L.A. limits rezoning of industrial land downtown

Times Staff Writer

In a move that immediately angered business and development interests, Los Angeles officials declared Thursday that only a fraction of industrial land in downtown would be opened to residential and commercial uses.

The joint directive by the city’s planning department and redevelopment agency -- supported by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- would preserve about 2,633 acres of land zoned for industry while opening 261 acres to residential development.

Many downtown advocates and business interests had hoped for more acreage. They want the city to begin aggressively rezoning industrial land.

Two City Council members quickly threatened to ignore the directive and approve exceptions that would continue the expansion of residential projects.

Those opposed to the directive wanted to see Los Angeles officials follow the lead of those in other large cities -- such as San Francisco; Portland, Ore.; and Vancouver, Canada -- that in recent years have transformed such lands into thriving urban neighborhoods.


Much of Los Angeles’ downtown industrial region is coveted because of its price. Land costs elsewhere have escalated as parts of downtown have been gentrified in recent years, leading some developers to begin looking to the industrial area along the eastern edge of downtown.

But Cecilia Estolano, chief of the Community Redevelopment Agency, said the directive that she signed Thursday was intended to protect more than 40,000 blue-collar jobs, preserve land for future industrial uses and keep the focus on downtown neighborhoods that are being redeveloped.

“Economic development has to be more than high-priced condos and cheap retail jobs,” she said. “You have no chance of creating these manufacturing jobs once” the land is used for other purposes.

Under the directive, city agencies would reject any application by developers to put housing in existing industrial areas known as “employment protection zones.”

A limited amount of housing would be permitted in industrial mixed-use districts, while housing would be encouraged in “transition districts” where industry is dying.

The City Council has no authority to simply reverse an administrative policy directive by agency chiefs, but the council can declare exceptions that would put new housing projects wherever they please. But that process is often time-consuming and expensive for developers. Another option for the council is to rezone the land as part of new community plans. That, too, is a long and tedious process.

Gail Goldberg, the city’s planning chief, said that she realized the directive would not be popular and predicted that the council would attempt to get around it. “There’s a long history of project-by-project planning in this city, and we’re trying to change that,” she said.

Council members Jose Huizar and Jan Perry -- whose districts include the downtown industrial land -- said in separate interviews that they disagreed with the policy. Perry said that some of the very low-paying downtown jobs may be replaced by something better.

“It’s very, very clear that people want to see more residential. I’m certainly going to go in that direction,” Huizar said. He confirmed that he would try to get the council to approve projects that he supports on a case-by-case basis, if need be.

Most of the land that would be allowed to tilt more residential is adjacent to the emerging South Park and Arts District neighborhoods, where city officials say there is room for more than 10 million square feet of new development. The most radical shift would come east of the new Los Angeles State Historic Park in Chinatown, where residential buildings would be allowed into a 53-acre swath of warehouses and factories.

One motivation for that change is that the area is sandwiched between a broad, grassy park and the Los Angeles River, which the city hopes to restore. It is also within walking distance of the Gold Line light rail station in Chinatown and Union Station.

“There’s a push in a number of cities to convert some of these industrial lands, and it’s quite clear that residential and commercial uses can outbid industrial uses if they really want this land,” said James Schwab, a senior research associate with the Chicago-based American Planning Assn.

Schwab said that many other cities have acted to preserve some industrial land. Often, he said the motive is to prevent the loss of blue-collar jobs, while other cities find that replacing manufacturing with residential is a double hit to city coffers: Tax revenue is lost and city services must be increased.

“We’re not saying that anyone should get to develop anything they want anywhere they want,” said Carol Schatz, president of the Central City Assn., which represents many downtown developers. “But there are areas here that aren’t attracting any interest” from manufacturing “and the city is making it difficult to get anything worthy built there.”