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Exceptions Rule: The Dirty Little Secret of L.A.'s Zoning Code

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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 James Brasuell.

Brasuell is a contributor to publications such as Curbed L.A., The Architect's Newspaper and FORM Mag. He is a staff member at Cal Poly Pomona ENV. Follow him on Twitter @CasualBrasuell

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A."¨
Law: Ordinance 139901 ("Q," "T" and "D" conditions)
Years: 1970
Jurisdiction: City of Los Angeles
Nominated by: James Brasuell

By James Brasuell

It's no secret that the citizens of Los Angeles believe their hometown to be an exception to many rules. The sun will always shine, there is always a way around the traffic, the Lakers will never miss the playoffs, and Hollywood is the only industry that is recession proof.

But very few Angelenos are aware of just how deeply exceptions are ingrained in the processes by which the city has developed. Most reasonably engaged members of the public will recognize the names of the regulatory tools employed by city planners in approving or disapproving development projects -- the Zoning Code, General Plan, and community plans are examples. The dirty little secret of land use planning and development in Los Angeles, however, is that it is the exceptions to those rules that actually get built.

According to a white paper presented to the City Council in November 2011 in preparation for a comprehensive overhaul of the city's zoning code (more on that later), over 60 percent of the city's geography is covered by special overlays and site-specific designations. These site-specific designations, designated in the Zoning Code as Q, T, and D conditions (standing for "qualified," "tentative," and "development restriction," respectively) are the machinery of the metaphorical sausage factory that is the Los Angeles development industry.

The Zoning Code of Los Angeles is organized by traditional Euclidean logic -- meaning that the code organizes residential uses, commercial uses, and industrial uses by separating them around the city. For more background on how Los Angeles came to adopt Euclidean zoning, reference the work of Jeremy Rosenberg in this very column.

The dirty secret: most projects don't conform to such broad and easy classification; exceptions must be made if anything is to be built. Given that reality, site-specific designations are a common, necessary practice for legalizing such exceptions. A quick exploration of the city's parcel maps show Q conditions to be the most common site-specific designations -- almost every commercial corridor in the city is littered with the [Q] prefix in its zoning designations.

Like the origins of Euclidean zoning in Los Angeles, Qs, Ts, and Ds arose in response to the land use controversies of a very specific time and place, in this case a Residential Planned Development (RPD) proposed in Chatsworth in the early 1960s. After project developer Bryan Gibson was convicted of grand theft after soliciting bribes in exchange for permits for the 900-unit townhome project, the city issued a report that ended the use of RPDs, one of the era's primary mechanisms used by developers for project delivery (the same report also paved the way for the creation for the city's 35 community plan areas, which vex the public dialogue on land use policy to this day).

According to University of Texas at Arlington Assistant Professor Andrew Whittemore, who wrote his dissertation at UCLA on the history of the Los Angeles Zoning Code, the loss of RPDs transferred power to the fledgling political movement of homeowners' associations. As a result, "In the '70s you see massive down zoning, down to the city's current capacity of 4.1 million," says Prof. Whittemore. In response to their waning political will, developers and the City Council approved Ordinance 139901 on January 9, 1970, making Q conditions possible under the law. "Zoning is an incredibly blunt instrument. It doesn't really give people what they want, so everyone tries to add conditions or gain a little leeway," says Prof. Whittemore.

Senior City Planner Charlie Rausch, who works in the Code Studies section of the Planning Department, agrees that the city created site-specific designations to reclaim some of the flexibility lost in the city's one-size-fits-all Zoning Code. "The City Council at that time wanted to be more specific, as did the Planning Commission, on what the developer or the applicant was trying to do," says Rausch. Qs, Ts, and Ds, therefore, are used for individual placemaking, often by restricting details of the project beyond the terms of the zoning code (for those keeping track at home, another type of exception, the variance, is used to loosen restrictions).

"By putting on the Q conditions, we could then narrow down the uses, the size of the building, and more," says Rausch, who notes a specific example of a commonly used Q condition that prohibits the construction of balconies on multi-family developments that over-look single-family residences.**

Rausch recalls one particularly bizarre anecdote of a Q condition influencing the design of a building from early in his career as a zoning administrator. A commercial project, located "somewhere off Washington Blvd," encountered opposition from a neighboring property owner.

The opposing neighbor demanded Q conditions that detailed such requirements as paint color and paint manufacturer, and the city councilmember of the district, in haste to jumpstart the project, allowed the conditions. Since that approval, some 25 years ago, the paint manufacturer has gone out of business, and the current Q condition technically prohibits the now-completed building to be repainted with a substitute brand.

The majority of Los Angeles is the exception to the zoning rule. Image from a Planning Department report from November 2011
The majority of Los Angeles is the exception to the zoning rule. Image from a Planning Department report from November 2011

Another manifestation of the influence of site-specific designations on the form of Los Angeles comes by way of the T designation, which is used for developers to make public improvements that wouldn't otherwise be built, such as widening streets and adding streetlights.

Rausch explains that street cutouts (i.e., the term of art used by planners to describe the oxymoronic form of many streets in Los Angeles that appear to zig-zag along a straight path) are a result of zoning changes implemented after street standards changed. Many blocks in Los Angeles include parcels that have implemented no changes since before street standards changed, so the street in front of the property are narrow according to obsolete street standards. But if a neighboring property sought changes more recently, it would have included a T condition that widened the street. Voilà: streets in Los Angeles often change width mid-block.

The necessity of Qs, Ts, and Ds explains, in part, their ubiquity. As an experienced developer in the city of Los Angeles, Mott Smith is all too familiar with the power and limitations of site-specific designations. As principal of Civic Enterprise, Smith has even benefitted by an example of a Q condition on an entitlement his company sought for a property on Echo Park Avenue, which required entrances to the residential property adjacent to the sidewalk -- in accordance with Civic Enterprise's plans for the property.

Smith also cites Echo Park as a prime example of the benefits of Q conditions: "In Echo Park, they have Q conditions on the commercial zones that require you to put uses directly on the street." The result is that instead of parking lots creating a buffer between the street and buildings (e.g., like every strip mall in Southern California), storefronts encourage window-shopping and al fresco dining brings out the crowds for an active pedestrian environment.

Before you assume that the esoteric minutiae of the Zoning Code is too mundane for your concerns, think about the implications: on the one hand, you have the city's leaders -- of planning, development, community, culture, and politics -- all with a stake in a thoroughly-envisioned future for the city. On the other hand, you have an ad hoc city, created by serendipity, and without guiding principles. Between these two versions of citymaking stands Los Angeles, where exceptions are the rules.

An obvious effect of the designations is to short-circuit the interface between the public and the development process. Despite the well-intentioned and well-applied applications of site-specific designations by planners around Los Angeles (described earlier by Smith), most examples of such site-specific tailoring of buildings escape public awareness, much less public understanding. "These are legal back doors for creating customized zones. Because they are back doors, they are only accessible to insiders," says Smith.

When asked if a result of the hidden uses of the code is a less informed and engaged public, Smith replies, "A thousand percent, yes." Prof. Whittemore agrees, pointing out that such zoning practices are an easily manipulated advantage for which ever political interest is paying the most attention: "Zoning only works to favor who has the power, and that might be just whomever is participating."

For Smith, however, the most problematic implication of site-specific designations is how such exceptions disconnect the city's plans from its reality: "They are just another veil hiding the true intent of the city of the city in shaping land use policy." Smith blames Euclidean zoning for the failure of the system: "Traditional Euclidean zoning codes only work for suburban, new growth development," so using the back door offered by Qs, Ts, and Ds becomes a necessity to the business of development in the city. As a result, "the zoning never matches the as-built conditions," says Smith.

Developers and HOAs alike (strange bedfellows, if ever) share the use of some common, well-worn phrases to describe the city's development approval process: "case-by-case" and "spot zoning" describe the current state of things, while "transparency" and "certainty" are desired from the approval process.

With the dirty little secrets (or maybe it's the elephants in the room) of the city's byzantine and esoteric Zoning Code in mind, the City Council recently approved funding for a comprehensive overhaul of the city's Zoning Code, selecting Code Studio, a firm from Austin, Texas, as the consultant in the project (the contract between the city and Code Studio is still being negotiated). For a recent code overhaul in Denver, Code Studio developed a "context-based" code (a hybrid of Euclidean and form-based codes) that has received good reviews from the local business media. Left to be seen is whether Los Angeles' new Zoning Code, when complete, will shift the balance of power away from the exceptional, and toward certainty and transparency.

Top image: The Sunset Junction commercial corridor is truly exceptional (you can tell from all the [Q] conditions). Source: ZIMAS

**Punctuation has been updated since original post.

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

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