Op-Ed: The way L.A. decides what gets built is outdated, morally corrupt and unfair

Multiple donors with ties to one developer contributed more than $600,000 to the election campaigns of the mayor and members of the Los Angeles City Council. Most of those same politicians later approved that developer’s controversial $72-million Harbor Gateway project in spite of recommendations against it by both the Department of City Planning and the Planning Commission. And the public wasn’t the wiser until the Los Angeles Times reported the details about the Sea Breeze apartment development.

Sea Breeze, according to The Times, is a “case study in the myriad ways money can flow to City Hall when developers seek changes to local planning rules.” The politicians who received donations and spoke to The Times claimed the campaign money played no role in the project’s approval. Now the L.A. County district attorney’s office is reviewing the situation. Whatever the D.A. discovers, the Sea Breeze story is an overdue call to change the way Los Angeles makes planning and development decisions. Whether or not charges are filed, the process is morally corrupt; it’s wrong.

Despite City Hall’s rhetoric about zoning reform and a vision for the future, the [city’s current neighborhood plans] remain hopelessly out-of-date.

Los Angeles suffers from outdated zoning rules and poor planning processes. State law requires cities to maintain General Plans, which need to be updated every five years. The Los Angeles General Plan includes 35 separate community plans that establish legal land-use parameters for the city’s neighborhoods, plus one each for the Port of Los Angeles and Los Angeles International Airport. Unfortunately, most of these community plans have not been updated in 20 years or more. Despite City Hall’s rhetoric about zoning reform and a vision for the future, the plans remain hopelessly out-of-date.

A recent attempt to update the Hollywood Community Plan was thrown out in 2014, after residents sued and the judge in the case ruled the new plan contained “errors of fact and law” and was “fatally flawed.” Los Angeles paid $1.75 million in legal fees to the plaintiffs, and Hollywood is back to relying on a 1988 community plan.


What happens when Los Angeles tries to move forward with outdated plans? Requests for “updates” — zoning and planning variances — land in the hands of the 15 City Council members. They more or less have the authority to ignore the old rules and decide what projects will be built in their districts, subject to sign-off by the mayor. No project of any consequence can move forward without these approvals.

This “spot-zoning” system gives those who can afford to fill campaign coffers outsized influence over the size, shape and location of new development in the city, with average Angelenos left out of this backroom cycle of monied interests and City Hall politicians.

Changing such deeply rooted behavior in City Hall will not be easy because it will take away elected officials’ biggest source of money and power. Yet fixing it can start with three simple steps: Limit campaign contributions, make all such donations public and get L.A.’s community plans updated.

Los Angeles should impose strict limits on campaign funding from those who have development business before the City Council. The Securities and Exchange Commission has already imposed such limits on Wall Street firms that are doing, or plan to do, business with Los Angeles. Many more such rules are in effect in municipalities around the country. The devil is in the details, but Los Angeles could use the SEC rules as a starting point in order to reduce the potential for undue influence from campaign contributions on City Hall.

Next, whatever contributions are made should be a matter of public record. All campaign donations received from any person, corporation or lobbyist connected to projects under consideration for variances from the City Council should be published. It shouldn’t take months of research by The Times to connect the dots. The public has a right to know this information before any decisions are made by City Hall that will affect their neighborhoods.

Finally, the City Council should do its job and update the 35 community plans. Rules and planning goals that were adequate a generation ago simply don’t meet the city’s needs now. The updating effort will require input from neighborhoods and a comprehensive approach to city planning. Once the plans are updated, developers may still need variances — no plan can cover every eventuality — but the city will have a current, transparent set of rules, debated and agreed upon by its residents, against which to judge those requests.

Los Angeles has the makings of a great 21st century city. If it is to succeed, its foundation has to be built not on plans determined by which developers have the deepest pockets or the whims of individual elected officials, but on community plans that reflect L.A.’s needs today and anticipate its hopes for the future.

Austin Beutner and Mickey Kantor were co-chairs of the L.A. 2020 Commission, which published a report in 2013 highlighting, among other issues, the need for development reform in Los Angeles.

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