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For decades, Los Angeles has suffered from out-of-scale, unwanted development that violates the city’s zoning code and adopted plans. Much of it is permitted by “spot zoning,” which exempts specific properties and projects from prevailing regulations. City residents have long been frustrated by what they see as the undue influence of developers whose campaign contributions give them an inside track with the City Council to obtain these exemptions.

Livable Los Angeles

Neighborhood Integrity Initiative: More Pushback Against Real Estate Speculation in Los Angeles—Dick Platkin

In response Los Angeles has a long history of prosecutions, voter initiatives, lawsuits, and sometimes-successful campaigns for local relief from over-development through local overlay zones, such as specific plans.

This is why a group of five registered voters has gained serious traction in their effort to place a game changing initiative on LA’s March 2017 municipal ballot. Promoted by the Coalition to Preserve Los Angeles , the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative gives voters the power to stop over-sized development for the next two years, and after that in perpetuity. The Coalition is seeking 61,000 signatures, and journalist Jill Stewart, the Initiative’s Campaign Director, has already made public presentation in Los Angeles and will continue to do so.

The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative for a Livable Los Angeles gives voters the power to stop over-sized development for the next two years, and after that in perpetuity.

The Initiative’s Seven Major Provisions

Stewart has repeatedly explained that the proposed ordinance would amend laws contained in the Los Angeles Municipal Code related to the General Plan and to parking variances. These changes would:

  • Prohibit future amendments to the General Plan unless the affected area has significant social, economic, or physical identity, encompassing an entire Community or District plan area, Specific Plan area, Neighborhood Council area, or at least 15 acres;
  • Require comprehensive reviews on a five year cycle of the General Plan based on evening community meetings and community-generated update proposals;
  • Require the City of Los Angeles to make legal findings of General Plan consistency for planning and zoning approvals, as well as for building permits;
  • Void existing zoning laws and regulations inconsistent with the General Plan;
  • Prohibit project applicants from preparing their own Environmental Impact Reports;
  • Impose a two-year building moratorium, except for 100 percent affordable housing projects, on projects for which the City Council grants parcel level General Plan amendments or zone or height-district changes resulting in more intense land use or rezoned open space, agricultural, or industrial areas; and
  • Limit parking variances to a 1/3 reduction of code requirements.

The Initiative’s proponents, like Jill Stewart, argue, “Mega-projects are worsening traffic and destroying neighborhood character. Today, cozy “density” deals between developers and politicians are destroying community character from Boyle Heights to Brentwood. Developers buy exemptions from the LA’s land use laws by contributing to City Hall official’s campaigns and special funds. The office holders make a ton of money on luxury mega-projects while we get terrible traffic and congestion.”

The goal of the measure it not to stop all real estate projects, but rather to give the City a timeout to begin the update its legally required General Plan. The Initiative does not stand in the way of projects that already conform to existing density and height limits, and therefore do not require the City Council to adopt a parcel level General Plan Amendment, Height District Change, or Zone Change.

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Pushback Against the Initiative

As expected, boosters and apologists for real estate speculation are already resorting to any argument they can muster, amplified by the urban growth machine’s deep pockets, to fight this Initiative. The Central City Association, LA’s premier old guard business organization, for example, is organizing opposition and fundraising to defeat this proposed ballot initiative.

They and similar groups have a long history of supporting nearly every new mega-development they encounter, regardless of its impacts on traffic and the environment. The construction unions, which often cooperates with these real estate speculators, have offered their own counter-measure, The Build Better LA Initiative, whose focus is City Council actions to promote affordable housing.

If these opponents fail in their efforts to defeat the Initiative, the public may finally force developers to play by the rules, not to stoop to “pay-to-play” legal and illegal corruption at City Hall in order to dodge them.

The Initiative’s supporters cannot yet match the resources of the big developers, but they include local activists from community groups across the entire city. They have all felt the impacts of developments that are out-of-character and out-of-scale with existing communities.

They have all observed local infrastructure and services that cannot meet the needs of existing residents, much less new residents peering down on them from luxury apartments in high-rise complexes.

Political Divisions Driving the Initiative

This latest chapter in political struggles over real estate speculation in Los Angeles is hardly unique. The same struggles repeatedly appear in cities across the entire United States, as well as most other countries. At its heart is the biggest challenge facing rationale city planning in market economies.

How do planners reconcile the short-term, impulsive gyrations of changing private investment patterns with the essential, long-term need for plans based on accurate measures of user demand, infrastructure capacity, and population trends? How do planners assist in linking rationale plans to each City’s budget, capital programs, as well as it departmental work plans?

How do the planners withstand the enormous political pressure that large real estate investors exert on elected officials, most of whom are already sympathetic to the claims of private real estate investors?

The traditional answer to this dilemma was the basic principles of modern liberalism in the United States: careful research and governmental regulation of the private market, specifically zoning and building codes. The other component was public programs and investment to offset the failures of the market, such as publicly operated or subsidized affordable housing.

But, modern liberalism barely survives at the municipal level in most American cities, such as Los Angeles. It has been replaced by an antithetical ideology: neo-liberalism. When supported by LA’s elected officials, nearly all of who identify as members of the Democratic Party, its key components are at total odds with rationale planning:

  • Deregulation of private investment in real estate.
  • Reliance on private investors to provide affordable housing.
  • Parcel level zoning relief for mega-projects.
  • Under investment and privatization of public infrastructure and services.
  • Shift of public investment to policing to surveillance.
  • Rejection of monitoring of infrastructure and plans.
  • Inflated population forecasts (to justify exemptions).

The success or failure of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative in Los Angeles, even if approved by voters, will play a critical role in the continuous skirmishes between liberalism and neo-liberalism.

housing

If you would like further information on the LA Initiative, the Preserve LA website is the best place for you to begin .

Dick Platkin

* Please send any comments to rhplatkin@gmail.com. I would also like to thank Gerald Silver, President of Homeowners of Encino, who wrote an earlier version of this essay.