Meet the man trying to fix LA's zoning

skyline-from-getty.jpgPhoto: LA Observed

The Atlantic CityLab spends some time with Tom Rothmann, senior city planner in Los Angeles City Hall, and the guy overseeing a team of seven staffers and 15 consultant firms [hmm, 15?] carrying out the Re:code LA mandate to reform, simplify and clarify the city's zoning code. On paper the city's zoning of property is governed by a code put into effect in 1946, right after World War II with the city on the cusp of the huge, life-changing postwar population boom. "From a simple 84-page document, it's ballooned to over 600 pages of sometimes vague or contradictory regulations. Needless to say, it has stymied countless property owners, developers, planners, and architects," the story says.

"In order to know what you can build—even in the best circumstances—you have to look into your zoning's allowable uses. Then you look into the General Provisions section, and then you should check the Exceptions section to see if you missed out on anything. Oh, and just to make sure, you should also check the Conditional Use section," says Tom Rothmann, Senior City Planner for the City of Los Angeles.

More than 60 percent of L.A.'s land area falls under these additional regulations; amendments have become the norm, rather than the exception.

Compare this with New York City, which has a more straightforward zoning code where you can just "look up what you can build in a book," says Rothmann, who used to be a land-use planner in the Big Apple. "Here, we qualify things [with] ordinances, overlay districts, specific plans, Q conditions, and other conditions. It's like spot zoning. We keep throwing layers of zoning on top of zones."


Rather than applying the same zoning to, for example, a parcel in downtown and a parcel in more suburban Chatsworth—then spot-zoning the heck out of them—City Planning is looking to create a mix-and-match menu of zoning options based on three components: types of allowable uses, building form, and neighborhood character.

Each component would answer the questions, respectively: What uses should be allowed on the site? What type of building do we want to see? (High rise, low rise, warehouse?) How does this building interact with its surroundings? (If it's next to a subway stop, should it have doors closer to the street? If it's beside the highway, should parking be right by the off-ramp or at the back?)

A bigger problem might be that when City Hall does put some restrictions on a developer, the rules are often just ignored. An LA Times story today features The Grove, the development replacing the Old Spaghetti Factory building in Hollywood and downtown's (pre-fire) Da Vinci Apartments as big projects where promises were not actually enforced.

The problem has persisted over time. Five and a half years ago, then-Controller Laura Chick said she had long wondered who made sure developers adhered to such restrictions.

"The answer is, 'No one,'" Chick wrote in an introduction to a related audit. Her report found that none of the city departments involved in vetting new developments could ensure that such promises were kept.

In reaction, city departments pledged to coordinate better and change their ways. But the same complaints emerged again two years ago, when City Councilman Paul Koretz wrote in CityWatch, an independent newsletter and website on neighborhood issues, that the "valiant and unstinting efforts" of local groups to impose restrictions were not necessarily paying off.

In the face of such frustrations, the city created a new team in the planning department in 2013. It is focused exclusively on new cases in which businesses have agreed to specific conditions in order to serve alcohol or provide live entertainment.

More by Kevin Roderick:
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