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City Hall's "Density Hawks" Are Changing L.A.'s DNA

Bitter homes & gardens?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008 - 10:20 am

Soon after taking the job of director of the Los Angeles Department of City Planning in 2006, Gail Goldberg made a declaration that let slip how City Hall is allowing developers to pursue a building frenzy straight out of the storied tale Chinatown.

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“What have you done? The whole thing’s a fraud.” —County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, on City Hall’s claim that high-rises create affordable housing

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“There’s really no secret plan here.” —City planner Jane Blumenfeld

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“All I ask is, don’t scare people into paralysis.” —City Planning Director Gail Goldberg, about media coverage of her office’s activities

Said Goldberg, newly arrived here from a similar post in San Diego:

"In every city in this country, the zone on the land establishes the value of the land. In Los Angeles, that's not true.

"The value of the land is not based on what the zone says ... It's based on what [the] developer believes he can change the zone to.

"This is disastrous for the city.


"Zoning has to mean something in this city."

Goldberg probably wishes she hadn't said that, not necessarily because she got reprimanded by L.A.'s famously vindictive Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, but because Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavksy has repeated her words in public, over and over. Yaroslavsky, who represented the city's affluent Westside District 5 as a councilman until 1994, has been staging a one-man campaign to slow City Hall's feverish promotion of density — a quiet war on the large swaths of suburbia and few hunks of countryside remaining inside the city limits.

With little debate, a trio of new "density enabling" ordinances (a real mouthful, known as the Downtown Ordinance, the Parking Reduction Ordinance and the Senate Bill 1818 Implementation Ordinance) has rolled through Goldberg's Planning Department and ended up in the ornate council chambers on City Hall's second floor.

The first two were easily approved, and the SB 1818 Implementation Ordinance passed on February 20, with only council members Dennis Zine, Janice Hahn, Bill Rosendahl and Tom LaBonge opposed. On paper, the three ordinances will let developers bypass the city's fundamental zoning protections — and profoundly alter the livability, look and essence of L.A.

This is no small thing. The rules for how Angelenos wanted to fashion their city were arduously, sometimes bitterly, negotiated among homeowners, developers, environmentalists and politicians in the mid-'80s, led by then city councilmen Joel Wachs, Marvin Braude and Yaroslavsky. Those core rules today hold tremendous power, creating a blueprint that dictates which Los Angeles neighborhoods should be preserved — and which should be dramatically built up.

Yet in contrast to the boisterous civic debate launched by city and community leaders in the 1980s, the Villaraigosa administration has grown accustomed to only tepid public interference and awareness. Through aide Gil Duran, the mayor has for five months ducked L.A. Weekly's routine questions about his agenda's potential consequences citywide — much taller and fatter residential buildings than zoning law allows, significantly less green space, obliteration of residential parking in some complexes and removal of older, less expensive housing. (Hours before the Weekly went to press, Deputy Mayor Helmi Hisserich finally responded, lashing out at "heads in the sand" sentiments and warning that "the city is not going to stop growing.")

On the City Council itself, the likes of Wachs and Braude are long gone, replaced by avidly prodensity council members such as Jan Perry, Council President Eric Garcetti and Wendy Gruel, who rarely say no to grand construction plans and work in tandem with obscure regional planning commissions that routinely override zoning rules in favor of developers and property owners.

Yaroslavsky, silent for the first two years of Villaraigosa's reign, now snaps, "These density hawks at City Hall are trying to undo 20 years of our work."

The constant overriding of zoning protections has indeed been relentless — a binge of "zoning variances" and "zone changes" granted by longtime Zoning Administrator Michael LoGrande, a little-known official who is the rear admiral of a prodensity flotilla inside City Hall that long predates Villaraigosa's administration.

The variances and zone changes — quite simply, permissions to skirt existing rules — are granted on a case-by-case basis, and LoGrande hands them out like candy. LoGrande did not return numerous phone calls from the Weekly. Four biweekly Planning Department reports, randomly selected by the Weekly from March, June, September and December 2007, show that requests to increase housing density or square footage rolled in at about 260 annually, slowing only as the mortgage crisis hit. Retired Zoning Administrator Jon Perica explains that while the sought-after density increases are subjected to design, environmental and compatibility review, "the Planning Department historically approves about 90 percent."

For anyone paying attention, and very few people are, LoGrande's decisions — buttressed by the rulings of seven area planning commissions populated with Villaraigosa's appointees — are why some corners of the city are taller and more congested than 10 years ago, even neighborhoods whose legally binding zoning plans were supposed to achieve the opposite.

In the 1960s, a city growth cap of 4.2 million was established as the peak load for Los Angeles' infrastructure and services. This allowed for urban centers like Century City, Warner Center and downtown, while protecting single-family neighborhoods. Three years ago, Perica warned, "growth beyond 4.2 million people would require that existing single-family neighborhoods and lower-density residential areas would have to be 'up-zoned' in the future for more intense multistory density." He added pointedly, "Residents didn't want Los Angeles to look like other higher-density Eastern cities, like Chicago and New York."

Nonetheless, the agendas of builders, land speculators, the chambers of commerce, the Planning Department and elected leaders have produced a virtually nondebated tectonic shift since the residential real estate turnaround of 2002, much increased under Villaraigosa. The shift is pushing L.A. from its suburban model of single-family homes with gardens or pools — the reason many come here — toward an urban template of shrinking green patches and multistory buildings of mostly renters.

To be sure, not everyone sees this in the negative light that people such as The New Geography author and social critic Joel Kotkin ("We remain an increasingly suburban nation") and Yaroslavsky do. Downtown developer Tom Gilmore scoffs that Kotkin and other defenders of suburbia and single-family dwellings "take that notion of urbanism and say, 'Oh my god, they're going to do that to your neighborhood too! They're going to make everything a "heat island"!'"


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