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Sam Hall Kaplan

Citizens Want a Hand in Zoning

April 06, 1986|Sam Hall Kaplan

Being circulated this week are the first of the petitions for a proposed ballot initiative this fall to limit commercial development in select areas of Los Angeles.

Better late than never.

Better also that for a change the public will have an opportunity to redefine zoning--albeit for now through the ballot box--rather than fumbling city planners, finagling politicians and finessing developers and their lubricious lobbyists and lawyers.

And better too broad than too narrow: The initiative chops in half, from three times the buildable area to one and a half times allowed in the "Height District One" zoning designation of the city's municipal code.

While the designation sounds mild enough, developers have been able to manipulate it with the help of inventive architects to create such sore thumbs as the office buildings towering up to 21 stories in West Los Angeles and along Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley and the colorful, over-scaled and overwrought Westside Pavilion.

The district presently covers about 85% of commercial properties in the city, almost all bordering on single-family neighborhoods. Yet, it is obvious that the recent abuses of the district have been for the development of regional retail and office facilities, not for neighborhood services for which the designation was originally created.

By limiting development to neighborhood needs in the District One zones, perhaps the regional needs will be directed to, and better met in, the designated city centers.

To be sure, those centers, such as downtown, Los Angeles International Airport, Century City and Warner Center, need fine tuning. But before the fine tuning comes the overhaul, which is what the initiative sets in motion.

Of course, this is what the city's general plan outlines and what citizens working on community plans for decades have been urging. But despite the urgings, public lawsuits and the best intentions of the city's Planning Department, the zoning needed to give the plans teeth never has caught up with the reality of development.

The initiative will lend the city's sluggish zoning reforms a burst of needed speed. And certainly, it is a recognition by its principal sponsors, Councilmen Zev Yaroslavsky and Marvin Braude and city Planning Commission President Daniel Garcia, that residents of impacted neighborhoods are angry.

As development has nibbled away at their quality of life, casting shadows and spilling traffic into neighborhoods, residents have been growing more and more frustrated with the city's planning process, or what they prefer to call a lack of process that favors developers cum campaign contributors.

"The initiative should give residents a stronger voice," commented Braude. Some of Braude's colleagues on the council are not happy over the prospects of stronger citizens input, while a few neighborhood groups, particularly those in the fledgling coalition labeled Not Yet New York, want more of a voice.

Before the initiative for a commercial zoning rollback was announced, there was serious talk in the neighborhood trenches about a more radical initiative, something that would take the development approval process out of City Hall and put it in neighborhoods through the creation of local planning boards--with teeth and with staff.

Perhaps in time that will come, as it has in other cities. But for now, there is "the initiative for reasonable limits on commercial buildings and traffic growth," as the petitions are labled.

While it is a conscientious attempt to control and direct growth, the initiative can't but help raise the city's design consciousness and whet the appetites of communities to play more of a role in shaping their future.

Those wanting a petition to sign or circulate are asked to contact Citizens for a Livable Los Angeles, Suite 300, 11633 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles 90049, or phone (213) 820-6015.

The initiative and the talk of establishing local planning boards have resulted from the failure of the will of professional planning in Los Angeles, and, ironically, coincides with the conference here of the American Planning Assn. It opened Saturday and will run through Wednesday.

Hampered by the indiscretions and lack of leadership of city Planning Director Calvin Hamilton--who will be leaving shortly--public planning in Los Angeles is at its nadir.

It did flourish for a time and for a limited degree, however arbitrary, under Redevelopment Director Edward Helfeld. But he was recently and unceremoniously dropped for being, among others things, too opinionated. It is hard not to be when you care about the city.

And to be sure, there are planners within the city government who, like many planners elsewhere, are intelligent and well-meaning, sensitive to urban design issues, zoning incentives, public-private innovations, community concerns and the whole grab bag of the latest planning catch words, concepts and tools.

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