Backlash to Overdevelopment in LA … ‘The People’ Finding a Voice In Court and On the Ballot

PLATKIN ON PLANNING--The Los Angeles Business Journal is preparing a story on the “backlash to development in the city of Los Angeles and how developers and business groups are starting to fight back.” 

As part of the Journal’s research for the article, their reporter contacted me for a take on the Neighborhood Integrity Ordinance and the amendments to the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance.  I have written favorable articles on both topics for CityWatch, and apparently these and other CityWatch articles caught the Business Journal’s eye.

Slightly reworked, this is why I told them the two proposals are necessary and deserve support: 

The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative (NII) is not opposed to private real estate projects (a more precise term than "development") per se, but to projects that are so large and tall that they conflict with both LA’s zoning code and General Plan.  The investors' business model is based on relief from zoning regulations, as well as General Plan designations, for their otherwise illegal projects.  This is why the thrust of the NII is to halt amendments to the General Plan that only apply to site-specific projects, and often to single parcels. If investors want to build according to LA’s adopted plans and zoning codes, that is their right and no one would complain.  But, when contractors and investors request generous Plan Amendments, and the City Council then dishes out these approvals with little concern for infrastructure capacity, availability of public services, or the compatibility of the proposed projects with existing neighborhood character and scale, opposition quickly snowballs. 

This is the agenda if the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, and it is important to not misrepresent it as a blanket backlash to development.  It is also important to recognize that the NII is only a first step.  Even if General Plan Amendments were correctly processed, Los Angeles would still need to update most of its General Plan elements, as well as to extensively repair and upgrade the city’s infrastructure and public services.  Roping in out-sized development is only a small but important step in this direction. 

As for mansionization, the City of LA's adopted planning policies, as well as the City Planning Commission's approved planning policies, called Do Real Planning both support the preservation of single-family neighborhoods in terms of their character and scale.  The grass roots challenge has been to bring the City's zoning laws for single family homes into conformance with its adopted planning policies. The first effort was the Beverly Grove ICO (2006), sponsored by then Councilmember Jack Weiss after much foot dragging.  On purpose, however, his ordinance only stopped McMansions larger than those that the contractors intended to build.  As a result, the Jack Weiss-sponsored ICO was a total fraud.  Its only achievement was to allow the mansionization process to proceed without a blip. 

The second effort to control McMansions was the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance/BMO (2008).  By the time the City Council adopted the BMO, it contained so many loopholes that it, too, did not make the slightest difference.  In fact, it was so undermined that the Director of Planning and the President of the City Planning Commission both opposed it because of its loopholes. 

As a result of this deception, contractors are now quickly demolishing about 2000 older homes per year in order to build large, boxy, spec houses that fully comply with the BMO.  In general, these mega-houses are three times the size and price of the homes they replace.  They might be compatible with a large suburban lot, but in an existing R-1 lot these houses are far too large for the both the lot and the character and scale of the surrounding neighborhood. 

The third effort to stop mansionization is a based on a Council motion from Paul Koretz.  It directs the Department of City Planning to remove any loopholes from the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance that promoted mansionization.  City Planning’s draft is now out, and it has quickly become a political hot potato.  On one side is the McMansion-machine of investors, contractors, realtors, and some elected officials.  They want to retain as many zoning loopholes as possible, such as the continued exclusion of attached garages from square footage calculations.  While there are not many mansionizers in LA, they have a disproportionate influence at City Hall. So far they have managed to gut two ordinances that restrict McMansions, and they are now hard at work to do the same with the proposed amendments to the Baseline Mansion Ordinance. 

On the other side are most LA neighborhoods, as represented by Neighborhood Councils, homeowners and resident associations, and concerned individuals.  In their view big, boxy, ugly houses totally conflict with the character and scale of existing neighborhoods.  In general, the neighborhoods like several features of the proposed amendments, specifically the elimination of the bonuses for green building materials, which are now a mandatory requirement, and for an articulated front facade.  The neighborhoods also like the reduction in the by-right floor area for smaller R-1 lots from .5 to .45.  And, they particularly support the elimination of the exemption for attached garages. 

What the neighborhoods do not like and would like amended further is the elimination of the bonus for proportional stories and a new exemption for unlimited balconies, decks, and breezeways if they have lattice tops or no ceilings.  

The contractors and their boosters, like LA Councilmember Gil Cedillo, have dreamed up many arguments in support of the McMansion business model, but so far we have rebutted their arguments as fast they can spin them.  For example: 

  • The Councilmember claimed that restrictions on McMansions stop the construction of affordable housing.  We replied that the houses that the contractors demolish are far more affordable than the McMansions that they build in their place.  We also pointed out that the number of Angelenos in these houses, before or after, is virtually unchanged.  There is no increase in the number of housing units, much less an increase in affordable housing.   

  • The supporters of McMansions also said that people should be able to do whatever they want with their own property, and we pointed out in response that this claim violates the basic principle of zoning, which is to protect the quality of life and value of all property, not to green light real estate speculation. 
  • They also argued that zoning amendments to stop mansionization would depress property values, but we pointed out that in Beverly Grove, which has the toughest anti-mansionization ordinance in Los Angeles, exactly the opposite has happened.  Home values have increased since the City Council adopted the Beverly Grove RFA over 18 months ago.  There is an exception, however.  McMansions reduce the market value of adjacent homes by $50,000 to $100,000 since many prospective homeowners despise them.  The curb appeal of an existing house sandwiched in by McMansions barely exists. 
  • We also heard that large and multi-generational families require large houses, but we pointed out that there is not a shred of evidence that the families moving into McMansions are either large or multi-generational.  We also noted that family size is not a legitimate external hardship that justifies a variance or its equivalent. 
  • Another common argument is that the proposed ordinance would make it difficult to add several rooms to a house or a covered porch/patio. These hypothetical scenarios are contradicted by extensive home improvements in all local areas where mansionization has been restricted through Specific Plans (SP), Historical Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZ), Interim Control Ordinances (ICO), and Residential Floor Area Districts (RFA).  In these areas there are many types of legal home improvements, including additions, remodeling, and decks.  All of these improvements could continue under the proposed amendments.  Furthermore, any neighborhood that wanted still larger houses could simply request a new Residential Floor Area District since that provision will remain in the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance. 

No doubt new pro-mansionization arguments will bubble-up over the next few months, usually postulating hypothetical scenarios that do not actually exist and are contradicted by reality.  Whether the venue is right here in City Watch or before the City Planning Commission and the City Council, we intend to quickly rebut them all and ask for public support in our efforts.


(Dick Platkin is a former LA City Planner who writes on local planning issues for City Watch.  He welcomes questions, comments, and corrections at [email protected]. ) 






Vol 14 Issue 5

Pub: Jan 18, 2016