Is the so-called Neighborhood Integrity Initiative really something to be feared?

I think it could be a great advancement for the city of Los Angeles. But business people seem to view the possibility that it will pass in the March 7 election with much the same kind of dread that 14th century Europeans looked upon the arrival of the bubonic plague in the nearby village.

At least, at a Sept. 22 politically oriented luncheon held by the Greater San Fernando Valley Chamber of Commerce, denunciations of the initiative got hearty applause, such as when Los Angeles City Councilmember Nury Martinez said, “This initiative is dangerous.”

What’s more, what’s been called the broadest coalition in L.A. history to fight an initiative has formed to oppose the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. It is made up of chambers of commerce, developers and other business interests, but also labor groups, affordable housing proponents, a few city councilmembers and others. Billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad is among the contributors.

Yes, lots of folks – not just business people – hate the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative.

Why the wrath? It’s mainly because the initiative calls for a two-year moratorium on most major construction in the city of Los Angeles. Well, either two years or until the city updates its general zoning plan, whichever comes first. Opponents say it is nigh onto impossible to accomplish such a mammoth task in less than two years. So, realistically, construction will seize up for that span.

Opponents also imply that the entire initiative is cynical because it was started and bankrolled out of self-interest by Michael Weinstein, the head of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and an unrepentant gadfly. (He’s the guy behind the successful initiative requiring condoms on porn movie sets.) Weinstein is irked because the 28-story Palladium Residences towers are going up next to his Hollywood office, blocking the view from his 21st floor window, and that makes his new initiative a selfish and petulant attack against the city, some believe.

Well, maybe so. But Weinstein experienced the same fury and frustration that thousands of powerless Angelenos feel when they wake up one morning to see a tower under construction next door on land that wasn’t supposed to allow such structures. If they investigate, they likely discover that – surprise! – a deal was cut in City Hall.

Indeed, that’s how development is done in Los Angeles. Deals are cut, one by one, in City Hall. Since the city’s zoning map is woefully outdated (intentionally so, the initiative’s backers claim), that means developers must get a variance, an exception to the zoning code, whenever they want to build much of anything substantive. To get that variance – guess what? – they must schmooze the appropriate city councilmember to get his or her sign-off. Weinstein’s group claims city councilmembers and the mayor have gotten $6 million from developers since 2000, and that’s just in campaign contributions. Has anything other than campaign contributions been forked over? Well, I’ll leave that up to you to guess.

By the way, if a business did what the city is doing, that business could be charged with running an extortion racket. And rightfully so.

I agree with the proponents in this regard: The city must be forced, bludgeoned if necessary, to meaningfully update its zoning codes. It needs to come up with a realistic and transparent set of rules to guide what kind of city we want built. That way, citizens and businesses would be forewarned about the type and scale of development that may go up around them. And once the codes are set and understood – and provided they are realistic – developers could simply get routine permits and wave to the elected folks as they walk by their offices. They would no longer have to stop and pay, ahem, homage.

Sorry to be cynical, but this points out why several city councilmembers hate the initiative. If it passes, it would derail their gravy train.

Having said all that, I agree with the initiative’s opponents in this regard: That two-year moratorium is a killer. It is simply unrealistic to presume a meaningful general plan and all that goes with it (think public hearings in every neighborhood) can be done quickly. As a result, we would be stuck with a two-year hiatus for most construction throughout Los Angeles, and that makes the initiative lethally flawed.

Doesn’t this feel like prime time for a compromise? A statesman is needed to come forward. (Former Mayor Richard Riordan, who supports the initiative, pops to mind, but surely there are other candidates.) Someone needs to work with the Weinstein group to help them achieve their goals but not with that two-year prohibition on construction. Perhaps there can be a waiting period of two or three years before the hammer of that punitive construction moratorium comes down, which would provide time and a deadline for the city to come up with a new general plan. Call it a moratorium for the moratorium if you wish, but a compromise of some type is needed.

If that type of solution were figured out, then we’d have the chance to achieve something truly meaningful: a transparent general plan that creates rational building patterns and doesn’t virtually require a shakedown of developers. And it could be done without a two-year construction moratorium.

That would be something not to be feared by businesses. Indeed, it would be embraced by the grateful arms of a relieved city.