After some low-voltage political wrangling between the mayor and the L.A. City Council, the city of L.A. recently adopted an ordinance codifying the city's ability to sell air rights from the Convention Center to developers downtown. The air rights transfer allows developers to exceed Downtown's 6:1 floor-to-area ratio and may facilitate the sort of elegant density envisioned by Downtown boosters such as Councilwoman Jan Perry, with whom TPR was pleased to speak.
This month the City Council and Mayor Villaraigosa matched wits on how to pass something they both wanted-an ordinance approving the sale and transfer of Convention Center air rights (TFAR) so developers Downtown could exceed the city's current 6:1 floor-to-area ratio limit. What will this new ordinance facilitate?
Air rights transfers are not a new concept; the idea was first discussed in LA in the late 1980s. But Downtown has grown a lot since then and demand has dramatically increased in LA for more retail and more housing. Downtown is the one area in the city, except perhaps for Hollywood, to welcome high density because we have the public infrastructure to accommodate it.
And the general plan for Downtown is the only one that allows for the transfer of air rights to increase the floor-to-area ratio. Hopefully, other appropriate parts of the city will one day want to participate in this type of planning and update their community plans accordingly.
In the meantime, high-density projects work Downtown because there is a well planned network of public transit in place Downtown ,including light rail, commuter rail, and local and long-distance bus service. There's also been a successful movement in Downtown to move away from a suburban land use model and towards smart growth.
All of those factors led to updating the TFAR ordinance that was already on the books from the late '80s. That ordinance enables developers to purchase up to 9 million square feet of floor area left over from the Convention Center development and transfer that density to another nearby site. The transfer is a valuable tool to increase density eventually and also create funds to help mitigate density and promote smarter growth.
To what account will the proceeds of the air rights sale go?
The thing that was so attractive about updating the city's ordinance is that the funds generated from the air rights sale and purchase will go into a public benefits trust fund, which can be used within a two-mile radius of a receiver project. It can reach areas like South L.A., Pico Union, Boyle Heights, and even the southeastern tip of CD 13. Primarily, this trust fund is set up to mitigate the impacts of high density development. We, for example, could use it to acquire property for more park space and/or to create more affordable housing.
The mayor vetoed the council's original version of the TFAR ordinance, but then signed a revised version. What changed?
My office, the mayor's office, and the appropriate departments-Planning and the Community Redevelopment Agency-have always been involved in developing this ordinance. The mayor always had the power to give early input because he appoints the members of the CRA Commission and the Planning Commission, who have the authority to review capacity early in the process.
The only thing that has changed was a revision to accommodate the mayor's request that he has early sign-off, veto power over Council-affirmed developments and that all departments, including the mayor's office and the Council office, receive written notification when someone applies for TFAR.
Will this new trust fund invest in more infrastructure, which is often the least politically palatable options for spending public money?
Anybody who ignores the need to create infrastructure premised on sound planning principles and demographics misses the point. This is not an opportunity for pork-barrel projects. We are building a community from the ground up, where, in many cases, there was none before. It's a chance for us to do it right.
Additionally, all projects will still need to go through the planning process. This ordinance does not leave room for the city or developers to skirt their responsibility. Developers will still need to provide for infrastructure improvements deemed necessary during the entitlement process. And the trust fund dollars will not be accessible to the developers to pay for the public improvements required by the city. They will instead be available to mitigate and improve infrastructure like acquiring and creating park space.
If elegant density is the city goal, what is the value and role of infrastructure?
Infrastructure investment creates opportunities for density, and it is the downtown core's current infrastructure that makes good city planning possible. We cannot diminish the significance of that as we use the TFAR ordinance and the potential trust fund dollars it could generate.
And what do people need Downtown?
They need places to live that they can afford. They need support for themselves and their family. They need to get to and from work with ease. And they need a place that is healthy and offers physical activity and recreation options. This new trust fund may enable us to supplement-but not supplant-the things that the city government is supposed to fund out of the general fund. But it also offers an additional stream of revenue to pay for items that may have been under-funded.
This issue of TPR also includes an interview with Emily Gabel Luddy discussed on the city's Urban Design Studio. What role should urban design guidelines play in implementing in the city's community plans?
Urban design guidelines embody the values of a community, with respect to the way they want the neighborhood to look and the needs they want planning to serve. I think that's how guidelines can be interpreted, and some pretty extraordinary ideas come out of that kind of a process.
In visiting the South Group's home base in Portland, for example, I was impressed by the way they landscaped some of the swales on the sides of the street; they not only created additional green space but it also enabled them to better manage urban runoff and visually soften up the way the streetscape appears. We will be implementing some of these ideas in Downtown Los Angeles very soon.
The L.A. CRA recently approved a transfer of floor area from Pershing Square to the proposed 70-story Park Fifth development. Could you respond to those who have questioned whether a historic park has air rights that are transferable?
I'm making an assumption that the zoning once permitted on that site much greater development than what was actually built and that the unused portion can be transferred, It's analogous to the Convention Center. For this particular project, there could be multiple sources for CRA to transfer the TFAR.
Let's now turn to the health of the Downtown development market. How much activity is underway and what are the trends?
It's moving farther south, which is tremendous. I'd always felt that there should not have been a division between Downtown and South Los Angles, and I consider the people in single-family homes south of the freeway to be the backbone of this district. They are the people who never deserted this district and have always fought for the amenities that are taken for granted elsewhere in the city, like well-managed grocery stores, dry cleaners, schools, and places to recreate and socialize.
While we've made enormous progress in that regard, a lot more work is needed. We are doing our part, creating incentives for development to come south to major transportation corridors like Washington Boulevard and Central Avenue.
How does this relate to the CRA's approval of the new opportunity area along Washington Boulevard?
The lots are deep. There are very few owners. They are the kind of lots that lend themselves to mixed use and bigger-box development, and I'm looking forward to seeing the proposals that are turned in for selection.
We worked on this RFP for almost two years, and I'm glad that it was finally released. There's been great buzz and interest. I think Washington Boulevard is the invisible barrier between the southern end of Downtown and South Los Angeles-a barrier created in 1922 when the Planning Department zoned all housing out of Downtown as far south as Washington.
The development of Washington Blvd will reverse that outdated model. I think the type of development the CRA selects will create employment opportunities for the people who live there and greater access to goods and other amenities in their own neighborhoods.
Let's close by touching on the recently passed ordinance regarding city-mandated relocation fees for renters displaced by condo conversion. Some would say that homeownership is the bulwark of a great city. What led the Council to pass this ordinance and to create a bureaucracy to oversee it?
In my district, conversion to condos is a problem that we don't have. We have an enormous number of rentals but not a lot of conversions. In the southern part of the district, we still don't have enough home ownership, and I am fighting to increase that for families in South Los Angeles.
I have been approached by people from Councilmember Rosendahl's district or Councilmember Weiss's district or even people from the San Fernando Valley, and I say that if housing is at risk in your community, would you consider building more affordable housing? Would you consider building in areas where there is blight and establishing a redevelopment area so that you don't have to continue this battle over and over again? I have found that in many cases, people are opposed to those options.
What led to this condo conversion ordinance is obviously the housing shortage. Bringing more housing online will drive down the cost of housing. It's pure supply and demand. For councilmembers who represent diverse communities like mine, obviously we're going to continue to build as much mixed use, mixed income housing as we can. Council District 9 has more affordable housing than anywhere else in the city, I have encouraged this type of development and am proud that these housing options exist for all people.