los angeles downtown at sunset

The Los Angeles City Planning Department released plans for a new incentive-based zoning system for more affordable housing units Downtown.

“Downtown creates something of a unique challenge where on the western side of Downtown there’s this older TFAR program that’s existed since the 1980s,” said Steve Garcia, city planning associate, external affairs, division of Los Angeles City Planning. 

TFAR is the transfer of floor area rights program. It allows developers to sell their floor area rights to other parcels. In addition to floor area rights, some programs allow for the sale of height, or housing or parking units.

“There’s no prioritization of benefits within that program,” he added. “It’s really all just subject to this lengthy discretionary process. We knew that we would need to expand the boundaries of this domain of community benefits, but then also it just needed to be a modernized program, both in terms of value of benefits and prioritization. So, in July of last year, we released the first draft of the Community Benefits Program.”

The existing TFAR would be replaced by the Community Benefits Program, which will increase affordable housing opportunities across neighborhoods, including an approval process that is simplified, standardized and fair. 

Unlike the TFAR program, which covers less than 25% of Downtown, the Community Benefits Program would expand housing, including permanent supportive and affordable housing, to about 60% of Downtown.

“The benefits program as it’s proposed extends to pretty much the entire community plan area,” Garcia said. “So this is getting as far north as Chinatown, across the Arts District, the Fashion District, the Historic Core, and then into Bunker Hill and the Financial District.”

The proposal includes a new base and bonus system for Downtown that will establish a clearer set of objective standards for projects that wish to build beyond their base zoning.

All future project applicants will have to adhere to these standards. 

To exceed a project’s base floor area, developers will need to set aside a specified amount of units as affordable.

A new category—deeply low income—for affordable housing has also been developed for the policies and stated goals of the Community Benefits System. That category is for those who earn less than 15% of the area median income, which is $0 to $15,000 for a household of four.

By including the minimum prescribed affordable housing, a project will be eligible for a 35% increase in floor area.

Additional incentives are also available for projects that provide neighborhood-serving amenities, such as open space and child care facilities. However, they must still set aside a number of units as affordable.

The Community Benefits Program would replace a lengthy and complicated process for reviewing individual project appraisals with a straightforward set of approvals that would apply the same rules to each project.

“This is really a forward-looking 20-year plan. So this is looking at the future of Downtown through the year 2040,” Garcia said. “In doing that, it’s establishing fundamentally goals and policies to help guide the city’s thinking about Downtown over this period of time. And then it’s establishing what the zoning will be to help facilitate those goals and policies.”

Following a fall public hearing, the Community Benefits System will advance to the City Planning Commission for its consideration. 

“Our hope is the advancement to the City Planning Commission will take place in early 2021,” said Garcia. 

After the City Planning Commission makes a recommendation on the plan, it will then go to the City Council, at its land-use committee, for consideration.

“It’s possible that if we have our hearing in the fall and we have our City Planning Commission meetings in early 2021, the council could potentially take action within the first half of the 2021 calendar year,” Garcia said.

Altogether the Community Benefits Program is for Downtown Los Angeles through 2040. 

“The Downtown plan really is centered around accommodating the anticipated growth Downtown in an equitable and sustainable manner, which is really pointing at the need for things like community benefits,” Garcia said. 

“It’s also looking at supporting and sustaining the ongoing revitalization of Downtown—just understanding that there’s a lot of fantastically positive momentum Downtown and wanting to continue to bolster that. It’s looking at reinforcing Downtown’s job orientation. This is a regional job center. This is the employment epicenter within the Southern California region, and we want to continue to recognize and reinforce that. 

“Also we’re really looking at growing and supporting the residential base Downtown. This is a relatively new challenge. There weren’t nearly as many people living Downtown 10 to 15 years ago. That has continued to grow, which is a wonderful and positive thing, but with that comes the challenge of ensuring that there are the amenities and services Downtown that are necessary to sustain a residential population.”