Usher's Revenge?

Usher's Revenge?

On April 13, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Thomas McKnew Jr. abrogated parts of LA’s SB 1818 ordinance, which compels local governments to craft their own rules rewarding density bonuses to developers who include a percentage of affordable housing units in residential projects. Former LA planning commissioner Jane Usher, who recently stepped down, had been an outspoken opponent of the measure.

In some cases, the LA ordinance provided bonuses 300 percent greater than those mandated by SB 1818. The ruling prevents the city from approving projects with density bonuses that exceed state law.

The ordinance has been the target of numerous lawsuits. One such suit, filed in April 2008 by a group of homeowners called the Environment And Housing Coalition Los Angeles (EAHCLA), argued that the city acted improperly by approving the ordinance, which allowed developers to increase density and height while reducing parking and open space requirements—all without environmental review. Judge McKnew agreed, and his decision throws an unknown number of proposed developments into jeopardy.

Proponents of the ordinance have said that it encourages affordable housing and limits sprawl. Foes have long argued that it was a giveaway to developers and speculators which would have resulted in a net loss of affordable housing as developers razed older apartment complexes to build profitable, market-priced condominiums with one or two affordable units.

In March 2008, then Los Angeles City Planning Commission President Jane Ellison Usher authored an email opposing the ordinance and inviting public action. In the now-famous missive, Usher pointed to language within the ordinance defining some projects seeking density bonuses as “ministerial,” thereby exempting them from review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Usher noted that the ministerial designation was at odds with a Categorical Exemption issued by the Planning Department, which stated that all projects filed in accordance with the ordinance be subject to CEQA review.

Not surprisingly, Usher is pleased with the judge’s ruling. “It did justice to the legal requirements of CEQA,” she said. Although she was critical of SB 1818, asserting that the bill had developers “licking their chops,” Usher nevertheless saw an opportunity for Los Angeles to draft an ordinance that embraced a smart growth formula. “The city didn’t follow that path,” she noted.

Will Wright, Director of Government and Public Affairs for the Los Angeles Chapter of the AIA, believes the city’s intent was to cut through the “bureaucratic bog” and make it easier to bring projects to market, thereby increasing opportunities for low-to-moderate housing. Still, Wright sympathizes with those who feared the ordinance would destroy the character and scale of their communities, citing the “low levels of sophistication” that have plagued many residential developments. “Over the last 15 years or so, you’ve seen massive condo projects go up that have no character and no connectivity to the neighborhood, and this represents the monster,” he said.

Ric Abramson, founder of Workplays Studio Architecture, points to another quandary, namely that of instituting SB 1818 over a broad range of jurisdictions, citing the turmoil it has caused in West Hollywood. “That’s a community that had a very proactive and progressive affordable housing program in place, and when the state passed SB 1818, it completely upset their balance,” he said.

Councilmember Ed Reyes, who chairs the council’s planning and land-use management committee, was unavailable for comment, as were representatives of the city’s planning department.

While the city council may appeal Judge McKnew’s ruling, Usher hopes they will instead redraft the ordinance in a manner that will promote smart growth rather than sprawl-inducing densification. “I think that the city has to grab hold of its future growth pattern for traffic and environmental reasons—here is an occasion where the city can be a leader,” she noted.

When asked if she is hopeful that an ordinance embracing those principles might eventually be adopted, Usher let out a hearty laugh, adding: “There’s always room for hope.”