Measure S, the ballot measure formerly known as the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, aims to curb large-scale development in Los Angeles. It is arguably the most important issue voters face on the March ballot.
With the election less than two months away, you would think that every candidate for local office would have a position on Measure S all sorted and ready to go. But the measure has become something of a hot potato. No one wants to be seen sticking up for the developers. At the same time, the housing shortage crisis remains a top issue, and there are some fears that Measure S would exacerbate it.
The mayor and at least 10 out of 14 sitting city councilman have come out against Measure S, which among other things would reduce larger developments by placing a two-year moratorium on zoning exceptions that allow such developments. So far, no city councilman has come out in support.
One councilman who is still waffling is the Westside's Paul Koretz, who faces a somewhat tricky challenger in attorney Jesse Creed. Creed has raised an impressive $250,000 to Koretz's $360,000 and is the first City Council challenger to qualify for $100,000 in matching funds. In a written statement, Koretz said that while he likes certain aspects of Measure S, he worries about its ability to withstand legal challenges.
"I do think it might light a real fire under the mayor and council's collective sense of urgency to update the community plans" that regulate development, Koretz wrote. "Thus, I am still mulling over whether supporting the initiative has strategic value along those lines, the other legal questions notwithstanding."
Creed has been raking Koretz over the coals for supporting a 20-story tower near the Beverly Center, proposed by outdoor mall mogul Rick Caruso. Koretz recently pulled his support in the wake of an L.A. Times investigation into Caruso's rather generous political spending. Speaking to the Times, Creed called Koretz's reversal "the height of political opportunism.”
But like the councilman, Creed hasn't made up his mind on Measure S, either.
"I like a lot of things in Measure S," Creed tells L.A. Weekly. "At this point, I don’t know if I’m a Yes or a No, because I’m still doing some independent research."
That's one reason candidates are being so cautious: Measure S is has a number of parts and is super complicated. It would require the city to update its General and Community plans, which everyone (including the mayor) agrees is a good idea. It would require that the city rather than developers prepare environmental impact reports, a change that most people don't have an opinion about. It would place a limit on how large a parking exemption new projects could be granted, which is a fairly divisive idea – urban boosters hate it (because it will lead to more parking lots, and therefore less incentive to take public transit), while suburbanites love it (because they think we need more parking).
Finally, it would hamper the city's ability to grant exceptions to the General Plan — the kind that allow for buildings that are taller than a neighborhood is used to.
Measure S is being sold, in large part, as a campaign-finance reform issue. Developers give money to City Hall, developers get zoning variances from City Hall — ergo, City Hall is corrupt. Rather than banning councilmembers from taking contributions from developers — as a group of councilman, including Koretz, just proposed — Measure S aims to restrict City Hall's ability to help developers.
Mitchell Schwartz, a long-shot candidate for mayor challenging Eric Garcetti, also hasn't made up his mind on Measure S.
"I’m not sure whether or not I’m going to vote for it," he says. "I completely understand the sentiment behind it. ... They’re trying to deal with an incredibly corrupt system, and I applaud them for it."
Perhaps one reason for candidates' indecision is polarization around the issue. Joe Bray-Ali is a former bicycle activist (he now calls himself a safe-streets activist) running against Gil Cedillo in the Eastside's Council District 1. He, too, struggled with Measure S, reading the text of the measure over and over again, before finally deciding to vote against it (Cedillo also opposes it). Bray-Ali says there are vocal advocates on both sides of the issue, all with strong feelings.
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"It has turned into a real civil war issue," Bray-Ali says. "If I even acknowledge the humanity on either side, then I am immediately branded an enemy combatant."
He explains: "There are actually a couple provisions in S that are reasonable. When I bring these up to people that are anti-S, they flip out. ... It’s been hard to have a factual argument. It’s just a bizarre tangle of rhetoric and emotion."
The anti-development measure, which is funded by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, has befuddled many since its early draft was released to the public more than a year ago. Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, was named as an early supporter of the measure — until he reversed himself, deciding instead to remain neutral.
Even celebrities have gone back and forth on Measure S. In August, backers of the measure announced they had the support of a half-dozen Hollywood celebrities, including Leonardo DiCaprio. But after a couple of bloggers castigated DiCaprio, who touts himself as an environmentalist, DiCaprio's people came out and said he never had supported the measure. L.A. Weekly has reached out for comment to the other five stars of stage and screen; so far, we have not heard back.