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Mayor bars plan to sell downtown air rights

Times Staff Writer

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Monday vetoed a plan to sell 9 million square feet of unused “air rights” over the Los Angeles Convention Center downtown -- a gambit to boost the area’s nascent residential boom.

In a veto message to the City Council, Villaraigosa said he wholeheartedly supports the air rights initiative. But, he said, the proposed law behind it violates the City Charter by failing to give him an opportunity to review or reject projects spawned by the plan.

Developers could buy vertical space over the Convention Center and use it to expand residential projects elsewhere downtown beyond what zoning codes allow -- an idea that critics say will exacerbate traffic and strain other services.

The veto, Villaraigosa’s second in his 21 months in office, was seen by some as a bid to flex his political muscle with the council and to distance himself from what has proved to be a controversial policy. But a mayoral spokesman said Villaraigosa wanted to ensure that the projects are sound.

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“The mayor supports the policy objectives strongly but ... he wants to make sure these decisions have appropriate checks and balances that are consistent with the spirit of the City Charter,” Matt Szabo said.

Villaraigosa’s veto was a surprise to a key council member and the city attorney’s office, which stood by its position that the law complies with the City Charter.

Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents much of downtown, said she learned about the mayor’s veto when his chief of staff, Robin Kramer, delivered the news Monday.

Perry said she had not decided whether to attempt to override the veto, a step requiring the vote of 10 of the 15 council members, or to tweak the proposed law to give the mayor what he wants.

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She defended the vetoed measure, saying that it provided Villaraigosa with a say because the proposals must go before the Community Redevelopment Agency or the Planning Commission -- whose boards are appointed by the mayor.

“Those are the people who are there at his behest and representing his viewpoint,” Perry said. “This is no different than any other process.”

Perry said Villaraigosa has had ample time to voice his concerns about the air-rights plan. She noted that an informal working group, which includes the Community Redevelopment Agency’s downtown administrator, has been discussing it for several months.

A spokesman for City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo also argued that the mayor’s objections did not have merit.

“The city attorney’s office has approved the form and legality of this ordinance, and we stand by this legal opinion,” Nick Velasquez said. “The ordinance complies with the City Charter.”

Last fall, the mayor vetoed a $2.7-million settlement for a firefighter who alleged that colleagues fed him a spaghetti dinner laced with dog food as a racist prank.

That veto and Monday’s decision have allowed Villaraigosa to gain political advantage, some at City Hall believe, giving him the benefit of rejecting unpopular decisions while leaving it to the council to draft solutions.

But Villaraigosa’s aides insisted that Monday’s veto was driven by a desire to ensure a role for the mayor in important decisions that will affect downtown for generations. One aide said the mayor also wanted to avoid the precedent of the council making unilateral decisions.

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duke.helfand@latimes.com


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