March 24, 2015 - From the March, 2015 issue

Is LA City's Antiquated Zoning Code Fix Arguably Just an A-Political Exercise in Transparency?

Joel Miller, Vice President and Principal at Psomas, sits on the City of Los Angeles Zoning Advisory Committee (ZAC), participating in re:code LA’s effort to re-write the municipality’s zoning code for clarity. In this exclusive interview with TPR, Miller explains the purview of the undertaking, distinguishing between zoning and planning. Miller questions the degree to which the public should be interested in re:code LA, noting that the effort will not re-zone property, although it will look at development standards. Finally, Miller delves into the political challenges facing the process and his concerns about its completion. This is Part II in a TPR series on LA’s zoning code. See our January/February issue for the first installment.


Joel Miller

"A phantom code exists: all of the zoning administrator interpretations and policy memoranda, which have the same force and level of authority as the code itself. Because it’s a phantom code sitting on a shelf in the Planning Department, the public isn’t aware of those regulations.” -Joel Miller

"The zoning code is not going to re-zone property, but it is going to look at development standards—how many parking spaces are required, what the setbacks should be, and how much floor area should be allowed. I suspect that is relevant to communities." -Joel Miller

As a LA City Zoning Advisory Committee member, what is re:code LA’s mission?

Joel Miller: The goal is to take an antiquated zoning code that comes from 1946 and bring it into the 21st century.

The goal is a good one. The details lie in not only getting it written, but also getting it adopted. If I have any fear, it’s that often it’s difficult to get legislation adopted in the City of Los Angeles because of competing interests. As a result, the re:code efforts by a lot of talented and well-intentioned people may unfortunately not bear the fruit that we’re hoping for.

As a professional with Psomas, you have been deeply involved in planning issues for decades. Thus, you know that to fix a problem, you first have to understand it. What explains the City of LA’s antiquated and non-transparent zoning code? What explains its growth to 600 pages involving hundreds of exceptions? And, why hasn’t it been updated in over 60 years?

When the code was first adopted, in the mid ’40s, it fit the City of Los Angeles quite well. The problem is that the city continued to grow, both literally and figuratively, over the last several decades. Hundreds of amendments to the zoning code occurred.

But, more importantly, a phantom code exists: all of the zoning administrator interpretations and policy memoranda, which have the same force and level of authority as the code itself. Because it’s a phantom code sitting on a shelf in the Planning Department, the public isn’t aware of those regulations.

When I started at Psomas 30 years ago, I committed myself to understanding the code. Only six months after starting here, I realized there were all these other regulations outside of the code that people had to be familiar with. I still don’t know all of it and I’ve been here 30 years! It’s disconcerting—I’m a professional who knows this as well as anybody, but I certainly don’t know it 100 percent.

Whether someone is designing a house or a major mixed-use project, they have to be aware of not only what the code says—accessible online—but also these other policies and memoranda. There are also some internal inconsistencies within the code due to amendments. Some regulations are difficult to read and can be interpreted differently, both legally and non-legally. I bet that you and I can come up with the same interpretation of what the code actually says, and then have the city attorney tell us we’re interpreting it wrong.

We’re now trying to sweep away all of the phantom regulations and make something transparent so that the public knows exactly what the rules and regulations are.

You have expressed concern that a lot of good work will be invested in re:code, but will never reach fruition because of conflicting economic and political interests in the City of LA. Who, to flesh out your take, will likely testify for and against more predictability and transparency when re:code comes forward to the Council?

I’ll give an example. When the City Planning Commission recently suggested some very small, technical fixes to the Small Lot Ordinance, members of the community seized the opportunity to voice their opposition to small-lot developments. The proposed amendment was just an attempt to fix some language in the existing code. It was not a new ordinance that would allow small-lot subdivisions. That’s already on the books.

If opponents come down to City Hall to testify when the Planning Department recommends something that’s simply a legislative fix, you can imagine how concerned the general public would be when we attempt to amend the entire zoning code.

A lot of the people think we’re going to re-zone and re-plan property. But we’re not doing that. We’re undertaking a very technical exercise that most people would be, and probably should be, largely disinterested in. Unless, of course, you enjoy reading some pretty boring statutes! We’re revising the code to make it easier to navigate and understand since it’s currently very difficult to wade through.

The city created the ZAC, comprised of 21 members, to include a broad cross-section of various stakeholders. I am the only land use consultant on the ZAC (although there is a land-use attorney and several architects and planning professors). A number of the community activists on the committee, because they don’t live in my world, were initially confused between the concepts of planning and zoning. I think that all the committee members have this figured out by now.

What is the relevance of the zoning code to what gets built in Los Angeles?

Let’s be very clear about this: The General Plan governs what gets built in the City of Los Angeles. Within the General Plan, there are 35 Community Plans. Certain ordinances implement these plans—the two most obvious being the zoning code and the subdivision code.

This is true throughout the State of California. The General Plan provides the blueprint—how the citizens of Carson, Long Beach, or Cerritos have envisioned their city to be developed over the next 20 years or so. You implement the vision through the zoning code.

When we’ve gone out to the community, all sorts of questions have been raised that blur the line between planning and zoning.

Is the zoning code consistent with the General Plan?

The City of Los Angeles is the only charter city in the state that is obligated to have consistency between the General Plan and zoning. They have to be consistent for all general law cities and any charter city that has a population of more than 2 million. That requirement is in the Government Code. It was a clever way of targeting Los Angeles. 

If there’s a phantom code and the Community Plan hasn’t been updated in three decades, are they really consistent?

Remember the AB 283 program is from about 25 years ago. The city considered the zoning and land use designations for hundreds of thousands of parcels, and made them consistent.

That was 25 years ago! What about today?

The consistency isn’t perfect, but I would say the City got it 98 percent correct. 

Talk us through the process of implementing a new higher density development in residential neighborhoods, to clarify the relationship between zoning and planning.

 If somebody wants to look at permitted building density on Los Feliz Blvd., for example, they should start with the Community Plan. Admittedly, it’s probably a couple of decades out of context, but it’s the best we have.

The plan, for example, may say that on Loz Feliz, they can build some modest commercial or modest residential. They can’t build a 40-story building. The zoning won’t allow me to do it either, because the zoning is consistent with the underlying General Plan designation (or it should be).

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If you want to build that 40-story building, you’re going to have to seek a General Plan amendment. Under the Charter of the City of Los Angeles, the private sector cannot initiate this General Plan amendment. It can only be initiated by the planning director, Planning Commission, or City Council.

For decades, the city has been allowing private citizens and developers to initiate those amendments. A memo came out in March of last year from Michael LoGrande, the City of LA’s planning director, saying that in the future the city will no longer allow the private sector to initiate General Plan amendments. He’s right.

Does that mean every General Plan amendment initiated by a private developer or property owner that’s been adopted over the past 25 years was illegal?

David, you’re trying to trap me! Let me just say that there are only three entities that can initiate a General Plan amendment: the director of planning, the Planning Commission, or the City Council. I suspect that the statute of limitations on private-sector-initiated amendments has probably expired. 

When they initiate the process, how does it reverberate through alignment with the zoning code? 

Assuming that you have a valid reason for amending the General Plan, you find the director, a commissioner, or the City Council to initiate it. Then you also have to initiate the zone change to be consistent with the proposed amendment

I don’t know if the public understands what an archaic zoning code means for the values that they hold about the built environment in their neighborhoods. 

If I can leave your readers with nothing else today, I want to make sure they understand there is a difference between planning and zoning.

When people are concerned about what is happening in their neighborhood, and they think that they’re being overrun by development, that is all in the planning column. There is nothing more important than planning. The zoning only implements how somebody wants to see their neighborhood grow, or not grow.

Re:code LA is not going to change your zoning. It will simplify the code so that, in the future, we may no longer have parcel-specific zoning with “Q” Conditions, and hundreds of zones in the residential category.

If you’re saying its totally irrelevant to what gets built in LA, why would anybody spend $5 million of precious resources on re:code, rather than $5 million more on Community Plans?

I think it’s relevant to the Departments of City Planning and Building & Safety, where a lot of zoning resides right now, as well as anybody who has to deal with development—including somebody who owns a single-family lot and wants to build a patio but doesn’t understand what the setbacks are on their property. Setback requirements are part of the implementation component of the plan.

Considering that, maybe the community should be watchful. To the extent they want to be involved in this and see how sausages get made, they probably want to make sure we’re not dramatically altering setback requirements, and requiring less setbacks so people can build right next to their neighbor.

The zoning code would also affect building height. If, for example, the building height limit is currently 50 feet according to that zoning district, but you think it should only be 40 feet, you should pay attention.

The zoning code is not going to re-zone property, but it is going to look at development standards—how many parking spaces are required, what the setbacks should be, and how much floor area should be allowed. I suspect that is relevant to communities.

Does re:code affect quality of life?

Let’s use Hollywood as an example. Parts of Hollywood have a General Plan designation as regional commercial, with a corresponding commercial zone, and allow a significant amount of development. Residents of the City of Los Angeles are concerned about quality of life issues. That might boil down to traffic, shade impacts, view disruption. That’s primarily what people in Hollywood are concerned about. But we probably shouldn’t limit these concerns to Hollywood.

Re:code LA is going to have nothing to do with traffic. I have no equivocation. The Community Plans certainly will—but not the implementing zoning ordinance.

Views, however, may be impacted. For example, let’s say that today a commercial zone would allow a building height of 150 feet. If re:code LA changes that zone’s height to be 300 feet, than the public might want to pay attention.

The development standards could change during re:code—becoming better or worse depending on the person’s perspective.

Tom explained that you’ve broken the re:code process into three stages: a revision for Downtown, a revision city-wide, and then a smart, web-based version. Can you elaborate on that sequence? What is the significance for the overall goals?

The thinking in City Hall is to start with Downtown because it tends to look more favorably on development and code amendments. There is less opposition in the world of planning and zoning in Downtown. The idea is to roll it out in Downtown first, and then see how that goes.

If we can’t get a new zoning code done Downtown, then I don’t know how we can hope to be successful elsewhere.

What’s your prediction?

I think it’s going to be approved Downtown. There is not a lot of opposition, but rather there is a lot of support. That might give the City Planning team and their consultants justifiable confidence to roll out the code for the rest of the city.

That’s where I believe sledding is going to be a bit rougher. I don’t know if there is uniformly and universal support for general change in the rest of the city. The rest of the city tends to be more circumspect and wary of what’s going on whenever City Hall wants to make changes. I really hope that I’m wrong, but I fear it’s going to be a difficult slog and a real challenge.

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