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Worried about over-development in LA? It has to do with zoning




Shana Bonstin, LA's principal city planner, examines the neighborhood zoning map for the Wilshire/Koreatown area.
Shana Bonstin, LA's principal city planner, examines the neighborhood zoning map for the Wilshire/Koreatown area.
Leo Duran/KPCC

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Think of the "S" in Measure S as signifying “stop.”

As in, "Stop mega developments from taking over Los Angeles."

That's what the initiative's backers want, and their leverage is a two-year moratorium on big buildings that comes with a "yes" on S.

But let's examine one claim the group makes in a recent mailer: “In backroom dealings, the [city] council breaks it own rules to allow its rich developer donors to build mega-developments banned by local zoning.”

Sounds like developers are making deals to break the rules so they can, say, build a sprawling 15-story complex where a tidy two-story apartment building once stood.

How does that work?

Zoning 101

The city's zoning code lays out what can be built where. But it's not set in concrete.

If you want to do something that's different than what the code allows, you can ask for a general plan amendment or a zone change.

Between 2000 and the middle of last year, nearly 1,000 projects wanted one of those.

Nearly all of them got it – 90 percent.

They all began the process by heading to the 6th floor of L.A. City Hall where the planning department is.

"They would start with us," says L.A.'s principal planner Shana Bonstin, "to get a sense of what types of development they can do, to get a sense of how to ask for it."

LA's principal planner Shana Bonstin points out the corner of Western and 6th St on the zoning map for Wilshire/Koreatown. The map was made in 2001, but the area has already gone through dramatic population changes since that time.
LA's principal planner Shana Bonstin points out the corner of Western and 6th St on the zoning map for Wilshire/Koreatown. The map was made in 2001, but the area has already gone through dramatic population changes since that time.
Leo Duran/KPCC

Zoning maps lay out the limits for what can be built on any plot of land.

A rectangle in green is for parks and can't be developed. Gold might mean residential homes up to compact apartment or condo buildings. Red squares are for high-density commercial buildings where the sky's the limit, literally.

Most of those red areas frame Los Angeles' most congested streets. That's on purpose: Planners first created the roads that would be L.A.'s main thoroughfares – like Wilshire and Sunset – and then said the open land around it could be built up big.

"The city of Los Angeles was really built out first," says Bonstin.

L.A. has the benefit (and problem) of being popular

There's a twist – many of the maps for L.A.'s 35 neighborhood are out of date.

The Hollywood one, for example, was designed in 1988 and hasn't been updated since.

So Bonstin is hearing from people who want to build for the city of 2017 ... and working off of designs that the people of the '80s wanted for Los Angeles.

L.A. has grown to be a much bigger city since that time.

Its population jumped by 34 percent between 1980 and 2015, which is much faster than places like New York, San Francisco or Chicago.

That means the maps don't account for more residents, or even advances in technology and infrastructure.

"Certainly since this map was developed, we had the Red Line come in," says Bonstin, and the Metro subway stops in the area have increased foot traffic.

LA city planners must make decisions on projects in Hollywood based off of this zoning map first created in 1988. It has been reprinted throughout the years, but not updated.
LA city planners must make decisions on projects in Hollywood based off of this zoning map first created in 1988. It has been reprinted throughout the years, but not updated.
Leo Duran/KPCC

It's a pattern you can see throughout the city, she adds.

For example, the map covering Miracle Mile limits how big you can build near LACMA and the Petersen Automotive Museum.

"This plan doesn't really account for Museum Row and how that has taken off in the last decade or so," says Bonstin.

That's why she says her office will consider zone changes for developers who want to break ground on dense, large buildings: 29-year-old maps like Hollywood's haven’t kept up with L.A.’s popularity as a national and international destination.

Her decisions are based on proximity, though.

If a proposal is in the middle of a small residential zone and happens to be right next to a tall tower, she might consider granting the request. But she won't allow a 15-story complex to plop down in the center of a sea of single-family homes.

Just update the maps...

You might be wondering why the city doesn't do that.

"Some of the concern might be the sense of doing planning through individual projects rather than comprehensively stopping everything, taking a look, where do we want to go in the future?" says Bonstin.

The city has tried.

A 2012 update to Hollywood’s 1988 map would’ve zoned more areas for bigger buildings, for example.

But people from the neighborhood successfully got the plan killed in court over three years ago – they were worried about the environmental impact.

Both the Measure S supporters and opponents agree, however, that updating the maps is a priority so all projects follow the rules and aren’t the exceptions.

Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council have pushed to revise all the community plans by 2026, too.

The 3-inch binder on the bottom is what the LA city planning code looks like now. The one in the middle is what it was in 2002. And the small spiral-bound book on the top is what it looked like in 1966.
The 3-inch binder on the bottom is what the LA city planning code looks like now. The one in the middle is what it was in 2002. And the small spiral-bound book on the top is what it looked like in 1966.
Leo Duran/KPCC

Bonstin says, beyond Measure S, that's the time to stay engaged.

"One of the ironies that we have in planning is that the larger scale and more comprehensive the planning, the less interest we get in it," she says. "People tend to come out when it is really impacting their individual neighborhood or their next door neighbor or their property."

But even if the topic of zoning and the planning code can be dense, Bonstin wants you to give her new maps so you have a say in the future of your L.A.