It’s been a bad season for L.A.’s City Planning department. Recently, big sections of a city law to encourage density and affordable housing were struck down by Superior Court Judge Thomas McKnew. And now a leading civic figure is alleging that City Planning Director Gail Goldberg, who pushed the pro-developer law, is little more than a handmaiden to developers.
The judge tossed out provisions of a controversial “bonus density” rule that lets developers build far bigger and taller projects than allowed by zoning if they agree to include a small number of cheap rental units. That ordinance “masquerades as an affordable-housing act, when it’s really a densification act that facilitates sprawl,” says departed City Hall insider Jane Usher, former president of the Planning Commission.
According to Usher and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, buildings constructed under the city’s so-called Density Bonus Implementation Ordinance are destroying, not creating, affordable housing — while enabling the kind of cheek-by-jowl living that invites gridlock and crime. (See story, “Density Blowup,” on McKnew’s ruling, next page.)
Usher, appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as the unpaid president of the City Planning Commission, resigned last December. She now tells the L.A. Weekly that City Planner Gail Goldberg, rather than acting as a reformer, is flaunting rules and allowing exceptions that have put developers, not residents or voters, even more firmly in control of land use in L.A.
Usher points to a citywide “Categorical Exemption” that in January 2008 Goldberg quietly inserted into the density-bonus law, which has so bothered Judge McKnew. Goldberg’s loophole undermined the California Environmental Quality Act, which restricts development or requires mitigation of a project’s negative impacts like excess traffic or noise. Under the Goldberg exemption, Planning department workers and the Planning Commission could reinterpret that state environmental law and decide, on their own, whether a proposed project, even if far bigger than allowed by zoning, had negative neighborhood consequences.
When Usher and the Planning Commission tried to block a new project by invoking the state environmental law, widely known as CEQA, the developer sued the city, and won — citing Goldberg’s unusual new Categorical Exemption. “It’s rogue,” Usher explains. “The city jerry-rigs planning outcomes, then applies some process, like window dressing, to doll them up.”
Usher has no problem with permitting high-rise apartments and condos near subway and light-rail stations to encourage less driving and reduce the carbon footprint. But that isn’t the entirety of what’s going on under Goldberg, she says.
“We have done nothing to turn off the spigot of growth at inappropriate locations” from Sylmar and the West Valley to West L.A., “where there’s no train service — even in the plans.” She adds, “In three and a half years, I can count on one hand proposals [by developers] that weren’t ultimately approved.”
Goldberg, hired by Villaraigosa in 2006, has publicly claimed to abhor the control by land speculators over what happens to L.A. neighborhoods. Last year, Goldberg spoke to the Weekly of the importance of preserving the integrity of neighborhoods through Community Plans.
On hearing this, Usher shakes her head while holding it with both hands, a silent gesture that lasts a good 15 seconds. “So we write Community Plans with enormous specificity, and then we override them with exceptions — to the point that the Community Plans are unrecognizable,” she says.
Usher says Goldberg’s Planning department short-circuits the city’s constitution (called the City Charter) by cutting the city Planning Commission out of the information loop within City Hall, and then, with the Planning Commission unaware, Goldberg makes decisions on the commission’s behalf.
The key example of such malfeasance, Usher says, is Goldberg’s use of so-called “Delegation of Authority” — a minor power long granted to the planning director solely to fix small problems like typos found in ordinances after they have been approved by the Planning Commission. According to Usher, Goldberg is using that obscure rule to upend the Planning Commission.
The City Charter couldn’t be more clear about the intended purpose of the commission. All land-use changes and new land-use legislation must be considered by the Planning Commission, and subsequent changes by other city agencies or committees must be referred back to the commission.
But a series of e-mails sent between April and June 2008 reveals Usher’s fruitless attempts to have the Planning Commission included in receiving routine reports about changes being proposed by city departments and City Council committees involving zone modifications, conditional-use permits and major land-use ordinances.
In one e-mail, Usher wrote to lawyer Terry Kaufmann-Macias in City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s office, who replied that those reports are automatically sent to the Planning department. Usher forwarded Kaufmann-Macias’ e-mail to Goldberg, requesting that all city planners forward those reports to the Planning Commission. Instead, “not a single ordinance ever came back to us. Gail was issuing an approval or disapproval of the ordinance from an alleged ‘Delegation of Authority,’ ” in which Goldberg sees herself as final arbiter.
In the case of the Density Bonus Ordinance that displeased Judge McKnew, when the Planning Commission asked Goldberg’s staff to tell it how the final wording of the ordinance was coming along, “Gail’s team delivered the update with the footnote that it’s been signed and passed into law” — without the Planning Commission.
In another instance, when the wildly popular Baseline Mansionization Ordinance, which restricted huge mansions, finally came up for a City Council vote last year — months after being approved by the Planning Commission — Usher was stunned to learn that Goldberg had reversed the Planning Commission’s “yes” recommendation — again using her claimed “delegation authority.”
“It’s an oligarchy, a despotism that’s relatively new,” Usher says of Goldberg’s behavior. “I do think that the trajectory of this didn’t happen overnight, and with the mayor’s re-election I’ve watched it intensify.”
In fact, since 1964, the City Planning Commission has delegated its authority to the director of planning only under limited conditions, such as fixing typos on rules approved by the commission.
But in an e-mail to the Weekly, Goldberg defends her actions opposing the mansionization law — on the grounds that the ordinance was changed so much by City Council committees after the Planning Commission approved it that it became a new ordinance. In her mind, Goldberg could therefore act unilaterally — on behalf of the Planning Commission, she claims — by opposing it.
But city law gives Goldberg authority only over “minor editorial changes . . . where no substantive changes are made from the last action” of the commission — the opposite of Goldberg’s claim to the Weekly. The City Charter actually requires that something like the the Mansionization Ordinance, once revised by various committees, goes back to the Planning Commission. Instead, Goldberg simply rolled over the commission.
Usher says she explained to Goldberg that the Planning Commission supported the final version of the mansion law, but Goldberg refused to change her “delegated” opposition. The bizarre contretemps came to a head in May 2008, when the Planning Commission voted unanimously in favor of the much-revised mansion law — in contrast to Goldberg’s increasingly exotic opposition to it.
By continuing to oppose the mansion restrictions, Goldberg also triggered an obscure City Charter law that requires an “unrecommended” ordinance to get a two-thirds “supermajority” vote by the City Council. Except this was not an “unrecommended” ordinance — it was, by this point, a power play by Goldberg. Ultimately, the revised ordinance approved by the Planning Commission got a unanimous City Council vote.
A real estate attorney, Usher was counsel to Mayor Tom Bradley, which is why she found the rhetoric of Villaraigosa’s first election campaign in 2005 so appealing, “as was the idea, in those pre-Obama days, of having a broad ethnic coalition leading our city.”
The glow lasted until last summer. “By the summer of 2008, the mayor wasn’t willing to engage in a single land-use issue,” Usher says. “I wasn’t able to kid myself anymore about my own ability to effect change. At what point do you transform from enlightened to complicit?”