Thumbnail image for 00071445.jpg

Does Zoning Matter In Los Angeles? Not So Much, Planner Says

The Laws That Shaped LA column celebrates its one-year anniversary this week.

The column has been incredibly fortunate during its first spin around the sun to be read by such a savvy, sophisticated, knowledgeable -- and when I screw up, forgiving and educating -- group of people.

Many of you have been kind enough to keep the column conversations going in various ways. I'm further grateful for this and invite you all to continue doing so during this new year.

Ways to do so include: emailing me to arrivalstory AT Gmail DOT com; tweeting @LosJeremy, leaving user comments at the bottom of columns; doing the same on the KCET28 Facebook page; and continuing the conversations at excellent other sites such as Curbed Los Angeles and Planetizen.

'Laws' will return next Monday in its usual column format. (Read the archives here.) But today, in keeping with the 'comments' theme, we're turning this small corner of cyberspace over to column reader Jason Neville.

Neville (@nevitate) advises on planning and sustainable economic development projects in New Orleans and Los Angeles, including the Los Angeles River Revitalization project.

Last year, Neville read the 'Laws' column headlined, "The Roots of Sprawl: Why We Don't Live Where We Work." He emailed the following reply, and like so many of your responses, his deserved to be read by far more people than just me.

Story Continues Below
Support KCET



Jeremy-

Saw your post on the 'Roots of Sprawl', and your note that future columns would cover industrial land use zoning/planning in Los Angeles.

A few years ago, the CRA and the City Planning Department worked on a two-year Industrial Land Use project, surveying by foot over 3,000 acres of industrial land in L.A. (including Downtown, Boyle Heights, South LA, Chinatown, Westside, and Hollywood). This exhaustive project -- see the report** if you're interested -- was called for by the Mayor in 2005, who was concerned that piecemeal conversion of industrial land to residential (particularly in Downtown L.A.) was threatening to undermine the city's limited jobs-producing land.

How much industrial land do we actually have? Have all the industrial jobs really moved overseas? How many industrial jobs are there in Los Angeles, and what do they pay? What are the strongest industries? What are the growing job sectors? What is the impact, if any, of residential conversions? Do we still need industrial land in Los Angeles?

The bottom line from all this research surprised even me: Los Angeles is the largest manufacturing center in the nation, where almost 25% of jobs in City Los Angeles are in the industrial sectors.

The lowest vacancy rates (in other words, the highest demand) for space in Los Angeles was for industrial -- no other market in the nation had as high of a demand. We found that these jobs paid on average 50% more than retail counterparts, providing pathways to the middle class.

We also found that industrial users can't compete with residential developers when it comes to purchase price: speculation for residential land, especially during the recent housing bubble, was driving up the cost of industrial land and putting additional pressure on Los Angeles businesses to close shop.

At the same time, we recognized that, particularly in central Los Angeles, much of the industrial land and buildings were functionally obsolete and in desperate need of improvement, including "infrastructure 101" like roads, curbs, loading, parking and drainage. We also recognized that there are new kinds of living/working arrangements like telecommuting, industrial condos, and live-work spaces that were changing how planners think about zoning for jobs.

Because so much of Los Angeles' industrial land is along the L.A. River, we planners synthesized a vision that would balance the need to preserve L.A.'s important jobs-producing land while transitioning those areas to cleaner uses, and helping to advance the goals of the L.A. River Revitalization Project.

Thus it was from the confluence of industrial land preservation, sustainable economic development, and L.A. River Revitalization that the concept of the Cleantech Corridor was born. One of the marquee projects of that effort, the 20-acre Cleantech Manufacturing Center, was never realized. However, the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator in the Arts District is up and running, helping to grow locally-based clean technology companies -- and older industrial buildings that would have been candidates for pricey residential condos are being renovated new creative offices for design, post-production, prototyping, and fabrication.

Entrepreneurial companies are taking advantage of downtown L.A. industrial district's small, flexible spaces, affordable rents, proximity to downtown amenities and infrastructure, and direct access to the trend-setting consumer base that is Los Angeles.

Although the project focused ostensibly on zoning, no zoning was ever changed -- due to budget cuts the Community Plan Update has been perpetually stalled. But the project did spark controversy, discussion and research about whether or not Los Angeles needed to update its industrial zones to accommodate contemporary industries.

We did some detailed research on new zones, but never moved them forward as ordinances, or even came to a consensus about whether or not they are needed. In fact, in my opinion, the land use categories in Los Angeles don't really have as deep an impact as most people might think.

Our zoning code is so jumbled and permissive that developers can develop a wide variety of projects on whatever zone happens to underlie their project. Typically, a project needs a bunch of time-consuming approvals anyway, so if the zone happens to disallow a proposed use, they can just ask for a zone change while they're at it. Parking, quality of infrastructure, access to transit/freeways nearby amenities, and real estate speculation are -- in my professional opinion -- greater drivers of development patterns in Los Angeles than zoning.

By definition, zoning is exclusionary -- it can simply prohibit certain uses, not compel them. In your post, you cite two classic examples: a residential zone (which prohibits non-residential uses) and an industrial zone (which prohibits non-industrial uses).

But a residential zone cannot compel a property owner to build a house if she doesn't want to (or wants to but can't afford it). Same for an industrial property owner. That's why cities that have developed zones that try to encourage specific uses simply by allowing such a use often fail. Like this one, a failed "high tech" zone in Vancouver, BC.

That being said, I am a planner through-and-through and believe in the fundamental importance of good planning for creation of great cities and sustainable economies. But planners need to update their toolbox beyond mere land use regulation to be able to play a more strategic, catalytic role in making cities like Los Angeles better.

--Jason Neville
(as emailed to Jeremy Rosenberg)

Top photo: Suburban sprawl spread down to Carson. Photo courtesy of The Los Angeles Public Library

**This link has been corrected from the original post

Suggest a "Law That Shaped L.A." or otherwise contact the columnist via @LosJeremy on Twitter, or by emailing: arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com, or by leaving a comment at the bottom of this page. Follow Rosenberg on Twitter @LosJeremy

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.
RSS icon

Previous

Endless Planets for Austin Peralta

Next

I Am Los Angeles: The Kid

LEAVE A COMMENT Leave Comment