Measure S was defeated. Now what?

An effort to slow development in Los Angeles has failed, with Measure S receiving less than a third of LA voters' support. So what's next?

An architectural rendering of Palladium Residences, courtesy of Crescent Heights

After more than a year of campaigning, supporters of Measure S were handed a major defeat on Tuesday. More than two thirds of Los Angeles voters opposed Measure S, which would have put a two-year moratorium on development in Los Angeles that required a variance or amendment from the city’s general plan.

“There are people in the city who oppose new housing, oppose the direction that things are headed in terms of transit-oriented development and higher density in urban centers. But those people are not representative of the city as a whole,” said Shane Phillips, policy director for the advocacy group Abundant Housing L.A.

“They are noisy, and they’re involved, and they get ballot initiatives like Measure S on our ballots. But they don’t actually represent as many people as a lot of us think.”

However, Measure S supporters claim that even in loss there is victory. Jill Stewart, Campaign Director of Yes on S, told DnA:

Jill Stewart talks to reporters at 8th and Catalina Streets in Koreatown, in March 2016. To her left are neighborhood activists Aura Vasquez and Grace Yoo (photo: Avishay Artsy.)

“A year ago when we first started talking about the private back-door meetings between the developers and the City Council and how improper that was, the secret projects that are sprung on communities without any transparency, the terrible process of allowing the developers to write the environmental impact reports about their own projects, all of these things are now openly being discussed as extremely bad for Los Angeles and the City Council is tripping over itself to see who proposes which reform first,” Stewart said.

And despite the clear thumbs-up for more growth, developer Dan Rosenfeld acknowledged his profession had come out muddied.

“We clearly dodged a bullet in the defeat of Measure S. But the issues that precipitated it remain. And those of us in the development industry in particular need to look very carefully at the reasons why so many people were so concerned about the scale and scope of development. So I think this is clearly a wakeup call that the mayor and the City Council have heard. And now we need a plan, because I think at heart there is a lot of common ground,” Rosenfeld said.

So how and why did Measure S happen?

Exactly a year ago today, DnA reported on the fledgling Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, the original name for Measure S.

Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation

We met with frustrated residents of Koreatown and Hollywood, who were trying to stop the construction of luxury apartment towers that they believed would take the place of older, lower buildings containing rent-controlled apartments, and drive up rental prices in their neighborhoods.

Their concerns were shared by Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in Hollywood, who launched and almost single-handedly funded, Measure S (according to the Los Angeles Times, the Yes on S campaign raised more than $5 million — about 99% of which came from the nonprofit AIDS Healthcare Foundation; the No on S campaign spent $8 million.)

For him, the impetus seemed to be annoyance at the pending construction of Palladium Residences, two bulky residential towers by developer Crescent Heights that would block the view from his nearby office on Sunset Boulevard, and cause traffic that would further jam up the surrounding streets.

But it quickly gained traction with thousands of people in neighborhoods all over LA who were growing frustrated at the emergence of large-scale, often mixed-use and tall developments.

A coalition of groups formed, called the Coalition to Preserve LA, bound by opposition to these kinds of developments.

Supporters of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. Photo courtesy Coalition to Preserve LA.

Often sited close to the burgeoning mass transit system, these developments are touted by many urban planners as models of smart growth and essential to LA’s housing needs and future growth, which would depart from its sprawling, low-rise, car-based development.

To those impacted by this growth, however, they were seen as deleterious to the local quality of life, increasing traffic, blocking views and, in addition, crushing existing affordable and rent-controlled dwellings to make way for new market-rate or luxury apartments.

They were also seen as the product of a failed and borderline corrupt planning process that privileged developers over community needs; wherein developers could receive approval for the projects in return for generous campaign contributions.

The movement picked up steam and along the way the measure was moved from the November 2016 to the March 2017 ballot. It gained a director, Jill Stewart, former editor at LA Weekly who has published many articles over the years railing against the concept of “smart growth”; it was renamed Measure S and launched a highly visible billboard campaign.

Who has not seen looming over the city the Yes on S billboards claiming to “Save Our Neighborhoods”, or found their mailboxes jammed with mailers for and against the initiative?

Some of those billboards found themselves located, in ironic juxtaposition, against billboards for the new movie “Get Out,” promoted with the question “Do You Belong in this Neighborhood?”

This conjunction seemed to stand in for the perceived NIMBYism of the Yes on S movement, the sense that Angelenos who owned their homes and had lived here a while did not want to let in newcomers.

The Yes on S side had however touched a nerve. The planning system has long been based on a cosy developer-politician relationship, reinforced by the practice whereby no LA city councilmember will oppose a project in a colleague’s district.

So in a bid to forestall passage of Measure S, the Mayor and City Councilmembers have made efforts to address voter concerns.

The Mayor’s office vowed to add 28 new planners over the next decade to strengthen the planning department; Mayor Garcetti banned ex parte meetings between land-use commissioners and developers and announced that neighborhood plans will be updated every six years.

Five councilmembers called for forbidding developers from giving campaign contributions to candidates running for office when they have a project being considered in that district; and Councilman Mike Bonin called for the public financing of campaigns so as to clean up the land use-politics nexus.

Meanwhile a coalition of forces opposing Measure S gathered strength, arguing that the measure would thwart construction costs, economic development and the production of housing at every income level.

As voices reached fever pitch, it seemed Measure S became a lightning rod for a debate around how best to provide affordable housing.

No on S said that by slowing housing supply existing homes would become more desirable and less affordable, and added that developers had to be allowed to build luxury or market-rate dwellings in return for providing a percentage of affordable homes. Yes on S said that only by stopping the construction of luxury homes could you keep existing affordable units in the city.

Mailers for and against Measure S.

It was also a litmus test of how people perceived LA’s future: denser, taller, less open, more like older global cities; or lower, slower, and arguably more provincial.

The debate split people along generations, with younger voters tending to support new development.

And it also turned developers into Enemy #1.

Mott Smith, developer and CEO of Civic Enterprise, declared pithily on this DnA: “Developers are to liberals what foreigners are to the alt-right.” The parallels with a presidential race featuring a real estate developer were hard to miss.

After all the sturm and drang, Measure S was defeated, handily, with two-thirds opposed. But that does not mean the frustrations that fueled it have gone away.

Larry Gross, executive director for the Coalition for Economic Survival, said groups like his will continue to advocate for low-income residents, while pressuring lawmakers to better represent their interests.

“We’re thankful for the defeat of Measure S. We strongly opposed the measure because we believed it would only make our housing crisis worse, not stop evictions, and stop the building of new affordable housing. But we have to be truthful here. Measure S got as far as it did because of the inaction of our lawmakers at City Hall. And now we’re looking at lawmakers on the state and local level to take action.”

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

The No on S coalition brought together labor, business and policy groups. Josh Kamensky, spokesman for the No on S coalition, said their work will continue even with the defeat of Measure S.

“I think that the kind of anti-growth constituency has been shown to be relatively small. But the constituency for having a conversation about, how do we grow our city with equity and in ways that work for lots of different communities, is just getting started. And that’s a conversation that’s going to continue. And the most constructive directions for that conversation have already started happening among the members of the No coalition.”

And urban planner Mark Vallianatos said the defeat of Measure S — combined with the passage of Measures HHH, JJJ and M in November — point toward a more equitable Los Angeles.

“Los Angeles is embracing transit. Embracing taxing ourselves to tackle the critical challenge of homelessness. We want more investment in parks. We want to allow more housing. So I feel like the voters are sending a strong message that we want to have a modern city that makes space for all residents and is sustainable and equitable. And so hopefully we’ll be able to follow through with that.”