Thursday, January 15, 2009

More of What's Smart About Smart Growth

The Unnerving New Map

Los Angeles has always had an uneasy relationship with growth. The archetypal boom-and-bust town, L.A. repeatedly sees its real estate market surge and recede, with each growth spurt followed by a period of financial pain. Transportation was the catalyst for one of the earliest booms, with newcomers flooding into the city after fares on the transcontinental railroad from the Midwest to L.A. dropped to $1 per ticket. Land values soared — until a bank crisis caused a collapse in 1888.

For much of the 20th century, growth was considered good in Los Angeles. The city accommodated its continual influx by creating the most extensive trolley network in the nation. It was dismantled after World War II, replaced by the “Motor Coach” — General Motors’ halfhearted marketing term for the bus — and by the sprawling freeway system.

With the freeways came discontent, as traffic choked the Westside and then much of the city. The symbol of anti-growth ire was Proposition U, which voters easily passed in 1988. Proposition U shifted L.A.’s planning equation from unbridled growth to “slow growth,” by limiting the height of buildings on major boulevards to 45 feet and cutting in half each commercial building’s “floor area ratio” — a formula used to determine the mass of a building. Then, in the wake of the 1992 riots, a crushing recession stopped development almost completely, and growth slowed on its own.

But at the start of this decade, and without much public notice, slow growth was replaced by the concept of “smart growth,” as Los Angeles city planners quietly urged elected officials to put “mixed use” projects on major boulevards, with retail on the ground floor and housing up above.

The first push for higher-density housing came in 2002, during the administration of Mayor James Hahn, when the Los Angeles City Council passed — with little scrutiny — a law allowing projects with affordable housing to exceed existing density limits by more than one-third if they were near a rail station or any of the city’s dozens of bus routes.

Months later in 2002, again with little public involvement, the council went further, voting unanimously to create a smart-growth zoning designation — “Residential Accessory Services” — that allows developers to build projects twice the size previously allowed if they combine housing and businesses in the same building.

On low-rise commercial avenues and boulevards like Ventura, La Brea and Pico, developers suddenly found that by adding housing, they could blow past the growth limits voters established under Proposition U. Prop. U, after all, only capped the size of commercial and industrial buildings.

The results can be seen all over the city, with construction pits and steel girders marking where the development rules have abruptly changed.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, elected in 2005, says smart-growth strategies will produce “elegant density,” multistory buildings that are embraced by neighborhoods. But County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who campaigned for Prop. U, has a more skeptical view, saying the Department of City Planning found a way to circumvent the electorate.

“There’s nothing elegant about busting the limits that have been in place on the Westside, that I got in place in my district,” Yaroslavsky says. “And it isn’t elegant to the people who thought they were protected by the restraints we put in place 20 years ago in those neighborhoods.”

Eight thousand housing units — accommodating thousands of new residents — have been approved in the past three years using the new smart-growth zoning, says Jane Blumenfeld, a 16-year veteran of the planning department. To help her employees understand where she believes that zoning makes sense, Blumenfeld created a map that shows every place in Los Angeles that sits within 1,500 feet of a major transit stop — that is, a transit stop at which a bus or train arrives every 15 minutes during afternoon rush hour.

( Map ommited from this copy. Please visit to find it)

The map is, to put it mildly, jarring. On it, nearly every boulevard north of the Santa Monica Freeway and south of the Santa Monica Mountains and Hollywood Hills appears as though it could be converted to smart-growth zoning. A huge swath of South Los Angeles and several pockets of the San Fernando Valley are also prime candidates.

Why? Because nearly every boulevard has a bus. “We want to build housing near transit, as opposed to building it where there’s no ability to reach transit,” says Blumenfeld, who oversees citywide planning strategies. “South of the mountains, there’s pretty much transit everywhere.”

Blumenfeld cautions that the map is only a guide, and can’t be used to force density on the few remaining areas still designated R-1, or single-family, where no more than one house can be constructed on a residential lot.

The new higher density, she says, will go primarily in places permitted in each neighborhood’s community plan. Community plans are official documents now being updated, with varying levels of community input, all over Los Angeles. First up in the battle over adding new density to their community plans are West Los Angeles, Sunland-Tujunga, Westlake and parts of South Los Angeles.

Barring another Prop. U–style voter revolt against development, Los Angeles residents won’t be given a choice. For the past few years, the neighborhoods have been warned: If they don’t find places to allow density, the planning department — and the 15 City Council members — will find those places for them.

Hollywood resident Lucille Saunders is not quite ready to see her city remade on such a dramatic scale. A volunteer with the Melrose Neighborhood Association, she has been combating a proposal for an outsize 219-unit apartment building on La Brea Avenue. Minutes after she testified at City Hall, Saunders took one look at the map and gasped. “It’s a travesty,” she declares. “It just seems as though this is opening the entire city, the entire central city, to whatever the developers want.”

Saunders’ group was prepared to allow a three-story apartment complex on La Brea. But when the developer announced his desire for seven stories and an exemption from height limits, her group hired a lawyer — and a lobbyist. After spending thousands of dollars, the Melrose Neighborhood Association persuaded city officials to prepare a full environmental impact report on the project, a move that delays but does not stop the seven-story tower

.With so many bulked-up buildings springing up on major boulevards, some politicians are seeing a resurgence in restlessness over new construction. Councilman Weiss, whose district includes Century City and much of the Westside, has been targeted for recall by a handful of neighborhood groups. And Supervisor Yaroslavsky, who pushed for “slow growth” initiatives two decades ago as a city councilman, says traffic is so bad that he no longer travels to certain parts of his district in the late afternoon.

Yaroslavsky blames not only Los Angeles, but smaller cities like West Hollywood and Santa Monica, for allowing developers to go for projects that were “previously unacceptable.”

“There is a revolt that is now surfacing in various parts of Los Angeles, and rightly so,” Yaroslavsky says. “Communities [will] never be able to compete with the real estate lobby. All they have is their political power and their voice. And they need to be heard.”

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