What the battle over Measure S says about the future of LA

Has development run amok in Los Angeles? Are we building enough housing in LA to keep up with demand? And, more fundamentally, what kind of a city should Los Angeles be in the 21st Century?

These are some of the questions raised by Measure S. This controversial and hard fought measure will appear on the March 7 ballot for those registered in Los Angeles.

Drive around the city and it’s impossible to miss the signs for Measure S. Voters are also seeing their mailboxes stuffed with flyers about the measure.

Yes on Measure S billboard on Vermont Avenue. Backers seek a two-year moratorium on most new development that doesn’t conform to the city’s current zoning and planning regulations. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

Measure S would place a two-year moratorium on development projects that require a zoning change or an amendment to the city’s General Plan, which guides how and where development projects are built in Los Angeles neighborhoods. The measure is largely funded by the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

Supporters of the Yes on S campaign say that because developers don’t strictly follow LA’s current planning rules, too many so-called mega-projects get built in the city. These are enormous residential and commercial projects that Measure S supporters say make traffic worse and ruin the character and scale of neighborhoods.

Hollywood resident Cesar Vega rents a small Spanish bungalow in Hollywood that’s nearly surrounded by a 500-unit apartment complex under construction. Cranes loom over his back patio. Vega says this is just one example of a wider development trend he sees happening in Hollywood, a neighborhood he grew up in.

“There’s been a ‘Manhattanization’ of Hollywood” says Vega. “You are going vertical. There are as many people as you can cram into one block.”

A new commercial and residential project under construction in Hollywood. It’s the kind of project that angers supporters of Measure S. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

Proponents say Measure S would prevent this “Manhattanization” in Hollywood and other LA neighborhoods by making it more difficult for developers to negotiate project-by-project deals with the city that don’t conform with planning rules, a process called spot zoning.

But Measure S opponents, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, local labor unions and homeless advocacy groups, say passage of the measure might make critics of development feel good, but it will make LA’s rental housing crisis even worse by preventing needed residential projects from being built.

“As legitimate as the yes on Measure S people’s argument about the planning system being broken is, their solution doesn’t actually fix any of the problems they’ve identified and in many cases makes it worse,” says Shane Phillips of the group Abundant Housing LA.

Critics argue Measure S is a ham-fisted response to concerns about new development in L.A.. They also say the city  needs new housing development for all income levels. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

Measure S critics say the measure would put the city in a zoning straightjacket and cause an immediate end to plans to build affordable housing projects in areas of the city now zoned for industrial uses.

Measure S opponents also argue that if passed, the measure will cost LA tens of thousands of construction jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in lost economic activity.

The debate over Measure S has sparked a wider conversation about what kind of a city Los Angeles wants to be. Can LA still follow a relatively low density and low rising land use model when it comes to planning? Or does the city need to change it’s planning ways, and start building more densely and higher as the population grows?