Should Major Development in L.A. Be Discouraged?

This ballot measure asks voters to weigh in

The public could be forgiven for feeling as if the choice over the upcoming Neighborhood Integrity Initiative lead them down a dead-end street. The ballot measure—originally targeted for a vote this month but now slated for March—seeks to put a stop to most big construction projects and force all development to follow additional rules. Michael Weinstein, its biggest backer, runs the influential AIDS Healthcare Foundation on Sunset Boulevard, just east of Vine. So far he has poured $1 million of his organization’s money into the Coalition to Preserve L.A.

What may confound some is the idea of putting a yoke on development in a city that has a roughly 3 percent rental vacancy rate and soaring rents. That’s basically the argument you hear from Coalition to Preserve L.A.’s opponents, the wealthiest of which may be the similar-sounding Coalition to Protect L.A. Neighborhoods and Jobs.

That group is funded in large part by Crescent Heights, a Miami-based developer that is completing a tower on the edge of Century City and planning another tower atop the Palladium, a block from Weinstein’s office. Would the Palladium Residences overshadow his office? Perhaps. But Jill Stewart, who runs the Coalition to Preserve L.A., asserts that “it’s complete bullshit to think that this has something to do with protecting his view.” Stewart, who has shoulder-length red hair and was for years the combative managing editor of LA Weekly, has channeled her deep skepticism into this battle against development. At the top of an enormous chalkboard in her Sunset office, she has scrawled a quote from a developer that serves as her mantra for how city hall works: “Money goes in, favors come out.”

Stewart maintains that developers, in cahoots with politicians, rammed plans for the Palladium Residences—and projects like it—through without public comment. She insists that L.A. politicians are bent on making the city as “tall or as big as Singapore or Chicago.” And why this drive? “There is a certain amount of penis envy going on,” Stewart says matter-of-factly.

Apparently there’s a whole lot of it. Several other residential towers are on the books in the Hollywood area, with more under construction downtown, and lower-rise apartments are popping up all over.

Building alongside the region’s growing rail network is especially popular.

What’s lacking is a thoughtful, comprehensive design for L.A. The city’s General Plan and its 35 smaller community plans are supposed to be the blueprint for urban growth. But, decades old, they are largely irrelevant. So real estate happens on an ad hoc basis. Planners and city council members make exceptions for sizable projects, which guarantees a stream of campaign donations from developers who want their cases heard.

That bring us to this current iteration of the struggle for the soul of L.A. On one side, Stewart claims support from celebs such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Kirsten Dunst, Joaquin Phoenix, and Chloë Sevigny. On the other, Crescent Heights et al. have surrounded themselves with labor unions and community groups. Their rallying cry: The draconian ballot measure would halt almost all development, exacerbating the housing shortage, raising rents, and worsening homelessness. “This NIMBYism and antidevelopment spirit doesn’t preserve L.A.; it punishes the homeless and the low-income,” says Helen Leung, a supporter of the pro-growth coalition and co-executive director of LA-Más, which works on community issues in the rapidly gentrifying Frogtown area along the Los Angeles River.

As he is with many controversial issues, Mayor Eric Garcetti is reluctant to take sides. Anti-growthers blame him for championing density in Hollywood when he was the area’s city councilman. And his campaign coffers, like those of just about every other elected city official, are full of developer dollars. In September the mayor wrote a letter to Stewart’s group endorsing many of their demands, such as banning private meetings between developers and city officials.

By then Stewart had already dumped 104,000 signatures with the city clerk to get the measure on the March ballot.

With both sides prepared to spend heavily, this will not be a thoughtful discussion on the future of the city. “It’s going to get really bad,” says Stewart, “really nasty.”