Friday, January 29, 2016

What Kind of City Should Los Angeles Be?

If Los Angeles NIMBYs get their way, mixed-use housing with ground floor shops like this project at the Bella Terra Mall in Huntington Beach will be harder to build, making the affordable housing crisis worse and reducing opportunities to walk.

Lately there's been a big kerfuffle in the press and planning blogs (e.g. this amazing thread at Streetsblog LA) about the a so-called "Neighborhood Integrity Initiative" (NII) which may be heading for the ballot in the City of Los Angles this November.  The language of the potential initiative appears on the website of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which is one of the NII's backers.  By the way, don't ask me why an anti-AIDS group is branching out into real estate advocacy, because I don't know ;)

The proposed initiative would place a moratorium on general plan amendments that increase density (i.e. allow more housing and jobs on a given amount of land) and change land use designations from certain designations to residential or commercial for up to two years.  It would require that general plan amendments be adopted only if they encompass "an area which has significant social, economic, or physical identity" (as opposed to one or a few parcels for a specific project).  It would require that General Plan Amendments meet several requirements designed to prohibit densities or uses that are different from those of the immediate area.  It would also restrict parking variances that lower on-site off-street parking requirements more than 1/3.

The "findings" section at the beginning of the text is interesting.  It rails against density, essentially saying that it ruins quality of life, overtaxes infrastructure and basically is the result of the corruption of city officials by profit-maximizing real estate developers bent on screwing over neighborhoods to make a buck.

I don't like this initiative and I wouldn't vote for it, but before I tell you why, let me tell you what I do like about it.  I like that it requires general plan updates to encompass an entire geographic area and not be done at the behest of a single project.  LA has a reputation for bending the rules until they break for big projects, and that comes at a cost to the idea of planning itself.  We should look at an area's needs comprehensively after involving the public, think deeply about what we are trying to accomplish (ideally based on a halfway decent set of values), make rules for an entire area, and then stick to those rules, no matter how powerful and connected the developer is.

What I don't like about the initiative is that it is essentially a reaction against the trend of Los Angeles becoming a denser, mixed-use city that builds more infill housing and shifts towards a transportation system that leans more on walking, biking, transit and ride hailing instead of driving one's own car.  This trend, essentially the embrace of New Urbanism by the City's leadership, is the only realistic chance we have of addressing our affordable housing crisis and crafting an environmentally sustainable transportation system.  Regarding the details of the initiative, the section that makes it harder to reduce parking requirements is especially bad, since adding off-street parking to projects increases driving and makes housing more expensive.  Haven't these people ever heard of Dr. Shoup's parking research?  The wording in the initiative about how land use has to be regulated is also vague in places, meaning it will be much easier to sue projects that neighbor groups don't like.  Honestly, that's probably by design.  The backers of this initiative are essentially the people in single-family homes who think there is too much traffic and too many cars parked in front of their house, but who also think there is nothing essentially wrong with a housing market in which most Angelenos are struggling to keep their heads above water, and nothing wrong with a car-based transportation system, even though it contributes to climate change, air pollution, and 33,000-ish road deaths a year in the U.S. alone.

The answer isn't to freeze LA in amber, as the NII seeks to do.  The answer is to update the City's plans to reflect a 21st century vision of LA, and then stick to the zoning that flows from those plans.  I can see a city that makes room for newcomers, where people can access education, better jobs, home-ownership, clean air, a stable climate and so much more.  I can see a city where people are seen as an opportunity, not as a threat to quality of life.  We can do it if we put away the fear and start planning for it.

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