News
09.28.2011
Editorial> A Lucky Break for Architecture
Sam Lubell on California's environmental review reform.
California State Capitol Building.
Andreas Pagel / Flickr

On September 9 the California state senate passed SB292, a bill that if signed by Governor Brown will speed up the environmental review process for Farmers Field, the new football stadium proposed for Downtown Los Angeles designed by Gensler for AEG. The bill would allow legal challenges to the stadium's Environmental Impact Report to be heard immediately in the California Court of Appeal, which would then have to make a decision within 175 days. That’s much quicker than the normal California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process, often held up by court scheduling, lawyer-engineered delays, further litigation, and so on.

Of course, LA hasn’t nailed down a football team yet, so it could all be moot. But while this bill has hogged the attention, a similar bill AB900—inspired by SB292 since other stadium projects want the same kind of fast track—has also been passed by the legislature that could have more far reaching effects. AB900 allows for a streamlined environmental review for qualifying projects, that is those over $100 million that meet several green building standards and labor restrictions and that are approved both by the Governor and a joint budget committee.

This new bill, contingent on the passage of SB292 by the Governor, would be a godsend for architecture. As the AIA/LA put it in a recent statement, many of CEQA’s environmental regulations do more harm than good. They often allow opponents to hold up a project for months and even years, with no regard to the environment at all. According to AIA California Council’s Director of Legislative Affairs Mark Christian, “CEQA can be used to dump thousands of pages of documents on a project to hold up the process.”

One of the biggest champions of CEQA reform was late West Hollywood Urban Designer John Chase, who grimaced at the very mention of CEQA. And he had a point. What good are environmental guidelines if they are hijacked in the name of other agendas? Streamlining CEQA would return it to the rightful realm of the environment rather than of politics and development, incentivizing sustainable land use, and helping to realize—rather than hampering—the goals of laws such as SB375 (California’s Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act) and AB32 (California’s Global Warming Solutions Act).

Of course, like everything in government, the bill isn’t perfect. One complaint from the AIA California Council is that it holds projects to a LEED Silver standard. This isn’t because the group doesn’t favor environmental regulations, but rather because LEED ratings aren’t given out until after a building is completed and when it is too late for improvement. The AIA also complains that LEED is a standard that has been adopted outside of the California public process.

Still, there’s no reason not to streamline CEQA. Developed with the best of intentions, it has become outdated and easily manipulated by the wrong players.

A similar California staple that needs to be reformed is the ultimate third rail of local politics: Prop 13, the 1970’s era legislation severely limiting property tax increases on homes and businesses. The legislation made sense when it was first enacted, but now, when state and city funds are woefully short and governments are enacting massive cuts, that money would be a blessing. Prop 13 needs to be rethought. LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has proposed reforming the collection of taxes from commercial properties (but not homeowners) and this is a start. He has said that decreasing Prop 13's protections for commercial property owners could yield anywhere from $2.1 billion and $8 billion in new revenue for the state that could go towards the kind of infrastructure improvements so desperately needed.

Of course, apart from reforms, environmental regulations still need to be enforced and property owners can’t see ridiculous tax increases. In this troubling time, no chance to spur our economy and save our government should be kept off the table. Legislation is developed with good intentions in mind, but whenever it falls short of serving its public purpose, it needs to be adapted and reformed according to the needs of now.

Sam Lubell