We Need Trees, Not Fees

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The City has a problem. The Urban Forestry Division (UFD) has scores of trees sitting in boxes in storage that it can’t plant. Why is this? In large part it’s because when developers remove trees to build projects, they agree to replace them by purchasing new ones for the City to plant elsewhere. Unfortunately, due to budget cuts, the UFD has no staff to do the planting. And worse, when trees are stuck in boxes for long periods of time, their health declines, sometimes to the point where they’re not viable any more.

Actually, the City has an even bigger problem than this. We’re losing a huge chunk of our urban forest. Years of dry weather has already impacted the health of thousands of trees in the LA area, but now there’s a worse threat. A beetle called the shot hole borer has come to the region. It nests in trees and in the process often kills them. The die-off has already begun, and if it continues at its current pace we can expect to lose millions of trees throughout Southern California over the next several years. This isn’t just a matter of erasing pretty landscapes. As a result of this massive reduction of our urban forest, there will be impacts to our water resources, our air will be dirtier, and our cities will grow hotter than they are already.

So you’d think we’d be doing everything we can to protect the trees we’ve got. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Aside from the natural threats to our trees, development is taking a toll on the urban forest. City Hall is pushing hard to boost construction of housing and hotels, as well as office and commercial space. Which brings us back to the first point. Developers generally want to squeeze as much square footage as they can out of a project. Often they ask the City to reduce required setbacks, or even let them build right out to the property line. In many cases they also ask the City to reduce the requirements for open space. The Department of City Planning (DCP) is usually pretty generous in granting developers’ wishes, especially if it’s a housing project that includes some affordable units.

To give you an idea of how bad things have gotten, let’s talk about the City’s Protected Tree Ordinance (PTO). Some species are considered so important that we should afford them special protection. A while back the City Council approved the PTO in order to prevent their removal except under extraordinary circumstances. So how’s that working out? Not so good. In November of last year Councilmembers Paul Koretz and Mike Bonin introduced a motion to strengthen the ordinance. Here’s a quote.

”Unfortunately, trees are not being adequately protected and departments are not working well together to protect them. Trees are being cut before development permits are applied for, trees are not being protected during construction activities, and building permits are routinely issued without the Department of Building and Safety being aware of the presence of protected trees on the affected properties, all resulting in an accumulating net loss of trees, tree canopy and the accompanying ecosystem services across the City.”

This is serious. We need trees. Our water resources are increasingly stressed. LA’s air quality ranks among the worst in the nation. And temperatures in the city continue to rise. A robust urban forest would help us deal with all of those problems, but instead of enhancing our tree canopy we’re cutting it down.

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The reason I’m bringing all this up is that there’s a proposal before the City right now to allow developers to fulfill the requirement for replacing trees simply by paying a fee. For new projects that remove trees, the City would calculate the required number of replacements (usually at a ratio between 2 to 1 and 4 to 1), and then bill the developer for in-lieu fees of $2,612 per tree. This amount would cover the cost of procurement, planting and providing water for three years.

At first glance, this might look like a good deal. The UFD doesn’t have staff to plant the replacement trees it’s been receiving, and storing them for long periods of time impacts the trees’ health. There apparently has been talk of restoring some of the UDF’s funding in the City’s next budget, which could lead to the hiring of personnel to plant trees. But that’s definitely a roll of the dice, since LA is struggling with a structural deficit, and for years now its budgets have been held together with scotch tape and bubble gum. Many City departments suffered staff cuts during the recession, and they’re all lobbying to restore those positions. So without any certainty over staffing for the UFD, the in-lieu fee probably seems pretty attractive, since the cost of planting and watering is built in. The City is outsourcing a lot of work already, and it could just hire a contractor to do the job.

But really, there are a number of problems with just charging an in lieu-fee….

First, it makes it even easier for the DCP to allow developers to do away with trees. If, in theory, all the trees that are removed will be replaced at a 2 to 1 ratio or better, and if the money collected includes planting and watering, then why would they hesitate to reduce setbacks and open space? Let the developers do whatever they want! Problem solved. But in reality, we have no guarantee that this system will work as promised. Think about it. Supposedly the current system of requiring developers to replace trees was going to solve the problem. And what actually happened? We have a lot of trees sitting in City-owned storage areas. Some have been sitting in boxes so long that they’re no longer viable. And at the same time developers have been cutting down trees and putting hardscape in their place.

But the City would certainly spend the money they collect. Right? Not necessarily. You may recall that back in 2015 City Controller Ron Galperin did an audit of fees collected from developers. He found $54 million that had been sitting in City-controlled accounts for at least three years. This money had been collected, but it hadn’t been spent. Unfortunately, City Hall isn’t always great about following through.

Second, while charging the in-lieu fees may lead to a better replacement rate in the future, there’s no guarantee that the City will do anything about the trees the UFD currently has in stock. If the budget for the next fiscal year doesn’t include funds for additional staff, these trees could easily sit in storage until they die. It’s been suggested that non-profits could step in to do the planting. If that’s a possibility, why hasn’t it already happened?

Third, and most important, this is not a solution, it’s a quick fix. In order to find a solution, you have to first identify the problem, and the City hasn’t done that. It’s proposing in-lieu fees as a way of replacing trees that are cut down for development, but that’s really just one aspect of the situation.

The real problem is that we’re facing a potentially devastating loss of our urban forest.

If we fail to maintain our urban forest, our air quality will suffer, our water quality will be diminished, and LA will continue to grow hotter than it already is.

LA needs a comprehensive, holistic approach to managing our urban forest. We must do a complete inventory of the city’s tree canopy, and also an inventory of space available for planting trees. We then need to use this data to develop a unified policy based on actual science that will address all aspects of the problem. Rather than coming up with quick fixes to deal with tree loss caused by new development or sidewalk repair or insect infestation, we need an integrated approach that brings all these things together.

In other words, we need to gather the data, look at the science, and then develop an actual plan.

If we don’t do this, our urban forest will continue to decline, and we will suffer the consequences.

If you want to take a look at the proposed ordinance, here’s the link.

Tree Replacement In-Lieu Fee

If you want to contact your City Council rep about this issue, be sure to include this council file number in the subject line.

CF-16-0461

And to make sure your comments are included in the file, don’t forget to copy the City Clerk.

cityclerk@lacity.org

Finally, if you want to voice your comments in person, this issue will be considered by the Community Forest Advisory Committee (CFAC) later this week.

CFAC Meeting
Thursday, March 1, 1:00 pm
City Hall, 200 N. Spring St, Room 361
[USE MAIN ST. ENTRANCE.]

For more information, follow the link below.

CFAC Meetings

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LA’s Latest Innovation: Freeway-Adjacent Rooftop Decks

RD Ovrcast

You just never know what the City of LA will come up with next….

There was an empty lot in my neighborhood that had been sitting vacant for years.  After a developer pitched a hotel for the site and got turned down, a new project came along consisting of 18 3-story condos.  It seemed like a good fit, the Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council (HHWNC) looked it over and gave it a thumbs up, and construction started last year.

Everything seemed okay until last November when I noticed what looked like a railing going up around the perimeter of the roof.  Were they adding rooftop decks?  That wasn’t mentioned in the hearing notice for the project or the environmental assessment, and it wasn’t part of the project approved by the HHWNC.  Not long after the railing went up, it became clear that the construction crew had added staircases leading to the roof, and soon they were building stairwell coverings.

Why was I concerned?  Well, here in Hollywood people like to give parties.  Nothing wrong with parties in general, but sometimes they get pretty noisy, and sometimes they go on really late.  It’s already an issue in the neighborhood, and building 18 individual rooftop decks seemed like it was just increasing the chances of someone throwing an all-night open-air bash.

So initially my concern was selfish.  I was worried about the noise this project might create, and I was wondering why the rooftop decks hadn’t been included in the package that was presented to the community and approved by the Department of City Planning (DCP).  I called up my City Council office, and talked to a very nice guy who said he’d look into it.  Over the next two months I sent three e-mails to this Council Office staffer asking for an update.  Never got an answer.

But during that time it occurred to me that there might be another problem with this project, a much more serious issue than raucous late night parties….

You see, these condos are going up right next to the Hollywood Freeway.  I’d say at the farthest point the structure is about 150 feet from the freeway and at the nearest point about 50.   I started wondering if building so close to a major traffic corridor wouldn’t pose health risks for the future occupants, so I got on the net to do some research.

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The space between the project site and the freeway.

Probably everybody reading this already knows what I found out.  There’s a large body of research showing a higher incidence of respiratory problems among people who live near freeways.  The risk is especially high for children and seniors.  In fact, young people can suffer lifelong damage since ongoing exposure to pollutants from auto exhaust may affect the development of their lungs.  This problem has gotten a lot of media attention recently, but the information has been out there for years.  USC has been studying the effects of air pollution on children since the 90s.  Here’s an article published by USC News back in 2004.

USC Study Links Smoggy Air to Lung Damage in Children, September 2004

Not long after, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) published their Air Quality and Land Use Handbook, warning cities about the risks of building housing near freeways.  Here’s the number one item on the handbook’s list of recommendations.

“Avoid siting new sensitive land uses within 500 feet of a freeway, urban roads with 100,000 vehicles/day, or rural roads with 50,000 vehicles/day.”

So the information has been out there for more than a decade, and the City Council is well aware of the health impacts to people living close to freeways.  They’ve talked about ways to deal with the risks, but very little has happened in the way of concrete action.  In fact, in recent years the Council has approved thousands of residential units in close proximity to freeways.  They argue that LA’s housing shortage is so dire we can’t afford to prohibit construction in these areas even if there are health risks.  Even though I don’t buy that argument, I know that many people would agree.

But rooftop decks?!  Are they crazy?!

After reading up on the potential health risks, the idea of adding rooftop decks to these condos seemed so absolutely insane I thought it was worth making a few phone calls.  I rang up the woman at the DCP who prepared the initial study for the project.  I explained that the rooftop decks hadn’t been included in the project description or the renderings that were shown to the HHWNC, and that the height had increased by 30%.  She said that the project complied with existing zoning and that the Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) had the final authority over what was permitted.  I asked how the DCP could allow this since noise impacts from rooftop decks weren’t considered in the environmental assessment.  She replied that the DCP had considered operational impacts from the project and had approved the assessment.  Finally, I pointed out that the rooftop decks posed significant potential health risks to the future tenants.  Her response was that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) did not require the DCP to consider impacts to those who would live on the site in the future.

I was angry, but not really surprised.  I’ve realized over the last few years that the folks at the DCP really don’t care about how proposed projects will affect the lives of the people who live in this city.  It’s all about keeping the developers happy.

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Traffic on the Hollywood Freeway near the project site.

Who knows why I even went on to contact LADBS.  I guess I must get some kind of sick kick out of banging my head against a wall.  Anyway, here’s their response.

 

The roof top decks and the overall building height of 44.9 feet is allowed by right, therefore LADBS does have the ability to approve the project as proposed.  The Zoning Variance reviewed by City Planning only addressed a parking requirement.  City Planning has approved the plans for the current project.

LADBS’ authority to approve projects is based on Building Code requirements.  The Building Code does not have any restrictions for a rooftop deck near a freeway.

 

So according to LADBS, they did everything by the book.  They don’t see a problem.

But there is a problem here.  It’s bad enough that a developer is allowed to present one project to the community and then build something substantially different.  But it’s even worse when a developer is allowed to create a clear health risk for the people who will live in the finished building.

I tried arguing with the bureaucrats who approve these projects and got nowhere.  Maybe it’s time to take it to the higher-ups.  If you feel there’s a problem here that needs to be addressed, I hope you’ll feel strongly enough about it to write an e-mail to the three people listed below.  And please use the following subject line….

Freeway-Adjacent Rooftop Decks at 2111 Cahuenga

Eric Garcetti, Mayor

mayor.garcetti@lacity.org

Vince Bertoni, Director of City Planning

vince.bertoni@lacity.org

Frank M. Bush, LADBS General Manager

frank.bush@lacity.org

RD Tight