Tuesday’s ballot referendum against big development has major repercussions for L.A.’s housing market
A seemingly relentless forward march of new development coupled with the socioeconomic strain of gentrifying neighborhoods has united Los Angeles communities far better than any politician could.
Disenchantment with traffic-clogged streets, towering structures out of scale with their surroundings and the perception that L.A. City Hall is out of touch with residents reached a tipping point in late 2015, uniting a patchwork coalition of neighborhood activists, affordable housing advocates and slow-growth proponents to demand changes in city land use policy.
Out of such frustration, Measure S was born.
Billed as the “Save Our Neighborhoods” initiative, Measure S would impose a two-year moratorium on new construction that requires zoning changes to accommodate increased height or density, permanently prohibit “spot zoning” exemptions, and require systematic public reviews of both the city’s general plan and each of its largely outdated plans guiding neighborhood-specific development.
Supporters say Measure S would stop oversized development in its tracks and force the city to fix a broken planning system that lets big developers run rampant over quality of life concerns, restoring power to the people.
Opponents argue the initiative — bankrolled by the controversial AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which is fighting the construction of office towers near its Hollywood headquarters — is an oversimplified, one-size-fits-all solution to a complex problem. They warn that Measure S could have potentially dire ramifications for the affordability of rental housing, considering demand already exceeds supply.
“If you need more fruits and vegetables, you don’t go to farmers and tell them you have a two-year ban on growing fruits and vegetables,” said Mark Vallianatos, a spokesman for Measure S opposition group Abundant Housing L.A. “Not enough housing has been built in the last few decades to keep up with our growing population.”
Implementing Measure S would cost Los Angeles as many as 2,800 apartments and 12,000 construction-related jobs per year, according to a study by Westchester-based consulting firm Beacon Economics commissioned by opponents of the measure.
And others warn that by making it almost impossible to build high-density housing in commercial or industrial areas, development pressures would blow back into presently low-density neighborhoods where existing community plans allow single-family homes to be converted into small apartment buildings without zoning waivers.
Yes on S Campaign Director Jill Stewart dismissed the Beacon report as fearmongering straight out of the L.A. City Hall playbook.
“The jobs data bought and paid for by six or seven developer billionaires who are fighting Yes on Measure S is as fake and ridiculous as the claims by City Hall not long ago that if we didn’t accept a new tax, hundreds of LAPD officers would be laid off and L.A. would become dangerous,” Stewart said. “Voters rejected those trumped-up scare tactics just as they’re going to ignore this one.”
— Gary Walker and Joe Piasecki
The Measure S Battle Map
‘Spot Zoning’ to accommodate behemoth projects fuels support for a building moratorium
Like David aiming his slingshot at Goliath, the Yes on S campaign has identified nearly 30 large-scale projects in L.A.’s development pipeline as emblematic of the need for a moratorium on structures that would require zoning exemptions.
The group’s “Battle Map” features a handful of Westside projects facing neighborhood opposition: Del Rey Pointe at 5000 Beethoven St. in Del Rey, the Martin Expo Town Center at 12101 W. Olympic Blvd., and the Venice Place hotel project on Abbot Kinney Boulevard.
Del Rey Pointe would create 18,000 square feet of commercial development and 236 residential units (including 35 set aside for affordable housing) adjacent to single-family homes just north of Ballona Creek. The developer is asking for a general plan amendment to change the former Teledyne property’s zoning from light industrial to residential.
“For us, the biggest issue is not ‘overdevelopment’ as much as it is development not in accordance with the city’s plans,” said Del Rey Residents Association President Elisabeth Pollock, who named “spot zoning” as the most worrisome aspect of development in Del Rey.
Spot zoning is the practice of reclassifying a parcel of land to something different from its existing surroundings.
Pollock lists at least two other big development projects in the area that would require spot zoning: a complex of 658 housing units and 27,300 square feet of commercial space at on a portion of Villa Marina Marketplace at 13450 Maxella Ave., and an expansion of the Stella apartments that would bring 65 housings units and 9,000 square feet of retail space to 13488 Maxella.
Ken Alpern, a Westside public transportation advocate who supports Measure S, said the moratorium would allow planners to begin to properly assess new zoning protocol.
“If we don’t establish appropriate planning rules, we’re going to end up with the same gridlock that we had with transportation,” said Alpern, a member of the Mar Vista Community Council.
Just north of Mar Vista, the 10-story Martin Expo Town Center would replace the single-story Martin Cadillac car dealership at the corner of Olympic and Bundy with 150,000 square feet of office space, 99,000 square feet of retail and 516 apartments (20% of it set aside for affordable housing).
But L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents the area, defends the project as a positive outcome of a zoning change Measure S would prohibit. The lot’s original commercial or light industrial zoning would have put a traffic-clogging big box retailer adjacent to major intersection and an Expo Line station crying out for transit-oriented housing.
Bonin said other zoning amendments have been few and far between in his Westside district.
“For the past few years Measure S would have had very little impact on the district,” he said, except to have stopped the city from downzoning land immediately north of LAX to prevent large-scale development.
Both Alpern and Bonin oppose plans for a seven-story mixed-use tower at 12444 Venice Blvd. that would dwarf its neighbors, but see the situation differently.
“If the Planning Department ignores the pleas of the Mar Vista Community Council, Council District 11, planners and the local residents when they plead for a three- to five-story project but get an 80-plus-foot, seven- to eight-story project that is the tallest development for miles and with entirely insufficient parking and infrastructure so that the developer can win the lotto, what can we do?” asked Alpern.
But Measure S wouldn’t help in this situation, said Bonin, because developers there are pursuing a “by-right” project that doesn’t require a zoning change.
“The controversial project in Mar Vista — Measure S won’t stop that,” he said. “In fact, there’ll be a lot more projects like it west of the 405 because developers will pursue a bunch of projects by right. That’s where the investment money
— Gary Walker
Affordable Housing Blowback
Measure S would kill plans to house the homeless on underutilized public land
Perhaps the most immediate impact of the Measure S moratorium on zoning amendments would be the obliteration of plans to build low-income or permanent supportive housing on some underutilized city properties.
At least three of about a dozen parcels slated for pilot projects are west of the 405: the former West Los Angeles Animal Shelter at the corner of Bundy Drive and Missouri Avenue, the Thatcher Maintenance Yard adjacent to Marina del Rey and the beach parking lot along Venice Boulevard between Dell and Pacific avenues.
The nonprofit Venice Community Housing Corporation is working to draft a proposal for the Venice parking lot.
“There isn’t a lot of land that’s affordable and could be used for affordable or permanent supportive housing, so when the city is trying to designate resources, to me, the public good — we have to be able to maximize that,” Venice Community Housing Corporation Executive Director Becky Dennison said.
Dennison says the parking lot is currently zoned as “open space” in L.A.’s general plan, and building any kind of housing there would require a general plan amendment. In fact, so would the other two projects — meaning not just delay but certain doom if voters adopt Measure S.
But Measure S proponents say the way the city is choosing sites for homeless housing raises questions about the integrity of their planning process.
Yes on S spokeswoman Ileana Wachtel is troubled by the city’s initial focus on developing parcels that would require general plan amendments. Out of some 500 properties that the City Controller’s office has identified for possible affordable housing development, 200 or more would not require zoning changes or General Plan amendments, she said.
“The city is using the homeless to win votes. It’s really disingenuous,” Wachtel said.
Wachtel also points to language in Measure S that the moratorium would not apply to projects with 100% affordable housing that apply for a zone or height change, but Dennison stresses that this won’t save the Venice-Dell-Pacific project.
Even though the Venice Community Housing Corporation intends to propose a 100% affordable housing development there, she says, Measure S would still kill the project simply because it would require a general plan amendment.
“We are not proposing a blend of market rate and subsidized units, nor is the city. We are proposing a 100% affordable project — we don’t need market rate to make it work. Measure S does apply to 100% affordable if there is a General Plan amendment,” Dennison said.
L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin said that the measure’s 100% affordable waiver also ignores the reality that most affordable housing in Los Angeles is at least partially subsidized by market rate units or other uses — meaning Measure S would constrict future affordable housing construction far beyond the handful of projects slotted for public parcels.
“Financing a 100% affordable project is nearly impossible,” he said.
— Phoenix Tso
*Editor’s Note (3/03/17): This story has been changed to correct editing errors in order to: (1) correct and clarify information about the Venice-Dell-Pacific project, (2) correct and clarify the overall status of public parcels available for affordable housing, and (3) to state clearly the the Measure S 100% affordable waiver would still impact 100% affordable housing proposals that would require a General Plan amendment, which includes Venice-Dell-Pacific.
An End to the Honor System
Both sides agree that developers tasked with finding fault in their own projects rarely do
While it does not appear on the Measure S battle map, the Legado del Mar project proposed for 138 Culver Blvd. in Playa del Rey might as well be the poster child for one of its wonkier but more significant provisions: a ban on developers managing the required environmental impact analyses for their own projects.
Legado’s call for a four story project to accommodate 72 apartments and 14,500 square feet of commercial space on a long-vacant lot was enough to rouse strong opposition throughout the primarily low-rise neighborhood.
But when opponents discovered that excavations for two levels of subterranean parking could disturb an underground pool of toxic runoff from a former dry cleaning business nearby, they went apoplectic.
Legado’s hired environmental review consultant concluded that excavation “could pull the documented groundwater impacts at Del Rey Cleaners toward the [construction] site” but “would not result in a significant hazard to the public or environment.”
But then a group of Playa del Rey homeowners led by Julie Ross hired a hydrologist to reexamine that issue, and he concluded that excavation work would lower the groundwater table and thus “create a greater driving force for moving the contaminants toward the new structure.”
“It’s dangerous to allow a developer to produce their own environmental reports,” Ross said, “but what’s more dangerous is having the city of Los Angeles accepting the results. This means that the city of Los Angeles, on a wholesale level, has potentially agreed to poison the entire town of Playa del Rey.”
Former L.A. City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who represented Playa del Rey for 12 years in office, is opposed to Measure S. She says preventing developers from submitting their own environmental reviews would not necessarily prevent situations like the Legado controversy.
“It’s not as simple as it sounds. You get them written much faster when developers [write them] than if the city does them,” she said. “If the developer doesn’t write them, then the city has to have a much bigger staff or streamline its staff.”
Environmental law attorney Sabrina Venskus, who represents Venice clients in land use cases, supports Measure S. She says the California Environmental Quality Act requires developers to mitigate any environmental impacts in a project, meaning developers tend to not want to look for them.
“On the other hand, if the city or the city’s consultant prepares the EIR [environmental impact report] … that analysis is going to be, by its very nature, more objective,” Venskus said.
Galanter said she understands where Legado’s opponents are coming from, as consultants rarely recommend going to the expense of a complete EIR.
“In that sense the supporters of Measure S are right. Consultants are being hired to justify the projects,” said Galanter, who has a master’s degree in planning from Yale University. “It comes down to whether there will be competent review by the city’s staff, and not all of them are able to decide whether an EIR is needed.
“But it is absolutely critical,” she said, “that the city recognize B.S. when they see it.”
— Gary Walker