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In 1908, Los Angeles passed the nation’s first land use ordinance, establishing—fittingly—residence only zones. In these zones one, and only one, occupation was expressly defined as a nuisance and prohibited: the establishment and operation of wash houses. In Los Angeles, wash houses were businesses owned and operated primarily by Chinese-American immigrants, and served a secondary role as de facto social clubs for these populations to gather. This first ordinance is often sited as being explicitly and systematically discriminatory in its application.
Two years later, in 1910, the city council approved the establishment of a 15-member Planning Committee made up of members of the Chamber of Commerce, the Municipal League, the Realty Board, the City Club, and the Southern California Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. In 1920 the 15-member committee was supplanted by a 52-member City Planning Commission for which the members, all unpaid, were drawn primarily from professional and recreational associations. The Commission was headed by Commissioner George Whitnall, LA’s first city planner. The 1920 commission produced the first ‘comprehensive’ street map, and defined five use district zoning classifications, “A-E.”
The 1920 zones were the first to expressly establish what would become LA’s most defining land use characteristic, single-family residential zoning, and to separate petroleum pumping, petroleum refining, and petroleum storage along with other industrial land uses, from residential uses in baseline zoning. Built into the fabric of this proto-code however, in section four, were explicit processes for exemption from the newly defined zones and uses.
In 1925 the Planning Department was founded, the Planning Commission was reduced to 5-members, and Whitnall was appointed department head, serving in this role until 1930. Before his resignation, Whitnall oversaw major revisions to the zoning ordinance, standardizing zones and adding provisions for height, area, density, and parking. In 1946, one year before the adoption of the metropolitan freeway plan, the first comprehensive zoning code was adopted by the city council. It was an 84-page document that defined the baseline of what has since blossomed into a nearly impenetrable 600+ page bureaucratic Goliath.
Separation of petroleum uses continued into the 1946 code, as did processes of exemption. This meant that while the rules were clearly legislated, processes that would allow one to disregard them were legislated as well. Ironically—and unfortunately—the political sway of housing associations and residential real estate developers was so strong in this period that despite baseline segregation of uses, housing continuously encroached on industrial zones, forcing out less profitable uses and establishing patterns of willfully hazardous proximity for those industries too lucrative to abandon. Thus began the basic land use condition that would allow petroleum practice to continue with general disregard for human health into our present era.
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