LA to Revise Its Community Plans

The Wilshire Grand under construction. Photo by Laurie Avocado
The Wilshire Grand under construction. Photo by Laurie Avocado via Flickr/CC

There are widespread tensions surrounding the runaway construction of large-scale residential developments in Los Angeles, many marketed as luxury projects. And many are built after developers receive zoning variances and planning amendments, a process critics describe as “spot zoning.”

Now the Mayor’s office is vowing to revise the city’s 35 community plans in the next decade. Will this be enough to stop a proposed moratorium on some development?

A nonprofit alliance called The Coalition to Preserve LA is campaigning for a two-year moratorium on projects that do not conform to the General and community plans, called the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, delivering the 2016 State of the City address
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, delivering the 2016 State of the City address

Critics of the moratorium effort have argued the General Plan hasn’t been updated in over 20 years, and that such variances are a necessary for meeting the housing needs of today.

In his 2016 State of the City address last week, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti said he wants to double the number of affordable housing units built each year.

“And as we build more housing, neighborhoods need to be able to trust that we’re setting clear rules of the road. Which is why my budget fully funds, for the first time, updates to every one of the 35 community plans in our city,” Garcetti said.

The Mayor says the city will hire 28 new planners to make this happen, in a span of ten years, at a cost of $4.2 million a year.

Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation
Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation

“I think it’s a great thing that the mayor is going to revise who does the environmental impact reports or how they’re chosen. It’s good that they are going to do the plan. But on the central issue that we have it’s non-responsive, which is the fact that we have this spot zoning where they can upzone any site and put anything in any community just by getting one city councilperson to agree with it. So it doesn’t address the central issue that we have,” said Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. Weinstein was so incensed by the proposed Palladium Residences project neighboring his office in Hollywood, and featuring two 30-story towers thanks to a planning amendment, that he is bankrolling the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative effort.

“I think what has to happen is that the community needs to be mobilized and it can’t be a situation dominated by the developers,” Weinstein said of the proposal to revise the city’s community plans. “And I think that that’s one of the most important things, is that these hearings and processes have to be accessible to people. They can’t be in the middle of the day. They have to be in the evenings or the weekends, and they have to be out in the community, and not down at City Hall.”

Weinstein also said 2026 is too far away, and the plans should be revised sooner.

“It’s ten years, I mean that’s like letting the barn doors open and having all the animals run out before you do anything. I think that the general plan should be done in the next two years and then the community plans perhaps over the next five years. The General plan is really the most important thing. That’s a blueprint for the entire city. And you customize that to individual neighborhoods.”

Now for his part, Mayor Garcetti last week said that while the planning process needs to be reformed, he made it clear that he opposes the moratorium.

“Together we will put an end to the era of special perks for special projects. Now we’ve heard a lot of ideas for how to address this crisis. Some have even proposed a moratorium on building. And I want to find common ground that we can agree upon. But let me say this loud and clear. We cannot put brakes on development. That will not get us out of this crisis. It will only make things worse,” Garcetti said.

Dana Cuff, Professor of Architecture & Urban Design at UCLA
Dana Cuff, Professor of Architecture & Urban Design at UCLA

We previously heard from architect Dana Cuff, with CityLAB at UCLA’s Department of Architecture and Urban Design. She said then that she understood Angelenos’ frustration at a developer driven process but didn’t think a moratorium on construction was the answer. How does she feel about the proposal to redo the community plans?

“I actually think it’s a visionary step, and one that’s going to be tremendously helpful. Seems to me that the capacity in our planning department has been so reduced that it’s really made possible the taking over of their functions by special interests. Whether those are developers or really people in communities who are not necessarily people who represent the community but people who have time and energy around an issue. And I think if we can get the community plan process started again, we will be much more likely to represent the broader interests of neighborhoods. So there’s one caveat to this idea and I think that has to do with whether or not Garcetti is also willing to step in with strong leadership to guide the intersections between these community plans towards a city that works as a whole.”

We also went back to Jamarah Harris. She is spokesperson for Crescent Heights, developers of the Palladium Residences project in Hollywood.

“I think it’s a natural extension of what the mayor’s been doing in leading on housing. I think this new proposal really stems that of that and making sure that actually doing that work is feasible and that you have the appropriate level of staff support to get that done.”

A rendering of the proposed Palladium Residences. Courtesy of Crescent Heights.
A rendering of the proposed Palladium Residences. Courtesy of Crescent Heights.

What will having more clear, revised community plans mean for developers? Does that make it easier for them, because there’s a little bit more clarity about what’s expected from them?

“You know I think it’s certainly case by case and, I know in the case of Hollywood, it has been a little bit difficult going back and forth and, you get approved and develop an entire plan based on one set of rules. And then you have that changed or overturned, generally by frivolous lawsuits in the past. So anything you can do to bring certainty to the process is certainly helpful for someone trying to build more housing in Los Angeles,” Harris said.

But what about the issue of spot zoning that lies at the heart of the moratorium effort? Harris says projects like hers exemplify the need for spot zoning because to build the amount of units the developers believed they needed, while saving the Hollywood Palladium, a planning amendment was necessary. In other words, you need flexibility on a case-by-case basis.

“If each community really looked at its own vicinity, and talked about where its land uses should be heading and what its density should be, how those should be changing and how to handle the traffic issues in their neighborhood, it would certainly give guidelines for every project that is located in those communities,” Cuff said. “Which we don’t really have now except in the artifacts of old zoning regulations. It won’t eradicate the need for variances. Nothing will. Because that’s the way cities grow and change. But it will surely do a lot to address the overuse of those now.”