L.A.'s Density Bonus Blowup
Indignation is written across Sinclaire Chase’s face as she sits with two other disgusted members of the Clark-Swall Homeowners Association in the lobby of a condo complex on a tree-lined street tucked behind Robertson Avenue.
Chase, Association President Cary Brazeman, and a third member, Anita Volkomer, were so upset by City Hall’s embrace of a controversial — and now deemed illegal — “density bonus” plan for developers that they took out a pricey one-page ad in the Los Angeles Times to protest.
“I wish they would come out and just say it,” Chase says of City Hall and its treatment of neighborhood residents. “Money trumps you, and it will always will trump you.”
Chase is fuming at Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Planning department bureaucrats and the City Council for allowing yet another oversize condo building, this one on sun-splashed Swall Street near the Beverly Center. Without having to pass normal environmental reviews, and in defiance of the community aesthetic, the five-story structure will tower 20 feet over the neighborhood — all because it will offer just two units of affordable housing, thus qualifying for a controversial “density bonus.”
Last month, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge invalidated parts of the widely ridiculed city scheme, capping months of backdoor maneuvering by Villaraigosa, planning bureaucrats and City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo to place the pro-density provision on the books, which sparked a legal fight to take it off.
In 2005, the state Legislature passed a law compelling local governments like the city of Los Angeles to reward developers and land speculators who built market-rate condos or rental complexes. Under Senate Bill 1818, developers who agreed to include in their market-rate projects a few cheap rental units could ask permission to build far bigger and taller apartment complexes than allowed by zoning rules on that street.
But the Los Angeles City Council and Villaraigosa, emotionally caught up in the extreme housing bubble mentality, went far beyond what the Legislature asked them to do, handing huge concessions to developers. In early 2008, their decisions came under attack in two lawsuits that focused on the city’s effort to exempt from environmental review outsize projects that applied for the “density bonus.” (See story on preceding page, “Gail-Force Winds.”)
Council President Eric Garcetti defended the ordinance in an interview with L.A. Weekly at that time, saying that even though it didn’t provide enough protections for hard-fought quality-of-life rules like requiring greenery and building setbacks from the street, he was, “trying to fix something that was broken.”
But it’s not clear what they were fixing. The City Council and mayor chose to let developers who devote 11 percent of their building to “very-low-income units,” to ignore many long-settled rules that protect livability. In addition to allowing developers to seek exemptions from paying for and providing sufficient parking or landscaping, a developer who added a few cheap rental units to a complex could vastly increase the building’s size — and profitability — by making it 35 percent bigger than allowed by local zoning.
Another highly controversial provision allowed these new city-approved “density bonus” projects, like the one on Swall, to ignore California Environmental Quality Act laws — even if the housing development demonstrably altered noise levels, pollution or congestion on previously quiet streets.
Last month, Superior Court Judge Thomas McKnew ruled against the city on this very issue. Villaraigosa, city Planning Director Gail Goldberg and the rest of the insiders who cooked up the plan now have to pull back.
City Council member Tom LaBonge, who along with Janice Hahn and Bill Rosendahl opposed the city’s confused, housing bubble–driven interpretation of SB 1818, is not surprised by the judge’s ruling. “We wanted over-densification, O-V-E-R densification, and that is why we got dinged in court.”
Under the pretense of providing more affordable housing “the city of L.A. and developers just ran with it,” says Doug Carstens, an attorney for a petitioner in one of two suits filed against the city. “They took that need for affordable housing and exploited it. It is reprehensible.”
By the time of the council vote that LaBonge opposed, there had been three years of discussion — plenty of time to craft an ordinance that could be easily slipped past a sleepy general population. But just to be sure, the Planning Department, led by Gail Goldberg, kept what they were doing from the mayor's Planning Commission, a body charged with overseeing major shifts on zoning policy — and with protecting the public.
In Feb of 2008, then-sitting Planning Commission President Jane Usher was surprised to see a two-page summary of the new SB 1818 ordinance that created a major loophole for developers to get around the California Environmental Equality Act review. She says she did a “double take.” Her next course of action was to write a mass email against the Planning Department and Goldberg. Her memo declared their idea “ripe for litigation” because of its disregard for CEQA.
Los Angeles watchdogs and the homeowners who ended up prevailing against the city in court last month say City Hall's true purpose was not to create the smattering of cheap rentals developers were promising to include, but to give lucrative concessions to land speculators and developers — among the biggest campaign givers to City Hall political races — during the now-dead condo craze.
A letter to the City Council in October of 2007 from City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, written by Special Counsel Claudia Culling, alludes to just how much involvement the Planning Department, the Council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee (PLUM) and a raft of city attorneys had in dreaming up the CEQA exemption. “The city of L.A. could win the award for biggest violator of CEQA,” says attorney Robert P. Silverstein, who outlined the environmental risks of the ordinance in November of 2007. “They could teach other cities how to ignore the law.”
Today, Goldberg insists, “I can only tell you that the conclusion reached in the environmental analysis done was that there is no impact,” to letting city planners override state environmental laws in order to encourage bigger apartment complexes and bigger condos with a smattering of affordable housing. “I am not an environmental planner. But I certainly agreed with the analysis I read at the time.”
Goldberg says that she can’t remember who at City Hall submitted the analysis that led her to decide to create a loophole that gets around CEQA, but that it was an “environmental planner.”
Calls to council members Ed Reyes who chairs PLUM and Herb Wesson who chairs the Community and Economic Development Committee were not returned. Both committees held hearings on the ordinance, and presumably were involved in wording the language that made an end-run on state environmental law.
The Weekly also made repeated calls to Kenneth Fong, the key attorney who drafted the ordinance and CEQA loophole and his associate Siegmund Shyu; Jeri Burge, a city attorney who oversaw the process; and City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo. None called back.
Delgadillo's press secretary Frank Mateljan ultimately provided a copy of the city’s rationale for getting around CEQA, filed with the court in January of this year. The city claimed that from 2005 to 2007 only 2 percent of all residential construction projects were awarded a density bonus, making the citywide environmental impact negligible.
While it may be true that there are very few applicants for density bonuses today, there is no way to determine how many will be sought next year and in the years after that. Judge McKnew enjoined the city from applying the density bonus “until the affect of the incremental increase in density bonus permitted under the City Implementing Ordinance is subjected to environmental review.”
This puts the project on Swall Street in question, which should make homeowner leader Cary Brazeman happy. As he walks down the street, he talks about a friend whose cozy neighborhood was overrun with congestion and apartment towers that the Villaraigosa Administration and the mayor himself continue to insist is “elegant density.”
Brazeman's voice shakes and he suddenly finds himself fighting back tears, momentarily stunned over how powerless he and his neighbors are against developers and the City Hall politicians whose elections the land speculators help underwrite. “I get so emotional about this,” he says.
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