Impatient with the Pace of Community Plan Updates, Mayor Proposes to Upzone Whole City in One Fell Swoop

• All Existing Single-Family, Multifamily, Commercial and Industrial Zone Regulations would be Rewritten

• Code Proposed to be More Flexible, Allowing Wider Uses and Bigger Buildings

The Mayor’s Planning Department has proposed a $5-million, five-year work plan to upsize Los Angeles, replacing the current, generally static zoning code with a “dynamic” system that would expand the array of uses allowable in different zones and dictate the general form of buildings, while only lightly regulating the inside of buildings (including residential density) and the growth impacts of more building, including traffic and parking.

The proposed changes would be the most sweeping overhaul of the zoning code since Prop U essentially locked in much of LA’s low-rise building culture in the mid-1980s.

“We are going to remake what the city looks like,” Mayor Villaraigosa recently told the New York Times for an article about the Hollywood Community Plan.

In a March 27 memo to the Los Angeles City Council, Department of City Planning Director Michael LoGrande calls the proposed citywide project “a wholesale revision of the regulations that guide [LA’s] built form.” LoGrande describes the intent to create a “dynamic Web-based zoning code” that will offer “a wider variety of zoning options to more effectively implement the goals and objectives of the General Plan and accommodate the city’s future needs and development opportunities.” LoGrande’s memo is posted on the homepage of the LA Neighbors United website.

The project envisions creating a new menu of zones, and then converting existing zones to either comparable new zones or different ones. By LA Neighbors’ analysis, here are two examples of how this might work:

• Current single-family zones are designated “R1.” A new zone would be created, perhaps called Rx. The new zone could have different characteristics from the current zone relative to allowable uses, building heights, required yards and minimum lot areas. All existing R1 zones could be converted to Rx, or changed to other new zones. The old zone designations would go away.

 Commercial zones today primarily allow low-rise buildings, except where mixed-use or multifamily projects are developed. By the new scheme, medium-rise or high-rise buildings could be allowed in all commercial zones, with the old zones converted to new ones.

The proposed revision of underlying zoning regulations comes as the city already is in the midst of a major rewrite of the code. About a dozen individual ordinances have been proposed, with three (Community Plan Overlay Districts, Core Findings and Multiple Approvals) already adopted. LA Neighbors United is challenging the approval of the Community Plan Overlay Districts ordinance.

But this latest proposal would represent “the mother of all zoning code updates,” said LA Neighbors United Founder Cary Brazeman. “In the interest of making LA a more livable city, we’ve objected to piecemeal planning without regard for infrastructure and amenities. This proposed overhaul may represent a wholesale revision, but if it’s driven more by building than by planning, the results won’t be any better.”

Based on preliminary analysis of the plan, LA Neighbors United sees four key questions in addition to the issues raised above:

What would become of the “Centers” concept that is the basis of the current General Plan for the city?

The current General Plan (the city’s overarching planning document) reflects the notion that Los Angeles, which is 469 square miles, is a city of multiple centers. The plan accommodates the concept by designating a series of Regional and Community Centers, and neighborhood districts, across the city. LA Neighbors United believes the centers concept remains highly viable and desirable, and should be evolved rather than discarded in the interest of taming LA’s infamous dysfunctional density. (We believe the centers concept is entirely compatible with the build-out of linear transit.) It’s not clear how the current Planning regime views such an integrated approach.

How would the new zones affect Specific Plan areas across Los Angeles?

The proposed plan would apply the new zones across the entire city, including to Specific Plan areas. Perhaps a more fundamental question is whether the city would use the process of making sweeping General Plan amendments to wipe out some Specific Plan protections. There’s no indication now that the city intends to do that, but a wholesale revision of the code presents the opportunity.

Would the new zoning system necessarily allow tall buildings everywhere in the city?

It’s pretty clear from the plan that tall-er buildings would be proposed to be allowed in many more zones. (Prop U, RIP.) If this plan advances, LA Neighbors United would work to ensure that a new system accommodates low, medium and high-rise zones to ensure the uniqueness and protection of different LA communities, and that reasonable transitions are required between different height zones. A variety of zones also is critical to ensuring a choice of housing options, even in highly urbanized parts of the city.

What would be the environmental consequences of building out the city in such a dramatically different way as the Mayor’s plan envisions?

Our primary concern now is the potential loss of interstitial habitat across the city if yard and open space requirements and solar access are significantly reduced. LA’s history, and notoriety, as a garden city partly explains its attraction as a special place to live and do business. Changing the nature of the city, literally, could have significant impacts on the place. As always, we believe planning should be undertaken with great care.

Stay in touch on the zoning code makeover and other issues!
Sign up for email updates at www.LAneighbors.org

     LA Neighbors United
Cary Brazeman

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