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No-Growth Initiative Opponents, Proponents Square-off at Westside Urban Forum

The no-growth ballot initiative backers are skipping this November's election and planning for March 2017.

The so-called Coalition to Preserve L.A. announced earlier this week that they will push their no-growth ballot initiative back to L.A.’s March 2017 municipal election.

Supporters of the initiative, backed by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, claimed they wanted to move the initiative because they feared it would get buried on the November ballot; without any high-profile races during the March municipal election, it is likely that many fewer voters will turn out, as has been the case historically. You can read Curbed's take here and Better Institution's analysis here.

Backers of the initiative have also submitted a revised -- and much shorter -- version of the initiative [PDF], which was the topic of conversation Friday at the Westside Urban Forum panel.

“There would be up to 20 initiatives on the ballot in November and we wanted to make sure this one would get a lot of attention,” Dick Platkin, adjunct instructor at the USC Price School of Public Policy and former city planner, told the room Friday. Platkin, who is a supporter of the initiative, said its backers “wanted to take the feedback they have gotten in the last few months and condense it to make it more accessible.”

The new initiative is dramatically shorter -- now eight pages down from the original 23 -- and it no longer contains language that would have explicitly prevented future changes to community plans to allow for growth. The original version had begun to rack up a list of opponents, including environmentalists and affordable housing developers, but it is unclear if the new version will be able to win any of the original opponents over.

The initiative would still ban the practice of using zone changes or General Plan amendments to allow greater height or density for individual projects, even near major transit hubs, though it makes some exemptions, including for 100 percent affordable housing.

That’s a major problem given the dire housing shortage the city is facing, said Occidental College Policy Director for the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute Mark Valliantos, also a panelist at the Westside Urban Forum Friday. 

By his calculations, from 2013 to 2015, General Plan amendments and project-specific zoning changes resulted in the production of more than 10,000 new homes in the city even though the number of zoning amendments were relatively few.

“I’m looking at this initiative as taking a tragic situation and making it worse,” said Valliantos.

Platkin shot back that the growth was of luxury housing and that such housing growth was not to the benefit of lower-income residents.

However, a recent study by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), demonstrated quite the opposite. The report, which was released last month, showed that, in fact, in cities where new housing was getting built at faster rates, displacement is lower than in slow- or anti-growth cities.

Former L.A. Planning Director Alan Bell, who was also on the panel, called the current housing crisis a “self-inflicted wound” caused by “decades of downzoning” and restrictive policies that have squeezed the housing market as demand to live in L.A. has grown. Last March, the LAO released a report outlining the same point: coastal California cities have underbuilt themselves into an affordability crisis.

Bell noted that the way the initiative is written, it would put up barriers to redeveloping parking lots and old commercial buildings along the boulevards, pushing development pressures into existing neighborhoods and potentially causing even more displacement.

For the last 40 or 50 years, Bell said, the population of Los Angeles has been going up.

“We’re not annexing new land,” he said. “The only way to accommodate growth is through densification.”

Bell also called the initiative's requirement that the city update its General Plan within 24 months "laughable" and "wildly unrealistic" given the sheer amount of work it would take and the lack of funding currently available.

"There is no funding that is provided for or called for within the initiative itself," Bell said, saying the provision was little more than an empty gesture.

The question of transit-oriented growth was also raised, with Platkin implying that building housing near transit was not working as a way to encourage more people to leave their cars at home. Platkin called for more holistic planning of transit-oriented districts, with bike lanes, walkable streets, and other infrastructure that would encourage people to get out of their cars. He noted that the initiative would do nothing to stop that kind of planning.

However, he did neglect to mention that the revised initiative still requires new projects to be way over-parked. The initiative reads, “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.”

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.

All three panelists agreed on the need for planning and overall consistency, though Bell did say that the current system does require that all projects, even those which receive General Plan amendments and zoning changes, must be consistent with the stated goals of the General Plan.

With now about a year left before the initiative goes to the ballot, it is likely there will be plenty -- and spirited -- discussion about what it would mean for the future of Los Angeles. Friday’s panel was just a sneak preview of more to come.

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