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LA weighing new rules for building near freeways

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Would they improve the health of nearby residents?

Houses next to 105 freeway
In Los Angeles, around 500,000 residents live within 1,000 feet of a freeway.
Trekandshoot | Shutterstock

More than a decade after a state agency warned California cities against constructing new housing in areas polluted by traffic, Los Angeles city planners are considering stricter rules for development near freeways.

That could mean new design guidelines for developers, more parking for zero-emission vehicles, and the creation of specific planning zones around freeways as the city updates its decades-old land use code.

The negative health effects of living close to freeways are well documented. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, people who live alongside major roadways have much greater risk of developing asthma, cardiovascular disease, childhood leukemia, and other ailments—including premature death.

In 2005, the California Air Resources Board released a land use handbook for planning around freeways and other areas with heavily polluted air. It advised local governments to avoid putting new housing, schools, parks, and other “sensitive land uses” within 500 feet of a major freeway.

A Los Angeles Times analysis in 2017 found that, despite this warning, Los Angeles planners and city officials have approved thousands of freeway-adjacent housing units in recent years.

That doesn’t seem likely to change. In a report presented Tuesday to the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee, planners point out that much of the land close to freeways is already zoned for residential use, and that thousands of residents now reside in these areas. “It is not feasible to limit residential uses in these areas,” says the report.

What planners do suggest is creating freeway planning zones with specific requirements for new projects and asking developers to build projects using “healthy building design guidelines.”

The city already provides developers of freeway-adjacent housing complexes with guidance on how to mitigate some negative health effects for future residents, but these recommendations are not mandatory. The only major requirement that the city imposes on such projects now is a rule that they include air filtration systems for interior spaces.

Some officials have advocated for stricter rules. In November, Planning Commissioner Dana Perlman promised not to support projects that include balconies overlooking freeways.

“It’s just not healthy,” said Perlman.

Chris Chavez, deputy policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air, urged the committee Tuesday to impose a “stronger policy” on freeway emissions. He recommended that an air quality monitoring system be included in new regulations, along with specific goals for improving the air in communities near freeways.

But planners note that health concerns must be measured against the need for more housing in Los Angeles.

On Tuesday, Councilmember Curren Price suggested that new development guidelines could stifle efforts to build in areas that are already densely populated.

Price argued that even LA’s current rules may be too strict because they apply to projects within 1,000 feet of a freeway, as opposed to 500 feet—the distance used in the CARB guidelines.

Councilmember Jose Huizar also stressed that new policy should strike a balance between protecting residents and allowing for new development.

“I actually do live within 500 feet of a freeway,” Huizar said. “So I recognize... the need to balance the need for more housing with the health impacts of living near a freeway.”

Huizar asked staff if older buildings could be required to install air filters, and whether an inspection program needed to be established to ensure filters are kept in good, working condition.

The committee eventually asked planners to revise the report and return later this year with further recommendations.