THE LOS ANGELES CITY COUNCIL and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa have inadvertently united a patchwork of neighborhood groups stretching from the Valley to Venice, whose members have joined to stop city leaders from tossing out hard-won neighborhood zoning rules that keep a lid on overdevelopment.
The Council and mayor, saying they were complying with a state requirement to encourage more affordable housing, recently put on the books an ordinance that allows much bigger apartment complexes in areas whose residents believed they had won the battle against overconstruction.
“They broke the law, like usual,” says Robert Silverstein, a Pasadena attorney who opposes the so-called “density bonus” that waters down existing zoning.
In February, Villaraigosa signed the controversial ordinance to comply with Senate Bill 1818, a California law that gives developers permission to build far bigger apartment complexes and condos than are actually allowed on the land — if the developers include a smattering of “affordable” units.
But critics, including mayoral appointee and Los Angeles City Planning Commission President Jane Usher, openly questioned the legality of the Los Angeles ordinance — and now two lawsuits have been filed to stop it.
James O’Sullivan, president of the Miracle Mile Residential Association and an activist in the coalition, believes the ordinance will push L.A. over the edge into nonlivability: “The best business to own will be a U-Haul franchise.”
When the legislature passed Senate Bill 1818 in 2005, they hoped it would entice developers to include affordable housing in their projects. In exchange, developers would be allowed to reduce the number of parking spaces, exceed height limits — and pack in more units to reap higher profits.
But Los Angeles critics see the city’s interpretation as a “Trojan Horse” which all but prevents community debate over much bigger projects than are allowed by the zoning, letting developers erect inappropriately dense and tall luxury apartments and condos.
If the developer devotes just 11 percent of the building to “very-low-income units,” the building can blow past zoning rules — it can even be constructed right out to the sidewalk’s edge. Buildings can be 35 percent bigger than is now allowed but with far less parking. Under the new ordinance, such projects are deemed “ministerial” — a technical designation that allows them to ignore California Environmental Quality laws.
In other words, there will be no environmental-impact review of proposed new construction under the new law.
In an e-mail obtained by Curbed LA — a blog about Los Angeles real estate — Planning Commission president Usher appeared to advocate that Angelenos sue City Hall. She questioned whether the ordinance “was fatally flawed” and whether it violates California environmental laws.
Usher did not return calls from the Weekly about her decision to publicly denounce an ordinance signed by the mayor, who appointed her to her commission post.
Doug Carstens, representing the coalition of community groups suing City Hall, points to California cities like Albany, Santa Cruz and Palos Verdes, which have implemented Senate Bill 1818 — but didn’t try to end-run environmental laws as did Los Angeles.
In L.A., under the new ordinance, “you could have projects built ‘by right’ and without recourse,” Carstens warns. In other words, there would not be any room for public opposition at the core of the traditional civic process.
In early April, attorney Noel Weiss made similar claims on behalf of homeowner Sandy Hubbard of Valley Village. Weiss calls the ordinance “one of the grossest examples of political malpractice and ineptitude I have witnessed. ... The City Council is being led around by the nose by [bureaucrats in the] planning department and the city attorney.
Councilman Tom LaBonge voted against the ordinance, saying developers could abuse it to demolish rather than build affordable housing. Says LaBonge, “It will ultimately take down Section 8 housing and could erase stabilized housing for some.”
Council president Eric Garcetti, an ardent advocate of much denser housing throughout Los Angeles, voted for it. Garcetti insists now, “We wanted to accomplish three things: provide more affordable housing; not take money out of the city’s pocketbooks; and protect neighborhoods from the wrong type of development.”
But critics say Garcetti and the City Council have achieved the opposite. Garcetti admits the ordinance is flawed. “I was trying to fix something that was broken,” he says. Now, he may support a “moratorium” on demolitions.
Whether he does or not, the downtown pols have managed to bring together disparate neighborhood groups that might never have collaborated on anything, but that are joining forces now — to stop City Hall.