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A working downtown

Restrictive zoning is the best way to save the central city's industrial jobs, even if it allows for less housing.

February 22, 2007

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES is gentrifying rapidly, the Downtown Center Business Improvement District reported this week. Loft conversions and the promise of new cultural and shopping venues such as the Grand Avenue project have helped boost the area's population 20.8% over the last two years to 28,878. Median income in the area is up too, to $99,600. Ralphs is moving in. Smokestacks are coming down. It's all great news, right?

Not entirely. As ugly, noisy and smelly as manufacturing plants and warehouses can be, healthy cities still need them. Even Los Angeles.

The Planning Department and the Community Redevelopment Agency have spent the last year studying industrial land use in the city, and whether more care should be taken in determining which industrial properties can be converted to residential and retail uses. Their preliminary answer is "yes" -- especially when it comes to development downtown.

Industrial zones, which make up about 8% of the city's land, are a huge boon to its economy, providing 13% of total tax revenue and 29% of employment. About one-sixth of L.A.'s industrial land is located in the greater downtown area, within the borders of the 101 and 110 freeways to the north and west and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Boyle Heights to the south and east. The Planning Department estimates that the 2,817 industrially zoned acres there support 8,745 businesses and 64,000 jobs. On average, manufacturing jobs pay more than twice as much as retail jobs ($40,648 versus $19,910).

Manufacturers that would like to expand say usable parcels are hard to come by when they're hemmed in by residences and shops. The vacancy rate for industrial properties downtown is less than 2%. More than one-quarter of the industrial-zoned land downtown has already been put to other uses, including schools and big-box retail. If many more exemptions are given, planners argue, factories in the area might have to move out of the city, taking tax revenue, economic diversity and good-paying jobs with them.

The draft proposal, which recommends that 83% of downtown's industrial land stay that way, is scheduled to reach the Planning Commission next month and the City Council later this year. Council members Jose Huizar and Jan Perry, whose downtown districts include large swaths of industrial turf, have already registered unease with the recommendations. Huizar has said that the plan's borders are arbitrary and that the market should be allowed to "push forward toward residential."

It's true that keeping some land industrial would make it harder to build badly needed homes. But people who live here still need jobs. Allowing factories and warehouses some room to breathe is a sensible use of restrictive zoning.

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