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Downtown growth effects up in the air

Some planning experts are concerned that L.A. didn't study the possible effects of a decision that allows developers to buy rights to build higher.

March 16, 2007|Sharon Bernstein | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles City Council decided to sell developers up to 9 million square feet of extra floor space for downtown condominiums and apartments without first analyzing how the extra growth would affect traffic, sewers and other public services.

Developers who purchase the "air rights" for unused space above the Convention Center and transfer them to their own projects could build structures significantly taller than current zoning codes allow. But city officials said they did not study where the extra-tall buildings would be located or even how many people they would bring downtown.

City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents downtown, said she doesn't think such planning is needed, because the downtown general plan already accounts for the density.

But several top outside planners expressed concern that L.A. would allow so much additional development -- roughly the equivalent of Century City -- without assessing the effects.

"There's no vision or larger plan about where to put high-density corridors, or what is going to be the impact of this density on traffic," said Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, chairwoman of UCLA's urban planning department.

Steven P. Erie, director of the Urban Studies Program at UC San Diego, said the city's projections for sewer, transportation, public safety and other needs would have to change to accommodate the crush of people in a small area that would result from the construction of very high condominium or apartment towers.

Using a rule of thumb of 1,200 square feet per apartment, the 9 million square feet of allowable air transfer rights could result in about 7,500 units. That means 15,000 people could be concentrated in a few buildings.

Using the city's guidelines for assessing sewer needs, the addition of 15,000 residents would require enough capacity to move 1.35 million more gallons of water and waste each day.

City officials hope to raise $200 million by selling the unused rights above the Convention Center, which is zoned for high-rise construction but is only a few stories tall.

Los Angeles Planning Director Gail Goldberg said she was confident that the needs of a denser downtown were already considered in the area's general plan and that any extra building won't cause major problems.

Part of the reason to sell the air rights in the first place is to raise funds that would be used to make downtown more appealing as a place to live, she said.

"Part of this whole transfer of development rights is to generate money that can be reinvested into the downtown to make it a better living environment," Goldberg said.

Although the city did not analyze the effect of the air rights sale as a whole, each project would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Any unanticipated results, such as increased congestion, would be addressed at that time.

Goldberg said she did not expect a big increase in infrastructure needs for downtown, in part because she is skeptical that much of the available 9 million square feet in possible air rights would be sold any time soon.

At most, Goldberg said, downtown will see "a few buildings" come on line as a result of the plan in the next five years.

If the resulting construction is more dense than anticipated, or if the new neighborhoods need more services, she said, the city would reevaluate its plan.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa agreed, saying L.A. is simply managing its air rights in much the same way New York and other cities have for years.

"So I'm not as concerned. Obviously, there will have to be some traffic mitigations as well. But folks, we're growing already. We could close our eyes, put our head in the sand and say, 'Oh, we're going to stop growth,' " the mayor said in an interview. "What we want is responsible growth."

Backers note that downtown has L.A.'s best network of rail and bus services, though surveys have found that relatively few downtown residents rely on mass transit.

Unlike previous air rights deals, in which the transfer was made from one building in an already dense area to another very close by, the city's plan would allow developers throughout the central business district and the city center redevelopment project area to build higher than current limits allow as long as they purchase the rights and win approval from the city.

In the parts of downtown earmarked for residential construction, the general plan uses a formula that generally keeps some buildings not more than about three to six stories high and most others to be about six to 10 stories. That means already congested areas could become even more crowded as land earmarked for low-slung buildings is used for skyscrapers, said Nick Patsaouras, a transportation and infrastructure expert who is on the board of the Department of Water and Power.

"They can put them right where there is already congestion," Patsaouras said.

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