November 2016 could prove to be a dramatic turning point in the history of Los Angeles. A number of ballot measures are in the works that, if passed, would radically alter the future of the city.
Perhaps the most controversial of all will be the “Neighborhood Integrity Initiative,” which would put a two-year moratorium on all spot zoning, effectively putting a pause on most development. The initiative is targeted at big projects such as the Hollywood Millennium Project and the Hollywood Palladium Tower.
Backers of the effort say the city's planning code — its blueprint for what can be built where — is out of date and impossibly byzantine, dotted with tiny variances approved by city council members under heavy pressure from filthy rich developers.
Opponents of the measure concede the part about the byzantine planning code but say, look: Housing costs are insane and only getting worse. The only way to reverse that is to build more housing. Oh, and by the way, zoning variances are used for a ton of other things that Angelenos enjoy every day, such as restaurants with valet parking.
But just who are the backers and opponents of this measure? Here's a quick guide to how people are lining up so far. First, let's start with the proponents:
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation
The driving force behind the initiative, and its main financial backer, is AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a $1.3 billion nonprofit that provides healthcare to HIV/AIDS patients all over the world.
Uh … what's a healthcare nonprofit doing trying to stop up development?
AHF also takes on social justice and fairness issues unrelated to AIDS. In the U.S., AHF is sponsoring ballot measures that aim to remove the Confederate flag from the Mississippi state flag and to lower high pharmacy costs in California and Ohio …
Now, AHF has set its sights on real estate developer control of fundamental processes at L.A. City Hall that, in fact, belong to the people. That unfair developer control has destroyed neighborhood character, created outrageous traffic congestion, wiped out thousands of net units of affordable housing and directly fed into L.A.’s spike in homelessness.
AHF's headquarters, by the way, are located across the street from the proposed Palladium Towers project. Here's AHF head Michael Weinstein, in an interview with The Advocate:
“Our international headquarters are located in Hollywood and have been since 1989,” Weinstein says, describing the recent increase in development and congestion in the once-seedy district. “A large number of us live in the area, own homes in the area.”
Weinstein is a controversial guy. Slate once called him the “enfant terrible of the AIDS activism world” for his unbending belief that only condoms can prevent HIV (new drugs like Truvada, Weinstein says, are ineffective because people don't take them correctly). Former L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky once called Weinstein a “thug” and said: “He's used his nonprofit organization in a crass and bullying political way to get his way, which is to avoid being held accountable.”
Let this serve as the first of many disclaimers: Jill Stewart served as deputy news editor and managing editor for L.A. Weekly for 10 years. She left last month to take a job as the Coalition's campaign director. (Another former L.A. Weekly staffer, Patrick Range McDonald, works for AHF.)
Here's Stewart, in an interview with the Planning Report, summing up her philosophy:
I have not been impressed at all by the city’s Department of Planning, which of course I call an oxymoron. I have not been impressed by the new urban theory that very dense development through neighborhoods near bus stops, and so on, is going to reduce congestion. In fact, we’ve seen the opposite.
Stewart is not without controversy herself. Former L.A. Deputy Mayor Rick Cole (now Santa Monica city manager) tweeted this when the Planning Report interview came out:
— Rick Cole (@SaMoCole) February 19Sick burn from a city manager.
Jack Humphreville doesn't mind if we call the backers of the initiative NIMBYs. As he told the Larchmont Buzz: “Call it whatever … this is the real estate establishment fighting back; many people believe developers run this city by spreading so much money around City Hall.”
Other neighborhood types supporting the Coalition include Koreatown activist Grace Yoo, longtime activist Miki Jackson and, of course, Robert Silverstein, the toughest anti-development lawyer in the city. Expect more neighborhood councils (though not all!) to sign onto this thing once it gets going.
Some anti-poverty leaders
Last month, AHF sent out a press release touting the support of a number of anti-poverty activists, including Father Greg Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries. Then, a couple days later, he changed his mind.
“I want more access to housing for the homeless and the working poor,” Boyle said in an letter sent to the Los Angeles Times. “I am now convinced that this initiative will not provide that.”
Boyle's staying neutral, for now.
Some other anti-poverty activists are still on board, including the Rev. Alice Callaghan, who runs a charter school and service center off of Skid Row, where she's been increasingly concerned about gentrification and the loss of affordable housing.
Former mayor Richard Riordan
OK! Who's opposing the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative? It's a fairly big tent, and we won't go through them all. Here's just a sampling:
Some elected officials
According to the nascent “No” side's campaign, which is being headed by longtime political consultant Mike Shimpock, six city council members have come out against the initiative: Joe Buscaino, Bob Blumenfield, Gil Cedillo, Paul Kerkorian, Mitch O'Farrell and Curren Price.
As for the honorable Mayor Eric Garcetti, he's expressed some concern about the initiative, telling the Daily News: “I would be concerned first and foremost of what that would do to depress the growth and the construction that we need.” Of course, he also said he agreed with the initiative's “sentiment” and that he would like “to see as little spot zoning and few variances as possible.”
Why take one position when you could take two positions? Or none? To be fair, Garcetti is playing nice (for now) because he's hoping to reach some sort of compromise with Michael Weinstein, to avoid what he must surely see as the NIMBY-pocolypse.
We don't know which developers are going to come out against the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, but we're gonna go ahead and guess that it will be all of them, and that they will dump gobs of money into defeating it.
Affordable Housing Advocates
Robin Hughes, president and CEO of Abode Communities, an affordable-housing provider, is against the measure, as is Mark Vallianatos of Abundant Housing L.A.
This will likely be the centerpiece of the debate: Is the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative good or bad for affordable housing? Development sometimes tears down affordable housing. But development, as a whole, increases the housing supply. In theory, that makes the cheapest units in the city even cheaper. But for many, development inexorably leads to gentrification, which prices low-income folks out of their neighborhoods.
The L.A. Chamber of Commerce is fighting against the measure, as is the L.A. County Business Federation and the Central City Association. They'll argue that development is good, perhaps even necessary, for the health of the economy.
No surprise that labor is against the measure. More building means more construction jobs.
Labor can be a powerful political ally – they've got a lot of money to spend and a lot of volunteers to knock on doors. For the “No” side, there's only one problem: Labor is also backing a measure that would require new housing developments to build affordable housing.
If both measures get enough signatures (and there's no reason to think they shouldn't – all it takes is money), then it sets up a somewhat awkward three-way battle. Labor and business will be united against the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative but opposed on the affordable-housing thing. Each side will have to make a decision on how much money to spend on each measure.
Also – will the inclusion of both measures on one ballot confuse voters?
A smattering of others are opposed – some nonprofits, such as United Way and the Inner City Law Center, and some environmentalists, like Jonathan Parfrey. There also will be some transit activists who come out against the measure.
One interesting thing to watch will be who emerges as the leading spokesperson for the”'No” side. The “Yes” side has some big names, like Riordan and Weinstein. But the “No” side has to make a tougher political calculation. They won't want their public face to be a developer or the Chamber of Commerce. That won't play very well at all.
Will an elected official take the plunge and risk the wrath of neighborhood activists? Will it be a union leader? An environmentalist? An academic?
And most importantly, what position will Donald Trump take?