Parks, Open Space, and Measure S
by Jill Stewart, Coalition to Preserve LA
Of America’s 65 biggest cities, Los Angeles is the most park-poor. https://parkscore.tpl.org/rankings.php
There has never been a excuse for this, but each successive Los Angeles City Council has come up with a shifting series of reasons. In 2008, Controller Laura Chick blasted the City Council for sitting on $129 million in unspent Quimby parks money as each fiefdom-oriented council member quibbled for years over “whose district” got what, and numerous council members shied away from allowing parks on land where insider developers wanted to build.
Parks, and the planning and siting of parks, would be a key enterprise in crafting a modern General Plan, and in the successive updates each 5 years. But the City Council has abanondoned the crucial duty of creating integrated General Plans that answer our immediate, intertwined needs each 5 years for sewers, water, stores/commercial, housing, safety services and other infrastructure. An overriding problem has consistently left parks dead last: the people want parks and need parks, but the people do not donate large sums of money to LA’s elected officials, and as a result they have no voice.
Right now, our Measure S campaign is tracking a dozen pending “deals” to build a luxury hotel, luxury condos and a luxury subdivision, and so on, upon land where parks are desperately wanted and needed, or where open space is important to the surrounding habitat. Last year several pieces of land ripe for parks or open space were lost to luxury housing or commercial projects. And the year before. And before.
-We stand with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy in trying to save several acres of old farmland now surrounded by homes in West Hills along Bell Creek tributary to the LA River, instead of allowing a land speculator to ignore the City Charter and toss out the zoning to build 50 “small lot subdivision” tract homes.
-On the Westside a few blocks south of Hamilton High School, a forgotten chunk of land luckily zoned for Open Space, one of the city’s most protective zoning codes and meant for parks or open space, a famous hotelier has speculated on the land, feeling quite sure he will be granted by the City Council a spot zone to wipe out this rare piece of parkland in a crowded, park-poor, working class and middle class area.
-In Koreatown, where residents can barely breathe from lack of open space, and according to TK have so little park space that it pencils out to enough land “for a coffin” for each person, after years of community planning, neighborhood activism and officials working to assemble the money to buy land for a park on a large vacant lot, City Hall decided the price was too high and allowed a developer to build a luxury housing complex.
-In Pacific Palisades, the last open bluff space from which you can see the ocean was long planned for a park. As in Koreatown neighborhood activism was high, and a deal to buy the land seemed imminent, especially given the slide history of the bluff below. Then the city abandoned the effort and the land is now planned for luxury apartments.
-The same is unfolding on open space in Echo Park (a speculator wants to build condos), a closed golf course in the foothills (tract home development), and a pocket-park sized piece of Open Space zoned land on the LA River (the city now says the zoning was a “typographical error” and is rezoning this “mistake” to help a developer create a larger luxury housing project on the river in Frogtown).
-Bird Island, at the confluence of the Centinela TK and Ballona Creeks, with its thick canopy of trees and habitat, is now in the hands of a speculator who destroyed dozens of trees apparently without a permit, and now believes, given the growing practice of City Council votes that ignore local zoning, that he will be able to persuade the Council he should build a bridge, road and massive condo project on the land immediately adjacent to the Marina Freeway.
General Plan Issue
Without a modern General Plan, there are no realistic guideposts the City Council must follow when it comes to parks and open space. Quimby funds, under state law, must be used to build parks near the new density created by the developers who pay mostly in lieu fees into the funds.
This year, AB 1191 allowed the funds to be also be used to rehabilitate existing facilities, seen by many environmentalists as a watering-down of the law for park-poor Los Angeles with its weak history of adding parks or open space. The city is already supposed to rehabilitate its parks, as part of many, many park funding measures approved by voters over the years.
On September 7, the City Council approved a controversial “interpretation” of the state Quimby law, in which developers can ignore their local impact on crowded areas desperate for parks, and the money can be diverted to create parks up to 10 miles away. The City Council softened this blow to our dense neighborhoods, by requiring apartment developers to begin paying into the fund, not just condo and home developers. Now there will be more money — to build parks nowhere near the projects that are leaving people and creatures little room to breathe.
Under City Hall’s new ordinance, if a developer crams another building into Westlake or Koreatown or Hollywood, the city can now take their Quimby money, which has been slightly increased in size, and go build a park in … the San Fernando Valley, or on the Westside.
Council file: 16-0529
New ordinance: NO. 184505
City Hall insists it can’t find land near most projects it approves that would adhere to the state Quimby law of one-half mile proximity. But the City Council has other motivations — vast sums of campaign contributions, lobbying wining and dining, and huge gifts to their favorite pet projects that arrive before votes on allowing land speculators to “upzone” land in “hot spots” to build things few people can afford.
Already, the City Council has been warned by the group Fix the City that their vote illegally altered state law. (Fix the City has repeatedly and successfully sued the City Council for allowing megadevelopments that do not provide basic levels of infrastructure and mitigations to support their neighborhood and environmental impacts.) (SEE FULL LETTER BELOW)
And how did the City Council, the highest paid City Council in the US at about $190,000 per year, more than US Senators earn, and each of them given a team of 15 to 20 personal aides, (which, along with the mayor’s staff is larger than the White House Office Staff) arrive at this 10-mile rule?
Did the City Council hold public impact hearings? Deep studies released to aid their debate? No. They again went with the Wild West approach to planning, ignoring the City Charter and tenants of democratic governing. They took a poorly informed guess and hope their vote doesn’t impact our parks and open space in negative ways. They did not hold public hearings to hear from environmentalists, social justice groups, tenants rights organizations or Neighborhood Councils. Nor did they study the effects of the Quimby “exemption” they are granting to affordable housing projects. While a noteworthy idea to exempt housing for the poor, they did not study the effects of their decision to exempt developers of moderate-income housing: “Restricted Affordable Units which are units made affordable to those earning up to 120% of the Area Median Income.”
And incredibly, no Environmental Impact Report was prepared, as City Hall officials quietly agreed the change could be made as a “categorical exemption.”
Nor did the City Council make or require any of the required findings as provided in state law. Charter section 555 details how the General Plan may be adopted and amended. All amendments to the General Plan must be proposed by either the Council, the City Planning Commission, or the Director of Planning. But in this case, City Council file 16-0529 indicates this move was initiated by the CAO and Mayor.
Details below, from Fix the City letter of protest.
Letter of Opposition from Fix the City:
Sent via Email to Sharon.Dickinson@lacity.org from Fix the City
August 30, 2016
Re: 16-0529, Agenda Item #6
We write today to comment on Council File 16-0529 (CPC-2016-2583-GPA), Item 6 on the agenda.
We strongly recommend that the council require evidence of thorough public outreach on this matter. Neighborhood councils have not been informed and neither have Park Advisory Boards.
Further, we provide the following observations:
The proposed change goes far beyond the state law and may be in conflict with the metrics required by state law. The City should avoid making the same mistake it did with SB-1818, with that mistake being corrected by the courts. Specifically, diversion of funds from areas with insufficient park space per capita to any other area is improper.
A recent report on per capita park space can be found here: https://publichealth.lacountv.gov/chronic/docs/Parks%20Report%202016-rev 051816.pdf (“Within the City of Los Angeles…Council Districts 5, 8, 9, 10, and 13 all had less than 1.0 acre per 1,000 population.”) Additional documentation can be found at these links: 2016 Parks Report, Palms, Venice, West LA, WLA Unincorporated. The proposal is silent on the status of funds already in the Quimby system which have been specifically allocated to parks within a radius of already approved and/or developed projects.
Diverting funds that have already been allocated within the radius of a project is improper, lacks in transparency and retroactively makes previously approved projects’ environmental findings invalid. In addition, developers may be unhappy to learn that Quimby fees paid will likely not be used in the vicinity of their project as required at the time their fees were paid.
Specifically, the proposal fails to account for Quimby funds that were specifically designated as mitigation for local park impacts. For example, many projects contain mitigation language consistent with the following:
“New residents generated by onsite development would increase the use of existing neighborhood and community parks and recreational facilities, which could cause or accelerate physical deterioration of the facilities. However, with payment of required Quimby fees and/or Recreation and Park fees and the provision of required onsite open space, impacts to parks and recreational facilities would be less than significant.”
There has been no outreach to neighborhood councils or park advisory boards that funds which had previously been dedicated to local parks may be syphoned off to park projects 15 miles away.
No EIR was prepared as a categorical exemption was used. The proposal has a substantial likelihood of impacting the environment as funds are used up to 15 miles away from where they originated. Some areas of the city may receive less environmental benefit than under the current usage guidelines. In fact, this is the stated purpose of the proposal.1
The proposal fails to address the growth-inducing aspect of exempting a class of projects from fees. The proposal also fails to address the per-capita reduction in park facilities which will occur as project classes are exempted.
The proposal makes nor requires any of the required findings as provided in state law. Charter section 555 details how the General Plan may be adopted and amended. All amendment to the General Plan must be proposed by either the Council, the City Planning Commission, or the Director of Planning. Council file 16-0529 indicates it was initiated by the CAO and Mayor.
– Fix The City
Letter from Chick 2008 Audit QUIMBY funds.
From City Controller Audit 2008
Dear Mayor Villaraigosa, City Attorney Delgadillo and Councilmembers:
To be truly great, a City must have ample and safe parks and recreation facilities. It is no secret that Los Angeles suffers from a lack of open space. ..a problem that we have long grappled with to find adequate solutions.
In 1975, the California Legislature passed the Quimby Act which requires developers to set aside land or pay fees for parks and recreational facilities. This important law was designed to help balance the burgeoning demand for new housing with the need for public parks.
My audit of the City’s collection and use of Quimby funds finds that after more than 30 years, the program falls short in fulfilling its goals to provide additional parks and enhance existing ones. As of last month, the City had $129 million in Quimby funds sitting, waiting to be spent.
Part of the problem rests with the Recreation and Parks Department and the fact that they have been operating without a comprehensive plan to effectively use Quimby moneys. The Department has been painfully slow in using these needed dollars to address the shortfalls in open space and recreational facilities in the areas with the greatest population growth.
It is hard to fathom, that as the City faces a $300 million dollar budget shortfall, we have $129 million intended for our youth, families, seniors and pets sitting unused and gathering dust.