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Air power

The City Council's plan to sell `air rights' downtown makes sense with or without the mayor's support.

March 22, 2007

IN HIS NEARLY two years as mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa has exercised his veto power exactly twice. The second time, on Monday, was to overturn a development proposal for downtown that the mayor himself has endorsed. So why would Villaraigosa, who favors "elegant density" and a more populous downtown, veto a plan that would accomplish his goals?

The answer isn't clear, but this much is: The mayor's stated reasons make little sense, and the dispute appears to be a case of petty politics.

On March 7, the City Council approved the sale of 9 million square feet of "air rights" over the Los Angeles Convention Center. This represents the vertical space the three-story center could have occupied if it were built as high as the city zoning for its area allowed. Under the ordinance, chunks of this "unused" space would be sold to developers, who could then use them to build higher at other downtown addresses than would normally be allowed under current zoning. The problem, as Villaraigosa sees it, is that the transfer of these rights would be subject to approval by only the City Council, with no input from the mayor.

Such a process, the mayor said in his veto message, violates "the spirit, if not the letter," of the City Charter, because most actions of the council (though seldom real estate projects) are subject to approval by the mayor.

On legal grounds, Villaraigosa's concern seems implausible: The city attorney has ruled that the council's move doesn't violate the City Charter. The mayor also needn't worry about losing control over downtown's future skyline because projects would still have to go through the Planning Commission or the Community Redevelopment Agency, and he appoints the members of both bodies, subject to approval by the council.

It may all be about money. In Los Angeles, like most big cities, real estate developers are a prime source of campaign cash. Few other businesses are so directly beholden to city officials, who can make, break or reshape a project with a zoning change or environmental objection.

The latest battle could simply be a contest over whose pockets will be lined with money from downtown builders: the mayor's or council members'. It's also possible that the mayor simply doesn't want to give so much power to reshape downtown to Councilwoman Jan Perry, a sometime adversary who as downtown representative would play a large role in the air-rights transfer.

What rankles here is that this dispute threatens to delay or possibly scuttle an important initiative for the future of Los Angeles. Adding density downtown would benefit the city overall because it would concentrate residents close to where they work.

As late as last week, Villaraigosa was enthusiastic about the air-rights sale. "What we want is responsible growth," he said in defending the plan from critics. He can still get it. The council approved the original ordinance by unanimous vote. So if it decides to override his ill-conceived veto, success is all but assured.

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