Wednesday, March 16, 2011

HOW CAN WE FIX L.A.’S PLANNING MESS?

ASK THE PLANNER:

By Dick Platkin*

In response to several recent questions on how Los Angeles can fix its dysfunctional planning process, these are my suggestions.

It all begins with the State of California’s legal requirement that cities must have legally adopted current, comprehensive, an internally consistent General Plans. So far so good. The Los Angeles City Planning Department has uploaded and posted the city’s seven legally required General Plan Elements on its website, including its 35 local Community Plans and the discretionary General Plan Framework Element.

But, a careful look at these adopted policy documents reveals that they are a facade. To begin, they have no monitoring program, an act of negligence which has landed the city in court.

Furthermore, in addition to the failure to monitor these plans, many of them are older than the city planners in charge of them. Their update is long overdue, and the ball is clearly in the court of City Hall to bring these antiquated policy documents into the 21st century.

Consider how Los Angeles has changed since these plans were prepared and how the city will continue to change over the next several decades:

Open Space - 1973

Public Recreation/Service Systems - 1980

Air Quality - 1992

General Plan Framework - 1995 (not mandatory, but prepared to comply with an EPA action whose settlement directed the city to update and integrate its General Plan elements.)

Noise - 1999 (1996 Council File)

Transportation – 1999 (Preparation began in 1987)

Conservation - 2001 (based on 1990 data)

Housing - 2009

Other adopted, optional elements which have not been uploaded to the city’s website include Power Systems (1968), Libraries (1968), Public Schools (1968), Sewerage and Wastewater (1968), Cultural and Historical Monuments (1969), Water System (1969) CD 12 Equestrian Trails (1968), and Bicycle (1996).

In violation of State laws, these mandatory and optional General Plan elements have different base years, different horizon (expiration) years, different graphic formats, different policies, and different base maps. They, nevertheless, have two things in common. First, they are all shelf documents ignored by the city’s officials in land use, budget, capital projects, and work program decisions.

Second, they were prepared in an era when Los Angeles was still a booming city expecting endless decades of financial and demographic expansion. Despite the boosters, this assumption has just crashed to earth with the release of the new 2010 census data. As a city, Los Angeles has hardly grown over the past 10 – 20 years. In the meantime, the city’s public services and public infrastructure have been neglected and are now unable to meet the needs of the city’s residents and commuters. So even though the city’s population is stable, the gap between its needs and available public infrastructure and services continues to widen because of local government cutbacks.

So, repairs to this deplorable situation are desperately needed. Just as the navigator of a modern commercial airplane could not do his or her job with old, inconsistent maps and technical manuals, the second largest city in the United States cannot be competently governed with old, inconsistent plans and maps. To climb out of this hole, and then comply with State of California’s planning laws and guidelines, L.A. should proceed as follows:

1) Immediately update the seven required elements of the General Plan, as well as the integrating discretionary element, the General Plan Framework. These updates should be based on the recently released 2010 census data, and they should have realistic assumptions about LA’s future: minimal population gain, minimal economic expansion, and aging underfunded public infrastructure and services. Furthermore, these updates should reflect two other unfolding crises: climate change and peak oil (i.e., the end of the oil era). Many cities have already prepared new elements or amended their adopted General Plan elements to respond to these new realities. Los Angeles should follow suit.

2) Since the General Plan’s Land Use element applies the other seven General Plan elements to the city’s 35 local communities, these community plans should be the last ones updated. Clearly, the city’s current approach of updating several community plans (e.g., Hollywood, Granada Hills, and Sun Valley) based on outdated plans, policies, and data makes little sense. These updates should clearly be set aside until the General Plan itself is properly updated to reflect a careful analysis and projection of the 2010 census data.

3) Once the General Plan is updated, it must be immediately applied to the governance of the city. It is the city’s navigation system. Since the General Plan minimally determines the city’s priorities for the next 20 years, these policies should be reflected in year-to-year budgets, as well as the city’s annually updated five year Capital Improvement Program (CIP). This document, prepared by the City Administrative Officer (CAO), should be sent to the City Planning Commission so it can act on its legal obligation to confirm the CIP’s consistency with the General Plan.

4) The fourth priority is to use the updated General Plan to review the city’s many zoning overlay ordinances, such as specific plans, historical preservation overlay ordinances, and transit oriented districts.

5) The final step is to implement the updated General Plan by amending the Los Angeles Municipal Code (LAMC). At present the Department of City Planning is preparing several dozen amendments to the LAMC in order to reduce administrative barriers for discretionary actions (i.e., legal loopholes in the zoning code). This process should take place after the city’s plans are updated, not before.

6) During the entire General Plan update process, the city’s elected officials must ensure that city’s code enforcement authorities, in particular the Department of Building and Safety, are properly staffed and fulfilling their requirements. After all, politicians who continuously profess their commitment to law enforcement should stop slighting the city’s adopted zoning laws, building codes, and environmental regulations. If these officials had the foresight to adopt them, then they should guarantee their enforcement.

None of these six actions chart new territory to fix L.A.’s broken planning process. The state’s planning laws and guidelines have been around for several decades. The best practices of the planning profession have been well known for the same period, and the city’s professional planners have the academic training to undertake this six part work program if they are given that charge. What is needed is direction from the city’s elected officials to overcome foot dragging, along with the necessary resources for this planning work program to be implemented. While there will be sticker shock for this essential work, in the long run its cost will be far less than the eventual price paid if Los Angeles muddles through the next two decades and beyond with outmoded, irrelevant plans.

* Dick Platkin is an LA-based city planning blogger, consultant, and teacher. Please send any comments or questions to rhplatkin@yahoo.com .