Last November, a group called the Coalition to Preserve LA filed an application for a ballot measure it calls the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. The measure seeks to control the current proliferation of new development in Los Angeles by placing a two-year moratorium on projects that cannot be built without changes to the city’s existing zoning codes. Since then, as the Coalition conducts a major effort to collect the 63,000 signatures necessary to place the measure on the ballot for an upcoming city election, the conversation about the NII has heated up…and is likely to get even hotter as time goes by.
Last week, on its YouTube channel, the Miracle Mile Residential Association released a video interview with Jill Stewart, the former editor of the L.A. Weekly, who recently left that position to become the new Campaign Director for the Coalition to Preserve L.A. The video provides a comprehensive introduction to the motivations behind Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, and the promoters’ answers to some early criticisms. Over the next few months, the Buzz will continue to follow this issue, and will look at viewpoints both supporting and opposing the Initiative. We begin with Ms. Stewart, via the MMRA video, which is a conversation between her and Ken Hixon, MMRA Vice President and Director of Communications.
How would the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative Address the Development Problem?
According to Ms. Stewart, the NII would do several things:
– Stop developers from hiring their own consultants to write the Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) on their projects
-Place a 2-year moratorium on all development that does not conform to the city’s current zoning (while the City updates its General and Community Plans, which govern zoning in the various areas of the city)
– Require that the new plans be followed without exception (which would stop “backroom” deals – between City Council Members and developers – to build things that are larger than the current zoning allows)
It’s those kinds of projects, she says – built on zoning exceptions and agreed to before any public discussion – which change neighborhood character and “wipe out a lot of affordable housing.”
Why Do We Need the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative?
According to Ms. Stewart, “spot zoning,” the practice of changing the underlying zoning parcel by parcel, in response to applications from developers, is “a terrible distortion of the planning process.” She says that in the last 15 years or so, the city has nearly abandoned its General Plan, which determines citywide zoning and development limits, in favor of individual zone changes and variances. But that is “not planning,” she says, and is driven more by the developers’ desire for profits than any conscious plan for citywide growth. Stewart said the City currently fields “dozens” of zoning change requests every week…but that they’re almost all from developers – “that’s who’s using this huge loophole created by the City Council,” and “it’s more than a loophole…it’s a way of life now for the City Council.”
Stewart says the goal of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative is to force the city to return to a “real, strategic, general plan for Los Angeles.” Currently, she says, the city is required to update both its General Plan and underlying Community Plans every so often, based on projected growth…but many plans haven’t been updated at all, and the growth estimates used for plans that have been re-written have been overly optimistic. “Los Angeles is no longer a boom town,” she says later in the interview. Instead, she says, we are now a very modestly growing city, “about 1.2% per year.” “Insane” growth projections, she said, are “way off, but they use them because it justifies development.”
To prove the point, she cited the recent Hollywood Plan update — which was contested by residents on the basis of its growth projections, and eventually overturned via lawsuit.
“Most people aren’t against development; nor are we,” said Stewart. “but the development is not planned, it’s not smart.” Smart development, she said, would make better use of roads that could handle the additional traffic a development brings to a neighborhood, and would happen more in areas that really need it (e.g. South L.A.)…and not just “where developers think it would be cool” (e.g. currently “hot” neighborhoods such as Hollywood, Wilshire Blvd. and Studio City.)
Stewart also notes in the interview that new developments in those hot areas eliminate affordable housing in favor of expensive, market rate units, which adds to the city’s housing crisis instead of easing it. Hixon agreed, saying Miracle Mile has gained about 1700 market rate units in new developments in the last few years, but has lost more than 50 affordable units, and gained back fewer than 10 through “density bonus” allotments in the new developments. Stewart said the current trend of including a very small number of “affordable” units in larger new market-rate developments is actually a “disastrous approach” to the problem, because it doesn’t provide anywhere near the number of units that are being lost or which are needed. Stewart said, “You can’t deregulate the land, as we’ve done in LA, and accept the idea of trickle-down housing from the rich.”
Stewart also said that it’s not just technically “affordable” units (those within reach of people making less than 10% of the Area Median Income), that are being lost, but also other older units that may not meet the official “affordable” threshold, but which are still within reach of other working class residents. She said most Los Angeles developers are targeting the “3 percent” of upper income levels, who will patronize new cafes and coffee places, but whose workers can no longer live in the area and must now commute to serve the new residents. She said current development patterns have shoved out the working class, who will be forced to use public transit to reach their service sector jobs in newly re-developed areas.
According to Stewart, Hollywood has been the “canary in the coal mine” for this pattern. Hollywood, she said, has lost 3,500 single-room-occupancy, “transitional” housing units in recent years, which has greatly increased homelessness in the area. Overall, she said, Hollywood lost a total of 12,000 residents to gentrification in the last few years, at the same time Mayor Eric Garcetti said the area was growing.
Response to Early Objections
Hixon noted that one major criticism of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative is that it would halt all development – including much-needed affordable housing – during the two-year moratorium while the city rewrites its General and Community Plans. But Stewart said this is not the case. She said the NII would place a moratorium only on development that does not conform to the current zoning in any location…and most officially “affordable” housing is low-rise, fits the current zoning restrictions and does not require zone changes to build — so those projects could proceed normally.
Another criticism of the NII, Hixon said, has been cries that it will “squeeze” the middle class, by preventing construction of new units for that market segment, or by preventing renovations of older homes. Again, Stewart disagreed, saying developers and the city are currently hoping for a “trickle down” effect from new housing – if you build enough luxury units, you’ll eventually gain some for middle incomes as well. But, she says, that’s not what’s happening – building luxury units only drives up adjacent land values and creates more luxury housing; it “doesn’t suddenly create affordable housing nearby.” In fact, she said, owners of nearby units that may have once been affordable for the middle class tend to raise their rents as well.
Hixon also asked how the NII would affect other kinds of projects, such as someone who wants to open a new restaurant. Stewart said that if the restaurant fits the current zoning for the space, there won’t be any problems. The big issue with new restaurants tends to be insufficient parking space, so there are a lot of requests for zoning variances to reduce the amount of parking required. Those requests, she said, would be placed on hold during the two-year moratorium.
Hixon said there have also been claims that the two-year moratorium proposed in the NII would leave the city’s rapidly expanding transit network incomplete. Stewart said that comment probably refers to the current proliferation of Transit-Oriented Developments…which she says are actually “creating, not reducing, congestion” by increasing density. Hixon noted that residents of new luxury TODs almost always still own and use cars instead of public transit. He also noted that the city’s proposed Mobility Plan defines any area within half a mile of a bus line that runs every 15 minutes to be part of a transit corridor, and thus open for more dense re-development. That would technically, he said, include all of Miracle Mile, Koreatown, Hollywood and other large swaths of the city.
Stewart agreed, but noted there’s still a lot of “red-lining” going on, and that developers aren’t really interested in all areas served by public transit. She said areas that are truly in need of new development – such as South LA – are being ignored in favor of “hot” areas such as Hollywood, Miracle Mile and Koreatown. As further proof that the current building boom has more to do with developers’ profits than it does with smart growth or fulfilling real housing needs, Hixon noted that many developers are not buying properties that they intend to develop as currently allowed, but often buy only so they can change the zoning to increase the capacity, and thus the value, of the underlying land. Stewart agreed, noting that those “entitlements,” the added capacity of the property won through zone changes, increase value enough that the original developer can often just re-sell the property at that point, and cash out with hefty profits, before the land is even developed.
Another criticism of the NII, according to Hixon, is that it would “keep the city from correcting and undoing past mistakes” in zoning, which have allowed the over-proliferation of things like auto shops and recycling centers in certain neighborhoods. But Stewart agreed with Hixon’s comment that allowing those issues to continue to be addressed through spot zone changes and variances would be like “putting band-aids on band-aids,” and is not the right way to address those problems. “Changing things bit by bit won’t happen,” she said, noting that the only way to fix things for good is to fix the underlying plans that govern city zoning. “But LA has gotten so far beyond that, people have forgotten that’s how it’s supposed to work.”
Who is Backing the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative?
According to Stewart, the Coalition to Preserve LA was started by the AIDS Health Care Foundation, which actively advocates for social justice issues in addition to causes directly related to HIV and AIDS. She said the AHCF is still the main fundraiser for the initiative because it believes “people have a right to live in places that are livable. They don’t have a right to cram everybody together and give everything over to the 3-percenters and wipe out the working class.” She said the Initiative is now also supported by a highly diverse representation of the community, including people from all areas, classes and ethnicities in Los Angeles.
One rather prominent supporter is businessman and former LA Mayor Richard Riordan. Stewart said her conversation with Riordan prior to his endorsement was “the most fun phone call I’ve had in a long time.” She says he told her, “I’m for development,” but “this was never what we were talking about when we said ‘LA needs smart development.’ We never, ever meant for it to be land parcel by land parcel, driven by developers’ choices about what was hot.”
Stewart acknowledged that the fight to pass the NII will be long and hard. She says an early poll showed 72% support among voters, but that will probably fall as the well-funded opposition gears up. (One other prominent early supporter, Homeboy Industries’ Father Gregory Boyle, has already retracted his early endorsement.)
But Stewart doesn’t see any other way to solve the over-development problem, including the recent appointment of a new Director of City Planning, Vince Bertoni. “It’s the virus saying, ‘let us fix the disease,'” she said. “And we don’t want the virus to fix the disease any more. We’re coming in with some medicine.”
The full text of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative can be found at http://cityplanning.lacity.org/Code_Studies/Housing/DRAFTUPDATEDAffordHousingGuide.pdf More information about the Coalition to Preserve LA, and the efforts to put the NII on an upcoming city ballot, can be found at http://2preservela.org/ If you would like more information, contact email@example.com
“People feel they have no choice” in development issues these days, says Stewart in the video, but “we’re saying you do have a chance to stop the runaway train for a little while.”
Stay tuned to the Buzz for more information – both pro and con – about the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative.