Stories from the Front Lines: Los Angeles Planning Disputes Old and New

 

 

 

PLATKIN ON PLANNING--Old planning disputes are still with us: For those with memories going back to the 1980s or curiosity about that decade, the planning disputes now widespread in Los Angeles are an echo of what already took place three decades ago. Then and now, they include gentrification, over-priced housing and the lack of affordable house, rent control and rent stabilization, law suits against City Hall (AB 283), citywide initiatives (e.g., Proposition U) to restrain out-of-control real estate speculation, lack of sufficient infrastructure, mass transit, preservation of residential neighborhoods, overlay ordinances to chill out irate neighborhoods in lieu of citywide fixes, and repeated failures to consider adopted plans when dishing out zoning exceptions. 

In Los Angeles we may have lots of sunshine, but there is not much that is really new underneath that warm sun, such as the protection of single-family neighborhoods, including their character and scale. 

This is why all of LA’s official, legally adopted plans and policy statements, such as the City Planning Commission’s Do Real Planning, are uncompromising in their goal of preserving single-family neighborhoods. 

This not only refers to the basic land use, which is single-family homes, but also to scale and character. It is these policies, in fact, that gave rise the Historical Preservation Overlay Zones of which Los Angeles now has over 30, with many more in the cue. 

They also led to Specific Plans protecting residential areas, such as the Mulholland Corridor Specific Plan and the Mount Washington/Glassell Park Specific Plan. They also resulted in four Residential Floor Area districts, and over 20 short-term Interim Control Ordinances. 

Finally, the policies also prompted re:code LA, an ambitious program that will eventually rezone all residential areas of Los Angeles. Although the final re:code LA zoning ordinances are not yet completed , they are certain to bring forth a tsunami of controversy, especially if they change the use, character, and scale of residential areas. 

Hovering in the background, then and now, is a perpetual fight in Los Angeles between those who view their residences as homes versus those who view them as nothing more than a house. For the former, mostly residents and their neighborhood associations, a home is where they live and raise families, including the surrounding neighborhood. 

But, for the latter, houses and especially the land underneath them, are a commodity that can be bought, sold, or expanded based on a simple calculation: maximization of profit. Legally adopted plans and zones, as well as the myriad of overlay ordinances in Los Angeles, are not tools to protect homes, neighborhoods, and their residents, but regulatory devices that hinder the business of real estate speculation. 

The goal of these speculators is to, hopefully, sweep these ordinances and regulations aside, or, as a backup, make sure there are enough escape hatches embedded in new ordinances so they do not get in their way. 

While this difference between a house and a home might be the common denominator for nearly all of the planning disputes in Los Angeles, it is painfully visible in the disputes over the construction of McMansions in single-family neighborhoods, as well as the closely related construction of tall, narrow, attached homes called small-lot subdivisions.

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Lessons from Beverly Grove: The neighborhood where I live and that I and other City Watch writers have written about, Beverly Grove, is a living laboratory for these protracted fights. Over a period of ten years and still counting, vocal brokers and contractors conjured up endless greed-is-good arguments to justify their business model. Spinning tall tales to gullible local residents that they were sitting on a pot of gold that could only be accessed through the construction McMansions, they would use third parties to buy small houses from desperate people, illegally demolish their homes, and then quickly build and sell a big, boxy spec house. 

But, just as quickly as the mansionizers could spin their yarns, local residents would rebut them. For example, claims of widespread public support for McMansions evaporated when residents went public with two independent surveys conducted by Council District 5. They both revealed that nearly two-thirds of local residents favored controls on mansionization. Likewise, when tea-bagger type arguments sprouted, such as “No one can tell me what do with my property,” we coolly replied that the purpose of zoning was to protect property values and the quality of life, not just give real estate speculators like them a free rein at the expense of their neighbors. 

Likewise, we also rebutted repeated claims that mansionization raised property values, while ordinances to stop mansionization would reduce property values. We showed that houses next to McMansions lose $50,000 -100,000 in value, even though the overall value of homes in areas protected by overlay ordinances, such as an RFAs and HPOZs, experience the same positive real estate trends as surrounding unprotected areas. 

One of the most ridiculous arguments we easily debunked came from the City Council no less: McMansions increase the supply of affordable housing in Los Angeles. The facts are exactly the opposite. The demolished homes were affordable, while the big, boxy houses cost far more than displaced residents could afford. 

Now that the Beverly Grove Residential Floor Area District has been adopted and enforced for over a year and half, we have other information to share with anyone concerned about mansionization and supportive of City Planning’s efforts to remove the loopholes from the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance. 

First, there is still a robust real estate market in Beverly Grove, with the small houses that used to be demolished now worth more than they were before the RFA. The realtors who predicted doom and gloom are as busy as before trying to buy houses for anonymous people who claim they want to live in our area. The same realtors even use the same gimmick of mass-produced hand-written offers to buy houses. 

Last, but not least, there are plenty of new home improvement projects under way in Beverly Grove, as well as new additions fully permitted by our RFA, and even some totally new RFA-compliant houses. These new houses are not only smaller than the McMansions that are now banned, but some of these new houses are extremely attractive, a charge never leveled against McMansions. 

In fact, we are happy to show any reporters or other doubters around our neighborhood how effective the Beverly Grove RFA has been and how a citywide version, supported by neighborhood groups across Los Angeles, could achieve similar results for nearly 4,000,000 people, rather than about 2000. 

Bottom line, Beverly Grove demonstrates that homes values are fully compatible with good design and the preservations character, scale, and quality of life. 

It also demonstrates that the reincarnation of Proposition U, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, would do far more to transform Los Angeles into a global city, than periodic waves of deregulated real estate speculation, whether McMansions, small lot subdivisions, or over height mega-projects.  

Blade Runner imagines what a deregulated Los Angeles would look like.

 

(Dick Platkin reports on local planning issues in Los Angeles for CityWatch. He is a former LA City Planner, who now serves on the Board of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association and the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council Planning Committee. Please send any comments or corrections to [email protected].) 

-cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 14 Issue 1

Pub: Jan 1, 2016