December 15, 2022 - From the December, 2022 issue

LA City Planning Director Vince Bertoni on State Housing & Planning Paradigm Shift

In late September, Governor Newsom signed two new housing bills: AB2097  prohibiting parking minimums near transit and AB2011 to allow residential development on vacant commercial property. To better understand the impacts of increasing state control over local planning and landuse decisions, TPR recently interviewed Los Angeles City Planning Director Vince Bertoni. Citing the City of LA’s leadership in planning for increased housing production, Bertoni lays out the reasons why he does not believe new state legislation will have significant impact on his department’s authority over the density, shape, and built form of the city. Bertoni further elaborates on the City’s path to compliance with new state Housing Element requirements, the city’s new form-based zoning code, Processes and Procedures Ordinance, and the DTLA 2040 Community Plan Update.


The City of LA is 9 percent of the State of California’s population, but we're a quarter of all of the multifamily built in the entire state. We are the per capita housing leader in California, which is good news for housing production and housing affordability."

Vince, let's begin this 2022 TPR interview with how the LA City Planning Department has adapted its policies and plans to the host of state housing bills that have been passed over the last few years by the Legislature.

Vince Bertoni: There have been many bills that have been passed over the last several years, but this year, what we've seen is a couple of bills that address repurposing commercial land into residential and eliminating parking near transit. If you look at the bills, for the state of California, they're groundbreaking. I think they're going to really impact how planning is done in our urban cores throughout the state.

In Los Angeles, those impacts are going to probably be indirect because, quite frankly, LA has already led the way on these two issues. For example, utilizing commercial land for residential uses has been allowed in Los Angeles for decades, but that’s not the same in the rest of the state of California. When the Terner Center looked at the 50 most populous cities in California, 40 percent of them prohibited it, so this is going to be big throughout the state.

When you look at these bills overall, I think the difference for us is the fact that we're going to start seeing housing production happening in cities around us. The City of LA is 9 percent of the State of California’s population, but we're a quarter of all of the multifamily built in the entire state. We are the per capita housing leader in California which is good news for housing production and housing affordability.

The problem is we're not an island—we are in a county and in a region. These issues of housing costs are not bound to the political boundary of the City of Los Angeles. We need everyone around us producing housing at the rate closer to what we're producing if we are going to get out of this housing crisis. It would be a positive development for the City of Los Angeles to witness a more equitable distribution of housing throughout the county.

When it comes to the issue of parking and parking minimums, we have already reduced parking in many areas of the City through our Transit-Oriented Communities incentives. But this is a bold move for the State. Don Shoup, a UCLA professor, has written multiple books about how we need to look at parking as sometimes a barrier to vital cities. The bill’s author, Assemblymember Laura Friedman, was visionary in bringing this legislation forward.

There has been a lot of conversation in Los Angeles that this legislation could be a disincentive to producing affordable housing because developers would no longer seek out our Density Bonus or TOC programs, which roughly produce anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of our overall housing in a year (including a significant generator of our affordable housing). This is an important concern. However, we believe that Density Bonus and TOC programs offer enough other incentives, besides parking reductions, that these programs will continue to be popular with developers. The Governor, in his signing statement, acknowledged this concern about affordable housing production and expressed a willingness to change the law if it's needed. We also have the ability to adapt our Density Bonus and TOC programs to create greater incentives to produce more affordable housing.

In addition, the parking reduction doesn't apply just to housing. It also applies to commercial and mixed use zones. This would allow for us to be more creative; for instance, we could reimagine ground floor retail space as cafes and convert underutilized offices to housing.

By effectively eliminating urban project parking requirements, is the State Legislature effectively saying that housing developers bear no responsibility—and can offload the responsibility—for the impacts of their infill building projects on the neighborhood?

There are a few things to keep in mind. First off, developers have to find a lender that's going to finance the project. Lenders can be relatively conservative. Even in the TOC areas closest to rail stations, we've been allowing parking reduction down to zero parking, and we've had very few projects actually do that. The state of California came in and reduced the requirements to a half space parking minimum per housing unit within these areas, however, we see the average project being developed is providing closer to one space per unit.

In general, whether it's the lenders or not, the developers are always going to want to build a project that can actually be leased out or sold. They're keenly aware of the consumer. 

Vince, what's the current status of the city's consideration of an Affordable Housing Overlay Zone?

At the end of August, City Council adopted the department's recommendation to pursue the creation of a set of development standards that are based upon concepts that have been modeled in cities such as Cambridge, Massachusetts, or Berkeley, California, that have done it.

This proposal will be brought forward as part of the comprehensive updates to the city's Affordable Housing Incentive Program, which will be rolled out in the coming year. We'll be building on these concepts, as outlined in the motion, and tailoring them to work alongside incentives for density bonus and TOC. The Affordable Housing Overlay Zones and those other incentives are included as part of the implementation of our Housing Element, which the City Council adopted earlier this year.

As you noted, the city's originally proposed Housing Element was rejected in February by the State. What changed since that rejection—given that the state now lauds the City’s resubmitted Housing Element?

I think the state always did laud the housing element. Even when they did reject it, they still praised it. What happened with the City of LA’s housing element also happened all throughout Southern California. Of the 198 cities and counties in the Southern California Association of Governments, something like 194 were rejected or did not meet the deadline and went through a process similar to ours.

This is because there was a real comprehensive change in state housing element law, including adding former federal mandates for Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing requirements. The intent of this requirement is to ensure that as cities build housing, they are working towards bringing the city together and not creating further segregation. So, as they added these rules to state law, they included some very specific requirements and the technical guidance was not in place for most of the jurisdictions in Southern California to have time to prepare a Housing Element that met these new standards.

LA’s Housing Element was lauded by the state because it was really groundbreaking in many ways. There has been a tremendous amount of change in state law in the last few years on housing elements. Now, cities not only have to accommodate for all their housing growth in the future, but they have to make up for what didn't get accomplished in the past. So now, you've got much larger housing targets than you ever had before.

In the past, the state said cities just need to theoretically have a place for this housing. The state law has since changed and now it must be realistic, and they’re going to require accountability for actually producing it.

Most of the development that occurs in Los Angeles is on land that has already been developed. What we had to do is look at the 469 square miles of the City of Los Angeles and take the number they gave us, which was 458,000 homes, and ask, realistically, how much could we accommodate? Now, some of that growth would be homes we knew would be accommodated through community plan updates, so we did get some credit from the State through that process, but not all of it.

We looked at our zoning capacity, and we looked at identifying as many potential sites as possible and the likelihood of those sites being redeveloped. So, how do you do that in a city as large as Los Angeles? If you're a very small city, you can actually go and drive down the street and identify those properties; you can't do that in Los Angeles.

To do an accurate analysis, we engaged the Terner Center from UC Berkeley. We asked them to develop this database and econometric model that resulted in a rigorous and realistic assessment of what our future housing capacity would be in the city of Los Angeles. What we found is that when we looked at the assumptions, we felt that the average site for multifamily housing that's already been built on would have about a 1 percent chance of being redeveloped over an eight-year period. Other cities were assuming something like 60 or 70 percent. So our base assumption is very realistic and that resulted in us needing to rezone over 250,000 units, which has probably been the most ambitious rezoning, not just in the city's history, but maybe anywhere.

To get there, we didn't just identify sites for 250,000 homes. We’ve identified sites for about 1.4 million homes to give ourselves the ability to refine our housing strategy to make sure that the outcomes are grounded in both equity and sustainability.

This fall, The Planning Report interviewed Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson, the Chair of the LA City Council Planning Committee, who shared that there has been a material change in the “politics” of Los Angeles—resulting in a new and growing consensus on the City Council on how we deal with density. He noted: “We want to use transportation and our main commercial corridors as places to build density. At the same time, we try to leave the single-family residential areas as intact as possible, given the context of a growing city.” Does he accurately capture a new Council consensus?

Yes, that would appear to be the consensus.  In the single-family neighborhoods, the State has passed laws regarding accessory dwelling units, as well as SB 9 which allows for two unit developments, which is changing, in more of a gentle way, some of these neighborhoods. The state is not bringing in high rise development in single-family neighborhoods. It's still keeping the same height and scale as before, but adding more multi-unit developments.

I think that relationship is probably still going to be very similar to the past. We may be rethinking what it means to be a single-family neighborhood, but that's separate from this idea of look and feel and scale of a neighborhood.

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With the host of state laws that have been adopted and the  City Council’s planning decisions in reaction, who now really has authority over the density, shape, and built form of LA?

City Planning is where you look for that authority over the density, shape, and built form. That's the one thing that makes us more unique than other departments. Other departments may be about making sure a building is built safely or may be about providing clean water, but the look and the feel of the city is through city planning. That is why it's very important that a city like Los Angeles spends a lot of time and careful thought into how it plans the city.

At the end of September, the City Planning Commission approved DTLA 2040. Give us a status report on what this means for city planning going forward.

 What we're talking about in Downtown as well as Boyle Heights (and then the rest of the city) is how we need to rethink our zoning. Our zoning code was built from the ground up in 1946. Today we are a very different city, region, and state than we were in the 1940s. We need zoning that really acknowledges that and is forward thinking to address our needs in the future.

What we're bringing along with the community plans is a new zoning code, which is what we call a form-based code that is going to be much more responsive to the look and feel of a neighborhood. I think these are going to be really important to be flexible and adaptable in the future when it comes to zoning.

A few really important things that we're doing in Downtown are: we’re anticipating about 100,000 new homes as well as new jobs that go along with that; increasing where housing can be built from around 30% to 60% of the area; increasing the opportunities for adaptive reuse in more places than we had in the past, and allowing for more housing types such as micro units and live-work.

About four years ago, we introduced the elimination of parking minimums in the draft plan. We've also added strategies such as requiring above-grade parking to be adaptable for housing or commercial uses in the future to address a decline in car use as technology evolves.

In TPR’s interview with Councilmember Harris-Dawson, he noted that the electorate in the City – both demographically and politically – is “fundamentally”  different than it has been for decades and that this political sea-change is reflected now in the Planning department’s current land-use priorities and policies. Elaborate, if his observation is true, on precisely how city planning in LA is changing.

I think that is an accurate observation and you could see this evolution in the last several years. We're appreciative of this direction because it really supports the planning that we've been doing. You can look at our Housing Element and the Equitable Rezone Program. We centered, in this Housing Element, this issue of making sure that people who are renting are secure. We are making sure we have policies in there that talk about just cause eviction or right-of-return policies for when someone may be displaced due to new development. Lots of programs in there are really centered on the rights of tenants. We had broad support for the Housing Element as it went through a wide group of community advocates, including tenant’s rights advocates.

 

LA, with many of its elected leadership leaving office, is now being perceived as being in a bit of political chaos, which must make it somewhat difficult for general managers. How do you steward the leadership of the Planning Department in the midst of a leadership transition?

One of the things that may be unique to Los Angeles comes from our City Charter which diffuses power in the City. What it does in a time like this is it gives us a certain amount of stability within the organization and within the departments. We are the steady hands that keep the city moving.

I'm really proud of the work of this department. Our staff come to work every single day, regardless of what may be happening out there in the political world, whether it's at the national, state, or local level. They're here to do the work, and they take it very seriously. They're all, without exception, passionate about making a better Los Angeles. That has not changed one bit. Everyone in this department is committed to public service. I want to say that this department also believes very strongly in equity and that we can do transformative planning for the City of Los Angeles.

That said, the pandemic did make it difficult for policymakers to come together in the building and to collaborate in person, not only among themselves but with the public. How did the pandemic impact the important work you've just described?

We had to learn to do things differently very quickly. We were one of the few departments that maintained all of its services the entire time. We didn't close down. Whether it was someone seeking services at a Development Service Center to get a permit or working on a community plan, we continued working every day.

In addition, as we were adjusting to working remotely overnight, with 9 commissions, 13 Design Review Boards and some 24 Historic Preservation Overlay Zone Boards. At the same time, about 20 to 25 percent of our staff were disaster service workers, which meant we were working in temporary homeless facilities, such as Project Roomkey. It was a really challenging time, but I'm really proud of how this department came together.

We are a department primarily consisting of planners, but everyone in this department is engaged in city planning, regardless of their title. Everyone worked hard during the pandemic and came together with a sense of urgency when it came to supporting the entire city family.

 We haven't yet discussed the Processes and Procedures ordinance, which is now being considered by your department and the city—its implications, intentions, and mission. Could you brief our readers on its status?

“Processes and Procedures ordinance” sounds very wonky, right? Well, this is related to the transition to our new zoning code, which we are unveiling through our community plan updates.

The foundation of the code are the processes and procedures, setting up the framework for the new zoning code and the rules for “how” projects are reviewed and approved. What steps do you follow when you need to get a conditional use permit? How do you apply for a variance? How long do public hearing notices need to be advertised for? It lays out all the technical aspects of how planning considerations are carried out.

Right now, these rules are scattered all over the Municipal Code and the zoning code. They’re really hard to find unless you already know where they are, so if you want to figure out what your roadmap is to secure an entitlement from the department, it's very difficult to locate the processes and procedures. What we did is we took them from all these different places and brought them into one centralized spot. Once we did that, we saw there were some areas that could be standardized and consolidated to make it more clear or easier to understand. If you do that, you're going to streamline things.

As part of that, we made more consistent all of our public notice and public hearing processes. Instead of five different noticing timelines, we cut it down to two or three. We actually cut in half the number of types of entitlements that we have. Most importantly, the new zoning code is web-based. Once this is adopted, the whole process is going to be much more intuitive. We are trying to make things easier and more understandable for anyone.

It's all about demystifying the planning process and making it easier for the everyday Angeleno without having to go through someone else for help. That's our goal.

We anticipate that the City Council will adopt this ordinance by the end of this year, with a six-month transition period, so it would be effective next summer. We’re really excited to see this initiative move forward.

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