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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
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Yet Brazeman condemns the CPIO as a means to roll over L.A.’s 35 long-neglected and aging Community Plans. The CPIO ordinance gives the Planning Department dramatic new power to create “overlay” districts of any size or shape, anywhere in the city, with new zoning rules that override the city’s Community Plans.

Such overlay districts must be approved by the Planning Commission, whose members are appointed by Mayor Villaraigosa, followed by a sign-off by the City Council.

Under the new law — which Brazeman is asking a court to halt by injunction — if a Los Angeles family doesn’t want to live within an overlay district that trumps the longtime zoning but finds that its home, condo or apartment is being overlaid, there’s nothing the resident can do.

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

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At a November workshop held by the Valley Alliance of Neighborhood Councils, land-use consultant Brad Rosenheim explained that residents had to act before a CPIO was overlaid on them: “It’s awareness on the part of the community as these CPIOs are being adopted that’s most important — because those are going to be the rules.”

That’s because once the rules are set for how big and dense buildings can be within these new overlay districts, building projects in those communities can be approved ministerially by the Planning Department. “Ministerially” means city employees can give the green light to developers’ projects without the usual public input, community hearing or environmental impact requirements — or an Environmental Impact Report.

Brazeman’s lawsuit says that’s illegal, because state law requires that significant environmental impacts of new building projects be known and mitigated. The new law skirts that requirement, with no public input.   

The paradigm shift that Councilman Reyes claims “doesn’t do anything” is in fact dramatic: Instead of projects being subjected to public scrutiny, that scrutiny is now placed on new, abstract districts long before any projects or alterations have been proposed.

By the time developers’ projects come down the pipeline, the public, the Planning Commission and even the City Council will be out of the discussion. The Planning Department will have the power to approve projects by decree. The Planning Department, since Goldberg’s departure, is now run by former zoning administrator Michael LoGrande, who answers directly to an impatient mayor who says he is eager to “remake what L.A. looks like.”

“That’s just not so,” Bell replies, calmly, when asked why the ordinance gives decreelike powers to his department. “The ordinance clearly, specifically requires that CPIO overlay districts have rules that are more restrictive than those in Community Plans,” affirming his conviction that his Planning Department is watching out for communities.

That’s not quite true. Exceptions can be approved in the overlay district rules that allow for buildings 20 percent larger than those allowed in the more protective zoning code — and L.A. residents can protest this up-zoning only after it is adopted.

“Those exceptions can be appealed,” Bell explains. “We’re required to inform the public of them, and the public can appeal to a local Planning Commission, which can overrule us. Nothing has changed.”

Perhaps Bell and Reyes actually believe that “nothing has changed.” Over such distinctions as opposing a petition before an approval versus appealing it after the fact, cities rise and fall.

Bell gingerly returns the zoning code to a shelf. It might not be present at the Jan. 13 meeting of the City Planning Commission, but it will be on the chopping block all the same.

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

New density is supposed to be built within walking distance of light rail, subway stations and major bus stops. That’s what it says in the comprehensive February 2010 report issued by the Center for Transit-Oriented Development, a nonprofit think tank funded by the Federal Transit Agency. The steering committee for that report included representatives from Mayor Villaraigosa’s office, the Department of City Planning, Caltrans, Metro and other agencies, though they didn’t have final say on what went into it.

Much of that new density, concentrated around transit stops, would abut single-family areas and low-slung, suburban neighborhoods of Los Angeles currently protected from heavy development nearby. Deputy planning director Alan Bell insists, “We need to protect and preserve our single-family neighborhoods.”

But as Brazeman discovered, that’s not what the actual legislation portends, in part because the Planning Department now can establish overlay districts of its choosing, anywhere in the city, near — or far from — transit stops.

Neighborhood council leaders also fear that single-family neighborhoods are increasingly vulnerable because city planners are tossing around terms such as underutilized nonresidential land — mile-wide areas the Center for Transit-Oriented Development has created by drawing a circle around key transit stops. The big tracts of “underutilized” but already developed land, detailed on a map published on the center’s website, adjoin dozens of single-family neighborhoods in areas such as Sun Valley near San Fernando Road, the intersection of Washington and National boulevards in Palms on the Westside and a stretch of Coldwater Canyon between Sherman Way and Roscoe Boulevard.

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