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.

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