What you need to know about LA’s development initiatives

Los Angeles /
Jun.June 15, 2016 05:04 PM

The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, a measure with potentially far-reaching implications for large-scale development in Los Angeles, is headed for the March 2017 ballot.

The proposal, which calls for a two-year pause on major developments that require specific zoning amendments, has sparked a flurry of counter proposals, including a plan that’s hitting this year’s ballot from the L.A. County Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO). Mayor Eric Garcetti has also suggested widespread planning revisions.  

A core issue that is cited by both by those proposing these measures and those opposing them is L.A.’s housing crisis. A report compiled by the California Legislature’s Nonpartisan Fiscal and Policy Advisor found that for every 100 people who moved to California between 2005 to 2015, an estimated 21.5 housing units were built. The shortage is causing rental and purchase rates to soar, pricing people with low- and middle-incomes out of the state — and out of L.A.

All the options on the table would greatly influence what can be built in Los Angeles — and whether the pace of development surges or wanes. Read on for a breakdown of the major proposals.

The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative

The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative calls for a two-year pause on significant developments that require specific amendments, mostly related to zoning exemptions to build denser or taller projects than what the outdated zoning code allows, or projects with reduced parking stall requirements.

Those opposed to the measure point to the housing crisis, which they say would be intensified if all major development was stopped. Because L.A.’s zoning code is so outdated, most projects require exemptions. Therefore, most projects would be paused by the measure.

The initiative includes an exemption for 100 percent affordable housing. However, those opposed say that few developers can afford to go that route entirely.

Petitioners are currently gathering the necessary 61,486 valid signatures—15 percent of the votes cast for mayor in the preceding mayoral election—to qualify the measure for the March 2017 ballot, after eschewing a plan to bring it to voters this year, when the ballot is busy.

Build Better LA

The Build Better L.A. Initiative, created by the L.A. County Federation of Labor, is reliant primarily on future reforms that would be created by the Los Angeles City Council.

The proposal calls for incentives for certain kinds of affordable projects, including assistance for transitional workers and rent-burdened permanent residents, said Rusty Hicks of the AFL-CIO.

For example, the measure would require developers to include affordable housing units when large projects exceed zoning rules. It would also require that a percentage of the laborers constructing the development be local, and belong to disadvantaged groups, such as veterans.

It has been reported that petitioners already have exceeded the 61,486 valid signatures to get it on the ballot.

Critics contend the Build Better L.A. plan stops short of specifying how these incentives should be funded. In addition, there is mounting concern from a fairly wide swath of developers and their representatives, including the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, a SoCal-based lobbying group, who say that these requirements will drive up the cost of development immensely.

Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association told the L.A. Times that the labor initiative “is just going to kill small- and mid-sized apartment projects in the city of Los Angeles. They’re just not going to get built.”  

Mayor Garcetti’s Plan

Mayor Garcetti has called for the city’s 35 outdated community plans to be revised by 2026, setting the allowable size and density of development projects in neighborhoods throughout the city.

Separately, the Mayor also called for the construction of 100,000 housing units and an additional 15,000 affordable housing units by 2021.

Still, this isn’t expected to ease some of LA’s most crowded zip codes. In Historic South-Central, for example, roughly 42 percent of all households have more than one person per room per household. Of those already overcrowded homes, one out of six have more than two people per room.

Like Mayor Garcetti’s plan, the two competing ballot propositions — Build Better LA and the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative — also seek to oversee portions of the city’s development. Both have different visions for how to do it, but all seem to agree that LA County’s current planning process has vast room for improvement.  

Dana Cuff, founder and director of cityLAB, is a UCLA faculty member whose work focuses on suburban studies and the politics of place. She points to L.A.’s critical shortage of affordable housing, as well as the city’s need for “a coordinated set of community plans” to update the current process, which has become slow and occasionally unpredictable.  

Ideally, these new coordinated community plans, says Cuff, “would guide strategic growth that is well-located around transit, with mixed-use and affordable housing, to create walkable neighborhoods that decrease reliance on cars.”

The problem is, few people can agree on what these “community plans” should entail.

Urban Land Institute

As the debate around these development initiatives has grown, the Urban Land Institute — a nonprofit research firm — launched a task force to identify the key pillars of an equitable city planning process.

In April, the Urban Land Institute, The Planning Report and UCLA Ziman Center for Real Estate hosted a public forum, “Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste,” that included representatives of the LA City Council, AFL-CIO, the Urban Land Institute, Coalition to Preserve LA and several UCLA departments, ranging from law to urban planning.

The prevailing sentiment at ULI contends the planning and development process in the City of Los Angeles is broken.

“There is little to no comprehensive planning to set a clear vision for the future,” said Gail Goldberg, ULI’s executive director, in a planning and development principles statement.

The ULI statement supports preserving the city’s suburban feel while minimizing vehicle usage and bumping up housing opportunities for all wage levels. It eschews variances to development height and density requirements, but concedes collective adjustments could be made annually. The statement calls for a greater focus on functioning infrastructure, such as libraries, schools, streets, parks and sidewalks, while asking the mayor and city council to budget accordingly.

Perhaps just as critical is ULI’s insistence that a community engagement process drive updates to and outcomes of L.A.’s city planning process.

The need for an updated process is the one place where all sides of the issue are in agreement.

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