Community Watchdog Cary Brazeman Fights Villaraigosa's Crusade to Allow Development Everywhere 

L.A.'s postwar zoning code on the chopping block

Thursday, Jan 13 2011

Watch exclusive, in-person video interviews with Cary Brazeman and Deputy Planning Director Alan Bell here.

In late September, Cary Brazeman was having dinner with a friend, an entertainment attorney, who asked Brazeman if he’d heard about a plan dubbed the “Core Findings Ordinance.” Officials at the Los Angeles Department of City Planning were preparing to float it by the Planning Commission in a few weeks in readiness to launch it citywide in 2011.

“You should read this thing,” his friend advised. “Then let’s talk.”

click to flip through (5) ILLUSTRATION BY MATT MAHURIN
  • Illustration by Matt Mahurin

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The soft-spoken Brazeman runs the Corporate Storyteller, a PR agency that advises firms on how to better brand themselves. He isn’t working on real estate branding projects, but real estate and public policy are in his blood. He came here from Washington, D.C., 15 years ago to head corporate communications for L.A.-based CB Richard Ellis, the biggest real estate services firm on the globe. No slouch in the industry, Brazeman in D.C. worked for the Real Estate Roundtable, a nonprofit think tank dedicated to public policy and advocacy on real estate and financial issues, and he likes to keep tabs on L.A.’s development and density debates.

But Brazeman had never heard of the Core Findings Ordinance his friend was talking about. He soon realized that his ignorance was shared by L.A.’s nearly 4 million residents, even though the bureaucratic-sounding plan could affect — profoundly, in some cases — the streets and neighborhoods where Angelenos live.

“I hadn’t intended to get this involved in public policy,” says Brazeman, who in late 2009 formed a nonincorporated watchdog group, L.A. Neighbors United, now with about 20 volunteers. “It just sort of came up.”

When he pored over the fine print in the Core Findings Ordinance itself, Brazeman was stunned to discover that rather than the policy-neutral word changes throughout the zoning code that were advertised as the ordinance’s purpose, the new phrasing chipped away at community protections in favor of developers.

Within days, Brazeman spent an undisclosed sum to purchase full-page ads in the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Daily News, issuing a warning to residents that zoning code protections were being undone citywide. His cell phone was soon jammed by callers ready to join his effort to publicly call out the Core Findings Ordinance.

Brazeman’s actions had an immediate effect. Sixty people showed up at the Planning Commission hearing on Oct. 14, where more than two dozen spoke out against the ordinance, compared with three on its behalf. With the hue and cry building among neighborhood councils, city watchdogs and local bloggers, the Planning Commission agreed to delay the matter until Jan. 13 — the day this article goes to print.

The primary use of core findings in L.A. has been to determine that a proposed apartment complex, condo tower, commercial redevelopment — even a second floor on a bungalow — won’t degrade the neighborhood’s quality of life.

The executive summary of the proposed new Core Findings Ordinance to be debated on Jan. 13 looks harmless — benign wording changes for the sake of efficiency: “The proposed ordinance consolidates common findings that have the same intent but different phrasing, clarifies ambiguous finding language, deletes duplicative findings, deletes unnecessary findings, and moves findings to more appropriate places in the zoning code.”

But Brazeman soon realized the ordinance wasn’t about the subtleties of language. His research unearthed a Sept. 11, 2008, report to the City Planning Commission by Gail Goldberg, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s recently departed director of the Department of City Planning. In it, Goldberg announced an initiative by her Planning Department to conduct nine separate zoning code studies, each accompanied by a new ordinance that, if approved, would enact sweeping changes to land-use language sprinkled throughout the thick Los Angeles Municipal Code.

Boring to most people. But Brazeman grew annoyed when he saw that the first four words in Goldberg’s report, following the date, time and place of the Planning Commission meeting she was announcing to discuss the sweeping municipal code changes, were: “No Public Hearing Required.”

To Brazeman, that was an indicator that Goldberg and the political appointees on the Planning Commission did not intend to make a citywide outreach effort to ask Angelenos what kind of city they want to live in.

The Weekly has learned of eight other related ordinances that may or may not have been written by now; they are shrouded in mystery and yet to be unveiled at City Hall.

Critics see a betrayal of the compact made between City Hall leaders and Los Angeles residents in 2008, when they trustingly backed countywide sales tax Measure R, which subsidizes many new mass-transit lines. L.A. Neighbors United says city planners appear to be using the locations of the light rail, subway and bus stops to justify erecting ever-larger condos and office towers citywide, even in neighborhoods protected from such developments.

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