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Is L.A. housing density decision the revenge of Jane Usher?

April 15, 2009 | 10:18 am

To planning nerds, a court ruling that struck down a new housing density law in Los Angeles Tuesday was a small earthquake, throwing into question the legality of an unknown number of real estate projects approved by the City Council over the last year.

But political types had another urgent question about the decision: Is it the revenge of Jane Usher?

“Yes it is,” said Usher, who until November served as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s top appointee on the city Planning Commission. Usher was deeply unhappy last year with the City Council’s plan for giving real estate developers new concessions – taller buildings, less open space, more housing units – for any project that had even a small amount of affordable housing. While serving as planning commission president, the normally soft-spoken Usher took the unusual step of sending an e-mail to neighborhood activists spelling out the various ways in which they could challenge the law in court.

Usher said the city had failed to provide the legally required environmental review of the so-called “density bonus” law. And she warned that the new ordinance would actually reduce the amount of affordable housing in Los Angeles by spurring the widespread demolition of rent-controlled apartments that would be replaced by expensive condominiums and apartments with as few as one or two units of affordable housing.

Neighborhood groups seized on the advice and sued, securing a legal ruling against the density bonus law. Superior Court Judge Thomas I. McKnew also invalidated the city’s approval of any real estate project that received concessions from Los Angeles that went beyond those that could be offered under a similar state law. This morning, Usher compared the density bonus law to Measure B, the solar energy plan that was defeated in the March 3 election, saying both were insufficiently vetted before they were approved by the council.

“In both cases," she said, "the process was short circuited.”

-- David Zahniser