Thursday, December 10, 2009

Presentation to City Planning Commission on Hollywood Mega-Project

December 10, 2009


I am Richard Platkin, a city planning consultant, presenting today on behalf of the La Mirada Avenue Neighborhood Association of Hollywood. I am offering testimony in support of their opposition to seven entitlements for the proposed Columbia Square project, including a plan amendment, zone change, and height district change

Prior to becoming a planning consultant, I earned graduate degrees in city planning and sociology, worked for the City of Seattle, worked for non-profits and private firms in Los Angeles, and was a Los Angeles City planner from 1987 to 2007. During my 20 years in LA’s Department of City Planning most of my professional assignments dealt with long range planning, and I was, in fact, part of the team which prepared the General Plan Framework.

I therefore think I can speak with some expertise on whether the proposed plan amendment, zone change, and height district change before you today are justified. On, in other words, can you make the findings? In a word, you cannot, and it would be a travesty to sound planning and zoning practices for you to uncritically accept the legal findings offered to you in the staff report. As you know, the report claims that the proposed plan amendment conforms to Charter Section 555 and that it is consistent with the purposes, intent, and provisions of the General Plan. Nothing could be further from the truth. Similarly, the staff report also claims that the proposed zone change and height district change conform to Charter Section 558 and LAMC 12.32 because they support public necessity, convenience, general welfare, and good zoning. This, too, is equally incorrect.

Let me explain. The project before you today is a massive, extraordinarily expensive, up-scale, car-oriented regional center which can only be built in one of the most dense and congested areas of Los Angeles through seven discretionary actions and a statement of overriding considerations to its EIR’s many unmitigatable environmental impacts. Missing, however, from the long list of municipal laws which the project wants bent or broken is a zone variance to reduce required parking. This is because even though the staff report asserts that this project is transit and pedestrian-oriented, the project’s lenders, private investors, and architects know otherwise. They realize that this project would quickly fail if it depended on pedestrians and transit riders. It will only be viable if its tenants, employees, and customers can drive their cars to and from the site. This is why the project has an enormous, nine story parking structure with about 1800 spaces.

But wait, there is more, by placing this behemoth in the middle of Hollywood, the project flatly violates the purposes, intent, and provisions of the General Plan Framework. As you can see from Chapter 3, specifically Policy 3.18.1, which I am submitting, the General Plan is clear that areas, such as Hollywood, which already have high densities, heavily taxed infrastructure, inadequate services, and a wide range of existing uses similar to those proposed, should be down-zoned, not up-planned and up-zoned. If the Commission takes its job seriously to be the guardian of the General Plan, it will reject these proposed amendments and zone, and propose that the project either be withdrawn completely or resubmitted in compliance with the General Plan and existing zoning.

Furthermore, the staff report’s claims that the proposed zone change and height district change are based on public necessity, convenience, general welfare, and good zoning practices are equally unconvincing. Good zoning practice is to have timely community data, not to base major land use decisions which will leave their mark for decades to come, on a Community Plan which is 22 years old and a General Plan Framework Element which is now 15 years old. Furthermore, the Framework is based on census data which is 20 years old, and its 2010 horizon year is only three weeks away.

Finally, the argument in the staff report that the project’s zone and height districts changes should be granted because they are consistent with the draft Hollywood Community Plan update is equally weak. At this point no one knows what the final Hollywood document will look like, particularly because its draft EIR and Infrastructure Chapter have not yet been released. Once released and carefully scrutinized by the public, the rationale for extensive up-planning and up-zoning referenced in the Staff Report is likely to evaporate. After all, the Framework forecast 400,000 more people by 2010 than actually now live in Los Angeles. There are vacancy signs on residential and commercial properties all over Los Angeles, including Hollywood, and enrollment in the LAUSD has dropped by nearly 100,000 students in recent years. Some major industries, such as auto, have completely disappeared, while others, such as garment and film production are in long-term structural decline independent of the recession.

Given this information, good zoning practice would be to wait until you have timely data, the draft Hollywood Community Plan has been fully, not partially released to the public, and the long series of highly contentious workshops, hearings, and critical votes take place to carefully review and change the City’s planning, zoning, and height district proposals.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Failure of Infrastructure Planning in Los Angeles


Los Angeles residents who follow local land use issues have a gut feeling that their city is poorly governed and poorly planned. Here is one effort to explain why these feelings are sound and to also offer potential solutions based on years of city planning experience in and out of City Hall.

In a nutshell, the Los Angeles planning process, from the allocation of public resources to project level decisions, has stumbled badly. Its Achilles heal is its reluctance to carefully consider the capacity of local public services and infrastructure to meet the existing and future needs of the city’s residents, institutions, and businesses. Once this glaring defect can be remedied, then the city can begin fixing much of what is broken.

More specifically, a careful examination of City Hall’s minimal efforts to address LA’s needs for infrastructure and public services reveals six related shortcomings. Furthermore, the only current official remedy for these shortcomings, the gradual updating of the city’s 35 local community plans -- the land use element of the General Plan Framework (GPF) -- will most likely make the situation worse, not better. This is because these plan updates will disarm local communities, while reducing the administrative barriers faced by developers and speculators intent on building large private projects irrespective of the capacity of the city’s infrastructure. Because these updated plans are focused on the year 2030, they will include hundreds of legally adopted amendments to ramp up existing plan designations and associated zones for private parcels. As a result, they will allow larger and denser private projects to be permitted and constructed by-right. In other words, future projects which are too large to conform to current codes will become fully compatible once the community plan updates are adopted.

Unlike the present, these large projects would no longer require discretionary actions, such as plan amendments, variances, and zone changes, for the Department of Building and Safety to issue them a building permit. Building and Safety would no longer refer these applicants back to City Planning for cumbersome discretionary permits. Months or even years would be shaved off of the development process by exempting projects from on-site zoning investigations, public hearings, lengthy reports, CEQA environmental analyses, debates by the City Planning Commission and City Council, public appeals, and final approvals which contain many (poorly enforced) conditions.

While the rationale for these more permissive plan designations (up-planning) and zones (up-zoning) would be the city’s need to accommodate anticipated population growth for the year 2030 through new housing, most of the resulting benefits will flow to real estate investors and speculators. The city’s residents, who need improved public services and infrastructure to accommodate their day-to-day needs, as well as better housing, will be on the short-end of the stick.

A closer examination of infrastructure reveals six separate but connected failings in the planning process which will not be addressed by the incremental updating of the community plans.

1) The General Plan Framework, the City's legally required general plan, was adopted in 1995, based on a base year of 1990 and a planning horizon year of 2010. This means that the Los Angeles general plan is almost out-of-date, since it was based on the city’s anticipated needs for the year 2010, less than a half year from now.
While the updates of the community plans for the year 2030 are welcome, they are not a substitute for updating the City’s 15 year old general plan.

2) Since the Framework's adoption in 1995, two associated general plan elements (i.e., separate documents detailing the General Plan Framework’s policies and programs) listed on the Planning Department's website have never been prepared: Infrastructure and Public Services. While the City did adopt similar elements in the late 1960's, shortly after the 1965 Watt’s civil disturbance, they are only available as hard copy publications through the Planning Department's publication office. They have never been scanned and uploaded to the General Plan Framework’s website. Since these old infrastructure-related elements were never formally rescinded, it means that the most recent comprehensive infrastructure planning for Los Angeles was conducted over 40 years ago. Throughout the intervening decades there is no indication that these old elements have been referenced in subsequent planning documents or utilized in the design or construction of public infrastructure.

3) There is little linkage between the City’s planning process and the infrastructure investment cataloged in the City’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP). The latter is prepared by each operating City department and then compiled by the City Administrative Officer (CAO) before its adoption by the City Council. At best, some of the CIP’s projections of future user need are based on census data shared with City Planning. While the CAO has twice in recent decades surveyed City Departments on their long-range infrastructure needs, this data collection is not done systematically, currently, or linked to the General Plan Framework or to any other planning documents. While conducting these previous exercises, the CAO also did not consider the anticipated infrastructure needs of such other public agencies as the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Los Angeles Community College system, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and Caltrans. Finally, the Capital Improvement Programs were never submitted to the City Planning Commission for review and approval, the established administrative method for ensuring that infrastructure planning and budgeting is connected to the implementation of the General Plan Framework.

4) There is no evidence that the CIP-driven work programs of the City of Los Angeles's operating departments, particularly the Department of Public Works and its infrastructure-focused bureaus, Engineering and Sanitation, are linked to the City's legally adopted planning documents or processes. They appear to be on parallel tracks, both moving in the same direction, but without any contact.

5) Even though the General Plan Framework clearly calls for comprehensive monitoring (“A system for the annual monitoring of growth, infrastructure, and services, used as the basis to guide future capital investments and development decisions, will also be used as a mechanism to gauge the appropriateness of the estimates and provide for their modification over time.” -- GPF Executive Summary) the Planning Department never monitored the General Plan Framework’s underlying demographic projections to determine whether population levels and related user demand forecast for the year 2010 ever materialized. While the Planning Department once monitored the construction of infrastructure in Los Angeles, the preparation of these three reports ceased about one decade ago or ten year’s before the Framework’s 2010 horizon year. Two of these three infrastructure reports are referenced on the Department of City Planning’s website, and all three are available for purchase in hard copy form. None of these reports, however, have been scanned and uploaded to the Planning Department’s website, perhaps because the contact person listed for the General Plan Framework retired from City service about eight years ago.

6) Discretionary actions (i.e., approvals for private projects which otherwise conflict with legally adopted codes, plans, and ordinances) are regularly issued by the City Planning Commission and the City Council with inflated and unverifiable legal findings about the adequacy of the city's infrastructure to support a host of zone changes, variances, and conditional use permits. This means that the dubious claims of applicants that the City’s public services, such as schools, or infrastructure, such as street capacity, can accommodate their projects are echoed in official approvals, are not questioned or challenged by staff or by decision makers.

Hopefully, these multiple, overlapping shortcomings in connecting the City’s development, budgeting, and planning processes can be remedied. The remedy, however, will require serious political organizing to place extraordinary pressure on the City’s elected officials, even those few who champion the needs of neighborhoods. This advocacy must be clear that infrastructure and public services, not real estate development and public “safety”, are the City’s priorities.

While this sounds like a demanding task, there are several obvious beginning points to lighten the load.

First, the rule of law must be emphasized. Advocacy over infrastructure issues should always make the no-brainer point that the law and its implementing administrative regulations should be meticulously adhered to. This means, for example, that all legal findings must be sound, not erroneous boiler plate. It also means that plans must be monitored, not be ignored or allowed to expire as shelf documents.

Second, the current economic crisis opens up an extraordinary opportunity to set things right. It should not become a time to allow poorly conceived and evaluated projects to be rushed through a “business friendly” approval process. Instead reviews should be done slowly and carefully to allow sufficient time for the current and future Federal stimulus packages to be directed at sorely needed public infrastructure.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Enforcement of Conditions on City Planning Cases

Enforcement of Conditions on City Planning Cases

San Fernando Valley Regional Congress

Panorama City High School -- May 29, 2009

Please send comments and corrections to:

Dick Platkin


213-308-6354 cell, 323-938-7027 FAX


Senior Planner and Policy Analyst, Tierra Concepts

I have five major points to make today about the enforcement of conditions on approved City Planning discretionary actions:

1) The historic weakness of the overall planning process in Los Angeles has encouraged the proliferation of discretionary actions to side-step the city’s legally adopted zones and plan designations.

2) Few applications for discretionary actions are ever denied, and few are ever approved out-right. The Planning Department’s general approach to these applications for discretionary actions could be summarized as “Approve with conditions.”

3) The weakness of the Departments of Building and Safety and of City Planning to enforce some design, landscaping, and most operational conditions results from two major factors: a long-term staff shortage over the past several decades, which is set to become much worse due to the budget crisis, and an institutional “business friendly” culture which translates into haphazard enforcement of codes and conditions.

4) The issue of lax enforcement of conditions is only the tip of the iceberg in deteriorating public services resulting from the budget crisis. This means that Neighborhood Councils should prepare to aggressively address the implosion of public infrastructure and public services. The cutbacks will not only undercut enforcement, but will usher in many other immediate and long-term problems.

5) I am collaborating on three efforts which might help communities mobilize to address these problems: a blog on planning issues, an extension course with Tom Rath on mobilizing Los Angeles communities to address planning issues, and developing contacts between L.A. residents and City employees to form a ”Neighbor-Labor” alliance.

1. The weakness of the planning process in Los Angeles. The Department of City Planning had abdicated most of its role in the planning process, at least as it is understood within the city planning profession. This abdication has been a long and incremental process, largely shaped by the political and economic environment in Los Angeles, but also moved along by the transition in governance in most of the United States, from liberalism to neo-liberalism

More specifically, planning, in theory and by legal requirements, addresses the entire land area of a city. This, in fact, did take place in Los Angeles when the City’s General Plan, called the General Plan Framework, was prepared in the early 1990s’ and adopted in 1995 for the 2010 horizon year. But the Framework, despite some excellent chapters, quickly became a shelf document. Furthermore, it is about to expire without even a whimper, much less a bang, because 2010 is only six months away. If the Framework had been kept up-to-date and relevant, it would have been updated on a 10 year cycle, which means that Los Angeles would already have a new General Plan addressing its total land area, as well as all functions of local government, including schools and transportation, not just the zoning of privately owned land.

How ironic then that the General Plan’s 35 Community Plans, which are supposed to implement the General Plan, are being updated for the 2030 horizon year, while the guiding General Plan, based on data and policies for the year 2010, itself will soon be a relic.

Furthermore, the updated General Plan and Community Plans should and could be fully integrated into the City’s Capital Improvement Program, Departmental work programs, and the projects and work programs of such local agencies as the LAUSD, the MTA, and the Community College District. Instead, these agencies and sectors all operate on their own agendas and missions, most of which is determined by a political not rational planning process. Any linkage to the General Plan is peripheral or coincidental.

As a result, the Department of City Planning has incrementally reduced what is called “the planning process” to zoning issues for the 20 percent of the City’s land area which is privately owned. This approach unfortunately has severed the vital connection between the 80 percent of the City which is public land or public facilities, as well as the public infrastructure and public services which are absolutely necessary to sustain the residences, businesses, industrial facilities and institutions located on privately zoned land.

This means that the bulk of the day-to-day business of the Planning Department is to sporadically up-zone and up-plan the City’s privately owned parcels through the updating of Community Plans, and then engage in the really heavy lifting: processing the vast and growing array of discretionary actions result from old and/or outmoded community plans. Even though the up-zoning and up-planning of the community plans generally favors real estate investors and speculators, market conditions sometimes exceed the sympathetic contours of the city’s plan designation and zones. In these cases, the investors hire expediters, attorneys, and architects to pursue zone changes, variances, and conditional use permits to allow what is euphemistically called the highest and best use of the land. Translated into plain English this really means the most short-term, profitable investment in real estate projects regardless of their consistency with adopted plans or the broad interests of the City’s residents.

2. Approve with Conditions. Few applications by developers and/or property owners for discretionary actions, such as zone changes or variances, are ever flat-out denied by the Department of City Planning. Likewise, few cases are ever approved out-right. The trustworthy middle ground in which projects are usually approved but with limitations, such as hours of operation, is typical. They not only offer a superficial Solomonic approach, providing each side in disputed projects some of what they wanted, but also such cases have a better chance of avoiding or withstanding an appeal. In fact, some sophisticated developers anticipate that their projects will have imposed conditions and therefore propose more than they want, assuming that imposed conditions will reduce their project to their originally preferred size, albeit in a round-about way.

The Planning Department’s general approach to these applications for discretionary actions could be summarized as “Approve with Conditions.” Furthermore, this not only describes the outcome of most cases, but also describes the informal training which junior planners get from their supervisors and managers in how to draft determination for discretionary actions, especially those which are controversial.

3. Failures to enforce with conditions. In the words of Sacramento-based public finance economist, Lenny Goldberg, Los Angeles City government offers a permissive regulatory environment combined with relatively low taxes on business. This, rather than high, well funded public amenities and infrastructure, is the strategic outlook of City government in Los Angeles. If there is any wrinkle in this approach, it is only that since the Civil Unrests of 1965 and 1992 that the LAPD, unlike other City departments, has been the favored child of all local officials.

As a result, the LAPD is the largest, best funded, and most revered City department among local officials. It is, therefore, quite ironic and disappointing that this department is oblivious to violations of all types of city laws, including the zoning and building codes, as well as the destruction of City property, such as street trees. Chief Bratton’s adoption of the “broken windows” policy might apply to petty crimes like graffiti and shoplifting, but not clear and sometimes dangerous violations of building codes, zoning codes, and other requirements on real estate projects. This means overt attacks on property, such as theft, are crimes, but legal violations by property owners and investors are below the LAPD’s radar. This unwillingness of the LAPD to even see, much less pursue those who violate many City codes and ordinances, including specialized ones for individual pieces of property, in particular zoning conditions, leaves enforcement up to powerless, untrained civilians. These are the building inspectors, industrial waste inspectors, and street use inspectors, all of whom are issued concealed badges and a notebook from which they can issue citations that are seldom if ever prosecuted.

These inspectors face enormous difficulties.

First, their employer, the City of Los Angeles, has an institutional culture of too often ignoring many City laws, such as discretionary actions approved by the City Planning Commission and City Council as ordinances (e.g., zone changes, plan amendments, and some conditional uses), as well as quasi-ordinances, specifically determinations issues by Zoning Administrators (e.g., variances) and the Director of Planning (e.g., Specific Plan and HPOZ approvals).

Second, the inspection capacity of the Department of Building and Safety and of Street Services, which deals with sidewalks, is notoriously understaffed. Despite a long history of complaints about illegal and bootlegged signs in Los Angeles, the City only has several dedicated sign inspectors. It also explains, but only in part, why the City does not engage in pro-active code enforcement, and, instead, only responds to complaints submitted by the public.

Third, it hard for “stretched” enforcement employees to carefully review the unique conditions imposed through each discretionary action written by an employee of the Department of City Planning, and then often reviewed and revised by supervisors and managers. These determinations are intricate and sometimes obscure to the outsiders who are charged with enforcing them. They are either printed as part of an electronic copy of a determination posted on a city website, reprinted on architectural drawings in miniature fonts, or kept in hardcopy form in physical files. The result is that through human error and/or overwork, it is difficult for many plan checkers and inspectors to master the intricacies of each discretionary action.

While it easier for a plan checker to review architectural drawings for compliance with conditions, events in the field can be tougher. What about typical conditions related to operations, such as hours of operation on Saturdays and Sundays? What about landscaping requirements when LADBS inspectors candidly admit that they have no knowledge or training in landscape architecture. Some even joke that they can determine if a plant is alive or dead, but little else.

Fourth, in those cases where violations of codes and conditions are enforced, usually in response to a public complaint, it is exceedingly rare for the City Attorney’s office to prosecute violators. Instead the City Attorney prefers that inspectors negotiate with violations of codes and conditions in lieu of prosecution. As a result, many violators ignore citations from the Department of Building and Safety, knowing that the risk of a permit being revoked, much less a fine or jail time, is extremely remote. They take their chances and seldom regret it!

4. Weak and inconsistent enforcement of codes and conditions is just the tip of the iceberg. The currently unfolding collapse of public sector and public services will magnify the entire flawed process discussed above. This is because of several obvious and unintended outcomes from layoffs, hiring freezes, and furloughs.

First, the most obvious outcome is that there will be fewer employees to do the actual work. Their numbers will be reduced by an initial wave of layoffs, then slowly further reduced by a hiring freeze that will probably extend for many years.

Second, the remaining employees will have fewer hours to work, which mean fewer services from City government in Los Angeles. At this point, the Mayor and Council are calling for 26 annual furlough days, which amounts to a 10 percent reduction in hours and pay, which will be further eroded through increased payroll deductions. And, there is discussion of increasing the number of annual unpaid furlough days to 52 in order to assure that the LAPD can maintain its current staffing levels while all other City department are imploding. This means 20 percent reductions in the municipal services provided by the remaining City employees.

Third, the morale of City employees is already low and will sink further as pay is cut and promotional opportunities are eliminated for the foreseeable future. If papers like the Daily News continue to attack public employees, rather than the elected officials who have showered hundreds of millions of dollars in fee waivers, tax breaks, loans, and grants to large real estate projects, such as the Staples Center, Playa Vista, and LA Live, then morale will sink even further. In this scenario a demoralized work force is not likely to increase the amount or quality of code and condition enforcement.

Fourth, to lure investors into Los Angeles, codes and processes can be slowly gutted during the down time, and if/when development accelerates, the city will become a free-for-all.

Fifth, draconian budget cuts by the City, County, LAUSD, Community College District, Cal States, UC’s, and all other state funded public services and infrastructure, will quickly translate into a rapid and accelerating decline in the quality of life for nearly all Los Angeles residents. For some it is already happening, and for others this future is quite certain.

This is why Neighborhood Councils, especially the committees focused on planning issues, must see the problem of code and condition enforcement in the broadest terms. When roads become full of potholes, when schools are shut down all summer long, when more families are living out on the streets, when the few services available to the mentally ill are cut and those with mental illness join the ranks of the homeless, it will be a luxury to restrict energies to poor enforcement of conditions and codes.

I realize that many people feel helpless when faced with these travesties, especially when each day’s news stories reveal a scary, downward spiral framed by the specious claim that there is just no money. This framing is patently untrue, and it is the role of Neighborhood Councils to point out the obvious:

First, health and safety is much more than policing. It is simply not sound public policy to slash all public services to allow the LAPD to continue its post-1992 expansion in anticipation of another civil disturbance.

Second, much of the City’s budget crisis is self-inflicted. Year after year, the City Council has reliably answered the requests of large developers, often billionaires like Phillip Anschutz and Eli Broad, with fee waivers, loans, and tax breaks for their projects. The claim of the developers that this in an investment for the City, and that the City will recoup their investment with enhanced public revenue is just hype. There is no evidence whatsoever for these developer claims, as evidenced by the implosion of local government in Los Angeles.

Third, if one looks at overall government expenditures, it is clear that local government is the victim of triage. As a result of the recession, the banks, lenders, and insurance companies have received approximately $13 trillion in various rescue packages, such as AIG, which has so far received over $160 billion. This amount alone is probably enough to offset the deficits of all 50 states. The rescue packages also continue to grow, with the Obama Administrating advancing an infusion of $108 billion to the International Monetary Fund.

Fourth, the U.S. military budget also continues to grow, increasing 4 percent this fiscal year, and is now estimated to reach $1.2 trillion for all categories. For example, Congress just approved another $95 billion requested by the Obama Administration for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Bottom line, whenever you are told that massive cuts in local government and infrastructure are necessary because there is no money, it is time to “connect the dots” and point out where the money is actually being spent.

5) Three initiatives to help. While the tasks for Neighborhood Councils are clearly lengthy, I am now working on three initiatives which might offer some help.

First, I am collaborating with another recently retired Los Angeles City Planner, Tom Rath, to teach an extension class on mobilizing Los Angeles communities to address local planning issues. If you think you may be interested, please give us your contact information on the sheets being passed around.

Second, I have started a blog focusing on local planning issues. The name and URL is: ( ).

Third, because of my dual role as a Los Angeles resident active in local planning issues, and a former officer in a municipal union, I have previously helped organize a neighbor-labor alliance. It is time to revive this alliance, to unite the providers of municipal services with the consumers of these same services. If you are interested, please be in contact.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

City Hall's Faulty Budget Debate in Los Angeles

At L.A.'s City Hall, despite intense disagreements over the best way to make budget cutbacks, there is an implicit "we have no money" consensus among the Mayor, his supporters on the City Council, and his Council critics. As a result, they all sadly restrict their budget debate to the best way to reach bottom: Should we exempt or not exempt the LAPD from across-the-board staff reductions, even if results in 1,200 additional layoffs of civilians employees and up to 40 furlough days for the remaining civil servants.

But, both sides in this debate are wrong. There clearly is money, as demonstrated by this recent article from the Huffington Post. In addition to the $95 billion supplemental budget allocation for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars requested by the Obama Administration and just approved by a Democratic-controlled Congress (Sound familiar?), there is another $108 billion being shunted to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in this same legislation.

So -- let us have a real budget debate, not one which limits itself to disputes over the best way to deal with a few crumbs knocked off a very big table. And, should we not ask whether the IMF's broad agenda of privatization and cuts in education spending is being imposed by our own elected officials right here in Los Angeles at City Hall and the Mayor-dominated LAUSD?

Can Treasury Sneak IMF Money Through the Supplemental?

Robert Naiman, National Coordinator of Just Foreign Policy
Posted: Huffington Post, May 15, 2009 04:08 PM

Almost completely lost in the drama over the war supplemental for Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan is a sneaky play by the U.S. Treasury Department to get $108 billion in U.S. tax dollars for the International Monetary Fund through the supplemental. Of course, if Treasury can get the money through the supplemental, it can avoid any Congressional debate over the policies of the International Monetary Fund and whether this is a wise and just use of U.S. tax dollars; and whether Congress should insist on meaningful, observable reforms of IMF policy as the price of new U.S. funding.

After 1980 the IMF became one of the most powerful institutions in the world. The IMF's power largely derived from the fact that it headed a "creditors' cartel" that included the World Bank and other multilateral development banks, and as a result developing countries that didn't obey the IMF's policy "advice" could face a cut-off of international credit, a powerful disincentive. This power was used to impose an agenda of privatization, cuts in social spending, and removal of policies deemed obstacles to profit by foreign banks and corporations. The power of the IMF in middle-income countries has waned in recent years, as Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and other countries broke free, repudiating a legacy of policies that failed to promote economic growth and reduce poverty. But in the poorest countries, especially in Africa, the IMF's abusive reign has largely continued. Now, rich countries are trying to strengthen the influence of the IMF, using the "opportunity" of the global economic crisis - that's the context of Treasury's request for more U.S tax dollars.

The House so far has rejected Treasury's request. Regardless of what one thinks of the IMF, there's a commonsense, nonpartisan, good government reason not to include IMF funding in the supplemental: funding for the IMF is not an "emergency" and it has nothing to do with funding the wars. The only reason to include funding in the supplemental is to avoid transparency and debate.

But on Thursday the Senate Appropriations Committee went along with Treasury's request. The Senate is expected to consider the supplemental next week; if the money for the IMF is not stripped out, the question will go to House-Senate conference. In a House-Senate conference, the leverage of Congressional leadership is high and that of rank-and-file legislators is weak, so Treasury may get its way even if the majority of Members of the House wouldn't support money for the IMF in a freestanding vote.

That would be a terrible shame. The last time there was a vigorous Congressional debate on the policies of the IMF was 1998, over ten years ago. Real reforms - not changes in rhetoric that have no practical consequence but actual changes in policy that one can verify - would have a tremendous impact on the quality of life of millions of people around the world.

In 2000, at the urging of aid groups and the AFL-CIO, Congress passed legislation that required the U.S. representatives at the IMF and the World Bank to oppose any agreement between these institutions and developing countries that required governments to impose school fees on primary education, a policy previously embraced by the World Bank that had kept many children out of school, especially girls. In part as a result of this legislation, the World Bank publicly repudiated the previous policy, and this opened space for many countries to dramatically expand access to primary education.

Today a coalition of NGOs is demanding that as the price for any new U.S. funding, the IMF agree to the following reforms: the IMF must not impose contractionary policies during recessions, or must provide quantitative justification for doing so; the IMF must exempt health and education spending from any government budget caps; parliaments must be given authority to approve or reject deals negotiated between the IMF and finance ministries.

If the IMF will not agree to stop imposing contractionary policies during recessions, or will not agree to stop promoting cuts in education and health spending, then the much-advertised pretense that funding the IMF bears any relationship to helping poor people in poor countries doesn't pass the laugh test. If we truly want to help poor people in poor countries, there are far better things we can do with $100 billion dollars. Indeed, simply using this money to stimulate our own economy would do far more good for the world, through increasing our capacity to absorb other countries' exports, not to mention the remittances that flow from our economy to Haiti, El Salvador, and elsewhere, than would increasing the leverage of the IMF to impose austerity.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Jane Usher Slams Gail Goldberg
A former commission president slams L.A.'s planning director as a developer sellout
By Steven Leigh Morris
published: April 30, 2009

Kevin Scanlon
Planning director Gail Goldberg
Planning director Gail Goldberg

It’s been a bad season for L.A.’s City Planning department. Recently, big sections of a city law to encourage density and affordable housing were struck down by Superior Court Judge Thomas McKnew. And now a leading civic figure is alleging that City Planning Director Gail Goldberg, who pushed the pro-developer law, is little more than a handmaiden to developers.

The judge tossed out provisions of a controversial “bonus density” rule that lets developers build far bigger and taller projects than allowed by zoning if they agree to include a small number of cheap rental units. That ordinance “masquerades as an affordable-housing act, when it’s really a densification act that facilitates sprawl,” says departed City Hall insider Jane Usher, former president of the Planning Commission.

According to Usher and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, buildings constructed under the city’s so-called Density Bonus Implementation Ordinance are destroying, not creating, affordable housing — while enabling the kind of cheek-by-jowl living that invites gridlock and crime. (See story, “Density Blowup,” on McKnew’s ruling, next page.)

Usher, appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as the unpaid president of the City Planning Commission, resigned last December. She now tells the L.A. Weekly that City Planner Gail Goldberg, rather than acting as a reformer, is flaunting rules and allowing exceptions that have put developers, not residents or voters, even more firmly in control of land use in L.A.

Usher points to a citywide “Categorical Exemption” that in January 2008 Goldberg quietly inserted into the density-bonus law, which has so bothered Judge McKnew. Goldberg’s loophole undermined the California Environmental Quality Act, which restricts development or requires mitigation of a project’s negative impacts like excess traffic or noise. Under the Goldberg exemption, Planning department workers and the Planning Commission could reinterpret that state environmental law and decide, on their own, whether a proposed project, even if far bigger than allowed by zoning, had negative neighborhood consequences.

When Usher and the Planning Commission tried to block a new project by invoking the state environmental law, widely known as CEQA, the developer sued the city, and won — citing Goldberg’s unusual new Categorical Exemption. “It’s rogue,” Usher explains. “The city jerry-rigs planning outcomes, then applies some process, like window dressing, to doll them up.”

Usher has no problem with permitting high-rise apartments and condos near subway and light-rail stations to encourage less driving and reduce the carbon footprint. But that isn’t the entirety of what’s going on under Goldberg, she says.

“We have done nothing to turn off the spigot of growth at inappropriate locations” from Sylmar and the West Valley to West L.A., “where there’s no train service — even in the plans.” She adds, “In three and a half years, I can count on one hand proposals [by developers] that weren’t ultimately approved.”

Goldberg, hired by Villaraigosa in 2006, has publicly claimed to abhor the control by land speculators over what happens to L.A. neighborhoods. Last year, Goldberg spoke to the Weekly of the importance of preserving the integrity of neighborhoods through Community Plans.

On hearing this, Usher shakes her head while holding it with both hands, a silent gesture that lasts a good 15 seconds. “So we write Community Plans with enormous specificity, and then we override them with exceptions — to the point that the Community Plans are unrecognizable,” she says.

Usher says Goldberg’s Planning department short-circuits the city’s constitution (called the City Charter) by cutting the city Planning Commission out of the information loop within City Hall, and then, with the Planning Commission unaware, Goldberg makes decisions on the commission’s behalf.

The key example of such malfeasance, Usher says, is Goldberg’s use of so-called “Delegation of Authority” — a minor power long granted to the planning director solely to fix small problems like typos found in ordinances after they have been approved by the Planning Commission. According to Usher, Goldberg is using that obscure rule to upend the Planning Commission.

The City Charter couldn’t be more clear about the intended purpose of the commission. All land-use changes and new land-use legislation must be considered by the Planning Commission, and subsequent changes by other city agencies or committees must be referred back to the commission.

But a series of e-mails sent between April and June 2008 reveals Usher’s fruitless attempts to have the Planning Commission included in receiving routine reports about changes being proposed by city departments and City Council committees involving zone modifications, conditional-use permits and major land-use ordinances.

In one e-mail, Usher wrote to lawyer Terry Kaufmann-Macias in City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s office, who replied that those reports are automatically sent to the Planning department. Usher forwarded Kaufmann-Macias’ e-mail to Goldberg, requesting that all city planners forward those reports to the Planning Commission. Instead, “not a single ordinance ever came back to us. Gail was issuing an approval or disapproval of the ordinance from an alleged ‘Delegation of Authority,’ ” in which Goldberg sees herself as final arbiter.

In the case of the Density Bonus Ordinance that displeased Judge McKnew, when the Planning Commission asked Goldberg’s staff to tell it how the final wording of the ordinance was coming along, “Gail’s team delivered the update with the footnote that it’s been signed and passed into law” — without the Planning Commission.

In another instance, when the wildly popular Baseline Mansionization Ordinance, which restricted huge mansions, finally came up for a City Council vote last year — months after being approved by the Planning Commission — Usher was stunned to learn that Goldberg had reversed the Planning Commission’s “yes” recommendation — again using her claimed “delegation authority.”

“It’s an oligarchy, a despotism that’s relatively new,” Usher says of Goldberg’s behavior. “I do think that the trajectory of this didn’t happen overnight, and with the mayor’s re-election I’ve watched it intensify.”

In fact, since 1964, the City Planning Commission has delegated its authority to the director of planning only under limited conditions, such as fixing typos on rules approved by the commission.

But in an e-mail to the Weekly, Goldberg defends her actions opposing the mansionization law — on the grounds that the ordinance was changed so much by City Council committees after the Planning Commission approved it that it became a new ordinance. In her mind, Goldberg could therefore act unilaterally — on behalf of the Planning Commission, she claims — by opposing it.

But city law gives Goldberg authority only over “minor editorial changes . . . where no substantive changes are made from the last action” of the commission — the opposite of Goldberg’s claim to the Weekly. The City Charter actually requires that something like the the Mansionization Ordinance, once revised by various committees, goes back to the Planning Commission. Instead, Goldberg simply rolled over the commission.

Usher says she explained to Goldberg that the Planning Commission supported the final version of the mansion law, but Goldberg refused to change her “delegated” opposition. The bizarre contretemps came to a head in May 2008, when the Planning Commission voted unanimously in favor of the much-revised mansion law — in contrast to Goldberg’s increasingly exotic opposition to it.

By continuing to oppose the mansion restrictions, Goldberg also triggered an obscure City Charter law that requires an “unrecommended” ordinance to get a two-thirds “supermajority” vote by the City Council. Except this was not an “unrecommended” ordinance — it was, by this point, a power play by Goldberg. Ultimately, the revised ordinance approved by the Planning Commission got a unanimous City Council vote.

A real estate attorney, Usher was counsel to Mayor Tom Bradley, which is why she found the rhetoric of Villaraigosa’s first election campaign in 2005 so appealing, “as was the idea, in those pre-Obama days, of having a broad ethnic coalition leading our city.”

The glow lasted until last summer. “By the summer of 2008, the mayor wasn’t willing to engage in a single land-use issue,” Usher says. “I wasn’t able to kid myself anymore about my own ability to effect change. At what point do you transform from enlightened to complicit?”

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Los Angeles has worst ozone pollution in entire USA

When was the last time, you heard public officials even mention this aspect of public health -- the worse air of any urban area in the entire United States -- in any landuse decision. Even now, when there is the possibility of use Recovery Act money for less polluting infrastructure, their reflexive response is public investment for roads, highways, and bridges. What a lost opportunity to not just improve alternative transportation modes, but also address high levels of ozone pollution and particulate matter.

America's Most Polluted Cities
Rebecca Ruiz, Forbes Magazine, 04.29.09, 3:01 AM ET

This time of year, many Americans are concerned with sunburns. In some areas, they should pay more attention to smog.

The reason? Though it's often invisible, air pollution is a threat to 186 million Americans, according to a new report released by the American Lung Association.

The annual report--State of the Air 2009--found that six in 10 Americans live in counties where ozone or particle pollution has reached dangerous levels. Both types of pollution can be deadly and have been linked to worsening respiratory conditions like asthma, emphysema and bronchitis, and there is evidence that particle pollution increases risk of heart attacks and strokes.

In Depth: Worst Cities For Short-Term Particle Pollution

In Depth: Worst Cities For Year-Round Particle Pollution

In Depth: Worst Cities For Ozone Pollution

In compiling this list, the American Lung Association ranked U.S. metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs)--geographic entities defined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget for use by federal agencies in collecting, tabulating and publishing federal statistics--using the highest weighted average for any county within that MSA. Grading was based on the Environmental Protection Agency's determination of violations of the national ambient air quality standard.

Though overall air pollution is down compared to previous years, the problem is still widespread. Visalia and Fresno, two mid-size towns in central California ranked high for short-term and year-round particle pollution. Birmingham, Ala., and Cincinnati were listed in the top 10 of metro areas with unhealthy levels of year-round particle pollution. In the Southwest, the Houston, Dallas and Phoenix metro areas had high ozone levels.

Residents of Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Calif., and Pittsburgh, Pa., might want to pay close attention to the ALA's rankings. These metro areas were deemed the most polluted in the nation.

The Los Angeles metro area--known for its thick smog--ranks this year as the most ozone-polluted. Pollutants produced by car exhaust and smokestacks form the raw ingredients for the production of ozone.

Nearby Bakersfield, Calif., ranked as the city with the most year-round particle pollution and had ozone levels second only to Los Angeles. The Pittsburgh metro area, an industrial hub in western Pennsylvania, had the highest short-term particle pollution and the second highest year-round levels. Short-term and year-round particle counts reflect the amount of tiny solid and liquid particles in the air, most often emitted from diesel-powered vehicles, steel mills and coal-fired power plants, among other sources.

It's an unenviable distinction, but also a serious public health issue, says Dr. Norman H. Edelman, chief medical officer for the ALA.

"As of now, half of Americans live in an area where they are at risk," he says. Federal and state governments are working to improve air quality, and such efforts were recently bolstered by increased funding in the stimulus package. But short of moving to Fargo, N.D., Wahpeton, Minn., Lincoln, Neb., or Honolulu, Hawaii, or one of the other towns and cities ranked as the cleanest by the ALA, Americans have few choices but understanding and avoiding risks in affected areas.

Air Quality and Your Health
Many Americans fail to realize they're exposed to unhealthy air pollution levels or confuse ozone pollution symptoms like a runny nose, cough and watery eyes with allergies or a cold. Worse yet, there are no diagnostic tests that indicate heightened risk.

"Ozone gets into your airway and doesn't leave a trace," says Edelman. Researchers believe that it actually behaves similarly to cigarette smoke by burning the airway and possibly causing inflammation in the lungs and blood vessels. Such inflammation can worsen respiratory conditions.

Unlike ozone pollution, which causes immediate but less benign symptoms, particle pollution is silent until manifested through long-term conditions like emphysema and asthma. Particle pollution has also been linked to worsened asthma, lung cancer, heart attacks, strokes and increased premature mortality.

Edelman recommends avoiding the outdoors when the air quality has been measured as unsafe. This is particularly important for at-risk populations, which include children and those with respiratory conditions. Several government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Weather Service, maintain a Web site that tracks pollution monitors placed across the country.

In 2008, the threshold for dangerous ozone levels was lowered from .08 parts per million to .075 ppm. The shift means that nearly 83 million more Americans live in counties where ozone monitors registered too many unhealthy days of air pollution.

Cleaning Up the Air
This has not escaped the attention of the current administration, which allocated $300 million in stimulus funds for state and federal clean diesel programs. Lydia Wegman, director of health environmental impacts division at the EPA, says that such efforts have improved in recent years as state and local agencies "have developed a lot more knowledge of strategies for controlling air pollution."

Despite its top ranking on ALA's list, Wegman cites Los Angeles as a leading example. In 2006, the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports adopted a long-term plan to reduce particulate matter pollution by targeting diesel vehicles.

Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District in the Los Angeles area, says taming pollution has proved difficult since the area's two ports handle 40% of the country's foreign imports. Trucks and trains are then put into action in transporting those goods, leading to further air pollution. Emissions created by the area's 16 million residents and 11 million vehicles are another major consideration, as is the warm weather, which tends to trap pollution close to the ground.

Despite those challenges, Los Angeles has slowly improved its ozone and year-round particle pollution levels in the past decade. By 2010, California will also have reduced its diesel emissions by nearly 75% as compared to 2000 levels, according to Mike Scheible, deputy executive officer of the state's Air Resources Board.

To be sure, there is significant economic incentive for improving air quality. A study done in 2007 by the South Coast Air Quality Management District found that achieving federal air quality standards in the Los Angeles area would cost $2.3 billion per year but save $14.6 billion. That figure reflects a range of annual costs, including crop damage, lost work days and premature deaths.

In Depth: Worst Cities For Short-Term Particle Pollution

In Depth: Worst Cities For Year-Round Particle Pollution

In Depth: Worst Cities For Ozone Pollution

Sunday, March 29, 2009


Los Angeles residents who follow local land use issues have a gut feeling that something is truly wrong in how their city is governed. But, since they have difficulty determining exactly what has failed so badly in their local government, here is one effort to explain the underlying problems.  

In a nutshell, the Los Angeles planning process has stumbled badly in considering the capacity of local public services and infrastructure to meet the existing and future needs of the city’s residents. 

More specifically, a careful examination of the city’s efforts to address its infrastructure needs reveals six related lapses.  Furthermore, the only current  remedy for these failures, the gradual updating of the city’s 35 local community plans, is not just too little and too late, it will make the situation worse, not better.  This is because the real impact of these plan updates will be to reduce the administrative barriers faced by developers and speculators intent on building large projects which now require discretionary actions, such as variances and zone changes, to obtain a building permit.  Their needs to have their future projects sail through Building and Safety plan check “by-right” will be met by up-planning and up-zoning thousands of private parcels to allow more dense and intensive projects.  

While the rationale for this up-zoning and up-planning will be the need to accommodate projected population growth, most benefits will flow to real estate investors and speculators, not residents who need improved housing and employment. 

To this end, there are six separate but connected failings in the planning process which will not be addressed by the update of community plans.

1)  The General Plan Framework, the City's legally required general plan, was adopted in 1995, with a horizon year is 2010.
  This means the
Los Angeles general plan is almost out-of-date, without any efforts to update it.

2)  Since the Framework's adoption in 1995, two elements listed on the Planning Department's website have never been prepared:  Infrastructure and Public Services.  While similar elements were adopted in the 1960's, they are no longer listed as publications on the Planning Department's website.  Unless these earlier elements were formally rescinded, it means that most recent comprehensive infrastructure planning for
Los Angeles was conducted about 40 years ago.

3)   There is little linkage between the Capital Improvement Program (CIP), which is prepared by each operating department and then compiled by the City Administrative Officer (CAO) before its adoption by the City Council, and the city’s legally required planning process.  At best, some of the CIP’s projections of future user need are based on census data shared with City Planning.  While the CAO has twice in recent decades surveyed city Departments on their long-range infrastructure needs, this data collection is not done systematically or currently.  While conducting these previous exercises, the CAO also did not consider the anticipated infrastructure needs of such other public agencies as the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Los Angeles Community College system, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and Caltrans. 

4)   There is no evidence that the work programs of the City's operating departments, such as Public Works, which implement the Capital Improvement Program, are linked to the City's legally adopted planning documents or process.

5)   The Planning Department no longer monitors the General Plan Framework or any of its elements, including the community plans.  While the Planning Department once monitored the construction of infrastructure in
Los Angeles, the preparations of these reports ceased about one decade ago and have since been removed from the Department's website.

6)   Discretionary actions are regularly issued with inflated and unverifiable legal findings about the adequacy of the city's infrastructure to support a host of zone changes, variances, and conditional use permits. 

Hopefully, these failings can be remedied, but this will require serious political organizing to place extraordinary pressure on the city’s elected officials.  This pressure must be clear that infrastructure and public services, not real estate development and public “safety”, must be the city’s priorities.