Measure S: a voter guide for LA’s anti-development ballot measure

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Measure S—which appears on the ballot tomorrow in the city of Los Angeles—aims to reform the city’s broken planning system and scale back what supporterssay is the proliferation of big, bulky buildings.

Also known as the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, the ballot measure would place a two-year moratorium on some types of high-density buildings, chiefly those that are bigger or taller than what the city’s out-of-date land-use rules allow.

Spearheading the initiative is the president of the deep-pocketed AIDS Healthcare Foundation, who’s unwilling to accept that Los Angeles is not a suburban city.

He and his supporters claim certain development projects are displacing low-income renters, creating traffic, and destroying neighborhood character. But opponents say the measure does nothing to keep tenants in their home.

The measure is complex and far-reaching, and housing advocates warn it would devastate the local housing market. It would halt construction and, in turn, drive up the cost of renting and buying in Los Angeles—which is already one of the priciest markets in the U.S.

LA’s planning rules are very outdated. The General Plan is nearly 30 years old, and most of the city’s 35 community plans have not been rewritten in at least 15 years.

The General Plan is so old that builders routinely seek permission from the City Council and its planning commissions for special zoning variations to build bigger, denser, or taller than what the rules allow. A Los Angeles Times analysis found that since 2000, about 90 percent of requests for General Plan amendments and zoning or height district changes were approved by city commissioners.

Examples of buildings Measure S would halt:

Rolland Curtis

 Courtesy of Abode Communities

This mixed-use complex about to be built near USC will hold 140 housing units for tenants earning 30 to 60 percent of the area’s median income, which is $24,900 to $49,800 for a family of four. The project required a General Plan amendment to rezone the land for higher density, from medium residential to community commercial.

East Hollywood apartments

5550 Hollywood Boulevard
Jenna Chandler

These 280 apartments under construction just west of Metro’s Hollywood and Western Red Line stop in the Thai Town neighborhood of East Hollywood required a height increase of 11 feet and a 14 percent increase in floor area.

Rick Caruso tower

A rendering of a tall, white, contemporary tower.A rendering of a tall, white, contemporary tower.
333 La Cienega
Courtesy of Caruso Affiliated

Developer Rick Caruso recently won approval to build this 16-story residential tower in Beverly Grove. It will be taller than what city codes allow, and it required a General Plan amendment (to change the land use designation from neighborhood office commercial to general commercial). In exchange, Caruso agreed to make 10 percent of the apartments affordable and to give the city $500,000 for affordable housing projects off-site.

That has led to what Mayor Eric Garcetti has described as “haphazard” development. Even the mayor agrees the planning system is broken—which is why the City Council has already passed some of the reforms proposed by Measure S—but he and other critics say Measure S is not the right solution.

“The diagnosis is agreed upon by all of us. But [Measure S] is simply the wrong prescription,” Garcetti said at a press conference in January.

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, led by president Michael Weinstein, has financed the measure. Weinstein and the foundation’s senior staff wrote the measure’s first draft.

Why does a nonprofit treating and advocating for patients with HIV and AIDS care about development? Weinstein says his organization is devoted to social justice causes. He also says allowing a lot of market-rate housing to be built has caused rents to soar, and that hurts patients with AIDS and HIV, who already bear the high costs of medical bills.

But data and research have proven that the primary reason for LA’s affordability crisis is a shortage of housing,including market-rate housing.

Critics say Weinstein is just trying to save the views from his office.

Developer Crescent Heights wants to build a pair of high-rises behind the Hollywood Palladium—and right across the street from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s headquarters. A public affairs consultant lobbying City Hall for Crescent Heights told the LA Times that Weinstein complained to him that the “Palladium would block his views of the Hollywood Hills.”

“It’s one of the most dense things that’s being proposed anywhere in the area,” Weinstein, speaking about the Palladium towers, told the LA Weekly. “So yeah, I have a bird’s-eye view of all the crap.”

  • Stop construction for two years of any buildings that seek exceptions to city zoning and land-use rules.
  • Permanently put an end to “spot zoning.” That’s the term elected officials use when approving individual projects in areas where the project would otherwise be prohibited. It would do that by banning variances to the city’s General Plan, which is like the bible for zoning.
  • Force the city to immediately review and possibly update its outdated General Plan and community plans, even though the City Council has already agreed to update the community plans every six years.
  • Bar developers from writing their own Environmental Impact Reports, a practice that Measure S supporters say leads to projects getting too easily approved. The reports are used to determine a new building’s impacts on traffic, views, historic landmarks, and more.

“Measure S is about saving our communities. Right now, development is for sale. If you have enough money, you can get anything built in this city. We need to take a time out.” —Richard Close, Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association president, speaking to KCRW’s Press Play.

  • LA’s planning guidelines are severely outdated.
  • Real estate developers wield too much power at City Hall.
  • Too many projects are decided on a case-by-case basis.
  • Residents are being displaced by new development.
  • Higher-density buildings ruin the character of neighborhoods.

“As legitimate as the yes on Measure S people’s argument about the planning system being broken is, their solution doesn’t actually fix any of the problems they’ve identified and in many cases makes it worse.” —Shane Phillips, Policy Director at Abundant Housing LA, speaking to KCRW.

The money behind Measure S and its opposition

  • Individual donors have kicked in small contributions to pass Measure S. But the primary financial backer is the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which has shelled out more than $5.5 million, according to the Los Angeles Times.
  • To defeat the measure, a wide array of donors have given money, includinglabor unions, trade associations, and prominent developers such as Westfield and Crescent Heights, which, the Times found, has contributed $2.5 million.

LA Tenants Union, United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles, former mayor Richard Riordan, former Los Angeles Planning Commission president Mabel Chang, andRobert Silverstein, prominent California Environmental Quality Act attorney

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, California Governor Jerry Brown, the Los Angeles Times editorial board, ACLU Southern California, and the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, Republican Party Los Angeles County, and Democratic Socialists of America Los Angeles

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