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 they should 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 Charter actually 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.

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