August 27, 2018 - From the August, 2018 issue

City Planning Director Bertoni on the Promise & Status of re:code LA

In 2012, the City of Los Angeles Planning Department launched a program to comprehensively rewrite the city’s 1946 Zoning Code. In the first installment of a two-part TPR interview, Los Angeles City Planning Director Vince Bertoni provides an update on re:code LA, the effort to implement a “new, modern, adaptable code into new community plans.” Bertoni describes how one of the city’s largest planning initiatives to date keeps much of the zoning code’s overall structure while updating it to efficiently and clearly meet the needs of Los Angeles’s drastically changing built environment.  


Vince Bertoni

"re:code LA is a fundamentally brand-new zoning ordinance for the city of Los Angeles." - Vince Bertoni

Update our readers on the status of re:code LA, the city’s effort to comprehensively revise its 1946 zoning code.

Vince Bertoni: This is fundamentally a brand-new zoning ordinance for the city of Los Angeles, and we have to make some critical decisions about how to approach a huge effort like this in the second largest city in America.

We could have tried to change the zoning for the entire city all at once—like flipping a switch from the old zoning to the new zoning. But we felt that, because of LA’s size and complexity, that wasn’t the best way to do it. Instead, we decided to first come up with the outline of the code and all its components, and then apply the ordinance on a rolling basis as we update the city’s Community Plans.

In March, we released that outline. There are sections on building forms, uses, and how to administer the code—processes and procedures for compliance and for exceptions. This is because we knew that both the layout and the administration of the code had to be rolled out simultaneously throughout the city.

The re:code effort is about creating new tools, and we will apply those tools as part of the Community Plan updates. We’re going to begin applying the new code to Downtown LA and Boyle Heights, followed by the Southwest Valley. They will be the first communities with the new code, while the old zoning ordinance will apply to the rest of the city. We expect to find the need for certain forms and uses that we haven’t come across in places like Downtown or Boyle Heights—Encino, for example, has very different characteristics than Downtown. We’ll start to fill out the various forms and uses for each neighborhood as we go along.

In the fall, we plan to bring the Processes and Procedures ordinance to the city Planning Commission, and then later in the year, we’ll address the zones for Downtown and Boyle Heights. Following that will be the zones for the remainder of the Community Plans. 

Share some of the feedback you’ve been receiving since re:code LA was released online.

The feedback has been really helpful. For this initial round, we’ve received good technical feedback from people who use the code a lot—like developers, architects, homeowners, and neighborhood advocates.

Throughout this process, we’ve learned that because we are a very diverse city, we also need tailored zoning. On the other hand, our code—as most people who have ever worked with it know—is very complex, and its administration is also very complex. What we tried to do is simplify it and make it easier to follow. For example, we went from 114 types of entitlements down to 50—cutting them by more than half.

One reason for the downfall of State Senator Wiener’s SB 827 was that it was seen as a one-size-fits all, blunt legislative mandate for the entire state of California. How does that compare to the Planning Department’s approach to incenting denser housing?

We’ve seen that there is actually a great deal of opportunity to provide housing throughout the city in places that are currently underdeveloped, if you will—parking lots or one-to-two-story commercial and apartment buildings. We think that various opportunities will present themselves in different parts of the city.

Our approach to this planning effort is to refine how we address development in individual communities—and we’ve been producing a significant amount of housing as a result. Last year, Los Angeles issued building permits for around 24,000 housing units; that’s our highest annual number since the 1980s. Our work shows that you can customize and tailor zoning and incentives to specific communities, and still produce housing.

SB 827 would have upzoned R1 areas in high-frequency transportation corridors. The Planning Department has also recently upzoned some neighborhoods around transportation lines. Compare your approach with SB 827’s.

We recently completed a transit neighborhood plan for the part of the Expo Line that runs through the city of Los Angeles, between Culver City and the city of Santa Monica, in which we upzoned. We created capacity for 4,400 to 6,000 additional units as part of this plan—and we did it with the support of Westside neighborhood groups that have typically not supported upzoning. We worked very carefully with these communities to get their buy-in and support.

I believe that you can work with communities that in the past have embraced neighborhood protections, and reach consensus on how to thoughtfully and carefully craft a plan that allows apartments and condominiums near transit. I know it can be done, because we did it with the Expo Line Transit Neighborhood Plan. 

For years, it’s been said that there’s a “private book” on top of the city’s official code where housing producers look for common-law decisions and the reality of how to get a project through the process. Will the re:code entitlement reforms provide more transparency and certainty?

One of the main purposes of the re:code effort is to create a process that is clear, easy to understand, and transparent. That’s why the new code we’re creating is web-based—it’s both visual and interactive.

We want to make it easier for the everyday Angeleno to understand—not just architects and developers. Anyone who wants to try to get an entitlement themselves, or any community activist who wants to see what’s happening or what could happen in their neighborhood, should be able to understand this code.

There seems to be a widespread and growing perception that planning is simply a bureaucratic obstacle to meeting the challenge of housing in our cities, and that  the ballot box or the state Legislature should instead fix this issue. Why isn’t there a larger constituency for smart and balanced planning in Los Angeles, and what can the Planning Department do to rectify public frustration with planning? 

I would argue that there is a very large constituency for planning in Los Angeles—there’s just not a large constituency for bureaucracy and red tape.

Planning allows a community to identify what is special about it and then identify tools to maintain that special nature or character. You can do that while allowing for change that is thoughtful and guided by a vision of what people want in their communities. And you can do that while allowing more housing to be produced.

I think people get frustrated when the rules are unclear and when the vision for what people want in their community is not supported by the code. Nearly every day, local news outlets like Curbed or Urbanize LA report on a proposed housing project that seems to fit in the neighborhood, yet is still going through some complex entitlement process. We’re seeing a disconnect between our rules and processes—how the code is written—and the nature of LA as an urban place today. We have a code for 1946, not 2018.

But I would say that frustration is very different than not having a constituency for planning. I think people do support having thoughtfully designed communities in Los Angeles. 

As LA's Planning Director, how do you balance the competing political pressure from ‘all-or-nothing’ constituencies—like YIMBYs or NIMBYs—who are too often unwilling to compromise?

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Between voices that are very strong on development—either for or against—we’re always striving to find the center. But as we’ve gone and outreached to communities in the course of our planning efforts, we’ve found that there are more than just those two voices out there. There are actually a lot of different voices.

As we try to find the center, there are a few things we have to keep in mind. For example, we have to keep in mind that we really do have a housing crisis and that it’s critical that we produce more housing in this city. We have to produce housing of all different types, at all different ranges of rents and affordability, and that means that we have to look at our city differently than we have in the past.

But design also matters. Design is important. We’ve got to make sure that we add housing that is well designed and meets the characteristics of neighborhoods. That means, sometimes, that not everyone is going to be happy. Not everyone is going to agree, and we understand that.

Drilling down on re:code, elaborate on the Planning Department’s R1 Variation Zones pilot program.

We used to have one set of standards for single-family homes in R1 zones throughout the entire city. It didn’t matter if it was in Woodland Hills, Pacoima, or San Pedro; if it was R1, it was all the same.

This program created 16 different variations of R1, dealing with the size of the home and how it’s massed. There’s also an overlay that can be applied to any of the zones, which has to do with whether the home is required to have a garage in back. What this did was create a much more nuanced approach that we could apply throughout the entire city, and it has actually been successful.

We started to apply the R1 variation zones to areas of the city that were experiencing or expecting to experience mansionization—new homes being built that are very out of scale with the homes around them. Since we’ve had this program in place, that issue has really subsided, and people in the pilot neighborhoods appear to be happy with the new zoning. We see that as a success, and we now plan to roll the variation zones out to the entire city as we update our Community Plans and apply the new zoning code.

You mentioned that LA needs more housing and density. Doesn't all of coastal California have the same challenge? What is unique about LA’s challenge and approach?

Los Angeles has really emphasized incentives as a way to provide housing. Our recent transit neighborhood plans and community plans—especially the South and Southeast Los Angeles community plans and the new Transit Oriented Communities program—are all based upon the idea of allowing developers to exceed a basic amount of density under certain limitations, provided that they give back by including affordable housing.

We are creating a tiered system based upon these incentives to provide affordable housing. We aren’t doing it with a blunt instrument; we do it through our community planning process crafted with neighborhood input.

Elaborate on the potential opportunities in the Boyle Heights and Downtown community plans to implement aspects of the re:code zoning code.

Downtown has the potential to produce a lot more housing. Right now, believe it or not, housing is not allowed in much of Downtown LA. In many cases, you have to go through special approvals to get it built. We’re looking at changing that to allow housing through most of Downtown, and we’re also looking at increasing density throughout the Downtown core. These are big changes.

In Boyle Heights, the changes will be more nuanced. Boyle Heights is a very different place than Downtown. It’s a place with a high degree of sensitivity to displacement and concerns around gentrification. In that particular Community Plan, we’re being very careful about where and under what circumstances we allow more housing, so that the new housing doesn’t act as a force to displace existing residents.

In November, California will vote on Prop 10, a ballot initiative that would repeal the 1995 Costa-Hawkins Act and allow California cities to place rent-control restrictions on newly created housing stock. What would be the likely impacts of such a policy change?

Most of this analysis is being done by the Housing and Community Investment Department. I would just note that if that ballot measure passed, it wouldn’t do anything upon adoption. It would be left up to the city to have a policy discussion about what to do next.

Right now, rent stabilization or rent control in the city of Los Angeles applies to multifamily buildings built prior to October 1978, not to single-family homes or anything built after 1978. So those are the two areas where there could be a discussion.

If those rules are changed, it would definitely change the dynamics of how we plan for future housing stock. But it all depends, so I’ll wait to see how that conversation might unfold.

The San Fernando Valley is currently undertaking the EIR process for the Orange Line Transit Neighborhood Plan. Speak to the potential for transit-oriented density and affordable housing near the North Hollywood, Van Nuys, and Sepulveda stations.

The Orange Line provides high-frequency bus service through the San Fernando Valley. We’re looking at opportunities for additional housing density in areas that are largely commercial and multifamily areas along the Orange Line.

We’re still early in the process, but we’re coordinating this planning effort with the Community Plan updates for that area. We found that in tackling the Transit Neighborhood Plan and the Community Plan updates at the same time, we can better examine a project’s impacts not only around transit, but also its impacts on the broader area.

Lastly, TPR recently carried an interview with UCLA economic geographer Michael Storper in which he criticized the turn in urban planning toward simplistic supply-side economics. As a planner who has held leadership roles in many jurisdictions, do you believe there is a one-size-fits all density solution?

No. I think that supply is an important part of the housing equation. We have to build more housing—that’s clear—and we have to build it for different economic abilities. But that’s not everything.

The market can’t take care of everything. We have to incentivize developers to build deed-restricted affordable housing, and we also have to build and subsidize it ourselves as the city. We need a housing strategy that includes market-driven supply, incentives for deed-restricted housing, and a steady revenue source like a housing linkage fee so that the city can fill in the gaps where the market doesn’t build what we need.

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© 2018 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.