Monday, July 2, 2012

Corrupted Planning Rules and the Downward Spiral of Los Angeles

A Strategy to Turn L.A. Around

Posted on June 30, 2012 by Ron

EDITOR’S NOTE: Retired LA City Planner Dick Platkin, now consulting to community groups and teaching about sustainable city planning, wrote a version of this article for the Summer 2012 issue of Progressive Planning magazine ( ). The article provides a valuable analysis of what has gone wrong in L.A. and what it takes to fix the city. Platkin can be reached at
“If you cannot predict, how can you plan?  The answer is clear; you cannot; you proceed blindly.” -- Gabriel Kolko, “Why America is Doomed to One Disaster After Another,” CounterPunch, May 14, 2012.

How the Planning Process Contributes to LA’s Malaise

By Dick Platkin
There is a widespread feeling inLos Angelesthat the bloom is off the rose, that a formerly dynamic city has been in the doldrums for several decades and that, at best, its future offers more of the same.  I have no argument with this view. Instead, I would like to explain how the city’s planning process has contributed to this malaise by accommodating a political process molded by economic forces.  Hopefully my account will also offer an alternative model to the governance and planning ofLos Angeles.
Part of the explanation is, of course, that LA has been whipsawed by global and national trends.  In this regard Gabriel Kolko’s article was about this country’s endless, futile, bankrupting foreign wars.  He argues there is no end in sight for these military interventions, and the U.S. government will continue to mindlessly wage them because they are no longer capable of either predicting or planning.
Sadly, the domestic consequences of these wars, combined with local government’s similar inability to predict and plan, have become a curse on American cities.
The bipartisan, neo-conservative foreign policy that Kolko dissected neatly dovetails with the neo-liberal (i.e., austerity, deregulation, heavy policing and surveillance) approach to local government is painfully visible in most large American cities, including Los Angeles.  In both cases the quirks of market forces, whether global or local, subvert the planning process because of our economic system’s regular booms, bubbles, and busts, as well as it periodic breakdowns into crises and conflicts.
CASE STUDY OF LOS ANGELES:  A close look at Los Angeles, the second largest metropolis in the United States, reveals how this downward spiral is unfolding, and how it is abetted by a corrupted planning process.
While the city’s increased emphasis on policing and surveillance parallels the globalized militarism of the United States, so too are City Hall’s selective business subsidies and tax breaks, encouragement of new real estate bubbles, and local austerity programs.   For example, in the past several weeks alone, the local press has reported a $67 million dollar tax break for a new, downtown hotel, unprecedented cutbacks in public education, and a large surge in police murders.
On the 20th anniversary of the 1992 civil disturbance that torched 1000 buildings, murdered 50 people, wounded over 10,000, and arrested another 10,000, Los Angeles is a sad sack of a city.  Despite City Hall and media boosterism, decay and decline are in the air.  While the city’s elected officials, nearly all centrist Democrats tethered to the real estate sector, still portray Los Angeles as a boomtown, the city is tired, aging, with many unattractive neighborhoods.  In reality, it perfectly reflects the broad plight of the United States described by Kolko.  Imperial over-reach is far from over and has already resulted in substantial domestic stagnation, with long-term prospects even worse.
Furthermore, the revival strategies of the Los Angeles’s business elites and their political sidekicks are comedic.  In response to long-term economic decline, accelerated by the bursting of the housing bubble, they have spared policing and spying, while otherwise cutting public payrolls, employee compensation and hours, and public services and infrastructure to the bone.  At the same time they are systematically deregulating private real estate investment and environmental review processes in the pollyannaishneo-liberal belief that, investors will then rush in for another building boom – a tide that will lift all ships.  The absence of sufficient consumer demand due to the City’s stagnant economic base and the resulting high levels of unemployment, does not, apparently enter into their municipal strategy/business model.
To their credit, a small part of their calculation might be correct.  There certainly are enough dormant piles of capital stashed around this planet to build many new shopping complexes and upscale apartment buildings in the ritzier parts of Los Angeles.  City Hall may even find a few bold investors willing to plunk someone else’s money into the distressed inner-city neighborhoods that revolted 20 years ago in the largest urban unrest since New York City draft “riots” of 1863.  Even today, a drive through these scarred neighborhoods reveals how little they have changed and how much vacant land is ripe for real estate speculation.  In fact, some of the empty lots on major streets, such as Vermont Boulevard, are the remains of fires set in 1992 by local residents when their anger at police violence and decrepit neighborhoods boiled over.
Unlike the previous Watts civil disturbance of 1965, which was a catalyst for public investment, much of it from the Federal government, in the two decades since 1992 public investment has dwindled.  Furthermore, the disbanding of the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) has reinforced these cutbacks since the CRA was one of the few remaining sources of public investment.
In response to these developments, local officials have never mentioned the obvious: military spending, coupled with tax breaks and bailouts for the well off, the national recession, and Prop. 13’s two-thirds requirement to raise taxes in California, have totally undermined state and local government.   Furthermore, deindustrialization due to the outsourcing of factory jobs to low wage foreign countries, has undermined the economic base of Los Angeles and many other American cities.
NEO-LIBERAL NOSTRUMS:  Instead, city officials have resorted to the same neo-liberal nostrums associated with Presidents Reagan and Clinton: deregulation of private investment to spur the economy.  Their municipal cure-all is the flush real estate sector that is supposed to ensue.  While there has been a minor boom in illegal garage conversions, McMansions, billboards and supergraphics, and marijuana dispensaries, there is little evidence that their arsenal of local give-aways has “unleashed” the private sector.
According to the Bureau of the Census, Los Angeles’s population has been nearly flat for the past 20 years, with many historic neighborhoods, such as Hollywood, losing population – despite the introduction of subway stations, zoning exceptions, and investment subsidies.  As for employment, there has been no gain at all, with visible weakening in the city’s core historic industries of construction, heavy manufacturing, garment, and entertainment.  In fact, Los Angeles no longer hosts the head office of any Fortune 500 company.  Because of the stagnation of the City’s economic base, there is less population growth and purchasing power to support new development.  Furthermore, the city is still one of the most unequal in the United States.  It Genie Co-efficient is .49, ranking it fifth in the entire country.  Another index of economic stagnation and decline, unemployment, has been stuck at an official rate of 12-14 percent since 2009.  Inequality and unemployment results in more poor people and poorly paid working people who cannot afford to rent new apartments or buy homes because they are priced higher than they can afford.
A more careful look at the planning process in Los Angeles reveals how this decline is unfolding.  It also reveals why further deregulation will compound the deteriorating conditions experienced by most Los Angeles neighborhoods.
In the boom years prior to the 1992 civil disturbance, the Los Angeles Department of City Planning had 350 employees serving a population of 3.2 million people.  In response to lawsuits from the politically powerful Canyon and Hillside Federation, local slow-growth movements in many Los Angeles neighborhoods, and a legal mandate from the Environmental Protection Agency, this Department undertook an ambitious planning program.
The first component was AB 283, an enormous zoning consistency program.  It comprehensively revamped the city’s parcel-level zoning and plan designations, to bring zoning into conformance with the City’s General Plan’s Land Use element, the Community Plans. This program reduced the build-out population capacity of the city’s zoning to prevent over-development in most of the city.
At approximately the same time, many local community organizations responded to overly dense and poor quality commercial projects with such sustained political pressure that the City Council adopted a dizzy array of overlay zoning districts.  In addition to Specific Plans, there were HPOZs (Historical Preservation Overlay Districts), CDOs (Community Design Overlay Districts), PODs (Pedestrian Overlay Districts), and SNAPs (Station Neighborhood Area Plans).  Recent additions include CPIOs (Community Plan Implementation Overlays) and RFA’s (Residential Floor Area Overlays) to stop mansionization.   However, the specific plans and overlay zones cover only a small portion of the City’s land area, leaving the rest of the Los Angeles unprotected from poor quality development. Only the squeaky wheels got oiled with strengthened regulations for small geographical areas, while the underlying citywide problems of weak land use and design controls were left to fester.
The final leg of this triangle was a legal directive from the Environmental Protection Agency that forced Los Angeles to update its General Plan.  This resulting plan, the General Plan Framework Element, was based on 1990 census data and adopted in 1996, with a 2010 horizon year.  Its intent was to politically balance the interests of neighborhoods and real estate developers through a policy of growth neutrality and a program of extensive monitoring of citywide and local trends, including demographics, traffic, construction, infrastructure, and public services.
An exemplary General Plan that could have addressed the citywide problems responsible for the multiple zoning overlay ordinances, the Framework’s policies were quickly ignored and its monitoring program was abandoned in 1999.  Ironically, several Framework goals, particularly those related to transit, have often been quoted out of context to justify zoning waivers for large commercial projects.
REVERSAL OF PLANNING INITIATIVES:  Likewise, the plethora of zoning overlay ordinances ground to a halt because a change in City Hall’s governing philosophy was reinforced by staff reductions – but not because the wheels stopped squeaking.  The original impetus of many of the planning initiatives from the 1980’s and 1990’s was to manage market forces through carefully prepared plans and zoning rules.  But by the late 1990’s until today, unpredictable market forces have prevailed over community concerns.  In this period the city’s planning and zoning processes have been systematically weakened to the point that the City’s elected officials and their appointed managers consider the planning process to be little more than an annoying barrier to real estate investment.
For example, the General Plan Framework Element seriously over-estimated the city’s population, projecting it to grow from 3.2 million in 1990 to 4.3 million by 2010.  Even though the Bureau of the Census only counted 3,750,000 Angelinos in 2012, the General Plan has not been updated to reflect the new census data or augmented with an Economic Development Element to address the city’s financial doldrums.
Instead, the Framework has been left to languish, demonstrating Gabriel Kolko’s insight that without the ability to predict, there is no ability (or intent) to plan.  Old census data, left over from the boom era, is still used by a City Planning Department whose staff was reduced from 350 to 240 staffers by budget cuts.  (Factoring in furloughs, the number of full-time positions is closer to 220.)  These old population numbers are now being used to justify (but not predict) expansive programs of up-zoning and up-planning disconnected from the city’s actual demographic and economic trends.
Instead of updating the General Plan Framework Element and its related planning elements (e.g., Air Quality), or preparing critical new elements addressing the economy or climate change, a planning program called Community Plan Updates has been rolled out.  It will revise Los Angeles’s 35 community plans.  Seven are under preparation, but all 35 will eventually be tackled.  These Updates have only the most superficial connection to the Framework Plan, without any link to observable demographic or infrastructure trends.  If the recently enacted Hollywood Plan Update is any indication, the role of the Updates is to green light speculative real estate development.  This is being done through companion ordinances that allow higher densities in selected locations, permitting much larger and higher projects to be quickly approved.  Missing in action is secured funding for Hollywood’s infrastructure and public services, as well as programs to monitor the Update itself and the impacts of new private projects.
Unfortunately, or luckily, in seven years of work on these Community Plan Updates, only the Hollywood Update has been presented to the public.  Approved by the City Council on June 11, 2012, lawsuits will tie it up in the courts for an extended period of time.  Although the Hollywood Update was intended to be a template for the remaining 34 Community Plan Updates, staff shortages, the lengthy, multi-step approval process, and a loss of expertise has stalled the release of the other plans.  While their exact status has been kept under careful wraps, their slowdown has become an unintended blessing for many Los Angeles communities.  They had braced themselves for an onslaught of new zoning ordinances permitting much larger buildings, oblivious to local character or infrastructure capacity.  Despite years of delay, the communities are still holding their breath in anticipation of what comes next, in particular when the law suits challenging the Hollywood Community Plan Update are adjudicated.
NEW FORMS OF LAND USE DEREGULATION:  At the same time, the shrunken Department of City Planning has undertaken three programs to further deregulate private land use:
  • It is preparing over 20 piecemeal amendments to the Los Angeles Municipal Code (LAMC) to insulate applicants for discretionary zoning actions from strict rules, environmental reviews, public hearings, and appeals.
  • It is undertaking a new five-year program, recently funded by the cash-strapped Los Angeles City Council, to totally revamp the city’s zoning code.  The details of this program are still murky, but critical observers assume this is one more effort to deregulate real estate investment.
  • It is showcasing Transit Oriented Development (TOD).  In theory, Los Angeles, one of the country’s most polluted, auto-centric cities, desperately needs sustainable development.  Unfortunately, the Department of City Planning’s is promoting TOD on the cheap.  While the successful model for transit-oriented development consists of a dense mass transit system, bike lanes, extensive local amenities at or near transit stations, and pedestrian improvements such as sidewalk widening and street trees, in Los Angeles TOD has been simplified.  Forget the public improvements.  Instead, private lots near minimalist transit stations will be up-zoned in the belief that developers will then rush in to build mostly market rate apartments in run-down neighborhoods lacking market demand.
This combination of a truly stagnant economy and drought in government investment, especially in public infrastructure and services, such as education, suggests that these planning schemes are doomed.  After all, when the city’s air is still highly polluted, the highways and roads are as congested as ever, the transit system is embryonic and underfunded, the sidewalks and streets are in deplorable shape, the overhead wires and billboards are an assault on the eyes, and the schools and colleges are in free fall from years of cutbacks, how could most new upscale projects succeed?
While a few projects, such as USC’s expansion or a new AEG football stadium in the downtown, might succeed because they are near major employment centers, most new projects will either languish or fail.  Local subsidies, usually in the form of tax breaks favored by the city’s elected officials, can temporarily help a few of the well-connected, but the fate of most new projects is sealed.  Private investment, no matter how large or touted by squadrons of expediters, publicists, and technicians, cannot succeed when the city’s economic base is stagnant, when public investment is so stunted, and when even worse reductions are likely.
Furthermore, there is no white knight to rescue Los Angeles.  Unlike 1965, there are few remaining Federal urban programs other than Department of Justice grants for police spying on Moslems and occupiers.  As for the State of California, it, too, is in desperate financial shape, so Sacramento cannot be relied on.  Prop 13’s two-thirds requirement to raise taxes, which gives conservative Republicans a veto power, has contributed to structural deficits decimating the state’s public infrastructure and public services for the foreseeable future.  Even hopes that the private sector could come to the rescue, truly an idea born of desperation, have not panned out.  Rebuild LA was the business community’s program for the Los Angeles neighborhoods decimated in 1992.  It eventually folded because the lack of purchasing power in low-income communities could never attract enough private capital to replace reduced public investment.  It only lasted a few years, and it sole legacy is five oversized boxes stored at the library of Loyola Marymount University.
PROSPECTS:   With no help on its way, and with local officials who consistently manage to weakly play the poor hands they have been dealt, what are the options?
In this case the ball is in the court of the public.  While the local campaigns of the 1980’s and 1990’s that resulted in a new General Plan, many specific plans, and the wholesale revamping of the city’s zones have fragmented, they have not been forgotten.  Los Angeles still has many active community groups and official neighborhood councils.  While some neighborhood councils have been hi-jacked by real estate interests, many still represent highly committed local residents.
Furthermore, many of the neo-liberal schemes originating at City Hall have met stiff resistance from local opponents and citywide alliances.
What is needed in Los Angeles, however, is a citywide political force that can tackle the city’s enormous problems, in particular its stagnant economy, by supporting increased public investment.  While the LA Weekly and on-line journalism have chiseled away at City Hall’s veneer and occasionally pried it back enough to peek inside, at this point Los Angeles is, at best, moving sideways.  Exposes of poor management and backroom deals are helpful, but, like Rebuild LA, in themselves they cannot replace major improvements to municipal services and infrastructure.
For a short time many local activists had great hopes in enormous immigration marches and most recently in Occupy Los Angeles(OLA).   While Occupy Los Angeles did captivate the public and had hundreds of people living on the grounds of City Hall, few of the occupiers managed to successfully analyze what took place within the building right next door.
Even though OLA fractured after the Mayor directed the LAPD to evict it from the grounds of City Hall, it has survived.   Many people expect its spirit to combine with LA’s ongoing deterioration to spark a serious, long-term, fully engaged, inclusive, and deeply analytical movement before another civil disturbance rips the city apart a third time.
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