Thursday, April 15, 2010

Jury Out on City Planning Reorganization

The Los Angeles Department of City Planning has recently announced a reorganization plan which includes the following:

1) Assigning staff to four geographical teams in order to more efficiently process discretionary actions, such as variances, zone changes, conditional use permits, and subdivisions, from “cradle to grave.”

2) Reassigning remaining Zoning Administrators to the four geographical teams.

3) Expanding the Citywide Planning Division to include Historic Resources and the Urban Design Studio.

To assess the impacts of these changes, we should consider the following. At this point there is little evidence that this reorganization plan can address three significant planning issues faced by Los Angeles:

First, the Department of City Planning is painfully understaffed. City Planning’s long-term staffing trend has been downward for nearly 25 years. At the end of the Tom Bradley era, the Department of City Planning had 350 employees to serve a city of 3.2 million people. From the end of the Bradley era, and then under Mayor Riordan, the Department of City Planning was significantly downsized. A campaign championed by then Councilperson Zev Yaroslavsky resulted in the lay-offs of 20 employees, and 12 years of off and on hiring and promotion freezes reduced the number of City Planning staff by nUnder Gail Goldberg the numbers grew and nearly reached 300. But in recent months 35 senior Planning staff either have or will retire. The remaining employees are subject to a ten percent furlough, which reduces the actual number of full-time positions to about 240. The combination of gradual attrition and the layoff of 1000 employees in the current fiscal year, plus 3000 more layoffs in the 2010-2011 fiscal year will probably reduce the real number of Planning staff to the low 200’s. While Los Angeles’s population is now static, the effective ratio of planners to city residents is significantly less now than it was during LA’s boom years, while the need for a well-planned city has increased.

Second, the City of Los Angeles General Plan’s Framework Element, the backbone of the General Plan, has been dead in the water since its adoption in 1995 – presumably because the Framework element is explicitly growth neutral. If followed, it would pull the rug out from underneath real estate speculation. It would not allow the approval of any discretionary actions which induced growth – an outcome which is anathema at City Hall. Furthermore, the Framework is based on 1990 census data. Its horizon year, 2010, is now at hand and marks the effective end of the ignored Framework. Amazingly, there are no plans to update or replace it. Furthermore, the Framework’s internal requirement to monitor the population numbers which drive the plan, along with infrastructure capacity and demand, and – most importantly of all -- the effectiveness of its adopted goals and policies, was never implemented. While the Planning Department issued three reports logging the construction of public infrastructure, this incomplete monitoring process was curtailed a decade ago.

Without a current and accurate General Plan, the City of Los Angeles is flying blind. How can it establish priorities during a budget crisis? How can any application for a discretionary action, like a zone change or specific plan exception, be approved for consistency with the General Plan when the General Plan has become an outdated shelf document? More importantly, how can any of the city’s 35 Community Plans be updated (to increase permitted density in order allow current discretionary projects to be approved “by-right”), when the General Plan itself is out-of-date? How is it possible to know where there is that magic combination of sufficient local infrastructure capacity and a need for private and public development to increase a community’s allowed density?

Third, in a city subject to catastrophic earthquakes, periodic civil disturbances, and seasonal floods and fires, the costs of not maintaining or following the General Plan are deadly. It does not simply create inconveniences for residents, who are forced to live in an unattractive, under-served city. The true, long-term price for this type of bad, impulsive, project-by-project planning becomes life-threatening.

This means that if the reorganization plan cannot address these three serious planning issues – as opposed to the quick and dirty processing of permits for developers – it will, at best, be inconsequential. At worst, it could seriously undercut the quality of life, as well as life itself, in Los Angeles.

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