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SENIOR CITY PLANNER Jane Blumenfeld must have known something was up when about a dozen “observers” at a “workshop” about the city’s plans to create more housing kept leaving together and re-entering the conference room in the Henry Medina Parking Enforcement Building on April 24. The “observers” were actually members of a nascent activist group, POWER (People Organized for Westside Renewal).
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POWER’s organizer, Bill Przylucki, had attended similar workshops in other parts of town. Obviously, he and his bunch were planning an “action.”
Although billed as a workshop, it was in fact more of a promotion — the last of seven informal Los Angeles gatherings over 12 days for the Villaraigosa administration to show the public, using exhibits and refreshments, how the Department of Planning intends to increase housing in neighborhoods citywide.
This endeavor is being pursued through the updating of a far-reaching document known as the Housing Element of the city’s General Plan. The General Plan is like L.A.’s blueprint, establishing the priorities by which it can grow. The document is so powerful that it can either bolster or override local community plans that were hammered out by residents themselves during the 1980s and ’90s.
When the Housing Element gets updated every five years, as California law requires in order to address population and affordable-housing needs, the very character of even long-settled Los Angeles neighborhoods is, once again, placed on the table for possible overhaul.
If the April 24 workshop was an attempt to abide by state law mandating a “diligent effort to achieve public participation” in a discussion of how to squeeze extra housing into an almost entirely built-out L.A., the effort fell short.
During the 90 minutes that the Weekly was in attendance, eight members of the public shuffled in and out of what Przylucki described as “an eighth-grade science-fair project.” There were almost as many city planners and interns present as members of the public. The gracious city reps spent most of their time in small huddles, munching on crackers and cheese.
Now, a draft of the city’s Housing Element, complete with maps showing where new housing should be erected, will be sent to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s handpicked Planning Commission in June for its nod, before being shipped to Sacramento for final approval.
Playa Del Rey resident Karen Kanter, one of the rare Angelenos who had heard about the rewrite, was mystified. How, she asked Blumenfeld, could the Planning Department imagine it had notified the public of this process, the proposed reshaping of scores of distinct and often pleasant neighborhoods? Kanter knew of no elected “neighborhood councils” that had received word, yet there are 90 such councils operating in L.A.
Blumenfeld appeared dismayed, saying that notifications were sent to all certified neighborhood councils, but perhaps the addresses assembled by the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment were outdated.
Not a single member of the 50-member “task force” creating the 225-page draft belonged to a bona fide homeowners’ association, and only two delegates from neighborhood councils were on the huge committee.
The other 48 members? They work for City Hall, law firms, housing developers or special-interest advocacy groups.
The Housing Element is an exhaustive, exhausting survey of local housing shortages and unaffordability, and it suggests ways of addressing those problems. Median family income in L.A. proper is lower than in Los Angeles County, yet housing costs have catapulted here and statewide since 1998.
With even more people on the way, Sacramento has deemed that cities big and small must allow for more “mixed-use” apartments and condos (retail on the ground floor, residential above), especially along “transit corridors” — meaning near a regular bus or subway stop.
Because there’s no real land left here, developers who build this so-called “smart growth” — apartments above shops — are tearing down existing housing. In L.A., they get incentives to do that — permission to build far bigger and far more lucrative buildings than existing zoning allows, if they include some affordable units.
Another big incentive allowed by the City Council: If developers build within 1,500 feet (about three blocks) of a regular bus stop or subway entrance, they can get a waiver from providing parking, even in huge complexes, by showing that their tenants can use a bus or means other than a car.
The effect is a lifestyle change, described by city Planning Commissioner Mike Woo as the “stick and the carrot approach” — alleviating gridlock by taking away parking, squeezing residents closer and goading them to use buses and subways.
(The yellow areas on the map show how Boyle Heights, Hancock Park, Los Feliz, Sherman Oaks, Venice, West Adams, Westchester, Woodland Hills — in fact, most of L.A. — would be targeted for dense, “transit-oriented” multistory apartments merely because the areas have bus stops, subways or light rail.)
Like almost all of the housing solutions from City Hall, Woo’s stick-and-carrot analysis is largely untethered to reality. The very day after the Westside “workshop,” the Metropolitan Transit Authority Board voted to cut 150,000 bus-service hours annually in June; another 200,000 hours will probably be cut in December. So while city planners are peddling transit-oriented development, Metro is removing transit.
Yet so far, the push for density is not boosting “affordable” housing at all but is achieving the opposite. According to POWER, the city’s own data show that “in the last planning period, the city only met 29 percent of its housing need for moderate- and low-income residents.” However, it “met 189 percent of the housing need for people earning over $135,000 per year.”
The mismatch is so acute that City Hall is considering yet another law, to require landowners who demolish old, cheap rentals to replace them, a tacit admission that city policies are destroying cheap housing, as alleged by Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
On their density map, city bureaucrats have circled big areas of the Westside as good spots to squeeze in “transit-oriented” apartments, even though buses in Westwood and other areas crawl at perhaps 10 miles per hour. POWER notes that some of the proposed sites for erecting affordable housing are occupied by dozens of churches — and even a yet-to-be-opened Whole Foods Market. “This is bullshit,” says community leader Helen Garrett.
In a letter slamming the entire, quiet process, Gerald A. Silver of the Homeowners of Encino alleged that the new Housing Element would wreak havoc on single-family neighborhoods — almost none of whose dwellers worked on the plan (the 1,500-foot “transit corridor” guideline identifies fat strips of the Valley, including Encino, as future sites for big apartments).
City planner Blumenfeld says that while the city is required to adopt plans that do not “unduly constrain housing developments,” Sacramento can’t actually force L.A. to erect any of these buildings. John Ledbetter, principal planner for Santa Barbara, concurs, saying cities need only demonstrate that they have created the capacity to meet population targets, but they can’t actually be forced by state officials to make housing materialize. However, the city of Santa Barbara is not exploring a high-density remake like the one leaders are pushing for L.A.
POWER and other critics say the big difference between L.A. City Hall and places like Irvine, which is fighting in court the state population targets, is that Los Angeles politicians generally placate the construction and development industry, even if it produces absurd results and unintended consequences.
The Housing Element of the General Plan is at http://cityplanning.lacity.org.
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.