The Los Angeles Department of City Planning is currently preparing three related sets of detailed urban design guidelines. They separately address future residential, commercial, and industrial projects.
Once approved by the City Planning Commission, these guidelines will become an appendix to the General Plan Framework Element, the backbone of the Los Angeles General Plan. These guidelines are not binding, but would be advisory for discretionary actions (e.g., plan amendments, zone changes) for which there are no approved or adopted design guidelines otherwise available to decision makers.
Full copies of these guidelines, including background information, can found at City Planning’s web-site:
As I explain below, the preparation and on-going public information campaign to promote these Design Guidelines is baffling for at least three reasons, and I have little doubt that readers will find additional wrinkles regarding the preparation or use of these guidelines.
WHY THE PROPOSED DESIGN GUIDELINES ARE SO BAFFLING
Baffling Reason #1: The main problems of the General Plan Framework Element have absolutely nothing to do with the presence or absence of advisory urban design guidelines for residential, commercial, and industrial land uses. Therefore, why allocate so much time and energy to their development, promotion, and adoption?
The most serious problem of the General Plan Framework is that it has reached the end of its intended life span. This plan was based on 1990 census data, was prepared by the Department of City Planning in the early 1990’s, and was adopted by the Los Angeles City Council in 1995. Its horizon year is 2010, which means that 2010 is the final date for which the plan’s demographic estimates, infrastructure data, goals and policies, and implementation programs.
According to my calendar, it will soon be 2011, and by the General Plan Framework’s own internal logic it should now be sent to the City’s archives at Piper Tech. It should be immediately replaced by a new General Plan element, one which is based on 2010 census data and which has 2030 or a later date for its horizon year.
Furthermore, because California State law (Government Code 65040.2), the City of Los Angeles Charter (Sections 554-558), and Los Angeles Municipal Code (Section 11.5.6) all require the City to have a current and accurate General Plan, and because the General Plan Framework Element is the heart of the Los Angeles General Plan, it is now crunch time. This is not a discretional project; it is a legal requirement!
The process of replacing the Framework with an updated General Plan document should have begun several years to assure that the new General Plan Framework Element would be adopted as soon as the old plan expires at the end of December 2010. This update would have, however, only assured formal compliance with state and local legal requirements because professional city planning practice calls for municipal general plans to be updated on a 10 year cycle, not the 20 year plus cycle which is the default practice of Los Angeles.
In the meantime, however, despite the imminent end of the General Plan Framework’s intended use, and the City’s failure to update the plan, the Department of City Planning has undertaken a series of Community Plan updates apparently based on the rapidly expiring 1995 document. At this point, both Hollywood and Granada Hills are in the pipe-line and could be soon released.
So, instead of waiting until an updated General Plan Framework document, which will be based on 2010 census data and its 20 year extrapolation to a 2030 horizon year, the outdated 1995 General Plan Framework is driving the update of local Community Plans.
In effect, this means that the original data base for the General Plan Framework, 1990 census data, will be extrapolated 40 years into the future to determine the growth trends, infrastructure needs, and implementation programs required in such dynamic Los Angeles communities as Hollywood.
The chance that a 40 year extrapolation of 1990 data could be accurate and a reliable basis for an extensive General Plan implementation program, including proposals to increase the density of zones and plan designations in Hollywood, is nil. In fact, the Planning Department’s own data, for example, already indicates that the General Plan Framework was wildly inaccurate for Hollywood. It predicted Hollywood would grow by 43,000 people between 1990 and 2010, but by 2008 City Planning’s own data revealed that Hollywood’s population had only increased by 12,700 people. 30,000 predicted people never materialized.
Similarly, the General Plan Framework had predicted that there would be 17,610 new housing units constructed in Hollywood between 1990 and 2010, but by 2008 the number had only reached 2,686, despite the active intervention of the Community Redevelopment Agency and numerous discretionary planning and zoning actions approved by the City of Los Angeles.
Furthermore, if the amount of affordable housing removed to make way for new construction in Hollywood had been factored into the analysis, the net housing gain in Hollywood would have been even smaller, and the Framework’s 2010 projections would have been even more inaccurate.
Conclusion: The resources used to develop these optional design guidelines should have been spent on remedying the Framework’s main problem: it is an out-of-date General Plan document in urgent need of replacement.
Baffling Reason # 2: To assure that the General Plan Framework Element remained accurate during its intended life 1995-2010 lifetime, it underlying statistics regarding growth and infrastructure, as well as its track record of successfully implementing required policies and programs, were to be monitored through an annual report prepared by the Department of City Planning.
The need for this annual report, the legal obligation to prepare it, and the report’s components, are all spelled out in detail in the General Plan Framework, as well as the Framework’s extensive Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR). To assure the Plan’s relevance and accuracy, the annual reports were to include both raw data and analysis of the following:
- Los Angeles’s growth trends, including those for the city’s 35 Community Plan areas, such as Hollywood and Grenada Hills, where local Community Plans are now being updated.
- Infrastructure construction, changes in user demand for infrastructure and municipal services, and the availability of sufficient infrastructure capacity to absorb actual and anticipated user demand through the year plan’s 2010 horizon year.
- Extent to which the General Plan Framework’s implementation program has been funded, rolled out, and met the goals of the General Plan Framework.
- Overall analysis of the General Plan Framework’s accuracy and effectiveness. Since the General Plan Framework is a growth neutral document, this means that all discretionary actions by the Department of City Planning or City Council to increase density (e.g., zone changes and variances) must be based on hard data demonstrating that the Framework’s projections had been exceeded and that it policies and implementation programs were no longer capable of meeting the needs of the city’s residents.
So far so good, except for one minor glitch. The Department of City Planning never monitored the implementation of the General Plan Framework, and it stopped any monitoring of the Framework’s underlying growth and infrastructure data over 10 years ago.
In other words, the City of Los Angeles has been flying blind since the year 2000 because its General Plan has not been monitored. There is no way to know if the city’s underlying growth and infrastructure data are accurate or if its policies and programs are effective. For that matter, we don’t even know which implementation programs were rolled out, and if any of them worked as they were intended. To say the least, this is a serious planning problem, and it is wholly oblique to the preparation and approval of supplementary design guidelines which will become nonbinding appendices to an outdated General Plan.
This failure to either update or monitor the General Plan Framework may have slipped under the radar at City Hall, but some local planning activists noticed this lapse. As a result two law suits have been filed against the City of Los Angeles. Through a trial or appeal, it is likely that the City will be forced to resume and expand General Plan monitoring, which means collecting, analyzing, and applying current growth and infrastructure data. Furthermore, the City could also be required to prepare 10 years of missing reports, from 2000 to 2010. Finally, if the trial or appeal judge develops an understanding of California State planning laws, he or she should also require the City of Los Angeles to quickly and fully update its General Plan. This means that the judge would conclude that rigorous monitoring of an expired plan was not sufficient, and that the new 2010 data must be used to develop a new general plan, including all legally required elements, such as transportation.
If the City were to immediately address these serious problems, or if it finally acts in response to a court order, it will quickly discover that the proposed supplemental design guidelines are not helpful. At that point the public might wonder why so much time and energy had been devoted to such secondary activities, especially when it could have been devoted to the formidable tasks or monitoring and/or updating the General Plan Framework.
They might even wonder why such obvious tasks were neglected to the point that the public had to sue the city to force it to comply with own laws, as well as to pursue what every city planning student is taught by the time they graduate: maintain your city’s general plan.
Baffling Reason #3: The three sets of supplemental design guidelines intended to become an appendix to the General Plan Framework do not appear to have any connection to the Plan’s actual chapters, including their policies and programs. For example, the Framework’s Chapter 5, Urban Form and Neighborhood Design, offers 17 pages of detailed design goals, objectives, and policies, all of which are then linked to the Framework’s Chapter 10, Implementation Programs.
These design guidelines were part of the original Framework document adopted 15 years ago by the City Council. Since then they have quietly rested on a shelf somewhere at City Hall. In fact, their profile was so low that apparently the proposed design appendices do not even reference the Framework’s own legally adopted design guidelines. While this is a baffling, the situation is actually more bizarre because in 2009 the Department of City Planning presented detailed amendments to the Framework’s adopted design guidelines. These amendments and an accompanying staff report were presented to the City Planning Commission June of 2010. The curious can listen to the full discussion on the City Planning Commission’s web-site. When they do, they will learn that the City Planning Commission endorsed the proposed General Plan amendments, including the accompanying staff report.
At this point, however, the trail inexplicably goes cold. Despite the action of the City Planning Commission, the proposed General Plan amendments never made it to the next stage, consideration by the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Committee, prior to adoption by the full City Council.
So for over a year these amendments and the staff report have languished at City Hall, while advisory design guidelines were prepared which do not appear to make any references to the Framework’s Chapter 5 on neighborhood design or the Planning Department’s proposed 2009 amendments to the same Framework chapter.
Baffling Reason #4: The Framework’s existing design guidelines in its Chapter 5 could have been used, as these appendices are intended to be used, to impose design conditions on any of the thousands of discretionary actions which moved through the City’s bureaucracy between 1995 to date. Yet, they never were. (If any readers of this column have information to the contrary, they should share it.)
That’s right. From the date the Framework was adopted in 1995 to the present any decision maker could have invoked 17 pages of existing urban design guidelines to condition design changes for any building in any discretionary action. So, the obvious question is: if the existing urban design guidelines were never followed by decision makers, even though they were fully part of the adopted General Plan, why should appendices only adopted as advisory design guidelines be utilized. If quasi-judicial zoning administrators, city planning staff acting on behalf of the Director of Planning, the City Planning Commission, the Council’s Planning and Land Use Committee, or the full City Council never found the time or necessity to utilize the Framework’s Chapter 5 for the thousands of land use decisions they made over the past 15 years, why will they now turn to these appendices?
BUT, ARE THE ADVISORY DESIGN GUIDELINES BAD?
Considering that the General Plan’s existing design principles and guidelines have been a shelf document since they were formally adopted 15 years ago, it is certainly likely than non-binding design guidelines only approved by the City Planning Commission, not the City Council, and which will become appendices, instead of adopted policies, will have little impact. Does this, therefore, mean that such potentially innocuous documents lay below the threshold of being either good or bad?
Not necessarily. There always is the possibility that the public outreach efforts campaign regarding the proposed appendices will be a catalyst for City Planning and/or City Hall decision makers to utilize the new design guidelines for discretionary actions. If this happens and the design guidelines are actually used, they could improve the appearance of some projects. This would be a positive outcome.
But, the guidelines might also add a design patina to real estate projects which could not otherwise be built according to the Los Angeles Municipal Code (LAMC). This means that projects requiring zone changes, plan amendments, variances, or other special approvals to circumvent the LAMC’s zoning restrictions, could be made more appealable through design enhancements. Based on current practices, it is also likely that contentious projects will make amends toward critics by changing their external appearance – while holding fast to the zone changes and related actions they are requesting.
This means that, in effect, the design guidelines would function quite differently than those now attached to Specific Plans or Historical Preservation Overlay Districts. In those cases the overlay ordinances ensure that projects are not only built below existing zoning limitations, but that the same projects at then given an additional review regarding their design. In effect, under Specific Plans a good (i.e., undersized) project becomes better, while, in contrast, a bad (over-sized) project approved through a discretionary action becomes more acceptable through a design “make-over.”
If this happens, then the extensive efforts by the City of Los Angeles to reduce barriers to real estate speculation will have been supplemented through the use of non-binding urban design guidelines for a wide range of discretionary actions.