February 23, 2017 - From the February, 2017 issue

José Huizar On Downtown Building & City Council Vote To Reform Planning In Shadow Of Measure S Vote

On March 7, Los Angeles city residents will vote on Measure S—the controversial plan to force the city to update its General Plan and Community Plans by imposing a two-year moratorium on zoning changes, height variances, and General Plan Amendments. Councilmember José Huizar, who chairs the Planning and Land Use Committee, recently authored a motion calling for Community Plan updates to be completed every six years—a plan he says makes the proposed moratorium “unnecessary.” In an exclusive interview, Huizar joins TPR to explain how he believes City Hall can establish and fund a framework for the “real work” of planning long neglected by civic leadership, and why he thinks the moratorium would have disastrous consequences for development throughout the city. He also describes the unprecedented growth of investment in Downtown, where he has led the push for the innovative DTLA2040 Community Plan Update.


José Huizar

"The good thing about Measure S is that it brought light to the city’s needs to update its community plans ... We plan to commit $5 million from the General Fund, and create the other $5 million from a s percent increase to the General Plan maintenance surcharge." - José Huizar, Los Angeles City Councilmember, 14th District

TPR last interviewed you in 2012, after the City of LA’s redistricting placed much of Downtown in your council district. At the time, you shared your priorities for the area:  economic development, livability, and connectivity among all of Downtown’s neighborhoods. Speak to how satisfied you are with what has transpired in these last four years.

Jose Huizar: When we last spoke, I laid out my vision for Downtown Los Angeles as an area that provides more economic opportunities, and that we could begin to see as a cohesive whole.

As far as economic development, the amount of investment in the Downtown core has been astronomical—not only in terms of new commercial buildings, but also in terms of the economic activity that new restaurants, bars, retail, and hotel development has brought in.

We are finally getting the Downtown that we’ve always wanted—one that serves as a center point for the entire region. I think we are going to look back at the last three years of development in the Downtown core as days where LA moved forward by leaps and bounds.

We are also encouraging more job growth in the area, both in the tech industry and entertainment industry. We’ve seen examples, like Warner Brothers moving into the Arts District, showing that Downtown is going to be the future of job growth.

In terms of livability, we just opened the Arts District Park and have undertaken the Pershing Square Renew process. As a result of the recent Quimby fee reform, we will have an additional $25 million for upgrading parks and open space. 

The challenges we have in increasing livability are building public amenities and keeping families Downtown. Whether by providing better educational opportunities for kids, offering more than one-bedroom units, or increasing open space, our challenge is growing Downtown for families. It is my belief that if we want to develop long-term quality of life for Downtown, we have to be able to keep families Downtown. We want people to be able to say that it is a neighborhood.

Our DTLA Forward Initiative will also help with livability. It focuses on improving pedestrian walkways, bikeways, and alternative forms of transportation.  Examples like MyFig, the Los Angeles Street streetscape plan, and the Broadway streetscape plan all reflect how Downtown LA is the future of bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

Update our readers on the status of the DTLA 2040 Community Plan, which is well advanced compared to the few community plans now being processed. Do you believe that plan, now beginning its EIR process, will realize the potential of Downtown?

The Downtown Los Angeles area is projected to grow by 125,000 people by the year 2040, according to SCAG projections. The question of our Community Plan is: How do we manage and shape that growth? 

We are looking to provide 70,000 housing units in the plan, and to help with that we are looking at the emerging communities of the Fashion District and Arts District. What has kept Downtown back in the past is both the unwillingness to invest in Downtown, and also our own city’s view of Downtown. 

We, as the city, should allow more residential activities.  The 2040 DTLA Plan allows for more density and upzoning in these areas.

Another area that we are looking into is the Civic Center, which is currently undergoing its Master Plan Update. In the future, we do not want this area to just be government dead-space in the evening. We want to encourage a vibrant area with more residential and commercial opportunities night and day.

The Civic Center area can connect with its neighbors—Union Station, Little Tokyo, Chinatown—to provide a neighborhood-like feel. Otherwise, the Civic Center area will be a wasteland in between vibrant, energetic areas of evening and weekend commerce.

When it comes to planning for a growing economy, Downtown is becoming a hub for entertainment. Warner Brothers recently opened in the Arts District, an area that is opening a ton of creative office space. These companies are coming Downtown because of the new restaurants, bars, and energy that you can find at all hours. We anticipate receiving many more proposals similar to the Warner Brothers project in the coming months.

The issue of the Arts District Live/Work Zonewhich you been an essential part of leadinghas been debated and discussed for years. What is the value of such a zone and such a plan for the buildout of the Arts District? 

The courts ultimately held back on the Hybrid Industrial Live-Work ordinance, but I believe that the exercise of engaging a conversation about the future of the Arts District was fruitful.

Now, even though we do not have an ordinance in place, we have generally agreed-to its parameters if someone wants to rezone in the area. As developers come to us to build or adapt properties, we are using the hybrid industrial zone as a model that we ask people to abide by.

Its industrial and artistic character makes the Arts District attractive. We want to protect those characteristics, while allowing for more density. The challenge is that the public infrastructure in the Arts District is antiquated, so we also need to accommodate upgrades to the area.

Transportation is one of the largest issues facing the Arts District. Although it is walkable and pedestrian friendly, the area is in need of investment for better public transportation options. Our proposed Los Angeles Streetcar—a circular people-mover that will operate in the Historic Core—will hopefully be built out into the neighboring Arts District in the future.

I don’t know if I’ll be around for the second phase, but I expect it to be very popular and for people to push for quicker expansion.

The growth of investment in Downtown is part of what’s fueling the desire for plan updates that has propelled Measure S to the March 7 ballot. A few weeks ago, City Council unanimously approved your motion to draft an ordinance mandating that community plans be updated every six years. Share what led to this vote—which did not include a discussion of financing—weeks before the citywide election.

This vote has been in discussion since last April, and it’s something that I have been advocating for—as a planner—over my tenure. Recognizing how slow the city is in updating the community plans, it is imperative to move faster.  In fact, only three out of the city’s 35 community plans have been updated within the last decade—and all three were in 2016.

The discussion around Measure S did expedite this window of opportunity to move the council forward. We have a general framework of what we would like to see, and now we’re just waiting for the city attorney’s office to draft the actual language.

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The fact that it will be an ordinance is significant, because in the past, we have only had guidelines. Now that it’s an ordinance, law mandates that the Planning Department update the community plans every six years or else they will be in violation of our own law.

Although we did not specify to the Planning Department how we will consistently fund the community plan updates, we know that it will cost the city about $10 million a year. That is part of why we have not updated the community plans in the past. The plan is to commit $5 million from the General Fund annually, and create the other $5 million from a 2 percent increase to the General Plan Maintenance Fee surcharge. That surcharge, which is already in place, applies to any project applicant who requests an amendment to the General Plan.

We have a funding mechanism in place. We are doing this by ordinance. And we will have five planning teams working year-round to get our city plans updated. This is a real investment for our city.

As we upgrade these plans more often, we expect to see fewer zone changes and General Plan amendments, because the community plans will be reflective of the future needs of the community.

As councilmembers, we are trying to keep up with changing neighborhoods and changing economies. Having updated community plans benefits us, because we will have the plans to support our vision.

We are also changing how environmental impact report consultants are selected. In our last PLUM Committee meeting, we voted to recommend that developers be required to select EIR consultants from a pre-approved city list. This will ensure quality and alleviate the concerns of perceived bias in the report from the developer directing the consultant.

Finally, we are going to institute a new process called “batching” for any General Plan amendments. On a semi-annual basis, we will look at a local neighborhood and assess how many General Plan amendments have been proposed there. Then, we will have them go through the approval process all together, so we can see the cumulative impacts of projects on any given neighborhood. This will benefit our entire planning process, allowing us to view neighborhoods more holistically.

As chair of PLUM, you are well aware of the decades of resistance from the development community to contributing more from their transactions, as well as to community plan updates in general. If Measure S were to fail, would there still be the political will to pass this long awaited ordinance, and to fund the planning effort for the next decade?

Passage of this ordinance is a done deal. We are going to move forward, irrespective of the outcome of Measure S.

The Council has agreed to these principles and the framework we have put before them. Now that we have identified and committed to a funding source, we are fully committed.

 The good thing about Measure S is that it brought light to the city’s need to update its community plans. Even our General Plan needs updating. We have updated the Transportation and Housing Elements, as well as added a new Health Element. But the General Plan is like our Constitution—it is our generally agreed-upon view of the city we want to see. It is important to have an updated vision.

The bad thing about Measure S is the two-year moratorium. Not only will it slow down development and growth in our Downtown area, but it will not allow us to manage that growth over two years. Passing Measure S will bring more chaos to the system it wants to fix. The slowdown in economic development and job creation would be horrible for the city.

Additionally, we just recently passed Measure HHH to provide more housing for chronically homeless individuals. 11 of the 12 city-owned sites where we hope to build that housing would require General Plan Amendments or some type of zone change that would not be allowed if Measure S were to pass. 

The reforms that we have made over the past months rebuke the fears of Measure S, and hopefully people will see the negative impacts that passing Measure S would bring. 

There is a sense that when Gail Goldberg was pushed aside as Planning Director seven years ago, the city missed its chance to seriously undertake these community plan updates. Looking back, most would now be completed if the Planning Department had executed on her timeline. Instead, a month before the vote on Measure S, City Council votes to ask for an ordinance to mandate such updates. There’s great public skepticism about this sequence of events. What can you say to calm those skeptics, who feel like planning and zoning have lost public support and are no longer relevant to decision-makers?

The conversations that we have been having in my office, with the Mayor’s Office and the Planning Department, have been occurring been the last year or so. Since April, when the Mayor announced his goal to update all of the community plans within a decade using $5 million from the General Fund, the question has been how to fund an even more regular update to all of the plans.

We charged the Planning Department to investigate ways to raise a matching $5 million, and we came up with the General Plan maintenance surcharge. I suspect that these efforts would have happened this year, whether or not Measure S was on the ballot.

In closing, please update our readers on the status of Parker Center.

When the City staff came to me, as the representative of Downtown LA, saying that they wanted to adopt the EIR for the demolition of the Parker Center, I asked them to go back and look at its historical significance and the larger context of the changing area. 

We then went back to updating the entire Master Plan for the Civic Center, and asked the Historic Commission to assess the significance. The demolition of the Civic Center would allow more open access to Little Tokyo and the new businesses that are springing up. 

I consider myself a preservationist. But in this particular context, Parker Center is not one of architect Welton Becket’s best works. There are specific elements of Parker Center that are historic, but looking at the larger context, there is a dark history that occurred there. Looking even further back, this area used to be a part of Little Tokyo and was acquired through eminent domain.

When you take all of these issues into account, we have a number of options that can improve this area’s livability and cultural importance. The history there begins even before the Parker Center was first constructed.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.