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Op-Ed: Our zoning codes are a relic of a suburban age. There’s a better way to plan

An Expo Line train departs the La Cienega/Jefferson Station on July 9. A new 30-story high-rise complex that has been proposed for construction near the station would reportedly offer upscale apartments, a supermarket, sit-down restaurants and open green space.
(Los Angeles Times)

Housing prices in Los Angeles are increasingly out of reach and building permits are unpredictable. These challenges seem as endemic to L.A. as sunshine and food trucks. But they don’t have to be. They are merely symptoms of a planning deficit that affects how we live, work and experience the city.

Calls for a fix are mounting, and reformers fall into two camps.

On one side, we have wealthy homeowners who are pushing a measure called the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative — slated for the March 2017 ballot — that would enforce an inflexible interpretation of existing zoning law. It would restrict new building projects and potentially block tens of thousands of units of badly needed housing.

On the other side is Mayor Eric Garcetti, who wants to overhaul the zoning code and has proposed updating all of the city’s 35 community plans within a dozen years.

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What both sides miss is that zoning — the focus of planning for the last 100 years — is an inadequate tool for shaping the future of an evolving city. Zoning is a 20th century relic designed to “protect” existing residents from the encroachment of people and buildings they see as “undesirable.” Reformers should focus instead on tangible improvements in the public realm.

Here’s how we got here.

Urban critics in the late 1800s weren’t so different from today’s. They complained about crowding, pollution and group conflict. They had a point: The Industrial Revolution made cities volatile petri dishes of inequality. Escapists sounded calls for a fresh start somewhere new: the suburbs. Better, they thought, to plan predictable cul-de-sacs on former farmland than face the messy complexity of the city.

The suburban utopians found their muse in Ebenezer Howard, a Briton who published “Garden Cities of To-Morrow” in 1902. Having given up on London for all its pollution, poverty and depravity, he proposed that developers buy virgin agricultural land and develop homes on winding, tree-lined streets, served by new schools, parks and other public goods. All infrastructure costs, he reasoned, would be covered by the rise in homes’ values over the crops they replaced.

In the 1920s, suburbanization became national policy in the U.S. when then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover launched the “Own Your Own Home” program and assembled a committee to draft model-zoning laws that were subsequently adopted across the country.

These laws promoted two core principles. One of these was that cities should create a regular process for subdividing raw land into new lots for houses. The other encouraged cities to cut up land into zones of different density and “use” (houses, apartments, businesses and industry).

If residents are angry about the current development process, they should redirect their outrage to call for new planning tools that actually work.

The problem with Hoover’s zoning program is that it was created specifically to facilitate master-planned suburbs on virgin land. It was never designed to work in existing, built-out areas with many property owners.

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This is the reason L.A. grants so many variances — that is, deviations from approved zoning constraints — to projects across the city. It’s not because City Hall is in the pocket of wealthy developers. It’s because zoning standards for parking, height and setbacks only work when you’re building a whole new neighborhood from scratch.

If residents are angry about the current development process, they should redirect their outrage to call for new planning tools that actually work.

Here’s a way forward. Instead of trying to preordain exactly what is or isn’t allowed on every single piece of land, we should abandon micromanagement and — simultaneously — think big by funding improvements to infrastructure.

We should begin by eliminating parking requirements and easing up restrictions on commerce on residential areas, which can make neighborhoods more walkable and diverse.

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We should reverse the bans on density that hindered L.A.’s ability to absorb new housing units in the early 1970s, resulting in today’s affordability crises.

We should undo community planning policies that exclude low-income residents from “high opportunity” neighborhoods by limiting where multi-family housing can be built.

Opening up the city to more small and medium scale projects can empower families, building groups, co-ops and community corporations to become their own developers and city shapers, rather than trying to block change in order to feel heard.

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But such tweaks will only take us so far. If we want a better city, we as a community need to build a framework for productive growth, more equitable access to opportunity, and a more sustainable future. A safer street grid, expanded transit, well-maintained and shaded sidewalks, sustainable water and energy systems, more parks and adequate city services are the real pathways to a city that works for everyone.

If we focus on public projects that benefit us all, a better city will evolve around them.

Mark Vallianatos is a founder of Abundant Housing LA and serves on the Zoning Advisory Committee for re:code LA. Mott Smith is principal with Civic Enterprise Development, adjunct faculty at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy and a founding board member of the Council of Infill Builders.

Editor’s Note: This is a shortened version of an article that appeared online-only in July. This version also appeared in print. You can read the original here.

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