Sunday, March 29, 2009

SIX FAILINGS OF THE PLANNING PROCESS IN LOS ANGELES

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Los Angeles general plan is almost out-of-date, without any efforts to update it.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  Unless these earlier elements were formally rescinded, it means that most recent comprehensive infrastructure planning for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.