Measure S Defeated

The measure was controversial and cost millions of dollars in campaigning. Photo: LA Weekly.

Los Angeles voters last night solidly defeated Measure S, a hotly debated initiative aimed at limiting development by blocking General Plan amendments for two years.

The initiative was the most expensive—and in many ways the most bitter—campaign in yesterday’s city election.

The measure would have halted all General Plan amendments, or special permission to developers known as “spot zoning,” for two years while the city updates its General Plan and community plans that guide neighborhood development.

The measure’s backers argued that City Hall is plagued by a “pay-to-play” climate in which wealthy developers who contribute money to elected officials’ campaigns get spot zoning requests granted while the proliferation of high-rise towers and other expensive developments have caused increases in the cost of housing.

Opponents argued the measure goes too far, saying a halt to all General Plan amendments would undercut the city’s efforts to build affordable housing and housing for the homeless while severely hurting the local economy. Officials also argued that updating the General Plan and community plans within two years is not possible.

“We have been committed for 15 months, and so many of you have joined the team. And you said we cannot let this happen to our community,” Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Gary Toebben told a crowd of Measure S opponents in downtown Los Angeles. “We cannot put people out of work. We cannot take homes away from people. We cannot let Measure S devastate our community. And so far tonight itlooks like the public agreed with us.”

Rusty Hicks, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, credited a wide-ranging coalition for helping defeat the measure.

“This could not have happened without business, labor and community organizations that were the true face of this coalition going around, knocking on doors, making phone calls, talking to friends and family, boots on the ground, making a difference,” Hicks said.

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) bankrolled the measure, supplying nearly all of the $3.2 million the campaign received this year as of March 1st, compared to the roughly $5.9 million opponents of the measure raised from developers, labor unions and other organizations.

Mayor Eric Garcetti  and City Controller Ron Galperin, who both won re-election tonight, and several City Council members, including Jose Huizar and Marqueece Harris-Dawson, actively campaigned against the measure.

Critics said the AHF’s entry into the housing debate is not in its purview, essentially amounting to a misappropriation of its funds. The AHF, under the direction of its longtime CEO Michael Weinstein, sued the city in 2016 over its approval of two 28-story towers next to its Hollywood headquarters, and some have questioned if Weinstein’s battle against development is personal.

Weinstein “has sadly injected his organization into a debate over land use that has nothing to do with HIV or AIDS health care,” Galperin said in February.

Weinstein defended the spending as health-related and within the scope of his mission.

“Our patients are becoming homeless and our employees have to travel longer and longer distances to get to work,” Weinstein told City News Service in January. “And this is our international headquarters and we try and be good corporate citizens…. We take an expansive view of health. We believe that the social determinants of health are equally important to the medical conditions patients suffer from.”

In what was essentially an open response to Measure S, the Los Angeles City Council passed a number of motions this year that address some of the issues it raises.

In February, the council approved a motion that calls for an ordinance requiring the city to update its community plans every six years and requiring developers to select environmental impact report consultants from a pre-approved city list.

Both of those steps were included in Measure S—although the measure would also require the city to update the community plans every five years after they are initially updated.

The city has not updated many of its 35 community plans in more than 15 years.

The plans set zoning guidelines for neighborhoods and break down in detail what can and cannot be built in certain areas. But because the plans have not been updated, the council often grants special requests to developers to build bigger or higher projects than the zoning guidelines allow.

A recent analysis by the Los Angeles Times found that 90% of all General Plan amendments heard by the city’s Planning Commission or local planning commissions have been granted since 2000.

Huizar acknowledged that the city’s move to expedite community plan updates was a direct response to Measure S, but said he was opposed to the measure because the ban on General Plan amendments would harm the economy.

Garcetti focused on housing for the homeless in his opposition to Measure S.

In January, he held a news conference to argue that city voters’ passage of a $1.2 billion measure in November to build housing for the homeless would be hurt because many of the sites the city is looking at for shelters would require General Plan amendments.

“Measure S will raise rents and will stymie our work to house the homeless. We can, and we will, build a welcoming city where children can grow up and afford to live in their hometown, and their parents can be secure about providing a home for their families. Let’s say no to Measure S and then let’s get to work together,” he said.

Jill Stewart, campaign manager for the Yes on S campaign, said an analysis by the group found that only a “minuscule” amount of affordable housing projects since 2000 have required a major zoning change or General Plan amendment.

Of all the major developments approved by the council recently, the Sea Breeze development in Harbor Gateway has been one of the most criticized in relation to the issues Measure S raises.

The Times reported in October that donors identified as being directly or indirectly connected to the project’s developer, Samuel Leung, gave more than $600,000 in campaign donations to several members of the City Council and an independent campaign committee that supported Mayor Eric Garcetti.

The donations were made from 2008 to 2015, when Leung was seeking city approval for his 352-unit complex, according to the Times.

The project required a zoning change, and Garcetti and the City Council overruled planning commission officials in changing zoning rules to allow the project to move forward.

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