June 1, 2001 - From the June, 2001 issue

L.A. Council Overrules Planning: Housing Trumps Industrial Land Use

A proposed housing project finds our governance and planning communities divided. On one side is the City Planning Commission. On the other we have a majority of the City Council. What lies in the middle is a question whose ramifications could possibly alter the future design and development of our city-Which landuses, when choices are made, have priority status in City Hall? TPR was pleased to speak with Ruth Galanter, current President of the LA City Council, to learn why she decided to champion the Avalon Bay project over the objections of many; what she thinks of the spot-zoning argument; and why she believes that L.A. may have seen the beginning of the end of industrial land use within the City.


Ruth Galanter

Ruth, with your current role as City Council President, you are charged with looking after the best interest of not only your district but the entirety of the greater City of L.A. From this vantage point could you please provide our readers a quick status report on state of the city's housing needs.

For a while now, the City of Los Angeles has had great numbers of people living in overcrowded conditions and paying a substantial percentage of their income to do so. This problem was further compounded by our recent economic gains, resulting in an elevation of our region's economy, but aggravating the housing problem. People from around the nation migrated to L.A. in search of gainful employment, oftentimes not finding a residence that was either affordable or in proximity to their newly found employment.

In my district that problem is even worse. The lack of a jobs-housing balance is at the heart of the Westside's housing crisis. That imbalance is really the dirty little secret at the heart of much of the basin's problems. Traffic congestion, long commutes, disruptions in family life, and air pollution; all are really symptoms of the greater problem of this disconnect between jobs and housing.

If the crisis is real, what are your thoughts about mitigation? Is the quality of neighborhood life bound to erode?

Many people think we've seen the worst of this crisis. I believe that it's going to become much worse before it gets even a little better.

As we develop more land, we have become more familiar with the growing NIMBY and conservation movements towards large-scale open space preservation. Certainly there are valid arguments for open space preservation, but we can't preserve it all and still solve the housing crisis. It's simply not possible.

How should the Council balance the need for affordable housing with good planning . A recently approved project in your district perhaps provides some insight. Could you give our readers some background into the Avalon Bay project and why you supported it?

The property that the Avalon Bay project is located on is surrounded by industrial, light-industrial and office uses. It has been on the market for quite some time. And the basic issue with this project is the same one I've faced over and over again on the Westside.

The Avalon Bay project offers us an opportunity to provide housing on a piece of land that would most likely have been developed as simply another office building. And while there's always more economic demand for office uses, if you look at the site in terms of trying to plan for a growing metropolis, our current housing need far outweighs the need for more offices.

What many people may not realize is the history of this area. It is located just north of the Playa Vista project and has been zoned industrial for many years. However, in the years preceding my election to the Council, the area had begun to shift to more office uses-apparently with the city's encouragement.

I remember early in my tenure when someone did propose a genuine industrial use, it was the owners and tenants of the nearby office buildings-built in a manufacturing zone-who provided the most strenuous objections. My argument, at the time, was that this area held some of the last industrial zoned land on the Westside. Their response, "Everybody knows these sites will be developed as commercial land." And as time has shown, that certainly appears to have been the case.

So what I see is an area that has been in transition for quite some time. And that brings the question, "Will it transition into more work sites or housing units?" And frankly, we have a much more serious housing crisis than we do a work site crisis.

That's a great segue to some insight into the battles to come. The Avalon Bay project was denied by both the City Planning Commission as well as the Council's PLUM Committee, yet was overwhelmingly approved 11-1 by the full Council. What did the Council see that the planning bodies did not? And what in particular in addition to what you've shared with us gave you the sense that you ought to override both those other bodies?

As I understand it, the arguments made by the groups that disapproved of the project centered around the fact that this was going to change land that is zoned for industrial use and they felt, understandably enough, that it was important to preserve industrial land on the Westside. It's certainly a legitimate argument to raise, but again I go back to those conversations with the landowners some 10 years ago who made the point that, in effect, the train has passed that station.

The opponents also felt that to have housing adjacent to non-housing uses had the potential to cause serious problems. Now, what I argued to the Council was that when you don't like a project it's spot-zoning and when you approve of it, it's mixed-use.

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I understand both sides of the argument. What the approval really came down to was that these units will benefit working-class people seeking housing on the Westside. This isn't a luxury project. These won't be luxury units. What they will do is offer people who are starting their careers or working in jobs that don't pay enormous salaries a place to live. If I can find a way to provide housing near L.A.'s job centers, I can only see a positive effect for the city.

Can we conclude therefore that the area's zoning has not kept pace with the evolving uses? And that the current zoning is antiquated and in need of change?

I think we have to face the fact that much of the serious industrial work has already migrated elsewhere and will continue to do so. The majority of it has moved to the Inland Empire, where I'm hearing that they need us to beef up Ontario Airport so that they don't have to drive all the way across Los Angeles in order to ship their goods. These issues really target the need for L.A. to take a step back and survey how our region is planned and organized.

You've touched on the jobs-housing imbalance. Let me try to draw a parallel to the challenges the basin faces in finding school sites in a dense metropolis and in some ways displacing housing for those school sites. How do we read into the Council's decision on Avalon Bay when it's comes time to decide between the fate of school sites and housing?

The problem of school siting is a very serious one. And I know that many communities object to having a school inserted into their neighborhood. But, as long as that attitude prevails, we're going to continue to have a hell of a time getting schools developed.

We need to look at mixed-use areas as places for schools, housing, open space and all the other requisites for a thriving community. That re-examination will lead to the school district using land comprehensively-schools can use open space as athletic fields while community groups use school facilities as meeting rooms. But no matter what, we're still going to face the displacement question.

Mayor-elect Jim Hahn proposed a joint-powers arrangement with the school district and the city for the building of new schools. At the moment the school district is really a sovereign that has no requirements to share its planning process with that of the cities within it. Do you see any coordination on the horizon to allow existing community plans to jibe with the proposals and agenda of LAUSD?

I'm not intimately familiar with LAUSD's internal labyrinthine workings. But any large organization has a certain amount of weight that it has to carry around when it is trying to do something. However, I think that the city government actually has a history of attempting all kinds of cooperation with the school district and in many cases succeeding.

Where I think we're going to really find ourselves experimenting is with the neighborhood councils. Mr. Hahn and all of us on the Council are going to find some real challenges in encouraging neighborhood councils to see their communities as part of the overall city, rather than the focal point.

Let's close with this. As we move closer to July 1st, give us your take on what the public and our readers can expect in the way of an agenda re: land use planning from the many new faces on the Council, the new Mayor and the implementation of many of the provisions of the new Charter?

There are causes for optimism and causes for caution.

Clearly we have an incoming group of office holders who are energetic, enthusiastic, intelligent and anxious to solve problems. And that bodes very well for the city. These newly elected representatives should have a great opportunity to try out some creative ideas.

However, my word of caution refers back to the question of how we're going to organize and integrate the idea of neighborhood councils into this whole planning process. These new Council members all stressed their desire to empower neighborhoods and be responsive to the concerns of the neighborhood councils. As I see it, to successfully plan an entire city while one is in the process of building a system of councils focused so tightly on the individual neighborhood raises an enormous challenge for us as an entire city to transcend.

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