Despite a defeat at the ballot box, backers of a hotly debated initiative aimed at limiting development in the city of Los Angeles in part by blocking General Plan amendments for two years said today they were happy that their campaign has prompted change at City Hall.
“We not only exposed corruption but we began a process of reform,” said Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which largely bankrolled the campaign in support of Measure S. “We built a citywide movement, and we planted the seeds of change. Los Angeles will be a better place to live as a result of the Yes on S campaign.”
Measure S was handily defeated by voters in Tuesday’s election. The initiative was the most expensive—and in many ways the most bitter—campaign in the Los Angeles city election.
The measure would have halted all General Plan amendments, or special permission to developers known as “spot zoning,” for two years while the city updates its General Plan and community plans that guide neighborhood development.
The measure’s backers argued that City Hall is plagued by a “pay-to-play” climate in which wealthy developers who contribute money to elected officials’ campaigns get spot zoning requests granted while the proliferation of high-rise towers and other expensive developments have caused increases in the cost of housing.
Opponents, however, argued the measure goes too far, saying a halt to all General Plan amendments would undercut the city’s efforts to build affordable housing and housing for the homeless while severely hurting the local economy. Officials also argued that updating the General Plan and community plans within two years is not possible.
“We have been committed for 15 months, and so many of you have joined the team. And you said we cannot let this happen to our community,” Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Gary Toebben told a crowd of Measure S
opponents in Downtown Los Angeles Tuesday night. “We cannot put people out of work. We cannot take homes away from people. We cannot let Measure S devastate our community. And so far tonight it looks like the public has agreed with us.”
Rusty Hicks, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, credited a wide-ranging coalition for helping defeat the measure.
“This could not have happened without business, labor and community organizations that were the true face of this coalition going around, knocking on doors, making phone calls, talking to friends and family, boots on the ground, making a difference,” Hicks said.
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation bankrolled the measure by supplying nearly all of the $3.2 million the campaign received this year as of March 1, compared to the roughly $5.9 million opponents of the measure raised from developers, labor unions and other organizations.
Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Controller Ron Galperin and several City Council members, including Jose Huizar and Marqueece Harris-Dawson, actively campaigned against the measure.
Critics said the AHF’s entry into the housing debate was not in its purview, essentially amounting to a misappropriation of its funds. The AHF, under the direction of Weinstein, sued the city in 2016 over its approval of two 28-story towers next to its Hollywood headquarters, and some have
questioned if Weinstein’s battle against development is personal.
Weinstein “has sadly injected his organization into a debate over land use that has nothing to do with HIV or AIDS health care,” Galperin said in February.
Weinstein defended the spending as health-related and within the purview of his mission.
“Our patients are becoming homeless and our employees have to travel longer and longer distances to get to work,” Weinstein told City News Service in January. “And this is our international headquarters, and we try and be good corporate citizens.”
Despite opposition to Measure S, some of its provisions did lead to changes in development oversight at City Hall.
In February, the council approved a motion that calls for an ordinance requiring the city to update its community plans every six years and requiring developers to select environmental impact report consultants from a pre-approved city list.
Both of those steps included Measure S—although the measure would have required the city to update the community plans every five years after they are initially updated.
“Everyone is now in agreement that developers should not write their own environmental impact reports and not have private communications with city planning commissioners, that we should have updated plans for the city and that exemptions from zoning rules should be the exception, not the rule,” Weinstein said Wednesday.
The city has not updated many of its 35 community plans in more than 15 years. The plans set zoning guidelines for neighborhoods and break down in detail what can and cannot be built in certain areas. But because the plans have not been updated, the council is often granting special requests to developers to build bigger or higher projects than the zoning guidelines allow.
A recent analysis by the Los Angeles Times found that 90 percent of all General Plan amendments, zoning or height district changes heard by the city’s Planning Commission or local planning commissions have been granted since 2000.
Huizar acknowledged that the city’s move to expedite community plan updates was a direct response to Measure S, but said he was opposed to the measure because the ban on General Plan amendments would harm the economy.
Garcetti contended the Measure S would have hurt the city’s ability to combat homelessness, because many of the sites the city is looking at for shelters would require General Plan amendments.
But Jill Stewart, campaign manager for the Yes on S campaign, said an analysis by the group found that only a “minuscule” amount of affordable housing projects since 2000 have required a major zoning change or General Plan amendment.