Imagine rock stars throwing a benefit performance to back a ballot initiative on land use.
Only in L.A., you say? In fact, you're right. But there's the wonder of it all. The town that got started and grew as a grand real-estate speculation, the city that set the global standard for sprawl development, may soon vote to mend its ways.The rock stars about to demonstrate their civic-mindedness are Stevie Nicks, Jackson Browne and Glen Frye. They're signed up to appear soon at the Universal Amphitheater to raise cash for the so-called Initiative for Reasonable Limits on Commercial Building and Traffic Growth. A citywide vote is scheduled in the November election.
It will be the first time in their history that the city's residents have had a ballot test on curbing development. Northern Californians did it some 65 times, with a crescendo of activity in the 1980s. San Diegans did it several times. But for Los Angeles to even think of becoming less L.A., to challenge its growth-at-any-price birthright, suggests something must be wrong.
It is. Bulky office buildings and commercial emporiums have exploded in number and size in the '80s, turning tree-lined residential streets into throbbing traffic corridors. The L.A. resident's dream of a sleepy bungalow in the sun, unbothered by crowds and grit and high-rises looming over the backyard, is in dire peril.
The problem has become even more critical during the last 36 months through the tax-shelter boom set off by the Reagan-backed 1981 federal tax law: Buildings often don't even have to be occupied to yield tax-shelter advantages to their owners. Investors are routinely developing land to its zoned maximum.
That easily spells disaster for neighborhoods in a city like Los Angeles. Its antiquated zoning allows extraordinarily dense commercial development along most thoroughfares, a holdover from the days when the city expected to grow to 10 million instead of its current 3 million. While the city's master plan calls for concentrated centers of development, thus protecting residential neighborhoods, it's more honored in the breach than the observance.
You might have expected the initiative to start with angry neighborhood leaders - of which Los Angeles has plenty. Instead, the idea originated with two politicians from heavily impacted West Los Angeles, Marvin Braude and Zev Yaroslavsky. Last winter this pair reluctantly concluded that the Los Angeles City Council, on which they've collectively served 32 years, compromising and often losing zoning battles, simply doesn't have the guts to face down developers and their campaign cash to approve planning controls with real teeth.
Mr. Braude and Mr. Yaroslavsky admit their cure is a very blunt instrument - an initiative that literally halves the allowable square footage, from three times to 1.5 times the land area, for any building put up in the zoning category that covers 85 percent of the Los Angeles' commercial properties.
The specifies may be L.A.'s, but if the initiative passes in November the nationwide message would be loud and clear. As citizens moved to pre-empt the politicians and change the tax system through Proposition 13, voters may be ready to use direct ballot box power to block big stores and high-rise office structures that clog their neighborhoods.
Mr. Braude and Mr. Yaroslavsky claim the citizen response to their initiative signature drive was "overwhelming." They'd feared it might be tagged as an elitist effort of affluent West L.A. But 40,000 signatures were returned from a citywide mailing of 400,000 voters. One in eight also enclosed campaign contributions.
Zoning variances would still be possible under the new initiative. But any big project would have to undergo public hearings and environmental impact reviews. The burden of proof would be shifted in an exciting fashion: Developers would have to prove, up-front, the need for and desirability of a project. Citizens would be relieved of expending time, money, trouble just to learn information about - not to mention blocking - mega-developments over their fences and down their streets.
There'd be a major shift in zoning power to the public and away from what Sam Hall Kaplan, Los Angeles Times urban critic, calls "the fumbling city planners, finagling politicians and finessing developers and their lubricious lobbyists and lawyers."
That group, so far, is remarkably quiescent in the face of apparent strong support for the Braude-Yaroslavsky initiative. Pat Russell, city council president and a potential future opponent of Mr. Yaroslavsky for mayor, criticized the measure as "planning by initiative" but hasn't fought it actively. Opponents are pushing, but not strongly, a watered-down substitute measure before the planning commission and council.
In the meantime, a new pro-planning alliance has emerged. Like most cities, Mr. Braude observes that in Los Angeles, "It's been difficult to build up a broad constituency for land-use reform. People are concerned just about own neighborhoods. Each land-use battle becomes an isolated local battle. Nobody sees the big picture. This initiative is a vehicle. Already it's coalesced the neighborhood groups to see the city in more than parochial terms. It will be a revolution if that succeeds."