It's difficult to recall a local election that had this many billboards. Maybe in 1993, when the self-funding millionaire mayoral candidate Richard Riordan plastered his slogan “Tough Enough to Turn L.A. Around” all over town. Maybe. At any rate, the near ubiquity of the “Yes on S” billboards is just one indication of how important the issue is, and how contentious — especially compared with everything else on the March 7 ballot.

Perhaps no other issue is as complex. The Coalition to Preserve L.A., backer of Measure S, says it's an effort to clean up City Hall, to get money out of politics, to stop “luxury development” and to stop Los Angeles from becoming a hyper-urbanized city like New York.

Measure S opponents say it will drive up rents even further by constricting an already tight housing supply. And they say it will make traffic worse by stymieing transit-oriented density.

But before we delve too much into those opposing views, let's talk about what Measure S actually intends.

What It Is

First, it's important to understand what the city's general and community plans are. Essentially, they're the blueprint for what buildings can be built where. Every inch of land in L.A. is zoned for different uses — most commonly commercial, residential or industrial. Then, in different areas there are limits on how tall buildings can be. There are myriad other specifications — how many apartment units per floor, or how much parking needs to be maintained on-site, for example.

These plans are supposed to be regularly updated, but they haven't been, in part because the city is slow at doing things, and, in part because community groups are fond of fighting changes to the community plan that they don't like. In the meantime, developers can apply for variances — exceptions to the plans, allowing them to build taller, or build an apartment building where an abandoned factory or parking lot is. There's a whole process for this; for major changes, they go through the Planning Commission, which the City Council can always overrule.

It's important to note that developers give a lot of money to city councilmen. The idea that developers are giving money to politicians who then grant them exceptions to the law — exceptions that can be extremely lucrative to the developer — is widely seen as corruption.

Which brings us to Measure S. The ballot initiative would do a number of things, including:

• Impose a two-year moratorium on the construction of projects seeking major variances. Any project that needs a major exception to the planning code is put on pause for two years (that is, the city would not give out demolition and construction permits for these types of projects). These would mostly be big projects — apartment buildings, hotels, hospitals. Your neighbor can probably still tear down his cute Craftsman and put up a gray, modernist box. Projects that are 100 percent affordable housing would be partially exempt from the moratorium — they'd still be able to seek a zoning or height district change but not a General Plan amendment.

• Force the city to update its plans. (City Council has already agreed to this, in an effort to head off Measure S.) The moratorium would expire once the city updates its plans.

• In the future, individual exemptions from those plans would be much harder to obtain.

• The process of writing environmental impact reports would be handed over to the city. Currently, the developer oversees this.

• Small-lot subdivisions would be able to be exempt from only one-third of their parking requirements. This may apply to other projects — hotels, hospitals, even synagogues. It most likely does not apply to restaurants.

If that all sounds complicated, yeah, it's complicated. Measure S has a lot going on, and even people who spend their whole lives immersed in the zoning code and planning laws aren't entirely sure how some of the provisions would actually play out. Some think it will make it easier for community groups to sue developers over anything.

AIDS Healthcare Foundation president Michael Weinstein; Credit: Ryan Orange

AIDS Healthcare Foundation president Michael Weinstein; Credit: Ryan Orange

Who Is Behind It

The primary architect of Measure S is Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, or AHF, a nonprofit that is the largest provider of HIV/AIDS health care in the United States. It serves nearly 700,000 patients in 38 countries and, according to the most recently available tax form, takes in more than $300 million a year in revenue. Most of that money comes from its clinics and pharmacies in the United States.

Weinstein is a controversial guy. He's enraged fellow LGBT and AIDS activists by opposing the use of PrEP, a prescription drug that prevents the contraction of HIV. AHF spends a lot of money on different ballot measures. In November, it spent $5 million on Proposition 60, which would have forced pornographic performers to use condoms. It spent another $19 million on Proposition 61, which aimed to lower the price of prescription drugs by limiting how much the state of California could pay for them. Both measures failed.

Thus far, AHF has spent more than $4 million on Measure S, with much of the money going to those billboards.

So why is a health care nonprofit backing a measure that seeks to curb density and development? Weinstein's clearly put off by a proposed development across the street from his office, the Hollywood Palladium towers, which AHF is suing over. Weinstein has said he thinks Hollywood development has gone way too far and, in general, believes Los Angeles is becoming too urbanized. As he told L.A. Weekly in March, “People moved here for the L.A. lifestyle. And that's a lifestyle that I love. If I wanted to live in Manhattan, I would live there.” He says that the issue of housing unaffordability affects poor people, and AHF serves poor people, therefore the issue falls well within AHF's purview.

Plenty of people agree with Weinstein: A handful of former politicians including Richard Riordan, Gloria Romero and Carmen Trutanich have endorsed Measure S, along with a bevy of neighborhood council members, homeowners associations and local activists (you can see the full list here). Measure S is touting the support of the L.A. Tenants Union, which is a small, new (started in 2015) ragtag group that fights evictions but has little money or clout or even members.

Who Is Against It

It is perhaps ironic that the two biggest donors on either side of the Measure S battle are neighbors. Miami-based developer Crescent Heights, which is building the Palladium towers across the street from Weinstein's office, has given about $1.4 million to fight Measure S. Numerous other developers have chipped in, but the other big spender on the No side is the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which is running a parallel No campaign. Most of the city's unions are against Measure S, which they say will hurt construction jobs.

Other Measure S opponents include Mayor Eric Garcetti, every city councilman with the exception of David Ryu (who has not yet taken a position), business groups like the Chamber of Commerce, affordable-housing developers, a slew of nonprofits that serve the homeless, bicycle activists, public transportation activists, urban boosters, the L.A. County Democratic Party and the Republican Party of L.A. County, and the Los Angeles Times editorial board (see the full list here).

Another Measure S opponent is Larry Gross, who heads the Coalition for Economic Survival and who helped write the city's rent-stabilization ordinance.

“The fact is that Measure S doesn’t stop evictions, doesn’t guarantee an end to the destruction of rent-controlled housing and doesn’t prevent mansionizaton,” Gross says.

Two Competing Visions of Los Angeles

For the last couple of decades, Los Angeles has become more and more urbanized. There has been a move to build more public transit, to make more neighborhoods walkable and bikable, and to make certain neighborhoods (Hollywood, Koreatown, downtown) that have access to public transit more densely populated. This has caused a backlash from people including Measure S supporterswho prefer the older vision of an L.A. built around the single-family home and the automobile.

Two of the biggest problems the city faces are traffic and the high price of buying or renting a home. Backers of Measure S say that large-scale development and density make both of these problems worse. Because newer apartment buildings tend to be expensive, they argue, their residents don't take public transit, and the new buildings displace older, more affordable buildings, exacerbating the housing crunch.

Opponents of Measure S say the only way to save Angelenos from a lifetime of gridlock is to give them another option — public transit. And the only way to make public transit viable is to create density around transit stops. They also say that rental prices are expensive because demand is outstripping supply, and the only way to lower rents is to build more apartment buildings; they say Measure S' moratorium on such development will make the housing crisis worse.

It is a debate the city has had before, and one it will continue to have.

“L.A. is like this gigantic city that’s always been ambivalent about that,” says Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at CSU Los Angeles. “You want the city to grow, but you don’t want to have congestion. And L.A. has really struggled with that, politically.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Crescent Heights had given half a million dollars to fight Measure S. In fact, the developer has given about $1.4 million. We regret the error.

LA Weekly