What would L.A. look like if Measure S passes?

Measure S promises to "Save Our Neighborhoods?" Could it stifle them? DnA spoke to experts on both sides of the initiative and found out what might be the real impacts on real projects if the measure passes.

Mailers for and against Measure S.

If you live in L.A. you are no doubt being deluged with flyers for and against Measure S, and you will have seen many billboards promising to “save our neighborhoods.” This initiative aims to put a two-year moratorium on developments that require a zoning change or variance from the General Plan.

But what does that really mean, as in what happens to actual buildings in the pipeline, if Measure S were to pass? Would it preserve affordable dwellings or help drive up rents and stymie construction of new “affordable” projects? Would it thwart the ability to invigorate neighborhoods by giving new uses to sites zoned for an outmoded purpose? Can you plan cities at the ballot box?

To try and make sense of all of this, we decided to take a look at some specific, high-profile projects on the boards in Los Angeles and ask: how would these be impacted if Measure S passes?

Listen to this broadcast or read on below.

We turned to experts on both sides of the measure: Mark Vallianatos, co-founder of a pro-development group called Abundant Housing, and Dick Platkin, retired LA City planner who worked on the general plan framework and writes about planning issues for a blog called CityWatch.

We asked them to walk us through projects that have been featured in Measure S campaign materials: large, mixed-used, unbuilt complexes by architect Frank Gehry and developers Rick Caruso and Crescent Heights; as well as flash points for the fight over affordable housing like the Vintage Westwood Horizons retirement community. We also looked at high-profile projects on the boards by designers Bjarke Ingels and Herzog & de Meuron that would require variances to be built in the Arts District. Through examining specific projects we were able to learn about the broader impact of this attempt to put the brakes on growth in Los Angeles.

Could Measure S preempt this? Rendering of mixed use tower at 1600 South Figueroa just north of the 10 freeway. The architects Gensler were asked by the developers L&R Group to come up with a “fanciful” concept for a “gateway” to DTLA.

DnA: Tell us where you stand on Measure S.

Mark Vallianatos: I oppose Measure S, mainly because I think it’s going to make our housing crisis worse which will in turn worsen homelessness, make people pay more for rent, make it harder for young people to afford to be able to move out of their parents’ house and even to stay in the region. And also I feel like it also provides a roadblock to the positive evolution of L.A. to become more sustainable, more equitable, more innovative.

Dick Platkin: I wasn’t part of the [group of] people who drafted Measure S. But once I read about it, I immediately gravitated to it. And the basic reason is that I don’t see how a city that is as large as L.A. and as complex as L.A. can operate without a carefully crafted and monitored general plan that will address all of the land uses in L.A.. Having worked on it before, I know that it is a carefully thought-out plan. It has designated areas for high density, housing for tall buildings, areas for low rise buildings and it has areas for strictly residential areas.

8150 Sunset, designed by Frank Gehry. Would it be stopped if the measure passes?

DnA: I think both of you agree that one needs a good general plan but Mark, you might say that one needs an updated general plan?

MV: Definitely it would be great to have an updated general plan and updated community plans, so it’s easier to build more housing in the right places without having to go through the complex process to get exemptions. But since right now that’s not the case, you need to allow people to transform parking lots into housing or transform abandoned car dealers into mixed-use buildings because otherwise we’re just going to continue to get hammered by high housing costs.

DnA: And that gives rise to a phenomenon called spot zoning, where variances are given to change the use or scale or density of a project that is not allowed by the general plan as it exists. The Measure S side believes spot zoning is connected to a corrupt system of planning whereby developers give contributions to political campaigns and in return they get variances on projects. Is that correct?

MV: To me the two biggest impacts of Measure S will be a two year moratorium on zone changes and an essentially permanent ban on general plan amendments. And that will make it harder to on a site-by-site basis do something different.

Will S save your neighborhood or does it tap into a desire to stop change, deploying deceptive advertising messages? Note: this photo was taken from the Culver City Expo line stop, way station to a denser, transit-based LA opposed by some supporters of Measure S.

DP: Our contention is if the city of L.A. were to follow its own charter by the intent of the charter there wouldn’t even be a Measure S. The planning process is fine. It’s the distortions of the planning process that are the problem.

DnA: So let’s take some specific projects. First, 8150 Sunset, designed by Frank Gehry. “Yes on Measure S” has circulated a press release that claims “Trump Money Fuels Trump-Like Tower at 8150 Sunset.” (Leaving aside the fact that Gehry has publicly aired his dislike of Trump,) is the implication here that if you support Measure S you somehow stop this project?

DP: We don’t know what will happen to projects that are in the pipeline. It depends where they are in the permitting process. It’s very possible that many of the major projects that are there right now will be vested. And that means that if Measure S passes they would still be able to go through. I’m sure many of them would be litigated. There are four separate lawsuits right now for the 8150 project. Those lawsuits will not go away but it might not be stopped by Measure S.

MV: And in fact this project didn’t require a zone change or a general plan Amendment. So I think this is a strange project for Measure S supporters to focus on because even if their measure passed it wouldn’t stop it.

Residents of Vintage Westwood Horizons are being evicted. Would passage of Measure S keep them in their retirement home?

DnA: Let’s talk about Vintage Westwood Horizons. This is a building in Westwood Village occupied by 200 or so very elderly folk who have received eviction notices from the company that now owns the building. (The Coalition to Preserve LA, the group behind) “Yes on S” released a video about the seniors threatened with eviction. Again, the implication is somehow that the seniors might not be evicted were Measure S to succeed.

DP: Measure S only at this point affects projects that require legislative approval from the City Planning Commission and the City Council. There is an implication of Measure S that there would be what are called ministerial permits. Those are things that do not require legislative actions; that they must be consistent with the general plan. So there could be many projects like the one in Westwood that would be subject to a legal challenge if Measure S passed but at this point Measure S would not stop that project.

MV: I agree with that analysis. And further I’d say that if we think about projects that could be impacted by Measure S, they tend to be larger projects that are taking an under-utilized piece of land like a parking lot or an industrial building and seeking a change in the zoning change or general plan to get commercial zoning or residential zoning so as to put a big thing there. The positive thing about these projects is that they create a lot of housing and they don’t displace existing units because it’s just a barren parking lot.

The other way we build housing is an investor will buy a 20-unit apartment building that’s rent stabilized and can use the Ellis Act to get people out.

DnA: . . . which is what happened at Vintage Westwood Horizons.

Yes. Then [the developer] builds 40 or 50 condos and you’ve increased the housing supply but you’ve also evicted people. So I think ironically if Measure S passes it could force that pressure into our existing multi-family areas and actually increase evictions and  increase displacement.

Rendering of Palladium Residences (courtesy Crescent Heights), the project that kicked off Measure S.

DnA: That’s a good segue to Palladium Residences. This is the project [on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood] that seems to have kicked off the whole fight to start with.

Crescent Heights, the developer, has approval to build two 28-story buildings on a large parking lot. The towers (designed by San Francisco-based Stanley Saitowitz, an architect widely admired for his multifamily buildings) would create 731 residential units as well as 37 units of affordable housing.

This project really enraged Michael Weinstein, head of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation [located in the adjacent tower], so he sponsored the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative which has now become Measure S. Would the Palladium Residences be stopped if Measure S were to pass?

DP: This does have a general plan amendment. It might not be stopped retroactively but projects like this that are built outside the areas of Hollywood that are already planned and zoned for tall, high density buildings would be affected. You could still do it after two years but it would have to be for an area that’s at least 15 acres or larger.

MV: I feel like this project has already moved far enough along that it wouldn’t be blocked. But it is a good example of the type of project that will be harder in the future or just impossible. And to me this is a mixed-use, mixed-income building two blocks from transit. This is the future of Los Angeles, what we need, and to have this one guy up in his tower look out and worry about his views and then kick off this initiative to stop transit-oriented development is really disappointing, really terrifying if you really care about a more sustainable future for L.A.. It is a good symbol of what the fight is about.

DnA: What about 333 La Cienega? That’s a project, recently approved by LA City Council, by developer Rick Caruso [known for the shopping centers the Grove and the Americana at Brand in Glendale).

He is reported to have given hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions but also to have put a big chunk of change into the affordable housing fund. The towers would come down from 20 stories to 16 in order to get this approval. What are the implications for that project of Measure S?

DP: I happen to live near that project and I’ve been very involved and this project could easily have been built a half a mile to the south where the plans and the zones encourage high density, encourage high-rise buildings and where there will be a subway station. His choice was to build in an area that is zoned and planned for 45 feet. We’ve argued consistently that this type of project should be built where it’s planned.

We also don’t buy the argument that this will somehow address LA’s housing crisis.

L.A.’s housing crisis is for affordable housing. These units will average $12,000 per month. Half of the people according to Mr. Caruso won’t even live in L.A. These are totally disconnected housing markets and you can build a glut of high priced luxury housing and it won’t do anything for the people who need housing in L.A.. If we truly want to build affordable housing we have to go back to the programs that have worked.

333 La Cienega is Rick Caruso’s project that Measure S supporters view as an example of a corrupt planning process.

First of all, you have to be able to put a stop to demolitions. You have to be able to mend the rent control, rent stabilization ordinance which now only applies to the units that were built before about 1980. You would have to eliminate what’s called vacancy control. You would have to restore the CRA which directed 20 percent of its income to affordable housing. And you’d have to restore the affordable housing programs that used to be operated by HUD. We know how to build affordable housing. And there’s a long record of it.

The problem is that all these programs have been slashed and all we’re left with are market incentives and they only build a trickle of the housing that we need. So if we want, if we truly want, to build affordable housing, we have to go back to the programs that have worked.

We can’t do it by simply manipulating the market by incentives to developers; it simply doesn’t work.

MV: I agree with Dick that we need to give a lot more resources to build affordable housing and to subsidize low income families. But Measure S doesn’t do any of those changes he asked for and in fact it would make it harder for some affordable projects to be built because they need general plan amendments like many projects do.

Gruen Associates-designed development planned for 3545 Wilshire Boulevard would be across the street from the Wilshire/Normandie Purple Line station (rendering courtesy LADCP)

If you don’t build for the upper middle class they go out and they outbid the middle class. They outbid the working class. So you need to add more housing of all types and Measure S would shut down some of the ways we get housing and that would hurt everyone.

DnA: Dick, you said that Rick Caruso’s 333 La Cienega could have been built a half mile away on a site that is zoned for that kind of housing and it would have been near a mass transit stop. Palladium Residences will be near a transit stop and yet the Measure S folks want to stop that project. So are they for dense development at transit stops or are they not?

DP: The question is where it’s planned. There are many places in Hollywood that are near transit stops where high density development is planned. That doesn’t mean that you can build high density housing everywhere.

DnA: Let’s look at downtown. One can generally build higher in DTLA but there’s a project on the boards now that would require a zoning variance: 670 Mesquit. Designed by the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, it is potentially a very interesting project but it will bring a massive jump in scale to the Arts District.

MV: I’m not a designer, I’m a policy person, but both this project and the 6AM project [the Alameda and 6th mixed-use complex designed by Herzog and de Meuron for a light industrial site with towers reaching 58 stories as well as lower level development] look cool and they would incorporate interesting features and mixes of uses.

670 Mesquit by Bjarke Ingels in the Arts District will require a variance. Measure S would likely halt such a project.

Beyond that the Arts District itself is an example of how some of these site-by-site changes that are irregular in the planning system have actually allowed the kind of creation of an almost real neighborhood in a place that used to be either just entirely industrial or just be a hidden treasure for a few artists living in lofts.

If we ban all these zone changes and general plan amendments and just wait for the downtown plan to be updated, if we hadn’t allowed those projects to start growing there, probably the city planners would say this is industrial so you’d never have this flourishing neighborhood coming out of nothing. And so I think it’s a good example that sometimes we do want to allow innovation, allow prototyping, allow people to try new things in places that might be unexpected and maybe something good will emerge.

And so I do look at the Arts District as an example of the need for flexibility and zoning and I look forward to hopefully these two projects not being stopped by Measure S but actually getting built.

DP: The actual impact for the residents of the Arts District of these projects is that artists are being driven out. So the people who will live there will have no connection to the arts community that is there right now. This project will have 1,000 square foot condominiums that cost one million dollars. So we know that the artists who are living there are not going to be able to stay.

DnA: But artists are not currently living in the Rancho Cold Storage Facility [site of 670 Mesquit].

DP: It’s part of a broader phenomenon in the Arts District. By having expansive housing where there has been low priced housing — often illegal housing, but the artists have found a way to live there — they are being displaced.

MV: My research on displacement and gentrification shows that if an area is gentrifying, like the Arts District, if you add new market-rate units you actually slow displacement rather than increase it.

If you think about a community in L.A. like Highland Park where I live; if you don’t build new units the people with more money will go and outbid the existing residents for existing homes. I want to see more workforce housing and affordable housing but if we try to stop new market-rate housing because it’s “luxury” we really hurt the people at the bottom — not the people who can afford to live anywhere.

Measure S supporters say their goal is keep developers and elected officials to the General Plan; opponents says the General Plan is outmoded, and that variances and zoning changes allow for creative solutions.

DnA: Is Measure S nostalgic?

DP: I don’t buy that at all. Having worked on the actual General Plan it is a visionary document.

It clearly stated that L.A. needs to have areas that are planned for density, that are planned for transit. This has been the planning principle of all plans in the city of Los Angeles since 1970.

The adopted planning policies of the city of L.A. are in no way trying to maintain a dispersed suburban environment; it’s trying to transform it into a higher density area, but in a methodical, organized way where you look at the infrastructure, you look at services and you try to designate exactly those areas that should have higher and greater density, not just allow some developer to walk into the mayor’s office and say, well, I don’t care about your plans, I don’t care about your zones. I want to build here like at 333 South La Cienega and I have enough political juice to push it through.

We want transparency. We want to have a planned process to transform the city. We don’t want to have it left to whatever are the latest trends in real estate development, which right now apparently is a massive inflow of investment and speculative capital from China. We want to have an orderly, organized, carefully monitored process for running a city of 4 million people.

MV: I feel like many of the Measure S supporters do have a vision of Los Angeles that is worried about the direction we’re going. They’re worried about transit, they’re worried about large buildings; and I feel like I’m optimistic about the direction L.A. is moving.

I feel like a lot of younger people and lower income people in the city do want and need change and that Measure S would put a blockage at least in our ability to create enough housing for those types of people. And so I feel like we really need to defeat S and look to the future, look to transit, look to better plans and look to creativity to build our way out of this crisis.

Still confused? Here is more information about Measure S:

KCRW’s Press Play will host this discussion about Measure S on February 28.

DnA discussed the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, now called Measure S, on this broadcast.

DnA reported here on YIMBYs, the movement that is fighting efforts to slow development like Measure S.

Hillel Aaron reports in LA Weekly about how slowing growth has made Venice one of LA’s most expensive neighborhoods.

The Los Angeles Times and Curbed LA report extensively on Measure S. The Los Angeles Times says Don’t Vote for Measure S in this editorial.

Urbanize LA editorializes against Measure S.