L.A. voters will go to ballot box to city's growth. If approved, plan would give nationwide movement a push

Los Angeles, America's quintessential city of urban sprawl, may soon put a check on unbridled growth. For the first time in history, residents this November will vote on a measure that would severely restrict commercial and industrial development throughout much of the city.

If approved, as expected, the measure is likely to add momentum to a growing movement nationwide to direct or control urban growth through the ballot box.

Even before Angelenos vote, however, efforts are underway by the city council to dilute the impact of that initiative, a move that could lead to a protracted legal tussle and is intensifying the debate over the future of the city's skyline. A proposed city ordinance would soften the impact of the no-growth move by providing for certain exemptions.

Attempts to limit growth through initiatives or referendums are becoming increasingly popular. Across the country, a growing number of communities are seeing land-use rules written not by city planners, but by grass-roots groups that are concerned about the impact of office buildings and clogged freeways on their neighborhoods.

``No-growth'' advocates are spawning most of the initiatives. But in a few cases, city officials themselves are choosing to skirt normal legislative channels and put planning issues directly on the ballot. They see it as a way to circumvent messy political fights at city hall.

Perhaps predictably, California, with its penchant for initiatives of any kind, is leading the ``ballot-box-planning'' movement. This fall, at least a half dozen communities across the state will have some kind of growth-control measure on the ballot. Most of them will be in communities in the growth-sensitive San Francisco Bay area.

What is unusual, though, is that Los Angeles, a city that since its birth has been stretched and shaped by growth and grand real estate speculation, is considering joining the movement.

Proposition U, as the initiative here is known, was spawned by two city councilmen, Marvin Braude and Zev Yaroslavsky. They launched the ballot measure last winter after concluding that the city council would not stand up to developers and push through tough planning controls.

The councilmen have been supported in their drive by many environmental, homeowner, and neighborhood groups, which have become increasingly embittered in recent years with the encroachment of high-rise office buildings and commercial emporiums in residential areas.

The measure would cut in half the allowable size of new buildings on about 85 percent of the city's commercial and industrial property. It would not affect most projects in areas reserved for intense development, such as downtown and Hollywood.

Backers garnered more than 100,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot, which leads many observers to believe it will pass in the November election.

Critics -- including developers, organized labor, and some city council members -- believe the initiative is too Draconian. ``It is a meat-ax approach,'' says Dori Pye, president of the L.A. West Chamber of Commerce.

Despite the misgivings, however, little visible opposition has been mounted against it. Instead, many opponents are supporting an alternative growth management ordinance moving through the city council.

The latest version of this measure, expected to receive final approval this week, would ease the impact of the initiative by exempting several hundred projects that have been proposed but not yet built. It would also shield certain parts of Los Angeles, such as low-income areas, where the city is trying to stimulate development.

Ordinance backers, led by council president Pat Russell, argue it is a more balanced approach to controlling growth. Initiative supporters consider it a ``loophole law'' for developers.

``It is nothing but an attempt to undermine the initiative,'' says Barbara Blinderman of Not Yet New York, a coalition of community groups fighting to limit development.

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