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Park Fee Policy May Alter Mayor's Visions for L.A.

Villaraigosa may be forced to choose between adding green space downtown and keeping the area's revitalization on track.

April 11, 2006|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has vowed to turn Los Angeles into the greenest city in the nation, promising a wave of public investment to create new parks for a graying metropolis.

At the same time, he has championed a more vibrant downtown, one transformed into an around-the-clock mecca of cultural and residential life.

But the mayor may be forced to choose between these visions, both hallmarks of his plan for the city. The pressure stems from a little-known City Hall policy that helps lure developers to downtown by slashing the fees they are required to pay for new parks.

The discount -- offered to builders who convert old, vacant structures into so-called live-work condominiums -- has been credited with helping spur downtown's recent revitalization. But it also has robbed municipal coffers of millions of dollars for parks and recreation facilities in an area short on both.

Officials in the city Recreation and Parks and Planning departments are reassessing the policy, asking whether it's time to hike the fee in light of downtown's real estate boom. The matter is likely to land on the mayor's desk.

Villaraigosa, hesitant to do anything that would impede downtown's rejuvenation but also reluctant to side with developers over environmental advocates, acknowledges the dilemma. So far, he has yet to tip his hand.

"You can't rush to judgment," he said in an interview last week. "You have to reevaluate on a regular basis to ensure that you are using the best strategies to promote a high quality of life in downtown and other communities."

The policy on park fees, which went into effect seven years ago, was part of a broader effort to revive downtown by rethinking the use of vacant office buildings, many of them historic landmarks.

The idea was to attract a new generation of graphic artists, video techies and other adventurous spirits who would live and work in residential lofts dotted with marble lobbies and oversized windows -- a strategy that had succeeded in New York, San Francisco and Denver.

In 1999, Los Angeles officials modified building and zoning regulations, allowing the conversion of commercial buildings into residential units while relaxing parking and yard rules required of traditional construction projects.

A new zoning definition was created for these "joint living and work quarters," designating one-third of their space as residential and two-thirds as commercial.

City planners reduced the park fees that apply to the residential portion of the live-work projects. Developers would pay one-third of the normal charge, reflecting the residential portion of the space. This year, developers paid $1,641, rather than nearly $5,000, per unit.

Since the new rules and lower fees were adopted, 10,000 live-work units have been completed downtown or are in the pipeline.

City officials said they did not know how much money they had passed up, adding that it is difficult to keep precise track of all live-work condos. But they estimated that the lower fees had been paid on about one-third of roughly 3,000 finished units.

The explosive growth downtown has taxed the limited reserve of parkland and open space available for the area's new residents.

Without an infusion of money, parks officials say, the situation is not expected to change anytime soon.

"We are park-poor downtown and it's only going to get worse," said Jon Kirk Mukri, general manager of the Recreation and Parks Department. "With the amount of development and as dense as we are getting downtown, that policy has to be reevaluated."

Developers and business leaders say an increase in the park fees could slow the area's growth by raising not just the cost but also the level of financial risk -- a point underscored by the recent softening of the housing market throughout Southern California.

Builders call downtown a fragile experiment that could easily be spoiled by even modest adjustments in city policies, property values or other factors.

"All it takes is a small change in the climate and this balloon is going to be deflated in no time," said Yuval Bar-Zemer, a partner in Linear City, which developed the Toy Factory Lofts in the downtown arts district. "It will make people more reluctant to do these kinds of projects."

The head of a group that represents downtown businesses was even more blunt.

Carol Schatz, executive director of the Central City Assn., called city officials shortsighted for even considering the policy shift. She said higher park fees might be appropriate in five to 10 years, after downtown has established itself as a stable and viable residential community.

"This city for the first time in its history is building housing where housing needs to be, at its core," Schatz said. "We don't need government to assist in causing that market to cool even further."

Villaraigosa argues that downtown growth and more parks are not incompatible -- that is, if the city employs smart planning.

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