Just before the backers of the anti-development Neighborhood Integrity Initiative submitted more than enough signatures to put the measure before the voters, they met with L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.
If the city would come up with its own plan to limit oversized developments, the group said, they would not go forward with the initiative.
Mayor Garcetti made a concession. He offered to notify the public of closed-door meetings between city officials and developers.
That wasn’t nearly enough for the initiative backers, who think closed-door meetings should be banned altogether, and it’s hard to argue with that.
Demolition of the buildings on the historic former Rocketdyne site in Canoga Park is now underway in preparation for what the developer is calling a “sustainable urban village” of about 4,000 housing units. As recently as June, City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield addressed public concerns about an excessively large development at the site by saying, “nothing has been submitted to the city for this location.”
Has Councilmember Blumenfield or other city officials held closed-door meetings with the developer or lobbyists and consultants about the Rocketdyne site? The public lacks even the right to know.
The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative is aimed at stopping the out-of-control “spot zoning” that allows oversized developments to be approved in places where they otherwise would be prohibited.
One purpose of zoning and community plans is to provide consistency over time, so that when people buy property, whether for a home or business, they know what they’re buying. A home on a quiet street of single-family residences won’t suddenly have a strip mall or hotel as a next-door neighbor.
“Spot zoning” to allow more height and density can have an extremely negative impact on the surrounding neighborhoods, especially if the minimum requirements for parking are waived. And this is increasingly what some urban planners are recommending.
Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA and author of the influential 2005 book, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” says “minimum parking requirements subsidize cars, increase traffic congestion and carbon emissions, pollute the air and water, encourage sprawl, raise housing costs, exclude poor people, degrade urban design, reduce walkability and damage the economy.”
But eliminating minimum parking requirements risks turning neighboring residential streets into a scene that resembles the parking lot of Dodger Stadium when the Giants are in town.
Housing policy in California has discouraged the development of new single-family houses in outlying areas in favor of what planners call “infill,” the construction of high-density housing on vacant land in built-up areas. State law also speeds approval of “transit-oriented development,” mega-projects located within a half-mile of a train station or a bus stop with frequent service during peak hours.
Urban planners have a vision that people will respond to unbearable traffic and parking problems by choosing to give up their cars. To make their vision work, some favor a ban on parking lots at transit stations. Ben Schiendelman, who writes a blog at TheUrbanist.org where the posts have titles like “Bike Lanes are Social Justice,” wrote recently, “for every parking space we build at a transit station, we’re encouraging a new car-oriented suburban housing unit, demand for suburban shopping and suburban road extension to serve them.”
But everybody’s different, and in a free country, they’re allowed to be. Some people want to live in a 500-square-foot apartment in a downtown high-rise where the first floor tenant is a Moroccan-fusion restaurant with poetry readings and an all-day happy hour. Other people want to be far away from those people.
Some people want a house with a yard for the dog and the kids, and they don’t want to hear their neighbors’ footsteps through the ceiling.
People work hard in this country to get what they want. And they get pretty upset when the government changes all the rules and robs them of the enjoyment of their property, as when a “spot-zoned” mega-development turns a quiet street into a permanently jammed parking lot.
Urban planners may call that NIMBYism, but Sir William Blackstone called it the fundamental right of individuals to own and enjoy their property.
Blackstone was a strong influence on the minds that wrote the U.S. Constitution, which is structured to protect the rights of individuals against those who claim to speak for the greater good.
“We are poisoning our cities with too much parking,” said UCLA’s Shoup. “Removing minimum parking requirements may be the cheapest and simplest way to achieve a more just society.”
Ivory towers never need parking lots.
Susan Shelley is a columnist for the Southern California News Group. Reach her atSusan@SusanShelley.com and follow her on Twitter: @Susan_Shelley.