NIMBYs Invade Los Angeles

Timothy L. Coyle
Consultant specializing in housing issues

You know them best as NIMBYs (not in my backyard) and, if you’ve been watching development in the state you know how much clout they have over the
local decisions on growth. NIMBYs aren’t alone, though. There are NIMTOOs (not in my term of office), BANANAs (build anything nowhere and nothing anywhere) and, by far, my favorite is the NOPEs (not on planet Earth). But, no matter what you call them, they can be counted on to attack development wherever it occurs in California.

To combat their ubiquity, political leaders in Sacramento are busy writing new laws or amending existing laws – purportedly holding local governments more accountable for summary denials of controversial housing proposals. The new laws lack the teeth or are too impractical, however, to affect the administrative or legal course laid down by common NIMBY objections so they are rarely used. Moreover, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) trumps every anti-NIMBY law so – backed by the Sierra Club – the NIMBYs generally get their way.

This has become particularly true with so-called “infill” projects, which rely on densities that usually exceed local zoning. Lawmakers at the Capitol like the higher-density development that infill provides. “Stack ‘em and pack ‘em” you might hear a cynical legislator say. But, otherwise, interest in infill is genuine.

In the hearts of lawmakers, they believe that consumers will want to occupy such housing because they figure infill residents enjoy the amenities that come with urban living – the bars, restaurants, transportation hubs and the convenience of having them nearby. In their minds, though, they believe that consumers will chose downtown living over suburban living – that new housing residents prefer anything that will combat sprawl. Surely, legislators surmise, the public doesn’t want to chew up more open space to make way for new families. Everyone will just be better off using existing, urbanized land to grow, they conclude.

NIMBYs like infill, too – but for different reasons. Propose a high-density development and a NIMBY group will immediately form. Then, for about $150, the group can file a motion in court to stop the infill project from moving forward.

You see, to NIMBYs a new housing project is just what the doctor ordered and infill development – with higher densities, and more people – will only bolster their case. Not that they oppose growth. “Growth – and especially infill – is good,” the NIMBYs will say. “As long as you’re talking about putting the new housing in someone else’s neighborhood and not ours,” they’ll also say.

Under the banner of CEQA, the NIMBYs will likely argue that “adding more housing to the neighborhood will exacerbate the current over-crowding we’re currently suffering from and will definitely increase congestion. Furthermore, that much housing will change the character of the neighborhood.” In other words, growth is good as long as it’s not next door.

And, so goes this almost daily drama in California as residents statewide will tell you they hate sprawl but they detest density even more.

When Los Angeles is involved, however, it’s a big-time drama. Like the one today involving a Westside non-profit which is suing the City of Los Angeles, seeking to overturn a plan that would allow the construction of up to 6,000 new apartment and condominium units in a downtown neighborhood. Infill it surely is. Indeed, consistent with the goals of the state – memorialized in SB 375 – the housing is purposely planned for downtown, near mass transportation facilities.

The housing is part of the City Council’s plan to extend the Expo Line mass transit to West Los Angeles. In its plan, approved last July, the Council apparently made a “binding commitment” to ensure that streets, sidewalks and public services were adequate to support the new development.

But, the advocacy group Fix the City is calling that a lie in a recently filed lawsuit, saying the City should not have approved the Expo Line density plan without first assessing and fixing West L.A.’s “overburdened and inadequate infrastructure”.
Seemingly on cue, the group said “growing is fine, if you provide for the growth. For everybody who drives through gridlocked traffic and hits a pothole, for everybody who trips and falls on a sidewalk, for every cyclist who bumps into a broken gutter, this one’s for them.”

Local politicians – specifically the two City councilmen representing the area neighborhoods – were predictably mute over the dispute, even though they support the Expo Line plan; a key policy for Los Angeles. In fact, the success of the Expo Line may determine future growth decisions along the region’s growing Metro rail network. The plan includes future office towers, apartment buildings and other developments along Olympic Boulevard, Venice Boulevard and other major streets between Culver City and Centinela Avenue, within a half-mile of voter-approved and financed $2.5-billion Expo Line.

In addition to accommodating future growth in the Southland, the Expo Line plan means more jobs and desperately needed new housing.

This NIMBY bunch, Fix the City, is no newcomer to fights like this. The organization – which has also sued over development in Hollywood and has challenged the City’s transportation plan, which includes hundreds of bike lanes and bus lanes – knows well how to play the stall game. They will argue that the growth plan for West Los Angeles will be difficult because City officials have “kicked the infrastructure can down the road.”

In the end, however, Fix the City, simply is no better than a common NIMBY group opposed to growth and must, therefore, be controlled. To do that, however, means the anti-NIMBY faction in Sacramento has to sharpen its teeth.

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