The spot zoning thing, regime theory, and Measure S 

I’ve said just about everything I have on Measure S that I can use in the blog. The case itself is part of a larger research project I’ve been working on. This is an odds-and-ends post. 

The spot zoning claim is another one where I see Measure S opponents and proponents talking past each other a bit. What is spot zoning, and does it happen?  

1. It depends on what you mean by that term. From what I can tell, I see straight, letter-of-the-law refutations that general plan amendments and variances do not just get handed out like candy.  But if somebody means “I’m surprised and upset that there is a big project near me because most of my nabe is single family housing and that big project is way different from what has gone on before” when they say “spot zoning”….yeah, I am pretty sure that it does happen. 

2. Infill development was probably always going to feel invasive, out-of-scale, etc to at least some people anyway, so as with much in politics, the technical answer to the question may matter less than what people believe is going on. 

Now, infill development, in some form and as an idea, has been central to planning models for good urban form for no less than two and going on three decades. Turning growth away from the fringe and towards places within cities that have capacity has been equally central to just about every planning document the City of LA has produced for ages. By extension, then, that meant new development was going to go into existing neighborhoods. We should expect these things. 

But many people, unlike planners, urbanists, or developers simply do not pay attention to plans or even have normative ideas about urban form. They should. They really should. But alas, we planners and urbanists are competing with family, people’s own jobs which are often complicated and demanding in and of themselves, Disneyland, Free Donut Day, Dostoyevsky, health concerns, and a whole bunch of things that might preoccupy people a bit more than plans, until they see the big project coming at them and wonder who the Sam Hill thought THAT  was a good idea. 

In the spirit of Donald Trump asking ….who knew how complicated health policy was….just about all modern questions in public affairs, including planning, are  complicated once you get into the “how to do a thing” part of implementation. The general idea around infill is simple enough, and pleasant enough. The LA planning, development, and approvals process is not; it’s loaded with specialist jargon and  agents who have spent years mastering and co-creating it. People outside the process understandably do not grok it, and btw, that’s what they pay we agents for. 

This question in Measure S looms large for those of us interested in urban politics because whether spot zoning happens or not, there are some pretty big projects  out there spread out across lots of  neighborhoods.  That is important for whether those neighorhooods join forces politically. 

Although you wouldn’t necessarily note this from much popular and academic urbanism, there is a strand of urban and environmental  theory that entirely rejects the idea that NIMBYism is selfish or self-interested. Instead, the “NIMBY” label gets slapped on by agents of local government -capital coalitions when they run up against local opposition. Capital is supposed to get its way–and this is doubly the case  now that local governments-capital interests have incorporated sustainability into their rationales in what Elizabeth Gearin dubbed the “Smart Growth Machine.” Other scholars like Carol Hagar and Mary Alice Hadad in their recent collected volume, NIMBY is Beautiful, hold that local opposition is very good overall because it forces innovations: when faced with local opposition, project sponsors work harder to find third-way solutions, address the worries the locals have, and in the end, the development gets better overall. The fact that even after that process some people remain opposed is not, necessarily, a sign the system is not working, either. Some planning theorists go so far as to note that there is entirely too little local opposition in our neoliberal age. There is another nice collected volume edited brilliantly by Enrico Gualini on this very subject, following from the work of Chantal Mouffe dab Ernesto Laclau (who sadly passed in 2014). 

In terms of theorists who in general critique pro-development regimes as capital interests over-riding local community sentiment, one of the perennial critiques of local opposition is, simply, that it’s local, parochial, easy to roll over. In regime theory, there are three major camps, roughly: 

1. Capital and pro-capital advocates: developers and city booster types ranging from the mayor to planners to the local media and various big players like museums, esc. 

2. Homeowners who have few other capital assets besides their homes. 

3.  Renters, laborers, impoverished people generally without either owner-occupied housing or other assets. 

Most times, group #1 dominates. They have power, and they have an abiding, long- and short-term interest in growth; #2 are generally apathetic. They do not go out their way to disrupt normal systems of power and domination in cities because those usually benefit them in some way. Instead of organizing coalitions with #3 to fight for great equality and inclusion and democratic control over the city,  they only mobilize when they see the bulldozers coming for them and shrug and go back to their lives  when the bulldozers are coming for those in #3.

This rest is me armchair speculating, but I think it fits the case pretty well. 

The perception of spot zoning, then, and the proliferation of big projects scattered around LA, changes what would be local skirmishes over specific projects. Instead, homeowners get the impression that big projects can happen anywhere (including their neighborhoods) , and that is enough to get them off their fannies and agitating. In the strange bedfellows department, then, the pro-camp on S can readily accommodate people from both #3 and #2 who have a shared, short-term interest regarding specific projects–even if, over the long term, those in #2 will go back to their comparative privilege ASAP because they actually care less about those in group #3.  People in Group # 3 are not stupid.  They know full well that most homeowners supporting them in the moment will evaporate as soon as their interests get met. Solidarity, schmolidarity. But that doesn’t meant that the temporary leverage their willingness to participate now provides isn’t politically useful. 

People have portrayed my writings here as everything from “empathetic” to “disingeneous concern trolling.”  I see it as realpolitik. If LA urbanists want to avoid Measure S type politics in the future, one of the most effective possible tactics is to alter how Group  #1 relates to those in  #3.  I do not think, as some Neo-Marxists do, that their interests are simply incompatible.  Group #1, when presented with a robust coalition of environmental activists, changed its models and modes of thinking to bring those ideas in, thereby changing environmental challenges (some say co-opting). Plenty of anti-displacement folks already agree that new housing supply has to come; if  planners and urbanists pursue a multi-issue coalition with those in #3, including pressing concerns like police reform that those in Camp #2 will never come around to, they might be willing to co-craft a development agenda that makes sense to them if they are really included in the vision and implementation. Remember: infill is going to stay hard even if Measure S does not pass. 

Don’t forget to vote on Tuesday.