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E-mail reignites debate over L.A. zoning

Planning Commission president says a new dense-development ordinance is 'ripe for immediate litigation.'

March 11, 2008|David Zahniser | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's top appointee on the city Planning Commission sent an e-mail to neighborhood activists asserting that a new city ordinance that allows housing developers to roll back zoning rules may violate state law.

Planning Commission President Jane Ellison Usher, who once served as Mayor Tom Bradley's in-house attorney, criticized a recently passed ordinance that makes it easier for developers who propose even a few affordable units to build projects that are larger and have fewer parking spaces than zoning normally allows.

The e-mail, sent Sunday, instantly reignited the debate over the city's campaign to add taller, denser buildings across the city. One neighborhood group has forwarded Usher's e-mail to its attorney.

"If it looks like there is a legal opportunity to have the city revisit this [law], we will look to join with others who have similar feelings," said Barbara Broide, president of the Westwood South of Santa Monica Boulevard Homeowners Assn.

The Los Angeles City Council approved the housing law last month, giving developers the ability to exceed height limits and provide smaller amounts of open space than the rules allow when as little as 5% of their residential projects are deemed affordable.

Councilwoman Jan Perry, who voted for the housing law, said recipients of the e-mail could conclude that Usher is inviting them to sue -- and representing the mayor while doing so.

"When you sign off with the words, 'President, Los Angeles City Planning Commission,' it implies that you might be acting on behalf of the city," she said.

Usher said Monday that she wrote the e-mail on behalf of herself, not the commission. The mayoral appointee said she sent it after learning about changes to the law at a Feb. 28 commission meeting -- a session held on the same day Villaraigosa signed the ordinance into law.

Villaraigosa's office shrugged off questions about the e-mail, saying the new law will lead to more affordable housing.

"With nine people sitting on the planning commission, you're bound to get a variety of viewpoints," said mayoral spokeswoman Janelle Erickson in a written statement.

Usher has repeatedly criticized the new housing ordinance, saying it violates the state's environmental laws and breaks faith with neighborhood groups that try to craft zoning rules for their communities.

She contended Monday that the public was not properly informed that the law will strip the planning department of its power to review requests for certain "density bonuses" -- incentives that allow developers to build up to 35% more residential units than the zoning allows.

From now on, the city will give over-the-counter permits for projects that receive both a density bonus and a decrease in the number of required parking spaces -- a provision that is "ripe for immediate litigation," Usher wrote in the e-mail.

"There is no public notice. There is no environmental analysis. There is no right of appeal," she said Monday.

In her e-mail, Usher said there was a short period of time in which activists could challenge the law in court. She also asked e-mail recipients to share her views with others. "However, I would ask that you block out my e-mail address and instead ask your colleagues to respond through you," she wrote.

Parking, like traffic, is an incendiary topic in many Los Angeles neighborhoods. Urban planners frequently suggest that more Angelenos would take public transit if fewer parking spaces were available, but homeowner groups frequently disagree.

"Those models exist in cities where there are vibrant public transit options, which is not the case in our community," said Broide, the Westwood activist. "We don't have the Expo Line yet. And we may get the Subway to the Sea, but it won't be in my lifetime."

Usher said Monday that she still supports Villaraigosa's efforts to build affordable housing and implement "smart growth" -- lacing high-density housing along transit corridors. And she said she is not surprised at how quickly her e-mail was forwarded.

"One of the lovely and unpredictable things about e-mail is that I have no control over the wider audience for my thoughts," she said.

"I was very aware of that when I sent it."

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david.zahniser@latimes.com

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