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Plenty of room

Selling `air rights' over the Convention Center is a good way to help downtown grow.

March 19, 2007

ONE OF THE MORE common knocks on Los Angeles among academics and urban planners is that many of the city's most serious problems -- traffic, smog and seemingly endless stretches of mini-malls -- were produced by a laissez-faire City Hall that allowed development to run from ocean to mountains. And yet, when the city finally takes strong action to fight sprawl, there's still no joy in academia.

Two weeks ago, the City Council approved the sale of 9 million square feet of "air rights" over the Convention Center. Because the low-rise building sits in an area zoned for high-rises, all that square footage represents potentially developable space that isn't being used; developers can now buy rights to build taller projects in the downtown area than otherwise would be allowed. The sale is expected to generate about $200 million to be used for beneficial downtown projects such as parks, affordable housing and infrastructure.

It didn't take long for critics to start howling. Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, chairwoman of UCLA's Urban Planning Department, decried the lack of studies performed on the effects new skyscrapers might have on traffic, sewers and the like. "There's no vision or larger plan about where to put the high-density corridors," she told The Times. Valley Industry and Commerce Assn. Chairman Robert Scott cautioned that downtown Los Angeles lacks the infrastructure to accommodate all the new residents.

Nonsense. Any new projects, such as high-rise condos or office towers, will have to go through the normal (meaning arduous) process for city approval, including environmental studies that examine things like the effect on traffic. The sewer system downtown is being upgraded, and developers will still be required to add appropriate hookups. Yes, adding an estimated 15,000 residents (the amount 9 million square feet could accommodate) would worsen downtown traffic, but there is no neighborhood in the city better designed to deal with it. L.A.'s public-transit hub, Union Station, is downtown, as are subway and light-rail stations, bus lines and access to several freeways.

The City Council wants to encourage an urban planner's dream: infill growth in an already dense center. This reduces traffic and pollution overall because it puts residents closer to where they work. The sale of air rights over the Central Library in the late 1980s brought in money to renovate the facility while allowing construction of the Library Tower (now the U.S. Bank building), which has enhanced rather than harmed the downtown community. The 21st century boom in downtown residential construction was fueled in part by another liberalization of the market: the adaptive reuse ordinance, giving developers the ability to convert former office buildings into apartments.

A city understandably reluctant to bulldoze virgin land and anxious about a housing shortage should be looking for every sensible opportunity to allow builders to meet demand in neighborhoods designed to withstand density. Even if the planners aren't satisfied.

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