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Dysfunction Junction

Will the Community Impact Report clear the way for new shopping?

October 23, 2003

By Chip Jacobs

You don’t have to look hard to see what has turned city development into a dysfunctional morass in which only lawyers come out ahead. Big developers must negotiate a labyrinthine public-approval process, and affected residents – allowed their say only at the last minute – can usually respond only with predictable outrage and distrust.

A few years ago, residents complained they were blindsided by multimillion-dollar plans for South La Brea Avenue and a site near the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, and expressed their rage by helping to scuttle those projects. But there was a downside, as these under-funded, under-built communities saw their chances killed for retail/job bonanzas that many wanted. So no restaurants, no chain drugstore, no supermarket, no electronics mega-store.

An alliance of labor and economic-justice groups now wants to break this mold with the introduction of a “Community Impact Report” (CIR) in the Los Angeles development cycle. The idea is expected to get its first hearing at the Community Redevelopment Agency next month, and may be considered for implementation by the City Council. Supporters hope it will spread to other municipalities.

“There is tremendous community interest in development, but right now the community involvement comes so late there’s an oppositional process inherently set up,” said James Elmendorf, a research analyst with the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. The anti-poverty organization is part of the Growth With Justice Coalition pushing the CIR. “Oftentimes, the public process that does exist is focused on technical issues, like environmental hazards. What’s missing is looking at more basic things – the size [of a development], is it affordable, how many jobs would it create? … That’s what most people are interested in.”

Not surprisingly, the CIR is eliciting a chilly reaction from a business lobby sensitive to red tape and what it sees as interference by the council or L.A.’s muscular unions. (Among the members of the Growth With Justice Coalition are five unions, including the County Federation of Labor and two locals representing service employees.) Many developers are already irritated by a low-income housing set-aside law the council is weighing.

“There is nothing more difficult and nothing more public than trying to get a residential or commercial project approved in a city like Los Angeles,” said Ray Pearl, executive officer of the Building Industry Association of the greater Los Angeles-Ventura area. “To say there needs to be more process doesn’t make any more sense.”

Under the draft CIR policy, builders working in redevelopment districts would be forced to specify how their project would affect a neighborhood’s employment picture, its affordable housing, its quality-of-life needs, and overall growth. Most reports would probably be under 30 pages and take a few weeks to compile.

Just who would write the formatted document is still a bit hazy, but it’s envisioned that CRA staff would cull the statistics for smaller projects with the builder’s assistance. The agency would then release the information to the public through its website, neighborhood councils, libraries, and other channels. All of that would be in advance of a hearing giving locals a forum to register their concerns face-to-face with the builder.

The document would be triggered on large-scale jobs where a developer must decide whether an environmental impact report (EIR) is needed: commercial projects exceeding 50,000 square feet, market-housing complexes of 100 units or more, rehabs of bigger, existing developments, or in cases where affordable housing is destroyed.

The Alliance, Elmendorf said, has learned through street experience that community negotiations with builders pay off for both sides. It and other groups, for instance, bargained with developers on behalf of neighborhoods in North Hollywood and Hollywood for housing, jobs, and other services that might have otherwise been lost in recent plans. Producing the CIR, he added, is a relatively light task next to the cumbersome, expensive job of putting together a phonebook-sized EIR.

An example of how this could work is readily at hand. The Anshultz Entertainment Group, the powerful development outfit that built the Staples Center, has been fine-tuning its ideas for a mammoth hotel-retail-theater-housing complex next to the glass-walled arena in downtown L.A. South Park residents, though, were skittish that construction would generate traffic and crime, or uproot them altogether through eminent domain. So, they did what a growing number of neighborhoods have: They organized a community group and brought in unions to negotiate with the builder. Six months later, a legally binding deal was hammered out guaranteeing locals jobs, housing, and parks – an agreement believed to have helped Anshultz win preliminary council approval for its Sports and Entertainment District.

Hollywood-area Councilman Eric Garcetti, who helped craft a city motion for a CIR, said dispersing information would suction off a lot of the poisonous feelings created by mutual distrust among builders, residents, and activists.

“There’s just a lot of fear,” Garcetti said. “What this is about is communication at the front end instead of the back end, about people sitting down together. There’s hardly a week that goes by that a developer doesn’t tell me how dysfunctional the current status quo is and how land-use politics is a full-contact sport in Los Angeles. We want to change the dynamic.”

Requiring census tract statistics in the CIR, backers say, would ensure that projects would fit their area. Income, poverty levels, property tax receipts, and home-ownership versus rentals would be included. So would crime data, proximities to parks and liquor stores, and availability of daycare services.

In the “smart growth” section of the CIR, a builder must answer questions about such diverse matters as density, parking, and amenities for bicycles. Several business leaders complained that the CIR would enshrine political correctness by forcing developers to throw goodies to areas that would already see property rates skyrocket and new jobs produced just by adding significant new investment there. But activists point to the shockwave that development can send in terms of rent prices, quality-of-life hassles, and other negatives.

What has particularly infuriated some development boosters is the final section of the draft CIR: an “employment questionnaire,” which queries builders about how many contract or temporary jobs might be expected to be created by the development, and which companies might be employing security guards, janitors, and such. Will they be part-time or full time? Will benefits be offered? And what will be the pay?

Forecasting those things, critics say, is more art than science because leases, finances, and corporate fortunes can change. They worry developers could be sued if they promised a certain number of jobs would be available, only to see that shrink because some franchise decided not to locate there.

“I have never seen the development community as angry and upset as they are over this proposal,” griped Carol Schatz, president of the Central City Association, a downtown business-advocacy group. “It’s not a CIR – it’s a special-interest impact report! … The issues they care about are whether they are creating union jobs with union wages. If you are taking an empty, unoccupied building, and you convert it, is that not a major community benefit?”

Allan Kotin, a real estate consultant who favors the CIR, said the idea is a natural in redevelopment areas. Developers initiating projects there sometimes covet subsidies, so that would leave them susceptible to questions about jobs, housing, and daycare. It gets trickier with unsubsidized projects where a builder has intrinsic zoning rights. Another uncertainty to be hashed out is whether activists might use the CIR to sidetrack projects, as they have with EIRs.

“The offsetting positive,” Kotin said, “is that the CIR done properly can create a reference point so an awful lot of polemic will disappear.” V
For information on the CIR, see www.lacity.org/cra/craindex2.html

Copyright Chip Jacobs