EDITOR’S NOTE: Former LA City Planner Dick Platkin, now Adjunct Instructor of City Planning at USC’s Price School of Social Policy, originally wrote this article on the devastating impact of the merger of LA Planning and Building and Safety Department for KCET. This is the most far-reaching issue threatening the quality of life in every neighborhood yet it is being rushed forward by the current mayor and the mayor-elect with the unanimous support of the City Council without the massive citywide protests from residents that it deserves.
By Dick Platkin
Before the election the Wall Street Journal described Eric Garcetti as a business-friendly centrist Democrat. After the election, the same newspaper described the Mayor-elect as a business-friendly liberal Democrat.
Does either political label actually mean anything when it is now applied to municipal politics – especially when they are applied to the core issues of planning and zoning regulations and their enforcement, and building code regulations and their enforcement?Since the new mayor is one of the architects of the city planning culture and legislative structure that he will inherit, we can assume that these policies and practices will seamlessly continue from the Villaraigosa Administration to the Garcetti Administration.
Here’s your hint as to what is the most accurate political label to describe this planning legacy: The deregulation of land use is well on its way at City Hall, albeit obscured by such misleading phrases as “elegant density” or “transit-oriented districts.”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 and aviation sectors under Ronald Reagan and the financial sector under Bill Clinton.
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 land use categories, as well as building use, size, height, parking requirements, 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. It cannot stop the business cycle, but cities with strong zoning ordinances and procedures can smooth out the bumps.
In Los Angeles, a city whose economy has been stagnant for over 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 of deregulation – in and out of City Hall — believe that Los Angeles will flourish if its regulatory “impediments” to speculative investment are eliminated.
But all that glitters is not gold. Zoning deregulation is already underway in Los Angeles, but it will not prove to be the economic cure-all proclaimed by its boosters for several reasons.
Most of Los Angeles is not privately owned land
Only about 20 percent of the entire land area of Los Angeles is privately owned. The remainder is freeways, railroad rights-of-way, streets, parkways, sidewalks, parks, schools, power lines, horse trails, and many other public and quasi-public land uses. Therefore, these areas are neglected when planning is reduced to zoning, and zoning is abridged through deregulation.
Furthermore, zoning deregulation is not capable of rectifying the slow deterioration of the city’s public infrastructure and public services.
It can’t sweep streets, pick-up garbage, fill potholes, repave crumbling sidewalks, or construct ADA-required curb cuts. It can’t plant an urban forest or implement the City’s bicycle master plan. It can’t maintain public parks and revive cancelled recreation programs. It can’t install streetlights on dark streets or sweep them during the day.
Zoning deregulation can’t address a complaint heard throughout the entire city: Los Angeles is filled with zoning and building code violations that undercut the quality of life in neighborhood after neighborhood, problems that are seldom addressed through code enforcement and prosecution, even when residents submit multiple complaints.
But what about the city’s private owned parcels? It is technically correct that many of these lots are overlaid with special zoning conditions (i.e., T’s, Q’s, and D’s imposed by prior legislative actions).
They give the appearance of a tough zoning regime, but the Department of 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 the city’s Department of Building and Safety approves most, certainly over 80 percent, of the city’s building permit applications “by-right”. Among the remaining 20 percent of cases that need relief from the zoning code, the Department of City Planning quickly handles most of them behind closed doors.
While these cases technically require a formal decision, and the public could, in theory, appeal these actions, 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.