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City Hall's "Density Hawks" Are Changing L.A.'s DNA 

Bitter homes & gardens?

Wednesday, Feb 27 2008
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Page 5 of 9

But Yaroslavsky says it was Blumenfeld, not the state, who pushed the new densities well beyond the state requirements to "35 percent more density," and Blumenfeld then "laid out all the 'findings' to approve it."

Villaraigosa isn't part of this growing rancor. His own views are unknown, aside from his repetitive claim that the "construction crane is the official bird" for Los Angeles.

Meet Jane Blumenfeld, the object of Yaroslavsky's scorn and senior planner for the city of Los Angeles. After receiving her bachelor's in history from the University of Wisconsin, and then a master's in city planning from the University of Pennsylvania, she came here in 1978, working as a planning adviser for Mayor Bradley, just as young Councilman Yaroslavsky was ushering through Prop. U to halt commercial high-rises near homes.

click to flip through (4) ANGELA FENTIMAN - “What have you done? The whole - thing’s a fraud.” - —County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, on City Hall’s claim that high-rises create affordable housing
  • Angela Fentiman
  • “What have you done? The whole thing’s a fraud.” —County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, on City Hall’s claim that high-rises create affordable housing
     
 

After spending some years in the real estate business, Blumenfeld worked as chief of staff to former Councilman Mike Feuer, then rejoined the Planning Department in 2001. A small woman with a quick wit propelled by spurts of sarcasm, Blumenfeld appears a bit stunned by the charges Yaroslavsky lodges against her, like an elf reacting to the roar of a bear.

"All right ... all right," she says calmly. "Let's just take a look at his work."

Blumenfeld leads me through a maze of hallways in City Hall, to an inner office where she points to a color-coded map. "See that?" she says, pointing out that 83 percent of the commercial parcels in the city are marked — indicating Prop. U is in force. "It's not physically possible to build growth there, because Zev has blocked it with Proposition U."

But that's not true. In 2002, under Mayor James Hahn and with virtually no public scrutiny, the City Council watered down Prop. U, creating a new land zone confusingly dubbed "Residential Accessory Services." In such zones, projects can be doubled in size if the developer merely agrees to mix housing units with businesses. In another nod to developers, and calling it "smart growth," the council decided that projects with "affordable" housing can be one-third bigger than permitted if they are within 1,500 feet of a bus stop. Together with SB 1818, much of L.A. is now open to multistory construction. (Click here to download PDF of the map.)

To Blumenfeld, those neighborhoods are underutilized "transit corridors." She also denies Yaroslavsky's charge that Fairfax — as well as other stable villages that make up L.A. — is threatened by SB 1818. Developers still find that "land is expensive, lumber is expensive. The [state] law's been in effect for almost three years, but we've not seen any projects on Fairfax."

"So why write these incentives into the new law?" Yaroslavsky retorts. "The city can't keep talking out of both sides of its mouth."

City leaders first learned of plans to mandate denser California cities in a 1996 memo from the State Department of Housing and Community Development. But Yaroslavsky insists he didn't hear about SB 1818 until last summer, when a mole from the city's Planning Department leaked him a draft of the plan for apartment buildings 35 percent bigger than allowed.

"We were appalled," Yaroslavsky says. So the county supervisor again became the town crier. Prodensity groups begrudgingly credit him for pressuring the council to ban these higher buildings next to or across alleys from R1 (single family) homes. But other neighborhood protections, such as a lengthy appeals process, were stripped away.

"This all comes from the stupidity of doing these things behind closed doors," Yaroslavsky says. "Now everybody's weighing in. They didn't know what was going on. Now the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council is picking this all apart, and rightly so."

On hearing Yaroslavsky's version, Blumenfeld rolls her eyes.

"There's really no secret plans here," she says. "We don't do anything in this department that's not superpublic and transparent, and nobody knows better than Zev the steps we go through to adopt an ordinance. There were many, many public hearings."

She cites a series of committee meetings, describing them as poorly attended: "'Wow! A plan to implement SB 1818! Let me give up my Saturday to go to this!'"

In fact, Angelenos don't have a clue what's been happening, or what's coming. In the 32 months since Villaraigosa was elected, for example, the Los Angeles Times and the Daily News have written only four stories about a plan to allow apartments without parking in order to squeeze in more units. The phrase "SB 1818" has appeared in just 14 articles. The mayor's czar of zoning variances, Michael LoGrande, is virtually unknown — mentioned just six times in Los Angeles print media in the past two years. And the "superpublic" hearings cited by Blumenfeld were attended almost exclusively by lobbyists, a few activists and the occasional curious neighbor.

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