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A Zillion New Neighbors 

Scared by a weakening downtown, City Hall is set to obliterate zoning protections

Wednesday, Aug 1 2007
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AT THE JULY 25 MEETING of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council in the tony Bunker Hill Towers, David Robinson, a slender man in a tidy but unprepossessing shirt and slacks, sat patiently through the presentations. If you didn’t know he was from Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, you’d have pegged him as a public defender, which is sort of what he is, being an advocate for affordable housing.

Robinson listened to pitches by restaurants and liquor stores, which wanted the neighborhood council to support their petitions to sell liquor that could be carried off-site. Council vice president Brady Westwater practically begged one presenter to encourage the restaurant she represented to stay open later.

Board members of the neighborhood council were generous in their support of these businesses — anything that might contribute to a downtown nightlife. Then came the item Robinson was waiting for, the Greater Downtown Housing Ordinance — slated to be voted on by the Los Angeles City Council on August 7 and widely expected to be approved.

click to enlarge Anybody home? The condos are mostly dark when editor Jerry Sullivan strolls by this ''sold out'' building each night. (Photo by Orly Olivier)
  • Anybody home? The condos are mostly dark when editor Jerry Sullivan strolls by this ''sold out'' building each night. (Photo by Orly Olivier)

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The so-called Downtown Ordinance is one in a trio of zoning changes drafted by the Planning Department that could eventually transform what the entire city looks like architecturally, who will be able to live here and in what conditions.

It’s part of the high-density sea change being pushed for the entire region — a vision city planners have been working on based on a reported population influx, but largely without public discussion or awareness.

Though the Downtown Ordinance’s chief architect, Senior City Planner Jane Blumenthal, presented an early draft of the ordinance two years ago before this same downtown neighborhood council, few officers from other affected neighborhood councils knew anything concrete about it.

In reference to an earlier agenda item, Westwater complained about the city’s “lack of transparency.” There needs to be more clarity, he argued, “so the public can figure out whether or not this is a good idea.”

Neighborhood council president J. Russell Brown countered, “Brady, 60 percent of the public doesn’t even know who the vice president is” — an unwitting defense of the quiet decisions that Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky described to the Weekly as “the failure of the neighborhood councils — now populated with business interests — to represent their constituents.”

In referring to the proposed new density ordinance for downtown, the neighborhood council’s land-use co-chair, Shiraz Tangri, remarked, “With very little fanfare, this is making it to City Council next week.”

“Out of nowhere,” Westwater quipped.

WITH THE DOWNTOWN ORDINANCE, the City Council is about to lift zoning restrictions on developers in a five-mile area framed by the 110 and 101 freeways and Alameda Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard, allowing them to carve up residential structures into potentially tiny, closetlike condos and apartments — whatever configurations permitted in the building code that developers think the market can bear.

But the city’s housing market has produced widespread unaffordability — for all but a fraction of the city’s residents, and this is what so vexed Robinson, who was there to argue against the ordinance.

“You keep saying we have a housing crisis,” Robinson said, tension rising in his voice. “We don’t have a housing crisis. We have an affordable-housing crisis, and people operating under this system are not creating affordable housing.”

Cecilia V. Estolano, newly appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to head the Community Redevelopment Agency, admitted to the Weekly that, compared to other large cities, with its current orgy of development and redevelopment, L.A. is “way behind the curve” when it comes to creating affordable housing.

The Downtown Ordinance’s relaxed restrictions provide a fat “density bonus” — meaning that in exchange for setting aside 15 percent of units for low-income “affordable housing,” developers receive an entitlement to build 35 percent more apartments or condos on the same lot.

When this was brought up at the meeting, Robinson scoffed, “Cecilia at CRA took one look at this and laughed — it’s a joke.”

(When contacted by the Weekly, Estolano said that with the rising costs of construction for high-rise residential buildings, it’s unlikely that developers would use the 35 percent bonus. She suggested that the terms of a different pro-density ordinance recently approved by the City Council would prove more attractive to developers. Called the Transfer of Floor Area Ratio ordinance, it allows downtown developers to transfer air rights.)

The downtown ordinance’s relaxed restrictions would also allow developers to extend residential buildings all the way out to the sidewalk (like the baroque structures that were built between the late ’20s and ’30s along Spring Street and Broadway), tossing out the green space “setbacks” that have been a citywide requirement in the zoning code for decades. In addition, the new ordinance would allow tiny apartments L.A. has never before seen — as small as the building codes allow, with floor space as scant as 250 square feet, slightly larger than a walk-in closet.

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