June 30, 1994 - From the June, 1994 issue

Does LA’s Mixed-Use Ordinance Need Amending?

The current City of Los Angeles Mixed-Use Ordinance attempts to encourage a greater job-housing ratio. Citing the Hollywest project, Michael Sausser, from Afrait/Blackstone Consultants, demonstrates how the current Mixed-Use Ordinance stumbles with related developmental code like Conditional Use.

While typical of many eastern cities and even San Francisco, architects and developers have had a difficult time designing and receiving city approvals for projects which combine residential dwelling units with retail or office uses. Only recently, have these types of projects, known as "mixed-use developments", found a special place in the hearts of Los Angeles City Planning and elected officials. 

The implementing ordinance which became effective in December of 1991 allows the City Planning Commission to approve an increase in overall development rights for projects which incorporate a mix of residential and commercial uses and also agree to keep a portion of the additionally approved housing affordable to lower income households for at least 30 years. 

In some ways, this new emphasis on mixed-use is a result of the objective to balance jobs in relation to housing. By providing affordable housing adjacent to commercial and residential areas, vehicle trips can theoretically be reduced or eliminated, and employees encouraged to walk or use public transportation to get to work. 

Mixed-use developments are also seen as a way to encourage the construction of affordable housing without public subsidies and lower overall development costs, making marginal commercial projects economically viable.

For example, one developer, DKOBY Enterprises, was able to alter a project which had already gained its entitlements for a 42,000 square feet retail center near Brentwood, eliminating a portion of the commercial floor area and adding a substantial amount of residential floor area. The final version of the project, approved by Planning Commission and City Council upon appeal, now includes 8,600 square feet of commercial space on the ground level and 60 dwelling units, including 12 lower income units on the upper floors. All of this is on an approximately 27,000 square foot lot.

Concerns With the Existing Ordinance 

Taking advantage of the incentives in the ordinance requires going through the cumbersome Conditional Use Application and the Planning Commission process. These projects are viewed as discretionary in nature and approval involves a similar level of detailed scrutiny as a zone change, alcoholic beverage license or specific plan exception. This analysis includes an environmental clearance, departmental planning staff analysis, public notification and a hearing before a hearing examiner, and approval by the City Planning Commission. The Commission must make several additional findings over and above the standard Conditional Use Permit findings outlined by the Zoning Code, and this decision is further appealable to the full City Council. All told, this can be a four to nine month process, exclusive of the time required to process the environmental clearance. Johannes Van Tilburg, one of the city's most prolific designers of mixed-use projects comments, "Although the ordinance allows for increased FARs, most projects still need height variances which adds six to nine months to the process."

A number of Hearing Examiners have expressed concerns about the implementation of this ordinance in relation to the findings required for approval of a project. In a reluctant recommendation for approval of the Hollywest project near Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue, hearing Examiner Eric Ritter writes that because the project applicants requested FAR and Height limits substantially greater than that allowed by the Hollywood Community Plan, the project was inconsistent with the community plan, and therefore not in harmony with the general plan. After much public debate, the project approved by Commission consisted of 85,049 square feet of commercial uses and 190 senior citizen dwelling units on 3.2 acres of land. To date, this project has been under review at the request of the surrounding community and Councilwoman Goldberg.

Community Support 

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The experience of the Hollywest project shows why community support is critical for mixed-use at a particular location. DKoby Enterprises went to great lengths to work with the surrounding neighborhood and local council office regarding the specifics of the project. Issues resolved included height and setback variances, density, adequacy of the street system, and the number of low income housing units to be provided. Russell Blackstone, of Afriat/ Blackstone Consultants, scheduled a series of informational meetings and study sessions, and with the assistance of Gustaf Soderbergh, AJA, of Johannes Van Tilburg and Partners Architects, was able to fine tune the project and gain the active support of adjacent property owners and residents. 

One Planning Department official involved in approving several mixed-use projects feels that the intensive public input is essential as the ordinance only requires a minimum level of design standards and lacks any meaningful minimum of commercial footage which must be incorporated into a mixed-use project. "The commercial zones currently allow mixed-use projects as of right," he states. "It appears that developers are throwing together marginal projects with a minimum level of commercial uses in order to qualify for greater densities under the ordinance." 

The Future 

In response to these concerns and a perception that the development community is not taking full advantage of the opportunities created by the ordinance, the Planning Department Citywide Housing Section has begun studying how portions of the ordinance could be fine-tuned and become more "user friendly." The department has contracted with Envicom Corporation, an Agoura Hills-based planning and environmental consulting firm to spearhead this review. 

According to Woody Tescher, President of Envicom, the perception that the ordinance has been ineffective is due in part to the current recession which has dampened all construction activities, but also there needs to be some rethinking of the fundamentals upon which the current ordinance is based. While still in the formative stages, Tescher expects to bring together various elements of the development community, community organizations, and public officials to devise recommendations for revising the existing ordinance or incorporating some of its goals into the new General Plan Framework. 

Tescher has two main objectives to accomplish. First, there must be a review of the financial feasibility of development in relation to the incentives offered. For example, are the permitted density increases enough stimulus fora developer to take advantage of the ordinance? A financial model is being drafted whereby a typical project application could be reviewed and the feasibility of a project determined prior to approval. 

Second, Tescher will be looking at community acceptance, including the acceptability of projects which are generally larger than those in the surrounding community and include housing for lower income residents. Final recommendations may include community design standards specifically adopted for different areas of the city as part of the General Plan Framework which will remove mixed-use projects from the discretionary track and onto a ministerial track. 

Whatever forms the new mixed-use ordinance revision takes, it is clear that mixed-use is a concept which has come of age for the Los Angeles landscape. Several projects, such as the Venice Renaissance in Venice and Janss court in Santa Monica, have minimal vacancies and have helped to create vibrant livable streets as well as additional affordable housing. Public input, extensive community relations and good design will allow both developers and the surrounding communities to receive the benefits of mixed-use developments.

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