And So Begins L.A.'s Great Development Debate of 2017

Backers of a ballot initiative that seeks to drastically limit development in Los Angeles dumped nearly 104,000 signatures at City Hall yesterday. That means the so-called Neighborhood Integrity Initiative is almost surely heading for the March 2017 ballot.

And so begins the great development debate, an epic struggle between urbanites and suburbanites, folks who want to see L.A. get more dense, more walkable and more bikeable versus folks who want to preserve L.A. as the car and single-family-home-dominated patchwork of neighborhoods that it mostly was — and sort of still is today.

The initiative comes at a portentous time for the city. Home prices are rising. Rents are rising. Traffic is getting worse. The city feels as balkanized as ever.

The campaign supporting the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, the Coalition to Preserve L.A. (headed by former L.A. Weekly managing editor Jill Stewart), says the problem is development. In this narrative, greedy developers go about knocking down old, affordable housing units, get sweetheart deals from the City Council to rezone the land, and then put up shiny, new, impossibly tall apartment buildings that only rich people can afford. Poor people are priced out of neighborhoods, traffic becomes worse, and so on.

According to a Coalition to Preserve L.A. press release yesterday:

The council's failure to create and follow a modern “General Plan” common in well-run cities, and the City Council's backroom dealmaking with wealthy luxury-housing developers, have led to widespread destruction of affordable housing — while creating a massive luxury-housing glut in Los Angeles.

The other side, which has coalesced into a campaign calling itself the Coalition to Protect L.A. Neighborhoods and Jobs (Why is everything a coalition? And why are they all obsessed with neighborhoods?) argues that we simply haven't built enough housing to meet demand. They say (and most studies back this up) that even when you build high-end apartment buildings, adding housing stock to a region means the region's housing becomes more affordable. 

According to the Coalition to Protect L.A. Neighborhoods and Jobs press release:

We understand there are problems in the Los Angeles planning process that need to be fixed – but this ballot-box legislation goes too far and hurts the neediest among us. The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative will ban the building of virtually all housing, including 92% of all planned affordable and homeless housing projects. Restricting the housing supply any further will have a disproportionate impact on those struggling to stay afloat, either to make monthly rent or find an affordable place to live.

Both accuse the other of being driven by greed and self-interest. The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative is receiving most of its money — about a million dollars — from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. What's a health care nonprofit doing supporting an anti-development ballot measure? It's a long story — one we just happen to have written already.

Meanwhile, the opposition is being largely funded, predictably enough, by developers — chief among them the builders of the Palladium Towers, a pair of apartment buildings set to be foisted atop the Hollywood Palladium, which just happens to sit across the street from the world headquarters of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

Yes, the whole thing feels, at times, quite personal.

And yet each side has a broad swaths of supporters. The Ye' side has activists from all over the city – Van Nuys, South L.A., Silver Lake. (It also has celebrities!)

It would be easy to dismiss these people as cranky NIMBYs, but their concerns are shared by thousands of Angelenos young and old: traffic, parking, gentrification, the changing character of their neighborhoods. Each time a new development crops up, whether it be a hotel at Sunset Junction or a high-rise in Southwest L.A., they see their way of life under threat. 

The No side also has a broad group of supporters, including affordable-housing and anti-poverty advocates, environmentalists, unions and urban boosters. 

They argue that the only way forward — the only way for L.A. to become a sustainable city and to not collapse under the weight of its own traffic — is for it to urbanize, densify, build more light rail, more bus lanes, more bike lanes. 

The argument was well crystalized by Stewart in an interview with The Planning Report:

The urban planners are stuck in a different world. They are saying that everyone needs to move close together and cram their children into places where there is nowhere to play. The theory that people enjoy living around the noise and congestion is wrong, and we need to respond to how people really live.

Actually, there are plenty of Angelenos who are willing to trade in their backyards and front lawns for a denser neighborhood where they can walk to bars and restaurants. According to the Los Angeles Times, people are willing to pay a premium to live in a more walkable neighborhood

This debate is a real debate, between two drastically contrasting visions of Los Angeles. And it is one that is a long time coming. 


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