Monday, March 14, 2016

Ball is Now in the Court of LA’s New Director of Planning


 

LOS ANGELES
PLATKIN ON PLANNING-Vince Bertoni, the new Director of Planning, has only been on the job a few weeks, but the ball is already in his court. No one predicted that the Mayor would have told his processor, Michael LoGrande, to clear off his desk, and the Mayor’s reasons have not yet been made public. 


Despite the appearance of murky power plays at City Hall, the new Director of Planning has no choice. He must quickly take of the reins of power at the Planning Department and he must then marshal available and new resources to remedy a planning process so dysfunctional that it has spawned two separate planning-related initiatives: the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative and the Build Better LA Initiative. 
At this point, Mr. Bertoni, therefore, has several choices … all daunting. 
As indicated in his interview in The Planning Report, the new Director of Planning will apply some spit and polish to the practices of Mr. LoGrande. In essence, this means a more sophisticated program of empowerment, the use of outreach techniques to give the public the subjective feeling of participating in land use decisions -- but without actually granting them or their organizations, such as Neighborhood Councils, any real decision making power. 
In Los Angeles, the empowerment tools that Mr. Bertoni can work with include public hearings, workshops, focus groups, Design Review Boards, formal and informal office meetings, Neighborhood Council Community Impact Statements, and solicitation of letters and public testimony. He could even revive now defunct Plan Advisory Committees. 
Presumably his immediate goal will be to draw enough people into the plan and project review processes to hammer out a compromise between real estate developers and local critics. As for his long-range goals, that will include efforts to fend off future lawsuits and more planning-related voter initiatives. Or in Vince Bertoni’s coded words, “My job is to bring people together, to find out where the common ground is, and to see where we can have thoughtful change.” 
Given the LA public’s enormous distrust of City Hall, including City Planning, I think it is doubtful that more citizen participation will turn the tide. After all, the likely passage of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative would upend planning-as-usual in Los Angeles. For example, it would enact a two-year moratorium on City Council legislative actions (zoning changes, height district changes, and General Plan Amendments.) This means that most mega-projects would be on ice until 2019. 
When, as many people anticipate, LA voters approve the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, the new Director of Planning will then face three tough choices: 
Choice #1 is to go with the flow at City Hall. This means stalling or stopping the Initiative through litigation. Developers would undoubtedly pay the legal bills, but they have enough influence at City Hall to make sure that City Planning dawdles in their implementation of the Initiative, stretching out time-lines and undertaking the least amount of work possible within the confines of the Initiative. This approach might hide behind such clichés as “we are waiting for the Courts to decide.” But the meaning is obvious. LA would continue to be “planned” parcel by parcel, based on investors’ impulses, not by any long-term plan. 
Choice #2 is to adhere to the voter-approved Initiative(s). This means refusing to process all parcel level legislative actions headed for the City Council: zone changes, height district changes, and General Plan Amendments for a two- year period. It also means that City Planning must accelerate the arduous process of updating LA’s General Plan. This not only mean updates of the Land Use element (i.e., the Community Plans); but also the other required General Plan Elements: Housing, Circulation/Transportation, Conservation, Open Space, Public Safety, and Noise, as well as important optional elements, Air Quality and the General Plan Framework. Two years of dedicated work will give this enormous project a good head wind. 
Adhering to the Initiative also means that all future of land use ordinances and regulations must be consistent with the city’s updated General Plan. If Planning followed the intent of the Initiative, it would also place re:code LA, a multi-year, five year, $5 million program to amend all of LA’s zoning, on hold. Left to own devices re:code LA would produce an enormous series of land use ordinances -- transforming zoning in Los Angeles based on an old and indefensible General Plan. To be properly sequenced, any changes to the City’s zoning should follow, not precede, the updated General Plan mandated by the Neighborhood Integrity Ordinance. 
Choice #3 is for Vince Bertoni to take the lead on planning issues, and not wait for the public to adopt an Initiative that points a metaphorical gun at City Planning’s head. In addition, to begin updating the General Plan’s Elements before November 2016, City Planning could use the Initiative’s two year timeout period to finally focus on several other long overdue planning projects. Of course, the actual to-do list is much longer, but these three projects stand out because their continued neglect undermines any credible planning process, old or new, for Los Angeles. 
Monitoring: Any plan is only as good as its monitoring program, and the General Plan Framework Element carefully prescribed what the monitoring unit should monitor and how these data should be applied through an annual General Plan evaluation report. That monitoring unit and it annual report took a breather beginning in 1999, and it is now time to wake up LA’s own Rip Van Winkle. This time, however, the annual monitoring report needs to review the demographic data underlying the updated General Plan, as well as the success or failures of the rolled-out programs that implement the General Plan. 
Enforcement: City Planning layers on pages of zoning and environmental conditions in its land use decisions, but its new Enforcement Unit only enforces Conditional Use Permit conditions imposed on stores selling alcohol. While this is important, it is only a tiny part of the approval conditions attached to land use decisions, and they all should be methodically and pro-actively monitored. 
Transit Oriented Development vs. Transit Adjacent Development vs. Transit Oriented Communities: The City of LA has a haphazard approach to the detailed neighborhood planning that makes transit a success. This would require City Planning to surpass its minimalist concept of permitting Transit Oriented Development (i.e. building expensive apartment houses with ample automobile parking near transit stations), or more accurately, Transit Adjacent Development. It would require planning to work closely with METRO in the design of Transit Oriented Communities. This was the approach of City Planning and METRO/SCRTD when the original MetroRail was designed in the early 1980s. Some of that work is begging to be reused in a concerted effort to design Transit Oriented Communities. If done correctly, it would make sure that all of the components for good, local, transit-oriented planning were in place and then implemented. 
The pro and con campaigns for the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative and possibly the Build Better LA initiative will shine much light on the City of LA’s hobbled planning process over the next 10 months. If either or both of the initiatives passes, the light might be glowing white-hot long afterward and it will continue that way until the Initiative(s) are faithfully implemented. 
Let us, therefore, make sure that City Planning takes the proactive approach.
(Dick Platkin is a former LA city planner who reports on local planning issues for City Watch LA. Please send any comments or corrections to rhplatkin@gmail.com.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

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