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'All That Glitters Is Not Gold': A Planner Replies About L.A. Zoning

Posted Mondays, Jeremy Rosenberg's (@LosJeremy) Laws That Shaped L.A. spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert - may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority

Ed. note: Jeremy Rosenberg is off this week and turns over the Laws That Shaped LA column today to Richard Platkin.

Platkin is an Adjunct Instructor of City Planning at USC's Price School of Social Policy.* You can reach him with comments and questions on this article at rhplatkin@yahoo.com.

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A.

Law: Ordinance 139901 ("Q," "T" and "D" conditions)
Years: 1970
Jurisdiction: City
Nominated by: James Brasuell
Responded to by: Richard Platkin


By Richard Platkin

As a professional city planner, whose career included 20 years with the City of Los Angeles, and now nearly six subsequent years as a city planning consultant and teacher, your recent guest column about the myriad of zoning overlays in Los Angeles was technically accurate, but nevertheless misleading.

Read, Exceptions Rule: The Dirty Little Secret of L.A.'s Zoning Code, James Brasuell's Laws That Shaped L.A. guest column that Richard Platkin's column is written in reply to.

In some policy circles government regulations are considered to be the bane of economic prosperity. In fact, this was this outlook that gave rise to the deregulation of the telecommunications sector under the Ronald Reagan administration, and Wall Street under Bill Clinton.

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At the local level this siren song of deregulation is now focused on zoning, an administrative approach to regulate land uses approved by the United States Supreme Court in 1926 (Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co.). Under zoning, local governments have the legal authority to control public and private land, including such building requirements as use category, size, height, parking, and setbacks.

Zoning also means that speculators cannot easily and quickly move into and out of real estate projects based on rapidly changing market conditions. To put it bluntly, rigorous zoning is a barrier to real estate bubbles, such as the Great Recession that began in 2008.

But, in Los Angeles, a city whose economy has been stagnant for nearly two decades, advocates of deregulation are now focused on the city's elaborate zoning code, including its regulatory expansion through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Put simply, these advocates believe that Los Angeles will flourish if its regulatory "impediments" to speculative investment are reduced.

But, as I hope to explain, all that glitters is not gold. Zoning deregulation is already underway in Los Angeles, but it will not prove to be an economic cure-all for several reasons.

Most of Los Angeles is not privately-owned land: To begin, only about 20 percent of the land area in Los Angeles are private lots, with the remainder being streets, parkways, sidewalks, parks, schools, power lines, horse trails, and other public and quasi-public land uses. Zoning deregulation is not capable of improving the slow deterioration of the city's public infrastructure and public services. It can't sweep streets, pick-up garbage, fix potholes, and repave crumbling sidewalks. It can't plant an urban forest or implement the City's bicycle master plans. It can't maintain public parks and revive recreation programs. Furthermore, zoning deregulation can't address a complaint heard throughout the entire city: Los Angeles is filled with zoning violations that undercut the quality of life in neighborhood after neighborhood.

While it is technically correct that many of Los Angeles's privately owned lots have special zoning conditions, such as "T"s, "Q"s, and "D"s imposed by prior legislative actions, City Planning administratively clears these conditions as part of the building permit process. For better or worse, the public seldom knows about these conditions, their internal ministerial (administrative) approvals, and the resulting building permits.

This means that most, certainly over 80 percent, of the city's building permits are granted "by-right." Furthermore, among the remaining 20 percent of cases that need relief from the zoning code, the Department of City Planning quickly handles most of these cases behind closed doors. While these cases technically require a formal action, and the public could, in theory, appeal these decisions, this seldom happens. The primary reason is that no one is mailed a notice about these cases, and the written approval letters are only sent to immediately adjacent property owners. This means that the first inkling that most neighbors have of a project's official approval is the sound of bulldozers and hammers when construction begins.

Discretionary Actions: In contrast to these by-right and easily administrated cases, only a small percentage of building permits need formal relief from the city's zoning code through open discretionary actions. In these cases, nearby property owners are mailed a notice of such actions as a zone variance, a zone change, or a conditional use permit. Depending on the type of discretionary actions, these reviews also allow open access to building plans, as well as public hearings, formal debates, environmental assessments, and the right of appeal to an Area Planning Commission, and in some cases all the way to the City Council.

Needless to say, investors, contractors, and realtors want to either avoid these requirements or make sure that they can quickly navigate them. They have little to worry about, however, because decision makers approve nearly every application for relief from the zoning code, usually with additional conditions. But since the Department of City Planning has no enforcement authority and the Department of Building and Safety does not undertake proactive code enforcement, and only sporadically responds to complaints about code violations, most zoning conditions are simply decorative. Public objections to proposed discretionary actions are often offset with conditions that sound great, but are not regularly adhered to by contractors, building owners, tenants, and building inspectors.

This means that the real zoning and planning process in Los Angeles is market forces, not the layers of zoning requirements and special zoning conditions that apply to a majority of parcels. When the City's Department of Building and Safety cannot grant a building permit outright, developers can almost always obtain these additional approvals with minimal effort. The zoning rules and the official city plans that appear to hamstring their projects are, in fact, just token technical barriers that are nearly always skirted with few changes to the market-preferred project. At most, these requirements slow down some projects and occasionally require modifications in scale or design in a small minority of cases.

Casting Aside Zoning Restrictions: But, don't worry, City Hall is casting aside even these modest barriers to unimpeded market forces.

For example, the Department of City Planning is revising L.A.'s traditional zoning code through a five-year process to institute form-based zoning. This means that the revamped zoning code will control a building size, but have little to say about its uses. The real impact, however, of these changes is to eliminate the need for variances to permit formerly restricted uses. Voila! Market forces will face even fewer barriers to the latest speculative investment fads.

Likewise, other recent ordinances to "streamline" L.A.'s zoning code will have a similar impact. They cumulatively shrink zoning requirements faced by real estate investors, as they quickly move in and out of properties and projects based on the business cycle and the changing profitability of different real estate categories.

And, let's not forget the contribution that updates of Los Angeles' 35 community plans make to this process or deregulation. Their slow but steady preparation and adoption is always accompanied by ordinances amending the General Plan's land use designations and their closely related zoning categories. Since most of these General Plan amendments will increase permitted, by-right densities, future investors will obtain up-front administrative and legislative relief from the zoning code.

Environmental Review: Finally, we need to factor in the California Environmental Quality Act. Adopted approximately 40 years, it requires decision makers to be informed of and consider the environmental impacts of proposed projects.

[Read this first and this second past Laws That Shaped L.A. columns about CEQA.]

But, CEQA only applies to discretionary actions, and many of those, such as design review, are exempted from an environmental assessment. By amending, updating, and streamlining the city's zoning code, investors and developers will also be able to evade CEQA. They won't need to spend their time and money to determine their projects' environmental impacts, and decision makers will not be provided this information since they will have fewer land use cases presented to them.

Unfortunately, environmental impacts do not go away because they are no longer measured or provided to Zoning Administrators, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council. As a result, the public will pay the price for this array of ploys to minimize the role of CEQA in land use decisions.

Conclusion: If there is a conclusion to this examination of the real impact of Los Angeles' vast array of zoning overlays and local zoning conditions, it is that they make little difference in actual land use decisions and investments. What appears to be enormous hurdles from the outside is, in fact, little more than minor administrative requirements than can be quickly complied with.

This is exactly the opposite of what the public needs. Building permits and land use decisions should be transparent. Neighbors should be notified of projects that are built in their neighborhood and that would affect their quality of life. Furthermore, they should have full access to architectural plans and project details reviewed by the Department of Building and Safety. Similarly, decision makers need to know the environmental impacts of the projected presented them, so they can make truly informed decisions when they approve, approve with conditions, or reject a project.

Top photo: From 1958, a land use plan for Century City. Photograph from the Herald-Examiner Collection. Photo courtesy the Los Angeles Public Library

*Jeremy Rosenberg is employed at USC

Have a suggestion for a Law That Shaped LA or someone to interview? Contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com.

About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
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