May 19, 2016 - From the May, 2016 issue

Excerpts from Ziman Center Forum on Los Angeles Planning Ballot Initiatives: Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste

On April 27, the UCLA Ziman Center for Real Estate hosted a forum with this publication and the Urban Land Institute-Los Angeles to discuss the state of planning in Los Angeles and the competing planning initiatives. The forum brought together key stakeholders from all sides of the issue. The forum focused on the underlying issues raised by the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, which has potentially sweeping implications for large-scale development in the City of Los Angeles, and is being targeted for the March 2017 Los Angeles City election. Discussants remarked on the state of the planning process in the City of Los Angeles, and on creating a viable path forward. The forum also discussed the Build Better LA affordable housing ballot measure, and the recent call by Mayor Eric Garcetti and several council members to have the City’s “community plans” revised by 2026, which would set the allowable size and density of development projects in neighborhoods throughout the City. Watch a video of the forum hereBelow, TPR presents excerpts from the panel discussion. 


Ballot Initiative Forum Panelists

"For perhaps the first time in at least a decade, we seek today to fully engage our diverse panelists in a quality exchange of views on the City’s planning process: what city planning is; should accomplish; and, what role it could play in the stewardship of the built environment of Los Angeles going forward." - David Abel, Editor-in-Chief, The Planning Report

Stuart Gabriel: We live in the second largest metro area in the country, Los Angeles—characterized by a broad, sophisticated, and modern economic base with an economic area that includes the largest trade district in the country. It goes without saying that you can’t have a burgeoning economy without real-estate development. And in fact, this burgeoning economy provides ample opportunity, as well as necessity, for real-estate development.

It’s also the case that our city planning permitting and approving process is under siege. It’s the topic of criticism from many sides.  There are a myriad of different perspectives about planning and development.  

Our objective this morning is to shed some light on these various perspectives and initiatives. I would humbly suggest to you, as a representative of UCLA, that UCLA is very aptly suited to the task. We are a resource of the people of California. We at the Ziman Center focus precisely on the topics of today’s forum—on real estate, land use, urban economics, and policy. We’re going to shine the light on complicated issues, and we’re going to hope to leave with some common ground, some improved insights, and of course a way forward in the best interests of the city.

David Abel: The panel’s charge is not to waste a crisis.

For perhaps the first time in at least a decade, we seek today to fully engage our diverse panelists in a quality exchange of views on the City’s planning process, what city planning is should accomplish, and what role it could play in the stewardship of the built environment of Los Angeles going forward.

Envisioned is an all-to-rare interactive, civic conversation. We've had many siloed conversations about planning in LA, where people in agreement are in commonly motivated. But we're going to try this morning to showcase different perspectives on city planning and to seek a common framework for viewing two “reform” initiatives planned for the local ballot.

Let me turn now to Jill Stewart and ask: What's the genesis of the NII? What civic complaint is driving this initiative, and why did you take responsibility for leading the campaign?

Jill Stewart: In the 1960s, the front pages of the L.A. Times were about the zoning bribery scandals in City Hall. What happened was people were bribing city councilmembers to get spot zoning, because it made them rich overnight to be able to change the zoning of a piece of land from one-story to four stories. A city councilmember went to prison; a developer went to prison. The citizens rose up in the 1960s over these scandals and changed the city charter, and ended the wheeling and dealing that's known as spot rezoning. They made it illegal in the city charter.

Over the years, the city charter was chipped away at, and the city council eventually got back this incredible power that it wanted all along. Now what happens is instead of cash bribes,  the council and the mayor have taken $6 million from developers in contributions since 2000. That’s just campaign contributions. The gifts and the special donations to their pet projects, all of it completely legal, [represent] millions of dollars from the very same developers who come to them in a closed-door meeting, not a public hearing, and ask for a zoning change on a single piece of land.

The reason we're asking for the moratorium is we're basically slapping the City Council in the face, because the guts of our measure is to force them to update the General Plan. That means all of it. That means the key issues they've been avoiding for many years.

We’re forcing them to link all of these things together with growth for the first time in decades. That is the key issue in the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. The moratorium is a wake-up slap in the face.

It will only affect about 3 to 5 percent of projects in LA. Why is that? Because most development in LA, which has very liberal zoning, is by right. You can build what you want. Almost all building in LA is people building what they want. It’s already allowed by the zoning.

Now, the city decided to do some updating. They updated the Hollywood Community Plan. Why was it thrown out? Because the city lied openly about the population projections for Los Angeles—hugely. They had the real population projections and they decided to go with an incredibly inflated number, because the idea was not actually to create a Community Plan. The judge agreed with the upset residents who protested that the city had made up data in order to put in massive zoning in Hollywood instead of the spot rezoning that they were trying to do and each one of those is a fight. They didn’t want the fight.

I went to a great conference called VerdeXchange, also put on by David. I was on a panel with 28 people that day, and actually, a lot of the planners and architects and urban designers said, “Jill, we agree with what you're saying: They painted a target on their backs when they decided to make Hollywood into skyscrapers. They didn’t ask anybody if that was okay—most people don’t think it’s okay—and they created a massive political problem for themselves.”

When Caltrans decided to oppose some of the skyscrapers in Hollywood because the 101 Freeway doesn't have the capacity, it really said something about how out of whack the city's planning department and politicians are. Money is driving this. Donations are driving this.

The mayor is proposing some nice, yet weak reforms in response to our measure. He wants to boost the city’s planning department and get more staff. Right now, we have 314 staff in our planning department, and only a third of them are actual planners. Most of them are people who push through the certifications of projects. They’re not planners. So it’s a tiny little group of planners in the city. Seattle has 380 planners, and it’s only got 620,000 people. In fact, Seattle created a brand new department just for planning, and separated them from the people who do the certifications. I suggest, somewhat humorously, that the way to solve this is: Take the 450 people who work for the mayor and city councilmembers—that’s as big as the White House staff—and let’s have about 300 planners in Los Angeles instead, and let’s plan this thing.

That’s what we’re asking for: planning the Community Plans, going into our infrastructure needs, and actually having a city that makes sense. We have a city right now that makes no sense. 

David Abel: Let’s turn now to Rusty Hicks, because there’s a second initiative (Build Better LA) circulating for signatures now, and it’s driven by the County Federation of Labor. Orient us to what’s motivating this other initiative.

Rusty Hicks: For us, in 2015, the conversation was around raising the minimum wage and enforcing the wage for three-quarters of a million workers who were making less than $15 an hour. We quickly realized that although victories on wages happened, housing costs were outpacing wage increases three and four times over. So addressing a housing crisis and ultimately a jobs crisis was really the next phase in a much longer effort.

Subsequently, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative came forward. Most of the conversation, as you’ve probably experienced, has been: “We don’t want that, so we’re all going to focus on beating that.” At that point in time, there was no proposal that says: “This is what we actually stand for.” That’s very clear as to what we have in Los Angeles: This is what we’re against, not what we’re for. As a result, having a conversation between labor allies and housing advocates, Build Better LA was born.

Overall, it essentially requires that if you, a developer, step forward and get a variance, in a broad sense, that results in an increase in the value of your property for a residential or mixed-use project, the requirement is that you include affordable housing as part of that project, and you build it with good jobs.

We’re not requiring you to build it onsite. You can build it offsite. You can purchase the land. You can write a check to the Housing Trust Fund.

We recognize that we are making planning law by initiative, which gives most people heartburn. There are two important points to this.

One: We do allow the City Council to modify the percentages related to the program in totality to ensure that there’s a maximizing of affordable housing and a reasonable rate of return for the developer.

Second: We support Community Plans that actually match the LA that we need and want. The reality is that that is not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to happen in two or five years. What we have done is we put a 10-year sunset on Build Better LA. After 10 years, the mayor and the city council can re-up the policy for up to another 10 years—two periods of five years each—to ensure that the program continues if necessary.

The goal is to help LA make a transition, because the two-thirds of residents in the city are rent-burdened can’t simply wait years for the city to complete all of these community plans.

Regarding the jobs component, there’s a view that what we’ve put forward is essentially a project-labor agreement. It’s not. 30 percent [of workers] have to be residents of the city of LA, 10 percent have to be from disadvantaged communities in the area, and 60 percent have to come from the building trades or have the equivalent experience.

It’s not prevailing wage in private projects. It’s an area wage standard. What could an ironworker get in Downtown LA? You can’t bring a worker in from Texas, put him in a Motel 6, and pay him $10 an hour when a resident of the City of LA should be able to get $25 an hour.

This policy is probably imperfect. It’s probably messy. There will be some who will not like the policy, and there will be some who will not like the tactic. What we are attempting to do is give City Hall the tools without the handcuffs—to inject a bit of clarity and consistency in a messy process, and ultimately, ensure that we all bear the burden of addressing this crisis, whether you’re a developer or a renter.

David Abel: Gail Goldberg, why has there been little conversation in Los Angeles over the last decade about the role and value of city planning. ULI-LA, which you lead, has just this month published some guiding planning principles. What about city planning in Los Angeles needs more civic attention?

Gail Goldberg: I’ve been in Los Angeles now 12 years. I feel like every day in those 12 years I have fought for planning in the City of Los Angeles, so first I’d just like to welcome all of you to the party. I’ve been waiting for you.

I was a bit surprised when I moved to Los Angeles. I thought that I was prepared for the fact that planning in LA was a little different, but when I arrived, I was shocked at the lack of planning.

Planning departments, traditionally, are not political. We have our own code of ethics, and I believe planners are meant to give recommendations based on policies and good planning principles. We are not the decision-makers, but we recommend based on good planning principles. I was a little surprised to find out how political planning was here. We tried hard to give good recommendations, and to help at least have public dialogues about what good planning looks like.

Planning is about more than growth. Planning is really about enhancing the quality of life in every community, whether there’s growth in that community or not.

I’ve stayed in Los Angeles because I love Los Angeles. Los Angeles is the great urban laboratory, I think, of our country. We have the potential here to do something different and to experiment and to really come up with a great planning process. 

David Abel: Dana Cuff, what’s your position on these city planning reforms ? Are we wasting a crisis here? Are the initiatives valued or not valued? As UCLA’s cityLAB expert, and as an architect, what are your views?

Dana Cuff: As the architect and urban design representative on the panel, I do represent a different position. It starts with the idea that all density is not the same. 20 years ago at that other university across town, there was a report that said sprawl was over. That’s what we’ve been asking for, those of us in the urban world, for decades. It’s now coming true. There’s something like 25,000 housing units either under construction or in the pipeline right now in Downtown. That’s putting pressure on all the neighborhoods, and leading development to be what I would call hyper-opportunistic, meaning that it goes for those small infill sites—the sites we have to develop now—but each one is relatively unique. That’s what makes spot zoning such a palatable kind of solution: With infill sites, no blanket of zoning solves the problems there.

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But that also means that bigger development is the push, because you go through the same broken planning process whether you’re doing small or large development, so every opportunity gets pushed for more development than it can handle. The process makes it just as hard to do the right number as the wrong number.

In the end, all of that leads to the kind of unpredictability that I think has pushed both neighborhoods and developers into the conflict that we’re looking at today. Getting predictability in the system is what everybody has in mind. We have to have more leadership. That leadership has to state that the city is going to grow, that all density isn’t bad, that communities have some say in what’s going to happen, and that there’s some kind of coordination from each of the 35 individual communities to the whole city.

Here’s my three-point plan: First, I recommend Community Plans actually get specific. It’s not just a matter of land use and FAR, but that we actually let community plans make very specific recommendations—not just about land use and FAR, but about the different futures and quality of life that they have in mind. There should be an idea of implementing ordinances or specific plan overlays that define what kind of open space has to be given back to the city if you’re building densely, that explains what the design guidelines should be in that community plan area, and ensuring there’s strategic growth around real transit corridors, which we finally have in Los Angeles.

The second recommendation I have is that we need serious design review across the city—not just occasionally. Westwood has design review, and it actually helps. They don’t have as many development pressures as we’re seeing in other neighborhoods, but those neighborhoods need both expert advisers and community representatives looking at the quality of the buildings being proposed. And we need design ordinances built into those community plans that guide that design review process.

The last thing I would recommend is that in our regulatory context, we build in the next generation of Los Angeles’s needs. We have the re:code process going on right now. Most of us who are watching that are hopeful, but it takes a lot of optimism given how slow the planning process has become. But the possibility that our zoning ordinances could be more specific, and that we could actually codify, i.e. build into the code, the public benefits of increased development, is not something that we’ve had in the past.

We really need a much more comprehensive approach to this that at the same time that is neighborhood-specific if we’re going to solve it.

David Abel: Mott Smith, you’re on the panel representing the development community. Share your viewpoints.

Mott Smith: We’re not going to get “there from here”. If I may be a little provocative, I’d say that this conversation is the same conversation we’ve been having since I worked for you—as editor of The Planning Report—about 50 years ago.

We fail ourselves and we fail the next generation when we continue to promulgate the myth that LA is an exceptional case. LA is any old city. Contrary to us being 10 years behind other cities, I think we’re 10 years ahead in terms of the conflicts. Talking to people from Seattle, Denver, Portland, or Charlotte—the ways in which we’re similar are much more interesting than the ways in which we’re different.

One of the ways that we are similar is that we are all the inheritors of Ebenezer Howard’s design for suburban zoning. Howard wrote a book in 1902 called Garden Cities of To-morrow. He basically said, “London is a pestilent cesspool, and in order for us all to have full lives, we have to move out to the countryside.” That’s where most people’s knowledge of the book starts and stops.

What’s interesting about the book is that he [essentially] wrote the business plan for KB Homes. He said that what costs £1,000 in London, you can have for pennies in farmland, and that when we rezone farmland for residential, there’s going to be so much leftover money that the developer can pay for all the infrastructure. And this became the model.

When Herbert Hoover became Secretary of Commerce, in 1926 he promulgated two acts, the Standard City Planning Enabling Act and the Standard City Zoning Enabling Act, which taught the entire country how to do Ebenezer Howard’s plan for using zoning as a way of turning farms into single-family homes and getting the developer to pay for everything.

That is what we live with right now: this idea that the purpose of planning is first of all to create sprawl and to create an economic deal where you put as much land under a single control as you can. We live in this culture today. I would venture to say that most of our interactions with the city or council offices are: “If I, the stakeholder, say yes to your project, what are you going to give me?” Our planning system is set up for extraction. I have not been to a single place in the United States where zoning is not traded for something.

Anybody who thinks that we need to make plans that we stick to, I challenge you to stick to your schedule for your day and not be half an hour late somewhere. I challenge you not to change an appointment that you made 10 years ago, which is the mayor’s current plan. It is absolutely absurd to think that we are going to get where we all want to go using this suburban tool that only works in new-growth communities and communities that don’t want to change to accomplish anything.

The challenge is: We have not given Vince the tools. The tools are not money. The tools are not staff. He needs all those things, but that is not how you do planning. The only way a plan gets built is if you’re Irvine, and you’re starting from scratch and you sell every property with the condition that you follow the plan.

So, what can we do? We need to stop pretending that these zoning-based tools—Herbert Hoover’s recapitulation of Ebenzer Howard’s business plan—are going to have anything to do with what we are doing in Los Angeles right now, and look for a real model. There is a real model—the plan for the City of Chicago in 1911 by Daniel Burnham. This was the opposite of what we do now.

In Burnham’s plan, it was a private consortium—a bunch of community stakeholders getting together with developers—telling the government how to plan the public side of the city. The plan for Chicago was not zoning. The plan for Chicago was physical interventions to Michigan Avenue, to Lakefront, to the schools, to the transit system. It was putting all those infrastructural items into a plan. It had a chapter on funding: How are we going to pay for this? It had a chapter on legal authority: How can we get together with all these jurisdictions and do this? Again, it was the community getting together telling the government what to do with our shared property—just like we’re a corporation.

That plan, unlike every other city plan I’ve ever seen in an iterative, changing city, actually got built. That’s what we need today in Los Angeles.

David Abel: Gail, please comment on what you’ve heard from the other panelists.

Gail Goldberg: I’m thinking of the hierarchy, if you will, of the General Plan. One of the struggles we have is balancing citywide needs with neighborhood needs. In LA, we adopted the Framework Element, which was supposed to guide the update of the General Plan, but we never did that. At the highest level, it laid out what the citywide needs are. What are the policies? The General Plan is just a policy document. It doesn’t make anything happen; it tells everybody what the intention is.

If the citywide needs are laid out clearly and adopted, then as you look at the Community Plans, which are your opportunity to create at a neighborhood level this balance between what the neighborhood needs and what the city needs, you at least have clarity about what the city needs, whether it’s housing or whatever it is, to allow you to have the kind of conversation that you should have. We’ve never gotten there in Los Angeles. We haven’t even laid out what our citywide needs are, and we’re trying to think about how we do community planning. 

David Abel: Rusty, I think you would agree that the labor movement, through the County Fed, has not been a major player in land use and housing for decades. You’ve now stepping into the fray with the Build Better LA initiative. What are your thoughts about organized labor engaging in the kind of conversation we’re having here this morning, and the roles that your multiple unions can play in fashioning a more robust civic conversation about city planning reform?

Rusty Hicks: The labor movement has not been engaged and active in the housing conversation in a meaningful way at the table for decades. If you go back 50 years, you had the labor movement that was essentially funding residential housing through pension fund dollars.

The fact that you have workers with a collective bargaining agreement and a contract, and yet don’t have the opportunity to have decent housing, is something that organized labor has to be at the forefront of.

When we put Build Better LA forward, it was never envisioned to be the be-all-end-all solution to addressing housing. There’s a funding issue, there’s a process issue, there’s a planning issue, there are a number of other issues that many others are having conversations on and working on. We see this as a particular issue that others have not stepped forward on. We as organized labor have to be at the table because it affects so many workers, whether they have the benefit of a union or not.

David Abel: Jill, do we need a hammer to change political culture and departmental behaviors? Are you providing the hammer through the NII ballot initiative? Are there other hammers that need to be provided for the political culture to change regarding planning and development?

Jill Stewart: We are the hammer. That’s why everybody’s here today. It’s why the mayor has proposed a series of reforms he never would have been talking about.

Gail is talking about aspirational planning by the city and the community, and other people are saying: “it is just economics and therefore, it’s going to happen.” I don’t think that’s true. There are really wonderfully well-planned cities. London has a very strict limit on height that has made it frankly one of the most amazing cities in the world, and everybody wants to go to London. You can pick what kind of city you have. Paris has picked what kind of city it will have, also: zero skyscrapers. I’m not saying zero skyscrapers for Los Angeles, but what we’re seeing right now is crazy.

Growth in LA is 1.2 percent a year right now. It’s no longer a boomtown. People are embarrassed to say that or admit it, but frankly it’s great for us, because now we can breathe and plan something. The crush of growth is over in Los Angeles. The amount of people having children is way down. It’s time to say, “Okay, our demographics are finally calming down. What do we want the city to be?” It does not have to be at hell speed, and we shouldn’t be deciding it through individual councilmembers who take money from developers. 

Zev Yaroslavsky: There needs to be political leadership in City Hall. I understand the political pressures that the mayor and the city council are under. It’s not restricted to this mayor and this city council. But I’m living proof that there’s life after making tough decisions in your elected office. This is a moment—the opportunity that shouldn’t be missed—for the city to make a serious effort.

I thought it was interesting and noteworthy that the mayor and the city council have proposed this path forward. It falls way too short given the situation we’re in.

A 10-year horizon is not short enough. Maybe there are some parts of the General Plan and the city that can wait 10 years. But the areas that are particularly impacted, the closer you get into the center of the city, need attention now.

The concept of having a plan redo in a time certain is good, but in the meantime—and that was what was missing in that proposal of theirs—in the meantime, the spot zoning loophole remains in force. In order to be credible, the city has to plug that loophole while these discussions take place with stakeholders. 

Jill Stewart: So you’re suggesting that Mayor Eric Garcetti and the city council impose a rule on themselves of no spot zoning while they fix this thing?

Zev Yaroslavsky: Oh, no. I don’t think they should impose it on themselves. I think they should agree to something with stakeholders and put the instrument that closes the loophole on the ballot in March. That way, all of us can work without a gun held to our heads and try to resolve the path forward. I would not trust any legislative body to police itself on something of this magnitude, including the one I served on.

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© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.