CCA Reflects: DTLA 2040 and Depoliticizing Development

CCA Reflects: DTLA 2040 and Depoliticizing Development

Published Thursday, September 3, 2020 9:00 am

We have been deeply engaged on the DTLA 2040 Community Plan, which will serve as the blueprint for Downtown's future developments and define Downtown's character, look and feel. It will impact the types of projects that can be built for the next two decades, and be the first community plan to implement the city's new zoning code. We have prepared a simple guide to understand the key components of the new zoning code and DTLA 2040 and how they will work together that you can view here.

DTLA 2040 has been a top advocacy priority for CCA since the project started in 2015, but it has taken on even more importance in light of the indictment of former City Councilmember José Huizar over corruption charges related to project approvals for multiple Downtown developments. We echo the sentiments of the LA Times Editorial Board in their recent opinion piece that the best way to fight corruption is by creating a better planning system that bases project approvals on clear, objective criteria upfront (i.e., by-right or ministerial approval) and relies less on the subjective and intensely political process for each individual project (i.e. discretionary approval).

DTLA 2040 is a tremendous opportunity to set areawide standards and move away from ad hoc approvals. To achieve this goal, the plan must be flexible enough to produce high-quality and financially feasible developments. An overly rigid plan means developers will still have to go through the same old onerous political review process to build a development that makes sense contextually and economically, or not build at all, which is especially problematic at a time our region is facing a massive housing and homelessness crisis.

Downtown projects currently rely on subjective, individual approvals.
Like many other areas of the city, development rules in Downtown are based on an outdated and confusing patchwork of different plans that were enacted decades ago and no longer reflect today's needs, economic realities and development trends. This means that developers wishing to build in Downtown -- the city's transit and job hub -- often must seek deviations from the existing regulations for their projects to make financial sense and fit in with the context of contemporary, mixed-use urban cores. This requires project-by-project discretionary review and approval by the City Planning Commission, City Council and Mayor, all of which is time-consuming, creates uncertainty for developers and the community, and opens the door for decisionmakers to use this process for political purposes and for opponents to appeal projects.

To understand how this process can change with DTLA 2040, it's important to know what kinds of approvals Downtown developers seek today that cause them to go through the discretionary review process, which are most commonly:

  • General Plan Amendments or Zone Changes for projects where underlying land uses are too rigid, like in the Arts District or Fashion District where existing zoning set years ago exclusively allows industrial and commercial uses despite strong demand today for mixed-use residential growth.
  • Transfer of Floor Area Rights (TFAR) approval for projects that wish to build bigger, often by more than double, than what is allowed by the baseline zoning in return for purchasing floor area from the City, like projects in South Park, the Financial District and Historic Core.
  • Conditional Use Permits (CUPs) for a number of uses ranging from entertainment and/or alcohol-serving uses to K-12 schools. 

DTLA 2040 can create clear, objective standards for all future projects.
The reason for preparing long-range community plans and areawide planning efforts is to vet a comprehensive vision for an area that sets the bar for all projects to meet, and therefore proposed projects don't need to be reviewed and approved one-by-one if they conform to that vision. For this to be a reality, the rules need to be accommodating and flexible enough to allow development that is fitting for DTLA and makes financial sense. Otherwise, a plan is just wishful thinking and will result in individual projects requiring ad hoc review. Or, even worse, it will entirely discourage development altogether which is especially vexing amid a housing and homelessness crisis.

We are optimistic about the ways DTLA 2040 can reduce the need for discretionary review:

  • It allows for bigger buildings and provides for more flexible land uses in many areas of Downtown, so projects in the Arts and Fashion District will no longer require General Plan Amendments and/or Zone Changes.
  • The Community Benefits Program encourages the inclusion of on-site public benefits for projects to maximize their floor area through a by-right or ministerial process instead of using the discretionary TFAR process, and also allows projects to satisfy affordable housing provisions by paying an in-lieu fee or building it off site.
  • It aims to further entice developers into providing public benefits by raising the threshold for Project Review (today known as Site Plan Review which triggers CEQA review) to 500 units or 500,000 square feet of non-residential space, whereas projects that don't provide public benefits will be subject to Project Review if they're above 50 units or 50,000 square feet of non-residential space.
  • It eliminates the need for CUPs to serve alcohol in certain nightlife destinations like areas around LA LIVE, as well as along Broadway.
  • It provides more options for adaptively re-using buildings.
  • Minimum parking requirements will be eliminated.
  • Active ground-floor uses, and not just retail, will not be counted against a building's allowable size.
  • Density limitations will be removed.
  • Projects that still need relief from the regulations for certain changes, like exceeding maximum building heights or deviating from design standards, will largely only have to seek approval through less political and less cumbersome processes like Alternative Compliance, Variances and Adjustments that only require Director-level or Zoning Administrator approval, rather than approval by elected officials. 

However, we know there are many outstanding provisions that concern us as it relates to promoting high-quality development and project feasibility:

  • The plan currently proposes building heights in many parts of Downtown, including the Historic Core, Arts District, Little Tokyo and Chinatown that are out of sync with development typologies and run contrary to promoting growth in the city's transit center.
  • Above-ground parking would count against a building's allowable size everywhere in Downtown, which presents serious challenges for project economics as residential and commercial tenants still want some amount of parking and developers navigate the high costs of providing parking while trying to maximize space for housing.
  • It's questionable whether high-rise development, which is more expensive than low- or mid-rise development due to a reliance on costly materials like concrete and steel as well as union labor, can actually bear the costs of the prescribed on-site affordable housing levels in the Community Benefits Program.
  • It would go beyond the scope of any zoning code by dictating allowable building materials in the Arts District and virtually precluding the use of wood, the most affordable construction material, while simultaneously limiting new housing as live/work lofts, which are more expensive to build than conventional multifamily units.
  • Despite more flexibility than allowed today in many areas, it still would mandate the inclusion of commercial space with any housing in the Arts District and Fashion District, which makes projects complicated to build from both a design and financial standpoint, and maintains much of southeast Downtown as zoned for industrial uses.
  • There are several parameters that add inflexibility and create unnecessary barriers, such as limiting ground-floor retail businesses to 5,000 square feet, mandating flat roofs and other highly-specific design standards for certain neighborhoods, capping hotel projects at 49 rooms in some areas or 149 rooms in others, and setting minimum building height requirements to allow only high-rise construction.
  • CUPs would still be required for schools in many areas. 

We are excited that this plan will not only influence the future of DTLA, but also set the stage for planning for the rest of the city. However, we know questions remain about whether DTLA 2040 can deliver high-quality and financially feasible projects or if it can provide the flexibility for some of the more onerous requirements and limitations to be workable. CCA is committed to continuing working with the City Planning Department to make DTLA 2040 the best plan it can be to maximize capacity for new housing while taking politics out of Downtown planning and development. As we've seen with recent corruption charges, this is critical to creating a fairer playing field and providing more predictability and transparency. It's more important than ever that DTLA 2040 provides a realistic framework for projects to be built as envisioned, or we risk continuing to let politics dictate development.

City Planning is currently accepting comments on the plan's Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) until October 20, 2020 and will likely be heard by the City Planning Commission in early 2021. If you are interested in being a part of our advocacy efforts, please contact Marie Rumsey and Michael Shilstone.