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03.02.2011
Editorial> Move the Wheels Faster
It's time to clean up zoning codes in Los Angeles.
Storm Crypt / flickr

Reading through a recent issue of LA Weekly I came across a lengthy story about an anti-development “crusader” named Cary Brazeman called “Community Watchdog Cary Brazeman Fights Villaraigosa’s Crusade to Allow Development Everywhere.”

Brazeman, a brand consultant who has worked for several real estate firms in the past, is fighting against the mayor’s overzealous attempts to push projects through city planning despite legitimate objections by neighbors and design review committees. As I’ve said in a past editorial, I agree with him to some degree on that front.

But he’s also fighting against new city zoning changes meant to simplify and streamline the planning department. Brazeman’s group, LA Neighbors United, calls the recent reform efforts “gutting” the code and a means for over-development. And he calls its supporters “rejectionists” who want to destroy LA.

Let’s set the record straight. These proposed zoning regulations are not intended to, nor would they, spur new development on their own or cause any other sort of citywide disasters. Just the opposite.

Their goal is to make development more straightforward than the ridiculous, disjointed, outdated process the city now forces architects and developers to go through. As city planner Alan Bell told AN when the measures were first introduced, “Things just have to become more efficient.”

Among other things, the zoning changes will create consistent protocols for many procedures including timelines for approvals, reviews (allowing for shorter review processes for minor projects so as not to hog time from the bigger ones), and the modification of existing projects. Right now there are few standardized procedures, and approvals can take years, getting lost in a maze of departments and rules. These regulations haven’t been changed since the 1940s, so they’re woefully out of date.

The AIA/LA recently released a list of of proposed streamlining measures that go even further. In it, they call for improved city planning response time, improved online resources, clearer requirements, and more transparency, among other things.

Nonetheless, Brazeman and others continue to go in the other direction. Dick Platkin, an LA-based city planning consultant, has written of the existing zoning codes: “these hurdles are often time-consuming, but they assure that efforts to circumvent the city’s zoning code are subject to a careful public review and debate.” But time doesn’t always mean thoroughness. The current codes don’t call for careful review and debate, they just make it more confusing and drawn out.

For some reason in slow-motion Los Angeles, government efficiency—or other diversions from the status quo—are often regarded with suspicion. Similar protests have been mounted against Mayor Villaraigosa’s efforts to speed up the construction of new rail lines in the city, or even to build them at all.

Of course, I support anyone’s right to protest government maneuvers. I just think they happen to be confused on these points. The status quo hasn’t gotten architects far enough in LA. Let’s take a deep breath and clean things up. Then we can look with a clearer head and a cleaner slate.

Sam Lubell