Another LA Stadium proposal, and another end-run around CEQA–or is it? And a Matt Kahn alternative

The LA Times ran an editorial about the California legislature’s willing to expedite AEG’s review on their Downtown LA Stadium proposal:

Legislators got the right result by the wrong process when they approved an expedited judicial review for AEG’s much-discussed downtown Los Angeles football stadium. The project is too important, and the state’s system for reviewing such projects too flawed, to allow procedure to stand in the way of progress. Nevertheless, it’s bad policy to offer special treatment to certain projects; it raises questions of favoritism and corruption to have the Legislature engage proposals one at a time rather than passing laws that apply equally to all.

They go on to make the point that CEQA, the state’s California Environmental Quality Act, is both flawed and dated, but functioning, and while CEQA can be used as anti-competition tool toward new entrants among existing businesses, these types of end-runs can also serve anti-competitive aims. If CEQA is a bad law that unnecessarily burdens businesses, then AEG is in a better position to handle lawsuits than any number of smaller developers, and yet like Majectic Reality before them, they are the ones most able to find ways to streamline the process.

It’s certainly a problem. While most argue that CEQA should be reviewed and changed, as this editorial argues, few people think we should get rid of it. It’s been an important part of slowing things down and increasing democratic participation. Part of the reason why CEQA has so few friends any more, even in the environmental community, is that it’s been used to block pedestrian and bike projects. Advocates of those argue that all we’d have to do to fix CEQA is exempt bike and pedestrian projects since they have a positive environmental impact.

But if somebody is willing to block your project, doesn’t that mean they perceive it as having a negative impact? Hey, I didn’t invent the planner world we live in, where people’s feelings are more important than the science or empirical likelihoods (nor do I like it), but if people can use CEQA to block recycling businesses because they think the industry is unsightly, I’m kind of thinking bike and pedestrian projects have to deal with democratic preferences, too, as obdurate as those are. You live and die by politics if you have given up on science as the metric for evidence, and well. There it is.

All of which reinforces, I think, the need to sunset CEQA as it is and renegotiate.

NRDC is way on board with the legislative move, for a number of reasons listed on David Petit’s blog here. NRDC sees that the state requires big, vague concessions about mitigating traffic “to the baseline” and “best in the nation mode shift”. The translation: there’s a lot of vague language in there we can use to demand more and more of the transit and urban design things we think save the world. And AEG has agreed to a public labor agreement and a community benefits agreement already. So from NRDC’s perspective, it’s not a bad deal.

Matt Kahn responded to the original LA Times editorial with his usual provocative intelligence:

But what regulator in Sacramento has the Solomon-like wisdom to balance the benefits of economic development against the costs of damage to environmental assets?

Instead, what if developers were required to post a bond to be held in escrow? The developer would lose this money if a panel of experts hired by the state determined that the project caused significant environmental damage. Projects posting this bond would be fast-tracked. Developers would gain certainty over the investment process while being put on the hook for malfeasance.

I’m thinking that as sensible as this sounds, communities would never accept the possibility that businesses had the up-front right to build. Then businesses could cause damage, pay, and walk away–even though that’s not terribly different than what we do now. (Businesses negotiate, negotiate, negotiate, get sued, withstand lawsuits, and then build, with nobody ever checking up on whether the mitigation extracted from the developers works or not). Alternatively, they could default on the bond. Can you imagine the homeowners of South Pasadena sitting still if Matt Kahn’s experts didn’t find in their favor? Me either.