Measure S asks voters: How do we do density in L.A.?

March 2, 2017
Photo by Lynn Pelkey

Gustavo Flores sees his fight against a local development project as a struggle for the character of his neighborhood.

In late 2014, a developer rolled out plans for four restaurants and a bar a few blocks from his Westlake home, on an intersection with three nearby schools. To Flores and his allies, it was a disaster, an example of development gone wrong. What’s more, nobody in the city establishment seemed to be listening — not the local police captain, not the neighborhood council, not Gilbert Cedillo, the city councilmember for the East Los Angeles neighborhood.

“They’re never looking out for us,” Flores said of City Hall. “They care about the people with the big bucks.”

So when he heard about Measure S, an initiative on the March 7 ballot that would restrict dense development and impose sweeping land-use reforms, he was heartened. Somebody was finally talking his language.

And it wasn’t just talk. Since last year, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), led by president Michael Weinstein, has funneled more than $4.5 million into the campaign. Effectively, Weinstein has bankrolled a conversation about how and where Los Angeles will develop, galvanizing a patchwork of neighborhood advocates into a unified front against city politicians.

But even if the measure passes, serious questions linger about what effect it will have and whether it will accomplish the goals it sets out. The most controversial item in the measure is a two-year moratorium on construction projects that use exceptions from the city to build denser than would otherwise be allowed.

Other provisions would change the way environmental impact reports are compiled and rule out the practice of “spot zoning” that allows the city to carve out parts of neighborhoods for different uses. Advocates hope these changes will help stem a rise in housing costs and bring equity to L.A. building policy.

“It’s really a matter of equality and whether or not Los Angeles is going to becoming a rich ghetto like Manhattan or San Francisco,” Weinstein told the Journal.

Consensus and contention

Few observers are thrilled with the way Los Angeles approaches housing. Most agree that outdated planning documents mean big projects proceed on a case-by-case basis, with developers approaching City Hall to bend the rules when they want to increase density.

“The city has decided that they want more density along transit corridors, but the plans don’t provide for it,” said Century City-based land-use attorney Benjamin Reznik.

He agrees with proponents of Measure S about the need to update the General Plan and 35 community plans that govern construction in L.A., but he called the initiative ill-conceived and poorly written, pointing out that it fails to provide funding for the community planning process it mandates. “It’s not going to achieve the goals they want to achieve,” he said.

Yes on S campaign director Jill Stewart described the city’s approach to land use as “piecemeal, piecemeal, piecemeal.” She argued that the process is governed through shady backroom deals, with developers rewarding politicians for approving their projects through campaign funds.

“They’re planning L.A. by which developers reward them the most,” Stewart said. “And it’s — it’s insane, really.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has loudly opposed the measure, flatly rejected the claim in an interview with the Journal.

“Outdated zoning and community plans is a real problem,” he said. “That cozy relationship is not.”

Garcetti dismissed those who paint a picture of corruption as “conspiracy theorists.” As for the fact that community plans are outdated, “Well, I didn’t need Measure S to tell me that,” he said.

In his first budget, the mayor said he put a premium on hiring city planners to accelerate the process of updating L.A.’s planning documents. Still, he estimated those plans will take six to seven years to fully update.

points-redA survey of 300 Angelenos by independent polling firm Probolsky Research found in February that 46 percent were planning to vote against Measure S while 34 percent planned on supporting it. But if it passes, Garcetti said the city would move the most outdated community plans to the front of the queue for revision in order to allow development to proceed. Nonetheless, the picture he painted is not a pretty one.

“If you think homelessness is bad now, Measure S will make it worse,” he said. “And, even though we have a prosperous economy, we will lose jobs.”

And it’s not only the mayor, but also some community activists who make the economic argument against the measure.

“It will be devastating,” said Rabbi Jonathan Klein, executive director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, an L.A.-based community-organizing group. “Millions and millions of dollars, if not hundreds of millions, will be lost.”

Brick and mortar

Measure S would mostly impact large projects that increase housing capacity, according to analysis by the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies.

A small proportion of construction projects require the type of exception banned by the two-year moratorium, the analysis suggested, pegging that proportion somewhere below 27 percent. Between 2011 and 2016, that amounted to fewer than 4,000 units.

Still, “exceptions are important tools to build higher density,” the report noted, since they’re mostly used to green light larger development projects. For instance, it pointed to a complex in Reseda that houses 240 low-income people on the former site of an under-utilized church. The project would not have been allowed under Measure S. Projects like the Riverwalk at Reseda are cited as evidence that the measure would be self-defeating and actually make neighborhoods less affordable.

Critics also insist it would stymie efforts to house the homeless.

“We can’t necessarily build our way out of [the homeless] crisis, but dampening the production of more housing is going to make the problem worse,” said Amy Anderson, executive director of PATH Ventures, the development arm of People Assisting the Homeless (PATH).

But advocates say that logic is faulty since the measure would target luxury units rather than affordable ones. Grace Yoo, a community leader in Koreatown and former city council candidate, dismissed allegations that Measure S would increase rents and homelessness.

“They go, ‘Well, if you don’t build more luxury units, you’re going to cause more homelessness,’ ” she said. “And we’re going, ‘In what world is that true?’ ”

Crossed wires on homelessness

In theory, the measure’s moratorium allows low-income housing proposals to seek exceptions for zoning and height, but not amendments to the city’s General Plan.

Anderson said a review of the measure’s language by knowledgeable members of PATH’s board, including former L.A. city planning director Con Howe, found “there’s in fact not an exception for affordable housing” since many affordable housing projects require General Plan amendments to proceed. What’s more, Measure S could get in the way of Measure HHH, the $1.2 billion bond for homeless and affordable housing construction voters approved in November, she said.

Garcetti has proposed 12 city-owned properties as sites for bond building. “Eleven of those 12 would be dead in the water if S passes — they require General Plan amendments,” he said.

Weinstein’s solution is simply to look elsewhere. “There are thousands of sites across the cities where you could build housing,” he said.

Populist or pest?

To his critics, Weinstein is a busybody whose electioneering is simply a ploy to stop a construction project that would block the view from his Hollywood office. To his proponents, though, he’s a crusader for empowering community advocates over real estate barons running roughshod over their neighborhoods.

“I am grateful that there’s someone willing to stand up to the bullies of City Hall,” Yoo said of Weinstein’s efforts.

But even though AHF has put up nearly 99 percent of the funds behind Measure S, Weinstein insists the conversation should not be about him, but rather about who the city council truly represents.

“They want to make it about me because they want to change the subject,” he said of his detractors in City Hall. “Because they’re doing the bidding of the billionaires, and they don’t want that talked about.”

In April, he made an enemy of one of those billionaires when he sued to stop a pair of condo towers slated to go up across the street from AHF’s offices on Sunset Boulevard. Since then, the developer on that project, Crescent Heights, run by Israeli real estate billionaire Sonny Kahn, has poured more than $1 million into the No on S campaign, or more than 60 percent of the campaign’s total budget in 2016. Crescent Heights declined to comment on the donations.

Weinstein points to the preponderance of developers against his measure as a sign that he’s on the right track (though labor groups such as the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations also are major contributors to the No on S campaign).

The nonprofit director says his motives are entirely altruistic. He insists he’s doing his job by trying to help the AIDS and HIV patients his organization serves, and who are disproportionately hurt by the housing squeeze.

“In the broader sense, you have to look at the social determinants of health,” he said. “Health is not restricted to medications and doctors and nurses.”

Cause and effect

The most common criticism of Measure S is that it won’t do what proponents say it will. Even if one assumes backroom dealing exists, for instance, Measure S “doesn’t even begin to address” that problem, said Reznik, the land-use lawyer.

“If you want to take the politics out of land use, take zoning power out of the hands of the councils and put it in the hands of planners,” he said.

Reznik is among a class of city planning professionals who have lined up behind Garcetti’s contention that “land use by referendum is usually a bad idea in the first place.”

“The chances of solving this from the ballot box are very, very small,” said Marlon Boarnet, chair of USC’s Department of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis.

Among his colleagues, Boarnet says he finds few, if any, who support Measure S. He said he personally views the measure as a wrongheaded attempt that will impede the city’s growth.

“As much as I want to respect neighborhoods, Los Angeles has hit a moment where we need to think as a city,” he said. Thinking as a city means increasing density along transit corridors, he maintains, even over the complaints of some communities.

Weinstein is unfazed by the critics. He insists the moratorium will help break City Hall of its dependence on campaign funds from donors, resulting in smarter development in the long run.

“You have to take the crack pipe away from the addict at some point,” he said.

For local advocates like Yoo and Flores, Weinstein and his foundation’s millions represent an evening of the score between the little guy and billionaire developers.

Flores, 27, an aspiring law student with four children, has lived in Westlake over the course of a decade when property values climbed rapidly and dense development began to seem inevitable. He’s not looking to stop development in its tracks but wishes it would happen in a smarter way.

“I know development’s gonna happen, and in my opinion, it’s good,” he said. “But let’s have responsible development.”

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