Downsized: What to Make of the Updated Neighborhood Integrity Initiative

News came out today that the folks behind the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative have retracted their initial submission, due to go on the November ballot, and are planning to put a new, condensed version of the initiative up for a vote in March 2017.

The original initiative was an embarrassment, something I described with no reservations as the Donald Trump of ballot initiatives. It was misleading, disingenuous, and would have accomplished the opposite of most of the goals it claimed to support. This new one is much condensed, and it's... well... hmm. It's still not good... but it's on the right track.

Here's a quick summary of what's changed, what's the same, and how I think city leaders and pro-housing, pro-inclusion advocates should respond.

What's Different

The most important change to the initiative is that they removed many of the restrictions on how communities could be planned in the future. This was the most dishonest part of the initiative, and it made clear that the goal was never to make City Council "follow the law" or "preserve affordability," but rather to freeze Los Angeles in time—to the detriment of affordability, sustainability, walkability, and all those other great "-abilities."

Now, gone is the language that prohibited any changes in the size (bigger or smaller) of "islands of density" within the city, and the requirement that all neighborhoods within 1/2-mile of rail be zoned the same, and that all parcels within 1/4-mile of any other parcel match the prevailing scale, intensity, and height of existing development. In other words, all the stuff that said neighborhoods could never, ever change.

That's great news, and a smart decision on the part of the initiative's backers, because it was completely indefensible.

What's the Same

Other than that, most everything in the initiative is the same.

The limitations on spot zoning have been retained, which in my view is fine. In the short or medium term we need a better solution than ad hoc interventions like spot zoning. Basically everyone agrees that something needs to change, and although this isn't a complete solution, it's a part of one.

They also kept the requirement that the general plan and community plans be reviewed and considered for amendment every 5 years, which is also good policy. It's something we really should have already been doing, but we've lacked the staff for a long time—particularly since the recession, when the Planning department's budget was decimated.

The initiative still has the requirement that environmental review be facilitated through the city. Currently developers can pay consultants to have this done, and the new law would make it so that the city either does the review themselves or, more likely, contracts with the consultant directly, in place of the developer doing so. Nominally this is to ensure transparency, but the consultants are still doing the work and the city has the final review in either case, so I don't really see the purpose or benefit of this. It seems guaranteed to delay the environmental review process and increase overall costs, but that's about it. It looks like poor policy that's motivated solely by a mistrust for government, and I think we can do a lot better.

Still true: When vacancy goes down, rent goes up.

The law also keeps the moratorium on any development that requests a general plan amendment, including projects that were approved before the passage of the law but granted a GP amendment. As the initiative's supporters would point out, this doesn't affect all development, but it would affect a lot of it, and it would put a serious freeze on a lot of development activity at a very inopportune time. The moratorium would last two years (or whenever the general plan and community plans were updated, if that happened sooner, which it wouldn't), and during that time there would be a lot of jobs lost and an almost guaranteed continuance of the city's record-low vacancy ratesand the rent increases that always accompany them.

The language now gives a nod to affordable housing by exempting developments with 100% affordable housing from the moratorium, but it's not clear whether this would prohibit projects with on-site market-rate housing for management. What we can be sure of is that it would not exempt projects that utilize the density bonus to build mixed-income housing, which is a cost-free source of affordable housing for the city.

Last, it continues to force developers to over-build parking, stating that under no circumstances may required on-site parking be reduced by more than 30 percent. Building permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless residents who will mostly never drive? Too bad. Want to try a new housing model that provides ZipCar or Car2Go vehicles for every resident in your building, and to pay for it by cutting back on parking costs? Nope. Looking ahead 10 or 20 years to when driverless vehicles are the norm, and on-site parking is no longer necessary? Sorry, still gotta build it, at a cost of $30,000 to $50,000 per space.

NII: An empty garage for every tower!

What Should Be Done

This initiative went from being about 75% horrible, to 50-50. Maybe even 60-40. There's some good stuff, and some bad stuff, and I think the balance between the two presents an opportunity.

My opinion is that City Council should seize the opportunity by taking the reasonable aspects of this of this initiative and committing to adopt them voluntarily. They could and should do the following three things:

  • Eliminate spot zoning to the degree demanded by the initiative, or to some close approximation. It might be that there are some extreme cases for which city staff think a "spot zoned" general plan amendment would be justified, and those might be retained. Ideally, they would adopt policy as close as possible to that found in the initiative, because it's mostly pretty sensible.
  • Require regular updates of the General Plan and Community Plans. This includes committing to immediately hiring the staff required to actually make this happen.
  • Make an effort toward increasing transparency in the environmental review process. I really don't know if the language in the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative helps achieve this goal in any way, so it could be a good idea for the city to meet with NII representatives to see what they are trying to achieve and how it could best be accomplished.

There would also need to be something that holds the city to these commitments, and forces them to adopt the changes expediently. Transitional policy would be welcome because it would eliminate the need for a moratorium, which is really just the NII supporters using a hammer where a scalpel would be more appropriate.

If City Council adopts these changes, all that's left is the parking regulation. That part is purely bad policy and shouldn't be negotiated. 

After adopting these voluntary changes, I see one of two things happening. Either: 

  1. The initiative's backers are left with very little to rabble-rouse over and the law dies a silent death come March; or
  2. Both sides claim a moral victory and we can move on with our lives.

I would hope for everyone's sake that the latter would occur, and I think that—just maybe—this is the hoped-for end-game of the people behind the NII. If Council adopts the majority of these changes, the supporters can (rightly) claim that they've forced the city to make a positive change, and they can stop wasting money on gathering signatures, which they now have to restart anyway.

The rest of us, meanwhile, can be assured that Los Angeles will still have the flexibility to plan for a better future. As advocates for a Greater LA, I think this is the direction we should be pushing things in the coming months. Feel free to share your comments whether you agree or disagree, and if you think a different path is warranted, please share your own suggestion(s).