Friday, January 29, 2016

Why we need to Carefully Monitor Infrastructure in Los Angeles

Why We Need to Carefully Monitor Infrastructure in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES
PLATKIN ON PLANNING-Concerns over LA’s mounting infrastructure problems are everywhere. Is it structures that will fail in El Nino floods? Coastal facilities that cannot withstand the rising seas caused by climate change? Sidewalk repairs that will cost $1.5 billion? A proper urban forest whose bill is close to $1 billion? 
Or is it street repairs estimated to cost $3 billion?  Several billions of repairs scheduled for LAX? Or is it $15 billion to repair century old water mains and sewer pipes that burst with alarming frequency? Perhaps it’s the 405 Freeway widening that cost about $1.3 billion? The$250 billion in across-the-board infrastructure categories that are certain to fail within minutes of “The Big One”? 
The answer is that this and much, much more is the basis for LA’s growing infrastructure and public services crises. Furthermore, these crises extend into public facilities such as fire stations, libraries, and schools – structures that can hopefully be replaced before they become unusable or even crumble, much like the recently shutdown apartments at the Pacific Beach in San Francisco. 
These are some of the reasons why the Hollywood United Neighborhood Council presented a panel discussion on the linkages between infrastructure and the Los Angeles city budget at its Wednesday meeting. 
Hopefully other CityWatch writers can give us the lowdown on what Zev Yaroslavksy, Kevin James, and Ron Galperin had to say on this topic. Until then, I will write about what theyshould have said, but probably did not. 
Established process to link infrastructure and budgeting: To begin, Los Angeles, like all California cities, has an established process for connecting the planning, construction, maintenance, and monitoring of public infrastructure to the City’s budget. On paper, at least, it begins with the city’s legally required General Plan. In its entirety, its different elements should address all infrastructure categories. Furthermore, some cities also prepare an optional, Public Facilities and/or Infrastructure Element to make sure nothing is left out. Once upon a time LA did prepare these optional elements -- but that was in the 1960s. Fifty years later, those elements are ready for the planning museum. 
In addition, all General Law cities in California must monitor their General Plan through an annual report. Los Angeles, which is a Charter City, is not subject to this State requirement. Nevertheless, LA has legally committed itself to a comparable monitoring program and annual report through the General Plan Framework Element and its Final Environmental Impact Report. For those who care to look, the contents of this mandated report are described in great detail in the Framework’s Chapter 9, Infrastructure and Public Services.  All of the city’s infrastructure categories are listed there, as well as specific instructions on how the City should monitor each of them through its annual report. 
Since the General Plan, especially Chapter 9, carefully describes and analyzes LA’s anticipated infrastructure capacity and needs, it should be the guiding North Star for any discussion of infrastructure and budget. As most of know, however, LA’s General Plan desperately needs updating, especially the elements and chapters dealing with infrastructure and public facilities. Instead of infrastructure, however, the current, minimal General Plan update process focuses on zone changes for private real estate projects through appendices to new Community Plans. 
How infrastructure and budget should be linked: This is what the Los Angeles City Charteractually has to say about the General Plan, and it reinforces the State of California’s requirements that this document must carefully address infrastructure and public facilities, including the role of each City Department.   
Sec. 554…The General Plan shall serve as a guide for:
   (1)   The physical development of the City;
   (2)   The development, correlation and coordination of official regulations, controls, programs and services; and
   (3)   The coordination of planning and administration by all agencies of the City government, other governmental bodies and private organizations and individuals involved in the development of the City. 
While we know the Department of City Planning must prepare the different elements of the General Plan, these documents must then be subsequently reviewed and approved by the City Planning Commission. The final step, the City Council’s review and adoption, is really a prelude to the next steps, which are the implementation of the General Plan and then the monitoring of the rollout and impacts of the General Plan. 
In terms of implementation, each City’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP) is one form of implementation. According to California’s new, draft General Plan Guidelines: 
“Many cities and counties prepare and annually revise a 5- to 7-year capital improvement program (CIP). The CIP projects annual expenditures for acquisition, construction, maintenance, rehabilitation, and replacement of public buildings and facilities, including sewer, water, and street improvements; street lights; traffic signals; parks; and police and fire facilities.” 
The CIP should, therefore, be considered an important implementation program of the General Plan: 
“Capital facilities must be consistent with the general plan (Friends of B Street v. City of Hayward (1980) 106 Cal.App.3d 988). The network of publicly owned facilities, such as streets, water and sewer facilities, public buildings, and parks, forms the framework of a community. Although capital facilities are built to accommodate present and anticipated needs, some (most notably water and sewer facilities and roads) play a major role in determining the location, intensity, and timing of development. For instance, the availability of sewer and water connections can have a profound impact upon the feasibility of preserving agricultural or open-space lands.” 
To ensure consistency with its General Plan:
“Each year the local planning agency is required to “review the capital improvement program of the city or county and the local public works projects of other local agencies for consistency with their general plan” (§65103(c)). To fulfill this requirement, all departments within the city or county and all other local governmental agencies (including cities, counties, school districts, and special districts) that construct capital facilities must submit a list of proposed projects to the planning agency (§65401).65103.” 
After this annual review is completed, City Planning should then submit it to the City Planning Commission (CPC) for review and approval. It is the CPC’s job to confirm that the Capital Improvement Program is, in fact, consistent with the General Plan. In LA, however, their load has been considerably lightened because the Planning Department does not appear to have undertaken any reviews of the City’s capital projects, including those consolidated into the CIP. There is, therefore, no staff report for the CPC to consider regarding infrastructure. Case, unfortunately, closed. 
Capital Improvement Program: Applying all of this information to the City’s budget, which is prepared by the City Administrator’s Office and the Mayor’s office, is the next link in the chain. But, how would this even be possible, if the City Planning Department and the CPC do not comply with State requirements to review and approve the City of LA's Capital Improvement Program? This document compiles the separate capital budgets of each of the City’s departments that either construct or maintain the city’s infrastructure. 
The planning and related budgetary challenge is to therefore integrate these totally separate capital budgets into one comprehensive document. Since most cities suffer from a “silo” phenomena in which each City department has, in effect, a separate planning, budget, and monitoring process, we cannot underestimate the role of City Planning to integrate this material together through the General Plan’s elements, annual monitoring reports, and annual CIP evaluations. 
To be clear, the three annual infrastructure reports that City Planning prepared in the late 1990s should not be confused with either of the two reports that the City Planning Commission and the City Administrator’s Office need to make detailed connections between municipal infrastructure and municipal budgeting. 
To begin, the CIP review report is not simply an inventory of infrastructure projects. It compares those budgeted projects to the General Plan’s growth forecasts, including scheduled and necessary maintenance, as well as changes in user demand. Whatever their other virtues, the old reports never touched on these issues.
In addition, the General Plan Framework obligates the City Planning Department to prepare another report for the City Planning Commission. This annual monitoring report could include the previous CIP report, but it also needs to review the General Plan’s demographic assumptions for population, housing, and employment. And it also needs to inventory and evaluate the roll out the programs that implement the goals and policies of the General Plan. 
While this is a tall order, it is exactly what is necessary if LA’s planning process is to comply with the law and serve as a guide for the City’s budget, including how it addresses infrastructure and public services. Without this information, the city is, essentially, flying blind. 
Consequences of poor planning: How could the City Planning Commission possibly assess the city’s infrastructure needs without the annual monitoring report mandated by the General Plan Framework? In addition to a report on municipal infrastructure, that report should address maintenance schedules, changes in user demand for public infrastructure and services, available infrastructure and services to support private development, the rollout of General Plan programs, the success or failure of these programs, and any changes in the General Plan's underlying demograpahic assumptions. 
This is certainly a tall order, but over a century ago, a famous American architect and city planner, Daniel Burnham, spelled out this challenge with a quote that has withstood the test of time. 
“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized.” -- Daniel Burnham 

(Dick Platkin is a former LA City Planner who writes on local planning issues for City Watch. He also serves on the boards of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association and the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council Planning Committee. He welcomes questions, comments, and corrections at rhplatkin@gmail.com.) Cartoon: LA Daily News. Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

City Planning Debates: More Heat than Light

LOS ANGELES
PLATKIN ON PLANNING--There is no shortage of heat when it comes to planning debates in Los Angeles, but not much light, especially when attention turns to the proposed Neighborhood Protect Initiative.  For example, an instant opposition group, that does not appear to have even read the initiative, is already mislabeling it the Housing Moratorium Initiative.   
So, borrowing a term from Hizzoner, Eric Garcetti, lets return to some (city planning) basics.  Maybe it is possible to shed some light on these heated planning debates through three simple questions and answers: 
What do we mean by planning?  In California there is not much grey when it comes to planning.  Every city is legally required to prepare and adopt a General Plan.  State law not only specifies that this General Plan must be timely and internally consistent, but it also must include the following elements:  Land Use (Called community plans in Los Angeles),Circulation and Transportation (Called Mobility Element in LA),Housing, Noise, Conservation, Open Space, and Safety.  
In addition most cities, including LA, have an optional Air Qualityelement.  Furthermore, LA has another element that ties everything together, the General Plan Framework Element.  It also has a newHealth element, and many ancient elements, such as Infrastructure,that were prepared a half century ago, but never subsequently updated or rescinded. 
In LA nearly all of these General Plan elements are out-of-date. They are also internally inconsistent, with different base years, horizon years, and presumably even contradictory goals, policies, and implementation programs.  To say the least, they urgently need to be updated.  It is not just a question of following state law. Current, carefully monitored plans are necessary for LA to avoid the chaos resulting from roller coaster market forces determining the city’s fate. 
In addition to the General Plan element, most California cities must prepare an annual monitoring report on its General Plan that is submitted to Sacramento for review.  In LA, which is a charter city, this requirement is built into the legally adopted General Plan Framework Element and its related Environmental Impact Report.  Despite these legal obligations and related lawsuits, City Hall has ignored this monitoring requirement for the past 20 years.  It never created a mandated monitoring program, and it has never drafted a full monitoring report, just a few partial reports.  
This, then, is what constitutes planning in California.  Issues related to zoning, which occupy most of the time and energy of the LA Department of City Planning, are nothing more than a partial implementation mechanism for the city’s Land Use Element.  The 3,000 building permits per year that the Department of Building and Safety shunts off to City Planning for special review are, therefore, only a tiny part of what constitutes real city planning.    
It is, therefore, unfortunate that in Los Angeles, a city that desperately needs good planning, city planning has been reduced to zoning technicalities.  Most city planners, even those with graduate degrees and professional certifications, wile away their days as zoning technicians, processing the building permits that Building and Safety sends over to them.  In effect, their job is to legalize otherwise illegal projects. 
What do we mean by density?  In Los Angeles most references to density take their lead from the primary focus of the city’s planning department: reviewing and almost always approving land use exemptions for large and tall buildings that are otherwise illegal.  This is why in LA there is often agreement by proponents of these discretionary permits, as well as their critics, that density is nothing more than large buildings.  
But, this is only a small part of what really constitutes density.  Many cities that have dense buildings, like New York City, also have high-density public infrastructure and public services necessary for those dense commercial and residential buildings to function.  This includes high-density mass transit, as well as wide, well maintained, tree covered sidewalks that support a high-density pedestrian traffic.  It also means high-density libraries, neighborhood parks, and schools for the high-density population.  In it entirety, this is what should be called good density.  It also accounts for New York City’s low per capita carbon footprint.  In its case, a high density built environment actually works. 
But, in LA what already exists or is proposed for such neighborhoods as Hollywood, Koreatown, Downtown LA, and even Warner Center, is bad density.  It consists of high-density buildings that are permitted through discretionary approvals decades before essential supporting high-density infrastructure and services appear.  LA’s current planning approach is to therefore put the cart many, many years before the horse.  If it were to plan correctly, the General Plan’s mandatory and optional elements would first be brought up to date.  At the same time the city’s public infrastructure and public services need to be upgraded through careful planning and monitoring prior to the approval of new high-density buildings.  If this were done in the correct order, then LA could end up with good density, rather than the bad density that is already blighting much of the city and getting worse as the current real estate bubble swells. 
What do we mean by growth and development?  In L.A. these are euphemisms for real estate speculation.  When officials and pundits talk about growth and talk about development, they mean privately financed real estate projects, usually commercial skyscrapers, apartment complexes, or a mix of the two. 
But, this focus on real estate speculation is an inaccurate definition of growth and development.  Growth also refers to the full gamut of the planning issues addressed in a city’s General Plan, and development also includes all of the public facilities that are necessary for a large modern city like LA, that intend to become a high-density world city.  
Growth also includes the expansion of schools, colleges, universities, galleries, theaters, and museums.  Development should incorporate the roll out of the alternative transportation modes addressed, in part, by LA’s new Mobility Element:  high speed interurban rail, commuter rail, heavy rail (subways), light rail (trolleys), express busses, local buses, shuttles, motorcycles and bicycles, and finally walking.  In short, all of these infrastructure and service categories, whether public, non-profit, or private, are the sum of what should be factored into any analysis and description of growth and development.   
The Unifying Principle:  If there is a unifying principle that will turn all of this heat into light, it can be found in every General Plan.  These plans cover 100 percent of a city’s land area.  They address far more than the privately owned lots that are the subject of building permits and discretionary planning actions. 
Depending on the neighborhood, these private owned lots only comprise 20 to 40 percent of a city’s land area.  The remainder is streets, parkways, sidewalks, driveways, parking areas, public buildings, parks and beaches, power lines and related easements, and different forms of open space.  
Since this is a majority of a city’s total area, and this is fully addressed through the planning process, it only makes sense that these areas need to be fully considered when talking about planning, density, and growth and development.  It also means that these discussions should be linked to each city’s budgeting process and reflected in the work programs of each city department. 
(Dick Platkin is a former LA City Planner who writes on local planning issues for City Watch.  He welcomes questions, comments, and corrections at rhplatkin@gmail.com. ) 
-cw
 CityWatch
Vol 14 Issue 7
Pub: Jan 22, 2016