate it to be all bunched up, but that’s how it occurred.”

Indeed, the report shows that about 130 projects were built along the boulevard since 1991, most of them concentrated in a few neighborhoods. But under the rules, some increasingly dense neighborhoods appear as if they have barely touched their allocation of square footage.

Sherman Oaks, for example, actually lost square footage by the city’s calculations, because the old rules allowed the city to subtract demolished buildings from the area’s total square footage. When the old, fully enclosed Sherman Oaks Galleria was replaced with an indoor-outdoor mall, all that outdoor space no longer counted. So much space was subtracted from the neighborhood’s total, that, on paper, it looks like the booming community lost development.

Under the specific plan, developers there would be allowed to build 405,000 square feet of commercial space -- more than the original 395,000 square feet anticipated in the plan.

The way the projects are counted now, other communities are also wide open, according to the report -- 391,000 square feet could be built in Studio City and the Cahuenga Pass, 600,000 square feet in Tarzana and 1.4 million in Woodland Hills.

When the specific plan went into effect in 1991, the main concern along the boulevard was the steady progression of high-rise office buildings clustered in Encino and threatening to spill east and west into other communities.

Faced with community outrage and a dramatic rise in the power and influence of homeowner groups, the city convened a group of residents and others to develop a plan to keep growth in check.

Assuming that the bulk of the new construction would be high-rises -- which can range from 400,000 to more than 1 million square feet per building -- a ceiling was set at 4 million square feet. Once the area from Woodland Hills to Studio City had that much more commercial development, new rules would kick in, limiting additional growth.

But then the market changed. Instead of high-rise office towers, developers and their customers were now clamoring for condominiums, retail complexes and so-called mixed-use developments that offered living and work spaces along with places to shop.

Some of the development didn’t even take place on the boulevard itself, but on adjacent streets, affecting traffic but not counted toward the square-footage limits in the specific plan.

Sixteen years later, Ventura Boulevard is clogged; new residents, employees and shoppers are swarming the adjacent streets; a Best Buy store has been built so close to longtime Sherman Oaks Shopping Center that it almost touches the Gelson’s sign; and some neighbors are furious.

“The traffic impact in Encino is so bad you can’t even move,” said Diane Rosen, chairwoman of the planning and land use committee of the Encino Neighborhood Council.

“These properties are coming right out onto the boulevard. There’s no side streets that can carry this traffic, and these neighborhood streets just can’t absorb it.”

Rosen’s committee recommended this week that the specific plan be reevaluated and revised to include residential and mixed-use projects. In the meantime, the committee is recommending a building moratorium.

The specific plan and other zoning rules allow so much development, said City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, that most of the projects that have been built on or near the boulevard couldn’t be stopped, because developers have a right to build them under the law.

“Someone sent me an e-mail about a month ago about looking into all the exceptions [the city] must have given for all these condos,” Greuel said. “But we checked it out and there was just one exception. So much of what is happening is ‘by right.’ ”

One way to tackle that would be to reopen the specific plan and discuss ways to make it better reflect the community’s needs.

But that is controversial, because participants on each side -- residents and developers -- worry that the other side will have more influence, said Greuel and others. Residents worry that the city will allow too much development, and developers fret that growth will be restricted too much, she said.

Either way, it seems like a return to the bargaining table is in store. But mindful of the neighborhood fury that erupted over development in the 1980s -- leading to the Ventura Boulevard plan as well as other efforts to slow growth in the region -- elected officials are now saying they will follow the lead of the community before setting up new rules.

“Clearly the specific plan didn’t plan for this outcome,” said Lisa Hansen, deputy chief of staff to City Councilman Jack Weiss. “But before making major changes we must have a complete understanding of the impact of construction and a vision that includes community involvement.”



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More to come

Here is the amount of commercial development still allowed along certain parts of Ventura Boulevard under growth guidelines:

* Cahuenga Pass/ Studio City: 391,438 square feet

* Sherman Oaks: 405,297

* Encino: 415,297

* Tarzana: 600,397

* Woodland Hills: 1,431,319

Source city of L.A.