Doubling Down on an Unsustainable Future: Looking at L.A.’s “Neighborhood Integrity Initiative”

The NIMBY
The NIMBY “Neighborhood Integrity Initiative” would exacerbate L.A.’s housing shortage. Image via AIDS Healthcare Foundation

Los Angeles voters may once again have to go to the ballot box this November to determine the future of the city’s urban form.

No-growth activists led by AIDS Healthcare Foundation President Michael Weinstein are preparing to put an initiative on the ballot this election cycle to severely restrict most future growth throughout the city. The so-called “Neighborhood Integrity Initiative,” which comes at a time when the region is experiencing a historic housing shortage, would short-circuit Los Angeles’ (albeit imperfect) effort to reshape itself along a growing network of high-quality transit corridors, bike lanes, and walkable streets.

In short, the proposed initiative, which would need the signatures of about 60,000 registered Los Angeles voters to qualify to be on the ballot, asks voters to double down on a static vision of Los Angeles as a sprawling, auto-centric mega-cluster of suburbs.

As the initiative moves forward, Streetsblog L.A. hopes to explore how the proposal would impact the city’s ability to address the major livability issues facing us today, including the regional housing shortage, income segregation, and an urban form that favors cars over other modes of transportation.

A plan to ban planning

The initiative, which specifically aims to end, among other things, the practice of amending the city’s general plan to allow specific projects to be built, does have a grain of truth in its rhetoric, said Mott Smith, principal at Civic Enterprise Development and Council of Infill Builders board member.

“The grain of truth is that we don’t follow our plans,” Smith said. “But we have this outdated style of planning. We’ve built this really complex system of workarounds.”

It is those “workarounds” that allow projects to be taller and denser than the general plan otherwise allows.

“This initiative actually bans planning. What it says is that you can never adopt a plan that substantially changes the density or height of a neighborhood,” he said.

But L.A. is changing. A growing rail transit network and an increasing demand for walkable, bikeable streets mean that the urban form has to change, if we hope to break free of the car-centric model of planning that has reigned in previous decades.

It would also certainly make it impossible for Mayor Eric Garcetti to reach his goal of alleviating rising rents caused by a major housing shortage in Los Angeles by allowing for the addition of 100,000 new homes by 2021.

“What this initiative would do is ban any future plans that allow for neighborhoods to evolve. This would lock the entire city amber as it is today,” Smith said.

That flies in the face of “AB 32, SB 375, every piece of state policy that says we need to densify our urban cores, create more walkability,” he said. 

Do we really need more parking?

Driving home the point that the initiative’s supporters believe the future of L.A., like the recent past, belongs to the cars is the fact that the initiative includes language that would actually increase on-site parking requirements.

The initiative says that “under no circumstances may the required on-site parking be reduced by more than one-third (including by remote off-site parking) from the number of spaces otherwise required to be provided by any other applicable provisions of the Los Angeles Municipal Code.”

Again, the lack of flexibility doesn’t take into account that going forward, we want to encourage people to get to their destination by means other than just driving. Suburban levels of parking drive up the cost of housing as well as incentivize more people to drive to their destination, adding vehicle traffic to our streets. This blanket provision is actually tremendously counterproductive for new buildings near high-quality transit, where studies have shown that the availability of parking has a significant impact on whether or not residents will take transit.

Whose city is this, anyway?

When ex-mayor Richard Riordan endorsed the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, he claimed that current Garcetti was like a member of the Tea Party and that he was only helping the rich get richer.

Putting aside the irony that in many places around the country, it is the Tea Party that is actively opposing sustainable urban growth, the rich are actually getting richer in Los Angeles and it has to do with zoning, but not in the way Riordan means.

Los Angeles is one of the most economically segregated cities in the country and it is directly related to how restrictive — not permissive — zoning is.

That point was made clear when Robin Hughes, president of the nonprofit Abode Communities, recently told The L.A. Times that her organization regularly asks for zoning changes or amendments to the city’s general plan, when it builds housing for low-income families and formerly homeless people. The initiative would make that practice impossible.

A recent study out of UCLA by Michael Lens and Paavo Monkkonen demonstrated that, in fact, the more zoning a city has, the more geographically segregated the wealthy and upper-middle class are from lower-income residents.

L.A. has been heading in this direction as a result of widespread downzoning in the 1980s and 1990s that saw L.A.’s planned potential population capacity shrink from about 10 million people to about 4 million people.

The result of ballot initiatives like Prop U, which severely restricted growth on L.A.’s commercial boulevards, is an increasing gulf between the rich and the poor in Los Angeles.

“This ballot measure is more of that,” said Monkonnen, referring to the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative.

“It punishes younger people and people who are new to the city,” Monkonnen said. By opposing change in the built environment, anti-growth activists are saying, “We don’t want different kinds of people living here.”

  • Bernard Finucane

    I think the solution to LA’s housing problem from a political point of view is to bypass the current homeowners by building housing on surface parking lots in commercial areas. There are vast areas available for building in the region.

    Rezoning commercial areas to mixed use and squeezing surface parking is the right way forward.

  • SZwartz

    You excel at saying nasty things about other people, but you fall short in addressing facts.

    No one said the pitfalls began with Garcetti, but Garcetti did take giant steps forward with the so-called Smart Planning. It is a fact that his Smart Planning destroyed his council district 13 between 2001 and 2010. All one has to do is look at the facts — something which you fail to do.

    Autos do not cause traffic congestion. Traffic congestion results from too many people attempting to go to the same place at the same time. It is a simple math problem. If DTLA did not have the Bunker Hill office towers, thousand fewer cars would be drawn to DTLA and that would reduce freeway congestion.

    The thousands of cars, which are attracted by Century City, Westwood, West LA office towers, and now Santa Monica, cause the traffic congestion on the 405 Freeway. If these extremely dense areas of high rise office buildings did not exist just south of the Sepulveda Pass, the 405 Freeway would not be a traffic nightmare.

    For over 100 years, we have known that building high rises in the Basin would cause horrible traffic congestion as those buildings would attract tens of thousands of cars from the Valleys. In 1915, the City’s own civil engineers warned that locating these extremely dense business buildings would serve one purpose — i.e. to make the landowners very wealthy while harming everyone else (page 38). As the civil engineers predicted, that is exactly what the TODs have done.

    In the early 1900’s, we already knew the mathematical solution to Los Angeles projected traffic congestion: De-centralization. The proper location for denser office districts was on the periphery — not in the Basin. Pasadena, Glendale, Pomona, etc were to become the focal points for “development.” Each city was far enough away from the other, that they could provide sufficient employment opportunities without creating horrible rush hour conditions. It was also necessary to have all the support services and infrastructure to sustain communities. That is why the plan was to have satellite cities widely separated so that we would not create bedroom communities. But, the “downtown” real estate interests wanted bedroom communities and they did not want any significant competition form the satellite cities.

    When the traffic flow between Glendale and Pasadena, for example, is evenly balanced, one does not have the heavy morning rush hour going “inbound” with an equally heavy afternoon rush hour going “outbound.”

    The purpose of satellite cities was to balance out the commuting so that people would be going many different directions so that no one area would become a traffic nightmare.

    Real estate developers, however, love rush hour conditions because that means tens of thousands of people are being attracted to their small plots of land. A 25 story office building on Bunker Hill is worth more per square inch than a 5 story building in Pomona.

    Also, after WW II until 2012, Los Angeles had its corrupt Community Redevelopment Agency [CRA] where the projects did not have to pay incremental property taxes. [That is one reason the City of LA was perpetually on the brink of BK until 2012 when the State abolished the CRA and its multi-billion dollar drain on city revenues.] In addition, the city would provide extra tax incentives for developers to locate buildings in congested places, like the $17.4 Million Garcetti have to CIM Group for the Sunset-Gordon project.

    The car is not the problem. The corruption, which caused us to construct Bunker Hill, Century City, Westwood, and other mega-dense spots like is occurring in Hollywood, is the problem. In the 1970’s some of the crooks went to prison, and LA certainly needs to have law enforcement step up and do its job to stop the corruption at LA City Hall.

  • SZwartz

    There is no housing shortage. The city’s population is increasing only by 7/100 of 1% per year and that increase comes from the birth rate. Infants do not buy new homes or rent their own apartments.

    In fact, the city is seeing a net LOSS of emigration over immigration which means the demand for housing in falling, not increasing.

    Housing prices are rising for the same reason single family prices rose in 2005 — Back then it was the Subprime Mortgage scam which distorted the housing market to make it look as if there was a huge demand for new homes, when in reality, there was no demand. The result was the Crash of 2008.

    The same scam is being run today, except this time is is with Residential Rental Income. People are selling the right to receive 10, 20, 30 years of the rental income from homes, condos and apartments to Wall Street which bundles them into securities and sells the securities to unwitting investors. Thus, the value of a house, condo or apartment to one of these local scam artists is far more than its value as Living Space. Only the scam artists can turn around and sell the future rents for more than they paid for the property.

    Just as Wall Street never checked to see whether the mortgages were being paid or even whether people were living in the homes back in 2005, Wall Street never checks to see whether the alleged rents are real or bogus. The current evidence is that a large percentage of these alleged rents are bogus. The sellers assert that apartments are renting for $5,000 per month, when they are collecting only $3,000 per month. In some cases, there is no tenant – there is only a phony lease.

    In order to get in on this scam before it crashes, Garcetti and the developers have been demolishing rent controlled units in order to construct new “affordable housing.” That way they can inflate the amount of rent when they sell the future rents to Wall Street. Garcetti has been demolishing rent controlled units for years and replacing them with what he calls “affordable units,” except the new units are substantially more expensive than the ones he demolished.

    http://bit.ly/XjXmGk Thursday, January 3, 2013, LA Weekly, Hollywood’s Urban Cleansing, 12,878 mostly Latinos are pushed out by City Hall

  • Dennis_Hindman

    Your using Census population figures for the city of Los Angeles from 2010 when we were in the midst of the biggest recession since the Great Depression. The population of the city of LA grew by 97,801 from 2000 to 2010. From 2010 to 2014 the population grew by 136,243 according to Census estimates. That’s a 3.5% growth in four years. If that growth rate is continued over the next 20 years there would be an increase in population of 681,000 in the next 20 years. The city of LA estimates an increase in population of 500,000 over the next 20 years. Which is in line with the rate of increase over the last four years.

    There was a huge demand for houses when the Subprime Mortgages were being given to people who didn’t have the income to make the payments. That increased the an

    Building less housing than people demand drives high housing costs. If the demand for housing was falling then the prices for housing would decline.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    Portland Oregon’s road system is in worse average condition than the city of Los Angeles.

    The average condition of streets is measured from 0 to 100, with 100 being perfect. The city of Los Angeles has an average score for its roads of 62. The average for the state of California is 66. San Francisco is 67.

    Former head of the U.S. Transportation Dept, Ray LaHood, described the condition of roads in the U.S. about two years ago as one big pothole. The reason that the roads are in such bad condition is from decades of neglect from inadequate funding of maintenance. If cities are not spending enough to properly maintain their roads, then its likely that the sidewalks are also not getting adequate maintenance.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    Your mentioning selective facts that support your agenda. You state that the population of council district 13 fell from 2001 to 2010. What you fail to mention is that in 2010 the U.S. was in the midst of the biggest recession since the Great Depression.

    The Los Angeles metropolitan area has the second least amount of lanes per population in the country. Honolulu has the least amount. Not surprisingly Honolulu and Los Angeles are usually ranked towards the top in most traffic congested regions in the U.S.

    What large city in the world doesn’t have traffic congestion? Does the traffic congestion in London, New York and Paris make these cities less attractive to visit compared to say Boise Idaho?

  • Alex Brideau III

    “People do not use subways, light rail or even buses when they have an alternative.” Let me stop you right there. My household has the ability to obtain a vehicle, but we don’t need to, so we don’t. *You* may not choose to use public transportation if you have a car as an alternative, but you certainly don’t speak for all Angelenos.

  • pdan

    “Autos do not cause traffic congestion.”

    This is an astonishing fact! If you took away automobiles, there would still be traffic congestion?

    We should probably stop regulating pollutants – they likely do not cause pollution!

  • pdan

    “People do not use subways, light rail or even buses when they have an alternative.”

    I’m a well-off homeowner in Hollywood with a very nice car. I take the subway whenever I can. It’s so much faster and more convenient, especially heading to downtown.

    The last thing LA needs is any new development that continues to rely on a car-centric model of living.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Interesting. So it’s time to start shorting the housing market again?

    Be that as it may, I still think LA does have a shortage of housing close to places where people need to be, like jobs, stores and leisure opportunity. That’s why Angelenos spend their lives driving around in circles.

  • SZwartz

    Hollywood’s population declined between 1990 and 2000 from 213,883 ppl to about 210,794 pp and then from 2000 to 2010 Hollywood’s population fell to only 198,228 ppl. The decrease between 1990 and 2000 was 3,089 but between 2000 and 2010 the rate of decline had accelerated by 400% so that we lost 12,566 people in that decade and all the loss came from Garcetti’s CD 13 and a couple census tracts contiguous to CD 13.

    No other council district in the history of the city has ever had such a devastating loss within one decade.

    The 97,801 population increase for the entire city was the smallest increase that Los Angeles had seen in over 100 years. One has to be go back to the decade of 1890 to 1900 to find a time when the population increase was smaller. In that decade, LA grew by 52,084 people, but that represented more than a doubling of the population.

    The current data shows that the city’s rate of increase is slowing and is now down to 7/100 of 1%. If this trend holds, the City will be loosing population by the year 2020.

    You do not understand the Subprime Mortgage scam nor do you understand the current securitization of residential income. It has been explained.
    http://wapo.st/1YVT5U3 November 8, 2013, The Washington Post, Wall Street Figured out How to Securitize Your Rent. Should You Worry? Lydia dePhillis

  • SZwartz

    People drive around because there are not enough parking spaces. It is almost a tautology.

    Density and modes of transportation are functions of geography. High density with subways work in narrow rectangular places like Manhattan or for smaller circular cities.

    High density cannot mathematically function in a large circular urban area. Traditionally, a 5 mile radius maxes out what subways can handle, but the LA urban area greatly exceeds the 5 mile radius. Walking is not viable beyond a short distance, but almost all places in LA are within walking distance of supermarkets, drug stores, shops, etc. Other factors like crime and red-lining do interfere with proper location of stores. Geography has nothing to do with the lack of supermarkets in South Central.

    Studies have established that subways and light rail transit do not alleviate poverty as they seldom go near where the jobs exist. Giving poor people cars, however, does reduce poverty as cars have the flexibility to go directly from a person’s home to his work place.

    Also distance is measured in time. During morning rush hour, it is a much shorter distance from DTLA to Van Nuys than it is from Van Nuys to DTLA. If we had substantially fewer people trying to get to the office towers on Bunker Hill, Van Nuys would be several minutes closer to DTLA. Also, the problem is excessive density.

  • SZwartz

    I will look at the initiative again. I cannot find the text, but here is what CurbedLA summarized:

    (1) Direct officials to halt amendment of the City’s General Plan in small bits and pieces for individual real estate developer projects, and

    (2) Require the City Planning Commission to systematically review and update the City’s community plans and make all zoning code provisions and projects consistent with the City’s General Plan, and

    (3) Place City employees directly in charge of preparation of environmental review of major development projects, and

    (4) For a limited time, impose a construction moratorium for projects approved by the City that increased some types of density until officials can complete review and update of community plans or 24 months, whichever occurs first.

    As reported by CurbedLA, the initiative does not stop amendments to the General Plan, but it stops project by project amendments to the General Plan. The latter practice, which is #1 on CurbedLA’s list, is like amending the penal code to say, “It is OK to rob the 7-11 at Hollywood and Vine.”

    The General Plan has been called the constitution for the City’s planning and it cannot be amended each and every time a developer wants to construct something which the General Plan forbids. If CurbedLA has incorrectly summarized the Initiative, please publish a link to the actual language.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    “High density cannot mathematically function in a large circular urban area. Traditionally, a 5 mile radius maxes out what subways can handle, but the LA urban area greatly exceeds the 5 mile radius.”

    Commuter rail is not limited to only using subways in a high density city.

    The city of Los Angeles is 468 square miles and has a population of 3.9 million. Which is considerably smaller than Tokyo at 845 square miles and a population of 13.3 million. The Tokyo area has 158 commuter rail lines, 2,210 stations and 2,923 miles of track. There are .61 stations per 1.6 square mile of developed area. 40 million passengers use the system daily. Subway use is 22% of that total.

    Distance and time are not the same. Its not a shorter distance from DTLA to Van Nuys during morning rush hours than it is from Van Nuys to DTLA using the same exact route. Its still the same distance.

    The west side has some of the worst traffic congestion in the LA area. Yet the average commute times from annual Census Bureau American Community Survey results of responses from residents from about half a mile west of Vine to the beach are lower than just about anywhere else in the city of Los Angeles. The San Fernando Valley has much less traffic congestion and yet these residents have much longer commute times than the west side. The obvious reason for that is that the average west side resident lives closer to their jobs than do residents of the San Fernando Valley. This is using a comparison of areas in the San Fernando Valley that have the same rate of driving compared to the west side. Higher density shortens the distance from home to work.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    Your again using Census data that fits within your agenda and ignoring more recent Census data which contradicts what you claim. The population of the city of Los Angeles did increase by 97,801 from 2000 to 2010. The year 2010 was the height of the greatest recession in the U.S. since the Great Depression. That certainly could be a major factor for the smaller increase in population.

    From 2010 to 2014 the population in the city of Los Angeles grew by 136,243 according to estimates by the Census Bureau. It took four years to obtain that increase compared to ten years to grow by 97,801 from 2000 to 2010. Again, that’s a four year growth from 2010 to 2014 of 3.5%. There are six more years of Census population data to complete this decade and to increase the population growth even more compared to 2000 to 2010.

    The estimated population of the city of Los Angeles in 2013 was 3,884,307 according to the Census Bureau. It grew to an estimated 3,928,864 in 2014. That’s a 1.1% increase in one year, which is 16 times greater than the 7/100th of 1% number that you use. There is no indication from Census Bureau estimates that the city of Los Angeles will be loosing population by 2020 as you claim.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Honestly, your experience with different kinds of cities seems limited.

    Nobody needs a supermarket to buy fresh vegetables, and nobody needs to drive to buy groceries. I buy about half of mine from street vendors.

    Americans mostly drive around the “Great Triangle” connecting their suburb, their shopping mall and their industrial park. This is thanks to stupid zoning laws.

    My neighbor two houses down walks to work. His office is in the same building where he does most of his grocery shopping.

    I lived upstairs from a supermarket and a parking garage when I lived in the place pictured.

    http://www.stadt-ratingen.de/bilder/stadtansichten/rainer_bendt/Arkadenhof.jpg

    There was no subway.

  • Matt

    Why are rents increasing rapidly year after year if there is no housing demand or population growth? Also, you are not considering the demographic changes. Millennialist no longer live at home with their parents and are forming their own households. Also, families continue to leave LA for the suburbs to go to better schools.

  • SZwartz

    The answers to these questions are widely known.

    (1) We know for fact that LA’s population growth is very slow and is becoming slower. It is down to 7/100 of 1% per year.

    (2) We know that the very small population increase comes from more births than deaths. To a great extent that way of reporting the data is misleading. People are living longer and thus even with a constant level of birth, fewer deaths means the population grows slightly.

    (3) Neither infants nor old people who do not die so soon are creating a demand for housing.

    (4) We have emigration greater than immigration. Immigration creates a demand for more housing, while emigration makes more homes available.

    (5) The demand for homes comes from the securitization of residential income and makes houses worth more to Wall Street than the value as Living Space. Thus, speculators buy the houses, apartments an condos at above market price because they know that they can get back their purchase price plus a nice profit as soon as the sell the future rents. [This is the same as the SubPrime Scam with mortgages which crashed the economy in 2008.)

    (6) A lot of the reported rents are fraudulently inflated. Wall Street never checks the leases to see what the rents are and they certainly never check to see if the amount in the lease is the amount collected. Thus, landlord may report $5,000 per month, but be collecting $3,000.00. While we know there is massive fraud in the system, we do not know how much.

    That is why we have increasing housing “costs” without any increase in actual demand. The people who want a home still have to outbid the Wall Street speculators so this economic crime does harm the average person.

    If you want to see how government transfers wealth from the 99% to the 1%, just watch LA City Hall in operation.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    “(1) We know for fact that LA’s population growth is very slow and is becoming slower. It is down to 7/100 of 1% per year.”

    Then you disagree with the Census Bureau estimates of population growth of 3.6% from April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2014 for the city of Los Angeles. That the estimated population was 3,792,657 on April 1, 2010 and for 2014 it was 3,928,864. For that period of time the average growth per year is 9/10 of 1%. That’s 12.8 times greater than your statement of 7/100 of 1%.

    http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/06/0644000.html

    If more people are living in the city of Los Angeles and there is not enough housing units created to meet that rising demand, then the average price of each housing unit will rise. That’s simple economics which you are ignoring.

  • SZwartz

    You are looking at old data. The State department of Finance just released data for the city and in the last year the rate of growth dropped to 7/100 of 1%. Then SCAG agreed. This is 2016; not 2010 -2011.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    The California Department of Finance lists the population of the city of Los Angeles for 1/2014 as 3,914,359 and 1/2015 as 3,957,022. That’s an increase of 1.1%. This data was released May 1st of 2015. The next results for 1/2016 should be also be released in May of 2016. We are currently in the month of January 2016, not May.

    http://www.dof.ca.gov/research/demographic/reports/estimates/e-1/view.php

    You seem to be imagining data that doesn’t exist yet.

  • Matt

    So your explanation as to why there are rising rents is that it isn’t true and fradulently reported… LOL. Time to take your meds if that is your vision of reality.

  • MHoskinson

    “an increasing demand for walkable, bikeable streets”….that’s total BS, nobody wants walking and biking over automobile transport….especially in LA where it’s so spread out. This is pure propaganda for the Sustainable Development shills.

  • Josue Guerrero

    speak for yourself..im trying to reduce my carbon foot print. and stop using my anti-social “one person” mover. why is New York and Chicago, Japan..so advanced ?? metro system. we cannot live in cars “crawling” 6 hours a day.

  • Michael hoskinson

    And that’s good that you’re making that personal choice, but don’t force it on the rest of the public that doesn’t want it, especially based on global warming as reason for it.