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Opinion

Editorial: L.A. has a terrible track record on land-use rules. Is that about to finally change?

Large development

The controversial Da Vinci Apartment complex is seen in September of 2014, three months before it burned to the ground.

(Los Angeles Times)

Pressured by opponents of unchecked development, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and members of the City Council unveiled this week their road map to reforming Los Angeles’ broken planning and land-use process. By mounting an expensive effort to update key city planning documents, Garcetti and company hope to head off a ballot initiative that would impose a two-year moratorium on major construction projects — a freeze that would only worsen the city’s housing crisis.

With near universal agreement from homeowners, developers and housing advocates that the system doesn’t work, all eyes were on city leaders to see if they would propose a reasonable alternative to the ballot measure. Their plan is a start, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

The biggest flaw in the current system is how little actual planning seems to be involved. Rather than adhering to a clear set of land-use rules that have been vetted with the community, the council has continually granted exceptions for projects that are bigger than otherwise permitted, or for uses that were never intended — a practice known as “spot zoning.” Allowing politicians to make changes that enrich the very developers who regularly contribute to their campaigns leaves Angelenos wondering — with good reason — whether the system is rigged. Yet the city has allowed its land-use plans to grow so old, spot zoning may be the only way to meet the community’s current needs.

The centerpiece of the mayor and council’s reform package is a promise to draft a new general plan — a master planning document that hasn’t been updated in 20 years — and rewrite all of the city’s 35 community plans over the next decade. The community plans set the rules for development in a neighborhood, but all but six are more than 15 years old. Garcetti wants to hire 28 new employees and spend $4.2 million a year to rewrite the old plans and update them going forward every 12 years.

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Modern plans created by community consensus should eliminate the rationale for spot zoning — in theory. But there’s nothing in the city’s proposal that would actually limit spot zoning, which developers will continue to pursue in the hope of increasing the value of their land. What good are new plans if City Council members are still allowed to run their districts as fiefdoms, able to grant zoning changes that are incongruous with the neighborhood? If they’re serious about changing the way business is done, they would find a way to limit rule changes so there is less deviation from community plans and more incentive to keep plans updated.

Garcetti and his council colleagues’ proposal to update all community plans in ten years may feel familiar because it is. A decade ago, former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s planning director, Gail Goldberg, launched an ambitious effort to hire dozens of employees and update all 35 community plans over the same span, with the goal of zoning for density where appropriate, creating standards for how buildings were to be designed and processing applications more efficiently. But that effort fizzled during the recession; funding was cut, and political leaders decided the new goal was simply to the speed up the development approval process. Garcetti and council members need to explain why this reform effort is different and real, and how they’ll finish the job this time.

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