Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Neighborhood councils and zoning in Los Angeles

Almost ten years ago Los Angeles established neighborhood councils to improve the flexibility and overall responsiveness of City Hall. This experiment in sub-local governance has not been an overwhelming success, though it hasn't been a failure, either. Today the LA Times reports that some neighborhoods seek to improve the function and promise of the councils through land use powers. This would actually give the councils meaningful authority over how their neighborhoods develop.

In the article, Valley Industry and Commerce Association argues that sub-local control will increase the costs of development. Another developer counters this by saying that by working with the neighborhoods directly the communities will come to trust developers in a way that is not likely to occur through conventional, City Hall oriented processes.

I side with the developer who thinks this is a good idea. Right now, neighborhood councils have enough power to make the development process unpredictable. Neighborhoods hold a right to veto projects (through environmental concerns and other established ways to object in the public process) but have no real authority to make it easier for developers to build the types of projects the neighborhood wants. In addition, zoning is a dull tool in the regulatory toolbox in part because it is such a hard thing to change. Zoning codes are written to apply to the entire city (there are exceptions, of course), and localized concerns (about traffic, design, retail uses, etc) are hard to incorporate into the code. By giving some land use power to neighborhood councils, developers will work more closely with the community interests. This will effectively trade the effort put into working through City Hall and addressing neighborhood concerns for working directly with the neighborhood councils. Communities will get more of what they want, City Hall will be able to shed some of the redundant bureaucracy and developers will have a slightly easier time of gaining approval. Of course, none of this matters if City Hall won't relinquish their land use power in the first place. While it is probably a good idea, I wouldn't bet on it.

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