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‘Fix the City’ Lawsuit Challenges L.A.’s Expo Line Development Plan

Last week, the non-profit "Fix the City" sued the city of Los Angeles over the recently approved Exposition Corridor Transit Neighborhood Plan (TNP). The lawsuit demands that the city "rescind the approval of the Expo Plan."

L.A.'s Expo TNP allows for more development – especially affordable housing – in areas around five Westside Metro Expo Line stations: Bundy, Sepulveda, Westwood, Palms, and Culver City. In July, the Los Angeles City Council approved the plan. The 5+year community input process (detailed in this staff report) started in late 2012, and included numerous meetings, workshops, and hearings.

The FTC Expo TNP lawsuit received some coverage at the L.A. Times, Curbed, and The Real Deal. The suit is summarized at FTC's web page, which includes the actual legal document. Streetsblog will guide interested readers through some of the wonky details that make this lawsuit different than other FTC legal efforts.

Fix the City has a history of lawsuits against development and multi-modal transportation. The group sued the city of Los Angeles over its Mobility Plan 2035, with FTC asserting it was "stealing traffic lanes from us... and giving those stolen lanes to bike riders and buses." The city responded to the lawsuit by rescinding and re-approving the plan. FTC has also gone to court to fight developments in Hollywood and Koreatown, and to block updates to L.A.'s Hollywood Community Plan.

Typically these earlier lawsuits alleged violations of CEQA - the California Environmental Quality Act. Under CEQA, to pass a plan or build a significant project, cities, developers, and other entities must spend time and money to prepare an Environmental Impact Report (EIR.) FTC typically sues on the grounds that the CEQA environmental review process was flawed.

The Expo TNP lawsuit is not under CEQA, but instead asserts that Expo Plan is not valid as it is not consistent with the city's General Plan.

Specifically, the lawsuit cites a General Plan Framework Element objective to "accommodate projected population and employment growth within the City and each community plan area and plan for the provision of adequate supporting transportation and utility infrastructure and public service." The lawsuit cites similar provisions in the West Los Angeles Community Plan, which the Expo TNP updates, which

also provide that decision-makers shall “not increase residential densities beyond those permitted in the Plan unless the necessary infrastructure and transportation systems are available to accommodate the increase,” and requires a finding on “the availability and adequacy of infrastructure as part of any decision relating to an increase in residential density.”

The lawsuit continues, alleging that

adoption of the Expo Plan creates an inconsistency within the General Plan and departs from the requirements of the Framework Element. The City Planning Commission failed to make the required findings that the Expo Plan is “in substantial conformance with the purposes, intent, and provisions of the General Plan.” Such findings cannot be made because the City has failed to ensure adequate infrastructure prior to approving the increased density in the Expo Plan, as required by the Framework Element.

Just what is all this "transportation infrastructure" that FTC asserts has not been provided?

It is not Metro's multi-billion-dollar Expo light rail line.

It is all about roads.

An FTC spokesperson mentioned potholes and sidewalks, but the details of the legal complaint focus mostly on the "deterioration of police and fire response times." The lawsuit cites a national standard, then cites selected 2016 data and an undated 2012 "typical day" screenshot to assert that LAFD response times are inadequate. The lawsuit asserts that "first responders cannot overcome increasing call loads and increasing traffic."

(Note that the sort of car-centric city that FTC prefers is a burden on first responders. Those "call loads" are PD and FD responding to the numerous car crashes that injure and kill Angelenos. In debunking the myth that slower, safer streets harm public safety, Tom Vanderbilt asserts that "speeding cars have surely claimed more lives than speeding responders would have saved." If FTC was truly concerned about loss of life and limb, they would support the Vision Zero policy in the Mobility Plan. They sued to block it instead.)

What is causing all this, in the words of the lawsuit, "soul-crushing worst-in-the-country" traffic? NIMBY folks like FTC fight against higher-capacity modes like the Expo Line and the bus as well as bike and walk improvements in the Mobility Plan. They push for car-centric planning which leads to the traffic they then complain about.

In a statement to Streetsblog, Nick Burns of Abundant Housing L.A. describes the situation:

500,000 employed Angelenos work on the Westside yet, due to an extreme lack of housing, only 250,000 people live there. That's roughly 250,000 people driving into our neighborhoods every morning and driving out every evening. If Fix the City really wanted to improve the city's emergency response times, they'd beg their elected representatives to legalize more housing near all these jobs, especially along one of L.A.'s premier transit investments. ... But practical solutions that relate means to ends are nowhere to be found in their suit, which calls into question the sincerity of their commitment to a safer, less congested neighborhood.

Instead of offering solutions, they're suing to block desperately needed housing, including thousands of affordable units, in one of L.A.'s most prosperous neighborhoods. This approach is ... only going to make our condition worse. If Fix the City succeeds, traffic congestion will get worse, scarce housing will get more expensive, and more Angelenos will be displaced from their homes.

The sad chicken-and-egg problem here is that car-centric infrastructure policies have made it costly for the city to maintain overbuilt car-centric streets. Embracing the additional development the Expo TNP allows for could help grow the city's tax base. A bigger tax base means improved services, including fire and police. And orienting this new development around transit means less car traffic than would be generated if it were built elsewhere.

The real objective of the lawsuit seems to be restricting the city's capacity to encourage development. Under Fix the City's sad logic, the city would not be able to upzone anything any time there is a pothole or a sidewalk crack out there somewhere.

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