L.A.’s postwar zoning code on the chopping block
By Steven Leigh Morris
published: January 13, 2011
In late September, Cary Brazeman was having dinner with a friend, an entertainment attorney, who asked Brazeman if he’d heard about a plan dubbed the “Core Findings Ordinance.” Officials at the Los Angeles Department of City Planning were preparing to float it by the Planning Commission in a few weeks in readiness to launch it citywide in 2011.
“You should read this thing,” his friend advised. “Then let’s talk.”
The soft-spoken Brazeman runs the Corporate Storyteller, a PR agency that advises firms on how to better brand themselves. He isn’t working on real estate branding projects, but real estate and public policy are in his blood. He came here from Washington, D.C., 15 years ago to head corporate communications for L.A.-based CB Richard Ellis, the biggest real estate services firm on the globe. No slouch in the industry, Brazeman in D.C. worked for the Real Estate Roundtable, a nonprofit think tank dedicated to public policy and advocacy on real estate and financial issues, and he likes to keep tabs on L.A.’s development and density debates.
But Brazeman had never heard of the Core Findings Ordinance his friend was talking about. He soon realized that his ignorance was shared by L.A.’s nearly 4 million residents, even though the bureaucratic-sounding plan could affect — profoundly, in some cases — the streets and neighborhoods where Angelenos live.
“I hadn’t intended to get this involved in public policy,” says Brazeman, who in late 2009 formed a nonincorporated watchdog group, L.A. Neighbors United, now with about 20 volunteers. “It just sort of came up.”
When he pored over the fine print in the Core Findings Ordinance itself, Brazeman was stunned to discover that rather than the policy-neutral word changes throughout the zoning code that were advertised as the ordinance’s purpose, the new phrasing chipped away at community protections in favor of developers.
Within days, Brazeman spent an undisclosed sum to purchase full-page ads in the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Daily News, issuing a warning to residents that zoning code protections were being undone citywide. His cell phone was soon jammed by callers ready to join his effort to publicly call out the Core Findings Ordinance.
Brazeman’s actions had an immediate effect. Sixty people showed up at the Planning Commission hearing on Oct. 14, where more than two dozen spoke out against the ordinance, compared with three on its behalf. With the hue and cry building among neighborhood councils, city watchdogs and local bloggers, the Planning Commission agreed to delay the matter until Jan. 13 — the day this article goes to print.
The primary use of core findings in L.A. has been to determine that a proposed apartment complex, condo tower, commercial redevelopment — even a second floor on a bungalow — won’t degrade the neighborhood’s quality of life.
The executive summary of the proposed new Core Findings Ordinance to be debated on Jan. 13 looks harmless — benign wording changes for the sake of efficiency: “The proposed ordinance consolidates common findings that have the same intent but different phrasing, clarifies ambiguous finding language, deletes duplicative findings, deletes unnecessary findings, and moves findings to more appropriate places in the zoning code.”
But Brazeman soon realized the ordinance wasn’t about the subtleties of language. His research unearthed a Sept. 11, 2008, report to the City Planning Commission by Gail Goldberg, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s recently departed director of the Department of City Planning. In it, Goldberg announced an initiative by her Planning Department to conduct nine separate zoning code studies, each accompanied by a new ordinance that, if approved, would enact sweeping changes to land-use language sprinkled throughout the thick Los Angeles Municipal Code.
Boring to most people. But Brazeman grew annoyed when he saw that the first four words in Goldberg’s report, following the date, time and place of the Planning Commission meeting she was announcing to discuss the sweeping municipal code changes, were: “No Public Hearing Required.”
To Brazeman, that was an indicator that Goldberg and the political appointees on the Planning Commission did not intend to make a citywide outreach effort to ask Angelenos what kind of city they want to live in.
The Weekly has learned of eight other related ordinances that may or may not have been written by now; they are shrouded in mystery and yet to be unveiled at City Hall.
Critics see a betrayal of the compact made between City Hall leaders and Los Angeles residents in 2008, when they trustingly backed countywide sales tax Measure R, which subsidizes many new mass-transit lines. L.A. Neighbors United says city planners appear to be using the locations of the light rail, subway and bus stops to justify erecting ever-larger condos and office towers citywide, even in neighborhoods protected from such developments.
Though clean, efficient mass transit is unarguably a boon to any city’s quality of life, Ken Alpern, chairman of the Transit Coalition — a national group working to increase public transit choices and a leading blogger at citywatchla.com — says the Villaraigosa administration’s claim to be targeting density around transit stops is really a Trojan horse to green-light permission for major developers, including Wall Street investment companies, to trump the land-use protections enshrined in L.A.’s citizen-molded Community Plans.
These are not antigrowth civic figures in Los Angeles who are saying this.
The mild-mannered, pro-development Brazeman is eager to see a green belt that stops sprawl, and he endorses targeted new building “around transit to accommodate Measure R.” He’s in the strange role now of grassroots watchdog, filing two lawsuits against the city of Los Angeles and warning, “Policymakers, and presumably their patrons, want significantly expanded development rights everywhere, which leads to more dysfunctional density.”
Sharon Commins, vice chair of the Land Use Committee for the Mar Vista Community Council, says Brazeman is throwing light on the Planning Department’s increasing tendency toward “arbitrarily forcing excessive growth and extreme lifestyle policies on L.A.’s neighborhoods, with neither notification nor consensus, and completely without regard for amenities like open spaces, parks and ball fields.”
John Walker, president of the Studio City Neighborhood Council, says, “There’s no fairness in the process,” referring to the way City Hall is not revealing these related ordinances at one time. “These kinds of ordinances affect all of us, not just people who own homes or rent apartments. Part of the process is being forced upon us because of a crisis in the city budget. If we can’t have any input in the community, and it’s going to be dictated, why even call it a community?”
Lucille Saunders of the La Brea–Willoughby Coalition in Hollywood goes further, calling the changes to the core findings “part of a piecemeal, incoherent process meant to confuse residents. They must be disclosed in their entirety to be coherent.”
Serious City Hall watchers are furious. Jay Handal, chairman of the mayor’s Budget Advocacy Committee and chairman of the West L.A. Neighborhood Council, declares, “Like everything else the city does, they do it with great speed and little thought. These guys are like cocaine dealers who lose money. It’s worse than pathetic.”
High ceilings, tile floors and an imperial austerity mark the corridors leading to the Department of City Planning, on City Hall’s fifth floor. In his office there, deputy planning director Alan Bell, in suit and tie, clutches a thick, hardbound book. Setting it gently on the large oval table, his fingers open it tenderly, as though it’s a sacred text.
“This is the zoning code,” he says softly. Bell has been with the Planning Department for 20 years. He says he comes from community service, having been a Vista volunteer straight out of college in Ohio.
He listens carefully before he responds. His replies are the embodiment of calm reason. “We’ve been using this zoning code since 1946,” he continues. “There have been many, many revisions since then.”
He adds that it’s a “one-size-fits-all” code, where the written standards for Sylmar’s horse country are the same for Silver Lake and Hollywood. The city’s numerous, distinct neighborhoods need better protection, he says.
It’s a mark of the complexity of this debate that antagonists such as this coiffed city planner and sport-shirted Cary Brazeman could sound like they espouse the same vision. But Brazeman last month filed a lawsuit against the city for the City Council’s hurried passage in November of an ordinance drafted by Bell’s Planning Department and described by Eastside City Councilman Ed Reyes as “just a planning tool.”
That “tool” is yet another ordinance, the Community Plan Implementation Overlay District Ordinance (CPIO) — a name almost certain to make anyone’s eyes glaze. Largely unknown to Angelenos, it was aired during a single public hearing in early 2009. But the plan went quiet before suddenly surfacing at the Planning Commission a year later. It then was rushed into law by the City Council 11-to-0 on Nov. 10 after Councilman Reyes, representing District 1, moved for its approval “by consent” — a parliamentary move that prevents public discussion.
Both Brazeman and Laura Lake, a Save Westwood Village activist who was instrumental in fighting for 1986’s lower-density measure Proposition U, had submitted speaker cards in order to oppose it on Nov. 10. Reyes denied them the opportunity to speak because, in his own words on the council floor that day, the ordinance “doesn’t even do anything.”
Yet Brazeman condemns the CPIO as a means to roll over L.A.’s 35 long-neglected and aging Community Plans. The CPIO ordinance gives the Planning Department dramatic new power to create “overlay” districts of any size or shape, anywhere in the city, with new zoning rules that override the city’s Community Plans.
Such overlay districts must be approved by the Planning Commission, whose members are appointed by Mayor Villaraigosa, followed by a sign-off by the City Council.
Under the new law — which Brazeman is asking a court to halt by injunction — if a Los Angeles family doesn’t want to live within an overlay district that trumps the longtime zoning but finds that its home, condo or apartment is being overlaid, there’s nothing the resident can do.
At a November workshop held by the Valley Alliance of Neighborhood Councils, land-use consultant Brad Rosenheim explained that residents had to act before a CPIO was overlaid on them: “It’s awareness on the part of the community as these CPIOs are being adopted that’s most important — because those are going to be the rules.”
That’s because once the rules are set for how big and dense buildings can be within these new overlay districts, building projects in those communities can be approved ministerially by the Planning Department. “Ministerially” means city employees can give the green light to developers’ projects without the usual public input, community hearing or environmental impact requirements — or an Environmental Impact Report.
Brazeman’s lawsuit says that’s illegal, because state law requires that significant environmental impacts of new building projects be known and mitigated. The new law skirts that requirement, with no public input.
The paradigm shift that Councilman Reyes claims “doesn’t do anything” is in fact dramatic: Instead of projects being subjected to public scrutiny, that scrutiny is now placed on new, abstract districts long before any projects or alterations have been proposed.
By the time developers’ projects come down the pipeline, the public, the Planning Commission and even the City Council will be out of the discussion. The Planning Department will have the power to approve projects by decree. The Planning Department, since Goldberg’s departure, is now run by former zoning administrator Michael LoGrande, who answers directly to an impatient mayor who says he is eager to “remake what L.A. looks like.”
“That’s just not so,” Bell replies, calmly, when asked why the ordinance gives decreelike powers to his department. “The ordinance clearly, specifically requires that CPIO overlay districts have rules that are more restrictive than those in Community Plans,” affirming his conviction that his Planning Department is watching out for communities.
That’s not quite true. Exceptions can be approved in the overlay district rules that allow for buildings 20 percent larger than those allowed in the more protective zoning code — and L.A. residents can protest this up-zoning only after it is adopted.
“Those exceptions can be appealed,” Bell explains. “We’re required to inform the public of them, and the public can appeal to a local Planning Commission, which can overrule us. Nothing has changed.”
Perhaps Bell and Reyes actually believe that “nothing has changed.” Over such distinctions as opposing a petition before an approval versus appealing it after the fact, cities rise and fall.
Bell gingerly returns the zoning code to a shelf. It might not be present at the Jan. 13 meeting of the City Planning Commission, but it will be on the chopping block all the same.
New density is supposed to be built within walking distance of light rail, subway stations and major bus stops. That’s what it says in the comprehensive February 2010 report issued by the Center for Transit-Oriented Development, a nonprofit think tank funded by the Federal Transit Agency. The steering committee for that report included representatives from Mayor Villaraigosa’s office, the Department of City Planning, Caltrans, Metro and other agencies, though they didn’t have final say on what went into it.
Much of that new density, concentrated around transit stops, would abut single-family areas and low-slung, suburban neighborhoods of Los Angeles currently protected from heavy development nearby. Deputy planning director Alan Bell insists, “We need to protect and preserve our single-family neighborhoods.”
But as Brazeman discovered, that’s not what the actual legislation portends, in part because the Planning Department now can establish overlay districts of its choosing, anywhere in the city, near — or far from — transit stops.
Neighborhood council leaders also fear that single-family neighborhoods are increasingly vulnerable because city planners are tossing around terms such as underutilized nonresidential land — mile-wide areas the Center for Transit-Oriented Development has created by drawing a circle around key transit stops. The big tracts of “underutilized” but already developed land, detailed on a map published on the center’s website, adjoin dozens of single-family neighborhoods in areas such as Sun Valley near San Fernando Road, the intersection of Washington and National boulevards in Palms on the Westside and a stretch of Coldwater Canyon between Sherman Way and Roscoe Boulevard.
Furthermore, as community activists Saunders and Mike Eveloff point out in their 2008 lawsuit against the city, the Planning Department has for at least 10 years ignored a City Charter requirement by failing to publish infrastructure reports each year on the state of Los Angeles’ water pipes, road conditions, sewage treatment and the like, all of which is supposed to be used when planners decide whether new construction and land-use up-zoning is a good idea.
Throughout the Hahn and Villaraigosa administrations, only one such infrastructure assessment has appeared in the record — not a report per se, but a troubling C+ grade on a 2003 “Infrastructure Report Card” published by the Bureau of Engineering during Mayor James Hahn’s administration.
Saunders and Eveloff, in their lawsuit, cite the lack of city infrastructure reports as a violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) — yet more proof that little real planning went into L.A.’s most recent growth spurt.
Now, Brazeman has become the decoder from the development side, as he translates for the rest of the city what the core findings might mean for L.A. One translation he provides is of the phrase “project permit adjustment” — often sought by developers who want to deviate from the zoning code. Today, for the adjustment to be granted, the director of planning must make a “written finding of circumstances” showing that following the local land-use rules is impractical.
But in the new wording under consideration on Jan. 13, that’s all deleted. An unwritten approval could be granted if the retail, commercial or housing project “will perform a function or provide a service that is essential or beneficial to the community, city or region.”
The requirement to provide a service beneficial to the “city or region” could easily be cited in order to allow a dense project in Pacific Palisades to serve a community in Covina by providing jobs to contractors there.
Brazeman says the city’s wording scheme creates the potential for “up-zoning by right,” granted by the Planning Department without community review. That’s also against state law.
Jeff Jacobberger, chairman of the Mid-City West Community Council, to which Brazeman belongs, tells the Weekly he is satisfied by the new wording because it’s “simpler and easier to understand.” Jacobberger testified before the City Planning Commission to that effect.
Not so Sharon Commins, vice chair of land use for the Mar Vista Community Council.
Commins, who read the core-findings plan and submitted a comparison of that wording to rules used in Culver City, Burbank, Santa Monica and West Hollywood, found that L.A.’s vague proposed wording contrasted with the precise, protective language used in nearby cities.
“If L.A.’s zoning protections don’t mean anything,” even in quiet, pleasant residential areas like Mar Vista, “you’re going to lose potential home buyers to surrounding areas,” she tells the Weekly.
Reactions to Brazeman’s full-page ads in the Times and Daily News heated up the debate, and responses started rolling in to the City Planning Commission.
“The Brentwood Residents Coalition supports the Planning Department’s effort to revise the zoning code by establishing core findings and eliminating language that is redundant and confusing.”
“The Hollywoodland Homeowners Association is opposed to the above ordinance as currently written. … We feel adoption of this new ordinance would substantially undermine … existing L.A. municipal codes.”
On Oct. 7, Brazeman wrote to the City Planning Commission, on behalf of L.A. Neighbors United: “Following careful review of the proposed nine-part zoning code update … it is quite clear that the city intends to gut the zoning code, apparently with callous disregard for the people, neighborhoods and long-term future of Los Angeles.”
If this is indeed an attempt to gut the zoning code, it isn’t just about microscopic analyses of words and meanings. There’s a theology at play, a utopian vision of a 21st-century “new urban” city proclaimed with far more zeal than evidence.
Skeptics believe that Mayor Villaraigosa and his deputy, Austin Beutner, have an ulterior motive for further loosening the rules on growth in a city where those rules have never been strong: to fend off city bankruptcy by feeding “underutilized” areas and land-hogging single-family neighborhoods to Wall Street real estate investment companies.
(As this story was going to press, the Weekly learned that the Department of City Planning is being ordered to absorb another $1 million budget cut — with most of the shortfall expected to gut the Community Planning Unit. Westside Neighborhood Council board member Barbara Broide writes, in an e-mail leaked to the Weekly, “The [Planning] Department is now looking at being funded 75% from developer fees and 25% from the General Fund. If things continue in the manner that they are going, the department will no longer be a planning department, it will be a project processing or permitting department.”)
A key example was the March 2010 decision by the City Council to hand Goldman Sachs eye-popping up-zoning approvals that, if fully developed, are worth $456 million. Council members blew past zoning restrictions, ignoring the Community Plan and disregarding the opposition of the district’s councilman, Bill Rosendahl, by up-zoning 111 empty acres at the massive Playa Vista deve that the company co-owns near the Ballona Wetlands. The decision re-enacts a similar gift of Playa Vista development rights by the City Council to DreamWorks Pictures in 2004, which was overturned by the courts on environmental grounds.
Ken Alpern, co-chair of the Mar Vista Community Council Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, says it’s not difficult for City Hall to “greenwash” such schemes using the theology’s appealing ideas about ecological sustainability. These include public transit that leads directly to densely populated hubs where people can live and shop; pedestrian thoroughfares; bicycle lanes; and public space.
“If this city had a history of doing things in a more environmentally sustainable way,” Alpern says, “I wouldn’t be so worried. To my understanding, mass transit is supposed to help us improve our quality of life, but not as a Trojan horse for uncontrolled development.” The city’s abuse of the transit-oriented development theory “is obviously going to lead to overdevelopment. Anybody who doesn’t see this has blinders on.”
The ideas of a new urban, ecologically friendly city abound on the website of CityLAB, a housing-policy think tank in the UCLA School of Architecture, where former city planning director Gail Goldberg and an aide participated in workshops.
The website alludes to antiquated 20th-century notions of id, self-expression, privacy rights, oil dependence, cars and single-family neighborhoods. These are depicted in visual images of single-family neighborhoods in decay, and descriptions of nomads and wild animals feeding off their detritus.
One summary in a report on the CityLAB site urges urbanites to live in “re-energized forms of collective identification and association,” which requires “hijacking and pushing to extremes their contemporary opposite — the seemingly endless quest for individual expression and privacy.”
But people have historically refused to behave the way planners want them to. The 4,000 or so Hollywood residents who have packed into the 2,686 fashionable new housing units built by the time of the market crash in 2008 — many of them located above retail spaces — have jammed the narrow streets and freeway ramps with cars. Only a small minority use Hollywood’s subway and bus lines, despite City Hall’s glowing talk about “transit-oriented development.”
Mark Fina and Leonard Shabman, writing in the William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review, say: “In one study of commuting habits … Los Angeles’ transit-oriented neighborhoods with access to highways were found to have the same amount of car use as neighborhoods not served by transit.”
Research at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., found a similar result in that increasingly congested city.
CityLAB’s co-director, Roger Sherman, calls for small-scale pilot projects to test the impact of new project designs, rather than accommodating them with sweeping legislation, as the city is doing now.
Others are beginning to address the importance of low-slung, less dense communities. Galina Tachieva, a director of town planning at a Miami architecture firm, in her piece on the Planetizen blog, “Sprawl Repair: What It Is and Why We Need It,” writes about a number of nuanced strategies to revitalize suburbs, subtly accommodating population inflows, rather than disparaging neighborhoods, abandoning or exploiting them.
No studies yet exist to say whether tightly packed apartment dwellers create less global warming than L.A. residents who commute farther from their houses with yards; it’s expected to take years to fund and design those studies. Yet the belief that density is good for the environment underpins the current push to weaken already fragile zoning protections in L.A. neighborhoods.
Dr. Konstantin Vinnikov, senior research scientist at the University of Maryland, tells the Weekly that the environmental debate over apartment complexes versus single-family homes “is a very interesting question, but nobody knows any answers. Government and private business will not fund such research. If agencies fund you to research something, it is really clear what you have to conclude. You cannot be free if an agency requires a specific result.”
That warning is echoed in the behavior of the developer-friendly Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG). In 1990, its exaggerated projections said that by 2010, L.A. County’s population would hit 10,868,900. SCAG overshot the U.S. Census projection by more than 1 million people, yet California state law forced Los Angeles to approve housing construction policies as if all those people were on an incoming bus.
In the last 25 years, suburban development has accounted for more than 80 percent of all new jobs and more than 80 percent of all new office, industrial and retail construction, Fina and Shabman write in their article “Some Unconventional Thoughts on Sprawl.”
An array of studies shows that suburban areas are not only a job engine but offer other benefits. For example, the quality of schools plummets in high-density neighborhoods — a weighty topic that Los Angeles city planners don’t wade into.
Moreover, the 1.6 million population San Fernando Valley consistently beats the “other side of the hill” in school test scores, low-crime data, housing affordability — and the percentage of taxes its residents pour into city coffers to pay for the needs of residents living in far denser areas on the city side.
During the Valley secession movement from 1997-2002, Mayors Richard Riordan and James Hahn worked together with many others in fighting the loss of the Valley and its huge tax base. During the height of secession angst, a raft of top city leaders openly admitted L.A. could not live without the Valley.
“The city has got to change its ways,” Mayor Villaraigosa said in November at a housing summit at UCLA. “It’s nice to be a city of sprawl, where you have a percentage of people that have a three-bedroom house and a tennis court, but you know most people don’t live like that — and we’re not going to be able to sustain that on a scale that they did maybe in another era.”
In fact, fewer than a quarter of L.A.’s housing units are single-family dwellings, which raises the question of what, exactly, the mayor is suggesting, and why.
Back in March 2008, when Villaraigosa was trying to light a fire under the many stalled construction projects stemming from the housing market collapse, he launched his “12-to-2” initiative, to be executed by Deputy Mayor Beutner.
Targeting the widely hated, byzantine process developers endure in order to get a building project approved in the city, Villaraigosa’s seemingly simple plan was to streamline the process by having only two city departments check off a building permit, rather than 12.
But the complexity of City Hall’s administrative structure, combined with interdepartmental politics, resulted in the collapse of 12-to-2 in September; it also hastened the departure of some department heads, including Goldberg, who was said to have been forced out by Villaraigosa.
The mayor’s impatience with impediments to developers was clear at the annual Sustainable Housing and Transportation Summit, sponsored by the Los Angeles Business Council at UCLA.
“What we want to do is do it now,” said the mayor. “So we remake what L.A. looks like.”
That’s what many critics of Villaraigosa are afraid of.
Also at the Nov. 17 summit, he said: “You’ve got to connect transportation and housing and jobs. This city, more than any other city in the world, has been most resistant to that.”
But some Angelenos believe that vision too often has little bearing on what actually appears on the streets, once money has changed hands.
One example is the sudden bait-and-switch last August at the Village at Westfield Topanga, where a long-planned upscale, state-of-the-art, mixed-use village of condos, apartments and businesses — just steps from Metro’s popular Orange Line dedicated busway — had been promised.
The plan, hammered out over months, was embraced by the pro-development Warner Center Neighborhood Council. But global mall operator Westfield abruptly declared five months ago that it is instead putting a massive parking lot and a Costco on the choice land, which faces a Saks Fifth Avenue and a Nordstrom. There is another Costco a couple of miles north of the site.
Unlike in Portland, which voted on its key growth plan at the ballot box, there has been no endorsement by the public, no ballot initiative and no effort by City Hall to discern the popular consensus on how to “remake what L.A. looks like.”
The last time that happened, in fact, was in 1986, when 69 percent of Los Angeles voters backed Proposition U, a vote against office towers and other commercial high-rises that down-zoned almost all of the city’s commercial districts, chopping in half allowable levels of density.
Voters made clear that they supported such density only in the parts of Los Angeles where it already existed. Proposition U thus exempted from the down-zoning downtown, Century City, the Wilshire Corridor and the Hollywood Redevelopment Area.
“What a bunch of whining old grannies,” says Jonathan Voorstadt of the Proposition U slow-growthers and their descendants today. A transplant from Queens, N.Y., and a resident of the transit-oriented development at the Mid-City Wilshire/Vermont Red Line station, Voorstadt is a freelance video game designer and lives on a trust fund.
He owns no car and doesn’t want one, using L.A.’s transit system to get where he needs to be. “When are they going to realize we can’t live in 1950 anymore? A city that doesn’t evolve is a dying city,” he says.
“Since when did politicians ever do what they said? Is that a reason to choke back progress?”
The truth is, nobody knows which side in this debate would win if a vote, or even a series of widely advertised public outreach hearings, were held on what Angelenos want their city to be.