AT THE JULY 25 MEETING of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council in the tony Bunker Hill Towers, David Robinson, a slender man in a tidy but unprepossessing shirt and slacks, sat patiently through the presentations. If you didn’t know he was from Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, you’d have pegged him as a public defender, which is sort of what he is, being an advocate for affordable housing.
Robinson listened to pitches by restaurants and liquor stores, which wanted the neighborhood council to support their petitions to sell liquor that could be carried off-site. Council vice president Brady Westwater practically begged one presenter to encourage the restaurant she represented to stay open later.
Board members of the neighborhood council were generous in their support of these businesses — anything that might contribute to a downtown nightlife. Then came the item Robinson was waiting for, the Greater Downtown Housing Ordinance — slated to be voted on by the Los Angeles City Council on August 7 and widely expected to be approved.
The so-called Downtown Ordinance is one in a trio of zoning changes drafted by the Planning Department that could eventually transform what the entire city looks like architecturally, who will be able to live here and in what conditions.
It’s part of the high-density sea change being pushed for the entire region — a vision city planners have been working on based on a reported population influx, but largely without public discussion or awareness.
Though the Downtown Ordinance’s chief architect, Senior City Planner Jane Blumenthal, presented an early draft of the ordinance two years ago before this same downtown neighborhood council, few officers from other affected neighborhood councils knew anything concrete about it.
In reference to an earlier agenda item, Westwater complained about the city’s “lack of transparency.” There needs to be more clarity, he argued, “so the public can figure out whether or not this is a good idea.”
Neighborhood council president J. Russell Brown countered, “Brady, 60 percent of the public doesn’t even know who the vice president is” — an unwitting defense of the quiet decisions that Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky described to the Weekly as “the failure of the neighborhood councils — now populated with business interests — to represent their constituents.”
In referring to the proposed new density ordinance for downtown, the neighborhood council’s land-use co-chair, Shiraz Tangri, remarked, “With very little fanfare, this is making it to City Council next week.”
“Out of nowhere,” Westwater quipped.
WITH THE DOWNTOWN ORDINANCE, the City Council is about to lift zoning restrictions on developers in a five-mile area framed by the 110 and 101 freeways and Alameda Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard, allowing them to carve up residential structures into potentially tiny, closetlike condos and apartments — whatever configurations permitted in the building code that developers think the market can bear.
But the city’s housing market has produced widespread unaffordability — for all but a fraction of the city’s residents, and this is what so vexed Robinson, who was there to argue against the ordinance.
“You keep saying we have a housing crisis,” Robinson said, tension rising in his voice. “We don’t have a housing crisis. We have an affordable-housing crisis, and people operating under this system are not creating affordable housing.”
Cecilia V. Estolano, newly appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to head the Community Redevelopment Agency, admitted to the Weekly that, compared to other large cities, with its current orgy of development and redevelopment, L.A. is “way behind the curve” when it comes to creating affordable housing.
The Downtown Ordinance’s relaxed restrictions provide a fat “density bonus” — meaning that in exchange for setting aside 15 percent of units for low-income “affordable housing,” developers receive an entitlement to build 35 percent more apartments or condos on the same lot.
When this was brought up at the meeting, Robinson scoffed, “Cecilia at CRA took one look at this and laughed — it’s a joke.”
(When contacted by the Weekly, Estolano said that with the rising costs of construction for high-rise residential buildings, it’s unlikely that developers would use the 35 percent bonus. She suggested that the terms of a different pro-density ordinance recently approved by the City Council would prove more attractive to developers. Called the Transfer of Floor Area Ratio ordinance, it allows downtown developers to transfer air rights.)
The downtown ordinance’s relaxed restrictions would also allow developers to extend residential buildings all the way out to the sidewalk (like the baroque structures that were built between the late ’20s and ’30s along Spring Street and Broadway), tossing out the green space “setbacks” that have been a citywide requirement in the zoning code for decades. In addition, the new ordinance would allow tiny apartments L.A. has never before seen — as small as the building codes allow, with floor space as scant as 250 square feet, slightly larger than a walk-in closet.
The ordinance’s proponents, such as City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents much of downtown, argue that this new downtown will finally offer affordable living options for retirees, students and downtown service workers. Yet there’s no guarantee that these units would even be built or, if they were, that they would be affordable to a shelf stocker working at the new downtown Ralphs supermarket.
Some experts see this all as a formula for more of the same downtown blight that city officials have been trying to eradicate.
“The problem is, if transportation issues aren’t dealt with and we face increased congestion, then we are going to have tenement areas,” with the new ordinance, says Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, chair of UCLA’s Department of Urban Planning. “A lot hinges on good design. It’s problematic that they’re doing away with setbacks — when you have so much density and no green space.”
“The architectural community needs to stand up,” adds Yaroslavsky. “I know their bread is buttered by these developers, but this is not in the long-term interest of the city. To give a developer everything they want is not only bad policy, it’s unnecessary.”
At the meeting, however, Tangri argued that, “The purpose of these ordinances is to bring a variety of income levels to downtown, and I believe they can be instrumental in doing so.”
Not true, says Yaroslavsky: “They’re building for the affluent. That’s where the money is for the developers, and that’s what the city is encouraging. I do not recommend lifting zoning restrictions carte blanche, the way they’re doing. I believe that everything ought to be done in moderation. .?.?. Is there a single voice in the city today advocating for responsible government? Is there a Marvin Braude, somebody in the Mayor’s Office who could speak up for responsible behavior?”
FROM THE LATE ’70S to the late ’80s, Los Angeles saw the rise of a new skyline, accompanied by a recession and the sight of block after block of vacant, newly built office space. Maybe it should have, but it did not, put to rest the “build it and they will come” theory of economic development. Many corporations didn’t really want to do business in downtown Los Angeles, while others who were there fled.
The spin behind the Downtown Ordinance is that it’s capitalizing on the current boom in that area. But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll have a hard time finding that boom. If this were a football game, the ordinance could be seen as a Hail Mary pass — a welfare program for developers unmatched by any large American city — to keep downtown’s softening real estate market from dying.
But as Yaroslavsky points out, “If there’s going to be a recession, all the handouts in the world won’t lead to the construction of one new building.”
Author and urban-planning expert Joel Kotkin holds the view that downtown is currently not as booming as it appears. Kotkin cites the “nine o’clock rule” — drive through a neighborhood on a weekend evening at 9 p.m., and see how many lights are on.
Jerry Sullivan has done just that. He lives and works downtown, and is editor of a small newspaper called The Los Angeles Garment & Citizen. “I go home every night and walk by the Eastern Columbia at Ninth and Broadway,” Sullivan explains, referring to one of the swankier new housing developments. “We’re told it’s sold out, but when I go home at night, I rarely see more than a few lights on. Maybe they’re sold, but they’re not occupied. I think there’s more of that than folks realize.”
Sullivan says he’s also observed buildings originally advertised as condominiums flip to leases and rentals after several months. “I spoke with an ad agency representing some of these places, and it’s obvious they were struggling.”
However, Councilwoman Jan Perry insists that downtown is on the rise, having seen its population increase by 20 percent to almost 30,000 over the past few years. The Downtown Center Business Improvement District reports that the median household income of downtown residents is now $99,000.
But Sullivan argues that those figures are misleading. “There were 20,000 people here five years ago, and they were all poor. They added about 10,000 people, so the base of the ideal consumer is 10,000. When they cite that $99,000 figure, they’re only talking about a fraction of the total. Yet that’s been the sales pitch.”
Adds Kotkin, “If it’s such a hot market, why do you need zoning changes?”
PERRYENJOYS IMAGINING the future.
“The purposes of these ordinances is to help us become the downtown that is not the downtown of today,” she told the Weekly.
Perry envisions a goal for 2050 — a future downtown with neighborhoods, each with its own coffee shops and nightlife, and mothers with baby carriages on the sidewalk. She sees retirees settling downtown after they’ve cashed in their Westside condos and want to be closer to a transportation hub where there’s affordable housing — perhaps a tiny apartment for a widower in his 60s, or a student at L.A. Trade Tech, or a family with kids attending one of the three magnet schools planned on downtown’s perimeter.
These will be people who walk because they want to, “because they’re concerned about their health,” and they’ll be supported by a fleet of shuttles and trains carrying them to all corners of the Southland. And yes, it will be crowded, as crowded as Athens, London, New York or any vital city center.
But there appears to be a huge disconnect between the life imagined by city planners and the life actually lived by its residents.
“There’s a small but significant population here that enjoys the urban lifestyle,” Yaroslavsky points out. “But the vast majority of people who came to Los Angeles from cities like New York and Chicago didn’t come to a warm-weather climate to live packed into tiny apartments in transit corridors. That’s what they left behind, looking for something different.”
The transportation systems that support the kind of density seen in those cities are not even on the drawing boards here. As Kotkin notes, it would take the entire federal budget to fund any one of those mass-transit systems in Los Angeles. Kotkin is concerned that the reality of downtown in 2050 will “look more like Mexico City or Tehran” if development isn’t handled more responsibly.
In 2005, Senate Bill 1818 was signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, requiring cities to offer high-density bonuses in exchange for a very small fraction of affordable housing. A revision the following year decreased the affordable-housing requirements in these high-density giveaways. Now, another largely unknown ordinance is working its way, stealth like, to the City Council.
Watch for it this fall. This one is called the Density Bonus Ordinance. It will affect the entire city and waters down zoning safeguards, wiping out current residential zoning restrictions on developers, including greenspace setbacks, height requirements, and covenants for parks and schools.
All across the city, “We’re going to see a demolition derby,” Yaroslavsky warns.
Kotkin cautions that the market simply won’t support the kind of unfettered development being quietly planned.
“There’s a pack mentality over there [at City Hall],” Yaroslavsky adds. “You’re about to see this explode on the scene. There’s a revolution happening, an uprising in every part of the city. People realize that the neighborhood council movement is not doing its job. What happened in the ’70s and ’80s, when people took matters into their own hands, I think you’re going to see a new generation of activists.”
Sandy Kanphantha contributed to this story.