A hurried-along ordinance intended to shield more than 30 Los Angeles commercial areas and possibly hundreds of development projects from the restrictions of a slow-growth initiative on the November ballot was given preliminary approval Wednesday by the City Council.
The 9-4 vote came despite an opinion from the city attorney's office that the action would violate the law requiring adequate public hearings.
Supporters of the building limits initiative, including representatives of Westside and Valley homeowners groups, quickly dubbed the council's measure "the Loophole Law." They charged that it was an effort to thwart the wishes of the more than 100,000 residents who signed petitions to place the initiative on the ballot.
"This is a deliberate attempt to undermine and obfuscate the will of the people," said Barbara Blinderman, a spokesman for Not Yet New York, a coalition of community groups fighting to limit development.
But backers of the ordinance argued that it is compatible with the initiative and better balances demands to curb development while allowing growth where it is needed. Leading the push for the ordinance was Council President Pat Russell, supported by Mayor Tom Bradley, business and developer representatives, as well as some council members who have endorsed the initiative.
The building limits initiative, sponsored by council members Zev Yaroslavsky and Marvin Braude, would slash by 50% the allowable size of new buildings on about 85% of the city's commercial and industrial property. It would not apply to most residential projects or commercial development in areas reserved for intense development, such as downtown, Hollywood, and the Wilshire corridor.
The ballot measure was the outgrowth of increasing complaints by residential groups about mid- and high-rise office buildings intruding on their neighborhoods, as well as the added traffic congestion.
Like the initiative, the council ordinance roll backs commercial development in much of the city and also offers some added protections, such as height limits on buildings near residential areas.
But it also attempts to increase the areas and individual projects that would escape the initiative's limits. For one, it exempts all projects approved by the council since January, 1983, but not yet built, as well as projects with plans pending approval in the Planning Department. City officials say they do not know how many projects would be exempted by those provisions, although some city planners estimate it could be several hundred.
In addition, the council measure uses an unusual procedural device--relabeling properties with new zoning designations--to try to deflect the initiative's restrictions from a series of commercial centers, redevelopment projects and so-called "enterprise zones" where development is being encouraged in low-income areas.
It was that zone-changing procedure that the city attorney's office said could not be made without notifying surrounding property owners and holding public hearings. Supporters of the council ordinance said hearings were not required, and noted that the measure had to move ahead quickly to take effect before the November election. The ordinance is expected to receive final approval next week and become effective 30 days later.
How the council ordinance would interact with the initiative, should it be approved, is another legal controversy and one apparently that will be resolved in the courts. City attorney's office lawyers have said that where the initiative and the ordinance conflict, the initiative would prevail. And making exemptions of additional commercial areas would probably set up such conflicts, they have said.
Although attorneys with Latham & Watkins, a prominent law firm that represents many developers, and another private law firm presented the council Wednesday with opinions suggesting that the ordinance and the initiative are not in conflict, backers of the initiative disagreed.
Braude criticized his colleagues for confusing the intent of the initiative with a "series of exemptions and series of special privileges" for developers. "I was an author of the initiative and I'll tell you what our intent was--that there would be no exceptions," he said. "Is the (city attorney's office) going to become a subsidiary of Latham & Watkins?"
But Valley Councilwoman Joy Picus, who has been a supporter of the initiative, said, "I think we can have both" the initiative and the ordinance. And Councilman Dave Cunningham, who has sought to foster development in his Southwest Los Angeles district, said that without additional exemptions the initiative would "greatly impair" development in minority communities.
Russell has labeled the council measure the "Neighborhood Protection Ordinance," but one neighborhood leader from her district told the council it would be the "Neighborhood Destruction Ordinance" for the Westchester area by allowing too much development.
Some developers that could potentially be affected by the initiative--and would be exempted under the council ordinance--are major campaign contributors with large projects under way or pending. They include Cadillac Fairview, a huge firm that is developing a large industrial park near the junction of the San Diego and Harbor freeways, and Tooley & Co., which is developing the massive Howard Hughes Center office and hotel project near Sepulveda Boulevard and the San Diego Freeway.
Voting for the council ordinance were Russell, Picus, Cunningham, Michael Woo, Gilbert Lindsay, Robert Farrell, Hal Bernson, Richard Alatorre and Joan Milke Flores. Opposing the ordinance were Yaroslavsky, Braude, Ernani Bernardi and Joel Wachs.
Times researcher Tracy Thomas contributed to this article.