Wednesday, June 30, 2010

ANALYSIS OF DEPARTURE OF L.A. PLANNING DIRECTOR

By Dick Platkin*


City employees and members off the public who follow city planning issues in Los Angeles were sending emails hot and heavy on Wednesday, June 30, in response to the announcement of the Director of Planning, Gail Goldberg that her last day of work would be July 16. Her bomb shell was paired with a similar announcement from the Mayor’s office, indicating that one of Gail Goldberg’s deputies, Vince Bertoni, would become the acting Director of Planning though late August.


Those who think that Gail Goldberg’s departure will usher in new planning policies or procedures in Los Angeles are well meaning, but engaged in wishful thinking. In reality, changes in the management of the Department of City Planning are highly unlikely to affect any planning policies and practices. If there is any rift between the Planning Department and the city’s elected officials, it is not over policies, but only over the speed at which discretionary actions can be processed and developers can pull their building permits.


Nevertheless, Los Angeles is in desperate need of serious city planning. After all, its General Plan Framework was adopted in 1995 and is based on outmoded 1990 Census Data. It has not been monitored in over a decade, should have already been replaced, and is generating law suits against the city. Similarly, most of the other General Plan elements are outmoded, such as policy documents regarding infrastructure, which were adopted in the 1960s, years before many current Los Angeles city planners took their first breath. Even the one category of plans under review, the community plans, is on a slow track. Based on current schedules, it will take over a decade to update these aging plans, at which time the fresh 2020 census data will quickly render them obsolete


This failure of the city’s elected officials is unfortunate for many reasons.


First, Los Angeles is legally required by California State law, as well as its own Charter, to have accurate and timely city plans. When it fails to comply with the law, it not only sets a dismal example for its own citizens, it leaves itself wide-open for law suits. Second, without accurate and current plans, City Hall muddles through its frequent budgeting crises by bending to short-sighted political and economic winds, rather than turning to carefully developed policies based on data analysis, community participation, and a long-term outlook.


But, despite these compelling reasons why Los Angeles’s official plans should be updated and implemented, there are even more pressing reasons. It is L.A.’s miserable day-to-day realities -- its declining quality of life. After all, we have the country’s worst traffic congestion, the worst street conditions, and worst air quality. Furthermore, Los Angeles has the dubious distinction of having experienced the most destructive civil disturbance since the Civil War, the 1992 Rodney King “riots.” Finally, L.A. is sitting on dangerous earthquake faults and could, at any moment, have the famous “Big One,” an earthquake larger than the 1994 Northridge earthquake. These are all reasons to kick start city planning.


But, all this is academic at City Hall. Only one planning principle now prevails, turbulent market conditions, which are usually described by the benign but coded expression of making the city business friendly. In planning practice this means ignoring or misrepresenting plans, allowing them to become shelf documents, and letting land use entitlements be determined by the business models of flippers and speculators. If this year’s real estate fashion is condos, then that is what they get. If next year’s trend is shopping centers, then the rules and procedures will bend that way.

Of course, a compliant local government which grants every developer’s request cannot have planning, which is why the city’s plans are disregarded, why nearly every discretionary action is granted, and why a change in the Planning Department’s management should not be expected to change policies and practices.


It is hard to imagine how this situation can continue for much longer. Either the city will become so unlivable that only the very rich and very poor remain, or a combination of law suits and enormous public pressure will finally force the city’s planning process to be revived and implemented.


Tick tock, tick tock . . .


* Dick Platkin is a planning consultant who formerly worked for the LA City Planning Department. He welcomes comments on this article at rhplatkin@yahoo.com.

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