June 1, 1946. World War II had been over for nine months, neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama was born, and the City of Los Angeles completed the last comprehensive update of its zoning code. In the intervening 66 years, the code has grown from a manageable 84 pages to over 600 nearly impenetrable pages. Over the decades, the City responded to every new issue or situation not covered or contemplated by the 1946 code with layer upon layer of new zones, entitlements, overlays, or property-specific development limitations. The result is a code that satisfies no one, from developers to neighborhood groups, and confuses almost everyone.
In the face of a code that has become unmanageable, the City's Planning Department recently requested funding to embark upon a five year overhaul of the code.
As noted in a March 27, 2012 memorandum from City Planning Director Michael LoGrande to the City Council requesting funding for the code overhaul, the negative impacts of the current code extend beyond frustrating developers and the general public. Due to a dizzying array of entitlements in the code, the Planning Department spends the majority of its time on case processing, while devoting very little time to long-range planning. Further, the code places the City at a competitive disadvantage with cities that have implemented a more streamlined and comprehensible project approval process. Of the 50 largest cities in the country, only Cleveland operates under an older zoning code.
Streamlining 66 years of ad hoc planning will not be cheap or easy. Director LoGrande's memorandum to Council outlines a budget of approximately $11 million over five years to complete the task, including funding for outside planning, environmental and web development consultants and additional City staff. Proposed funding would come from the Construction Services Trust Fund and a five year increase in the General Plan Maintenance Fee (currently charged on all permit, plan check, license and planning application fees) from 3% to 5%. While details regarding how exactly the code could potentially change are thus far limited, the proposed schedule does place priority on downtown, targeting a unified downtown development code by the end of 2014 at the latest, whereas the entire code overhaul will not be complete until the end of 2017. One area where it appears change is almost certain concerns the integration of development standards into a particular zone's basic outline, much as various Specific Plans currently do.
As befits such a large undertaking, public outreach and input from stakeholders and the public at large will be extensive. The proposed process envisions two primary committees -- a Policy Advisory Committee comprised of representatives from the business and development community, academia, housing advocates, homeowner groups, and design professionals, and a Technical Advisory Committee comprised of leaders of numerous City agencies and divisions. In addition, the Department will establish forums in each of the seven Area Planning Commission areas and schedule approximately 20 to 30 public meetings a year to transmit information and receive input.
Given the ambitious scope outlined by the Planning Department, the zoning code overhaul is sure to have far-reaching implications for development in the City. JMBM will track each step of the process and provide updates on key proposals and changes as the overhaul progresses.