Konstantin Sutyagin/Shutterstock.com

Tom Rothmann is charged with streamlining a crazy-quilt zoning code that dates back to 1946. It won't be easy.

Anyone who's ever had to build something in Los Angeles knows it can be a nightmare.

"In order to know what you can build—even in the best circumstances—you have to look into your zoning's allowable uses. Then you look into the General Provisions section, and then you should check the Exceptions section to see if you missed out on anything. Oh, and just to make sure, you should also check the Conditional Use section," says Tom Rothmann, Senior City Planner for the City of Los Angeles.

Tom Rothmann

More than 60 percent of L.A.'s land area falls under these additional regulations; amendments have become the norm, rather than the exception.

Compare this with New York City, which has a more straightforward zoning code where you can just "look up what you can build in a book," says Rothmann, who used to be a land-use planner in the Big Apple. "Here, we qualify things [with] ordinances, overlay districts, specific plans, Q conditions, and other conditions. It's like spot zoning. We keep throwing layers of zoning on top of zones."

L.A.'s current zoning code is ancient. It was adopted in 1946 just after World War II ended and when Harry Truman was president. From a simple 84-page document, it's ballooned to over 600 pages of sometimes vague or contradictory regulations. Needless to say, it has stymied countless property owners, developers, planners, and architects.

The city knows this is the case, which is why it has embarked on Re:code LA, a five-year, $5 million program aimed at simplifying and streamlining the unwieldy code and making it accessible online. This Sisyphean task falls primarily on Rothmann's shoulders.

An L.A. resident for 15 years now, Rothmann oversees a team of seven people and 15 consultant firms to aid him on this quest. A Rutgers graduate who later earned a master's in public administration from New York University, Rothmann has always had a love for cities. "Cities are messy places that are never going to be perfect, but I do like challenge."

Few challenges are as large as this one, but Rothmann likes to compare what he's doing to creating better tools for an ambitious home renovation. "Right now, it's like building a house with only two or three broken screwdrivers. We need a better toolbox for fixing our city."

Rather than applying the same zoning to, for example, a parcel in downtown and a parcel in more suburban Chatsworth—then spot-zoning the heck out of them—City Planning is looking to create a mix-and-match menu of zoning options based on three components: types of allowable uses, building form, and neighborhood character.

Each component would answer the questions, respectively: What uses should be allowed on the site? What type of building do we want to see? (High rise, low rise, warehouse?) How does this building interact with its surroundings? (If it's next to a subway stop, should it have doors closer to the street? If it's beside the highway, should parking be right by the off-ramp or at the back?)

The components are assigned letters and numbers and are put together as in a combination lock, yielding a large number of options. All this without having to rely on amendments or qualifiers. The goal is to give people flexibility without the headache of creating one-off qualifiers.

One of the first tools to be rolled out will combat the tide of super-sized development in the city. Even after an anti-mansionization ordinance passed six years ago, Angelenos have seen more McMansions built in their relatively low-slung neighborhoods. Under loopholes in the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance, developers are able to build as much as 20 or 30 percent beyond the usual limits.

They can build larger if they design environmentally friendly homes. Additional bonuses are available for design concessions such as stepped front facades. The ordinance also has square footage exemptions for separate garages and enclosed patios, among other things.

A new house beside its smaller, older neighbor. (Dick/Beverly Grove Alliance)

Angry residents in some neighborhoods have responded with petitions. Others have proposed creating Residential Floor Area Districts with tighter restrictions. Seeing this backlash, in May, Councilman Paul Koretz introduced a motion to plug the holes in the original ordinance. It met with overwhelming support from many Los Angeles neighborhoods, and the city council voted unanimously to pass it.

For Rothmann and his team, this gave increased priority to drafting the single-family residence zoning section. "Instead of creating overlay after overlay, we're looking at a wider variety of flavors for single-family neighborhoods," Rothmann says. L.A.'s planners estimate this first set of changes will take about 18 months.

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