How long does it take to revitalize a moribund section of Los Angeles that was zoned and built according to development and land-use patterns that prevailed in the 1940s? How long does it take to recognize civic assets like the Los Angeles River and incorporate them into vibrant communities with modern transit and modern patterns of living, working and playing? How long does it take to get local residents, environmentalists, affordable housing advocates, developers and transportation planners on the same page? How long does it take to find a way to spur economic development without driving out the very people who need new jobs and improved living conditions the most?
Too often, especially in L.A., the answer is “forever.”
But not always. At times it may have seemed like forever to Councilman Ed Reyes and his imaginative staff, to the city Planning Department, and to the activists and visionaries who have worked for more than a decade to turn neglected neighborhoods and underused industrial properties next to the former Southern Pacific rail yard north of downtown — known as the Cornfield — into a collection of new urban zones.
They passed an important milestone Tuesday when the Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan was approved in the City Council’s planning committee. There are two more stops — the city attorney needs to put everything in proper order, and then the full council needs to act. When it’s the council’s turn, members should spend a few minutes to take note of just what has been achieved, and then adopt the plan without further delay.
To understand what has been achieved, it’s important to recall the heady times just before the economy collapsed. In Northeast L.A., right next to the Cornfield — the land that was being turned into the Los Angeles State Historic Park — developers were eyeing parts of Lincoln Heights and Cypress Park for condominiums, business advocates were getting nervous about the loss of rare industrial-zoned land, residents and tenant advocates were gearing up for a fight against eviction and gentrification, and city officials were readying for an all-too-common battle: How much land zoned for one purpose should developers be allowed to use for a different purpose, and what should they be required to give in exchange? How long would each of those negotiations take, and how many developers with investments to make would ultimately give up and walk away as negotiations over variances and incentives dragged on?
That’s the way it is, after all, in so much of Los Angeles. The land is zoned for one purpose. The market dictates another, and developers follow, neighbors rebel and everyone leaves angry.
Reyes, having completed a master plan for preservation, enhancement and rational development of the Los Angeles River — only to get stuck in the mire of geographic and political rivalries — focused on the area north of the new park. The stalled economy actually gave him some breathing room as he brought together competing interests, each with their own plans and visions for the area. Was he about to foist onto them some crazy urban hipster zone, with Metro stops but no parking, and plenty of Starbucks but no industrial jobs with livable wages?
A new zone, yes. Four of them, in fact, because the zoning laws under which Los Angeles still operates were adopted just after World War II and were drafted for a city with a few heavy industrial cores, built around rail spurs that no longer exist, and outlying single-family neighborhoods connected by freeways where traffic once flowed smoothly but now creeps, pollutes and drives everyone mad. The city and its people are forced by outdated land-use laws into living, working and commuting patterns that have little to do with the way they actually live their lives. The new zones, when the council adopts them, will give one example of how to break free from that postwar template.
There is a greenway zone, oriented toward enhancing the river as the neighborhood’s frontyard. There is an urban village zone, focused on housing and other residential use, with some ground-floor retail. There is a denser urban center zone, close to rail stations, geared for job-creating uses but with residential space included. And there is an urban innovation zone, with flexible space geared toward anything from artists’ studios to light manufacturing.
The market has for years been demanding just those types of development in Los Angeles, and builders have been trying to respond — but have been getting stuck in variance hearings, lawsuits and community protests, development by development.
The new zones and the new specific plan cut through that process. They bring that rarest of commodities to the Los Angeles land-use process: certainty. There is certainty for developers, who now just need to show that their projects conform with the use that will soon be on the books. There is certainty for their financial backers, who can better predict how much time it will take from loan to payback. There is, importantly, certainty for the neighbors, who already have discussed and generally approved the types of projects that will be coming to town — how dense, how much, how high.
There is an oddly apt expression from the play “Water and Power” by Richard Montoya of the performance troupe Culture Clash: Nothing is concrete in L.A. except the river.
But the Cornfields Arroyo Seco Specific Plan makes smart development of at least one part of town a little more concrete. It’s good thinking and good planning. The council should pass it and explore ways to extend its lessons to other communities.