The Other Great Abdication: Professional City Planning’s retreat from Professional City Planning

LOS ANGELES

PLATKIN ON PLANNING--What a pleasant, but short-lived surprise to discover that in late June 2017 UCLA’s renowned Luskin School of Public Affairs sponsored a forum entitled, Can LA fix its Broken Planning System?  Needless to say, I read an article about the forum on the Luskin’s School’s website with great enthusiasm, expecting to see a serious professional urban planning analysis of LA’s tottering and shady city planning system.  After all, these issues are presented twice weekly through CityWatch, formerly at Ron Kaye’s LA, and even in an occasional Los Angeles Times, KCRW, and KPCC story. (Photo above: Wedding of Former King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.) 

 

My enthusiasm, though, did not last long, when I read about the forum: 

  • Did the Luskin School’s highly regarded urban planning faculty zero in on the City of LA’s inability and/or unwillingness to maintain its legally required General Plan? Nope
  • Did the presenters note that the City of Angeles has not updated its General Plan’s public infrastructure and public service systems elements in nearly a half-century? Nope
  • Did the panelists argue that Los Angeles should respond to pressing and interrelated urban crises through new General Plan elements for Climate Change, Economic Development, and the Urban Forest? Nope
  • Did the faculty mention that LA’s Department of City Planning has not yet established the General Plan Monitoring Unit required by the General Plan Framework Element and it Final Environmental Impact Report in 1996? Nope
  • Did the panel also mention that the Planning Department has never monitored the roll out or effectiveness of the programs that implement its General Plan policies and goals, as well as accurately calculate annual changes in the General Plan’s population, employment, and housing indicators? Nope
  • Did they note that the Planning Department’s occasional population forecasts are chronically inflated, and the Department never undertakes a post-mortem to determine why the city’s population grew significantly slower than its rosy forecasts? Nope
  • Did the panel analyze LA’s major loss of unionized blue-collar jobs since the 1960s, data obviously relevant to City Hall’s perpetual economic growth agenda and the Framework’s economic development chapter? Nope
  • Did they notice that the City Council has never adopted carefully prepared Design Guidelines for Residential, Commercial, and Industrial projects? Nope
  • Did any panelists take the City of Los Angeles to task for not updating its population/zoning buildout calculations, prepared in 1991 for the AB 283 program and then several years later for the General Plan Framework? Nope
  • Did they take note that Los Angeles is woefully unprepared for natural disasters, in particular absolutely certain major earthquakes, because its Safety Element dates back to 1985, 32 years ago, with a minor update in 1996? Nope
  • Did they criticize City Hall for its lackadaisical efforts to mitigate and adapt to accelerating climate change, despite the Luskin School’s own remarkable reports on projected changes in temperature and precipitation for many Los Angeles neighborhoods? Nope
  • Did they harp on LA’s failure to fix its sidewalks, install required ADA curb cuts, and quickly implement the bicycle component of the new Mobility Element? Nope
  • Did they complain about LA’s mediocre urban forest, the loss of tree cover, and the lack of parkland and related recreational programs, all issues addressed in the General Plan Framework element more than 20 years ago? Nope
  • Did they demand that the Los Angeles City Council renounce its well-documented “soft corruption” of spot-zoning and spot-planning enabled through pay-to-play campaign contributions? Nope
  • Did they complain that City Planning, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council hold mandatory public hearings on zoning ordinances and General Plan amendments and elements during the day, mostly at City Hall, not in local communities on evenings and weekends? Nope
  • Finally, did the panelists wonder why the City’s annual budgeting process, including its Capital Improvement Program, as well as all Departmental work plans and related departmental studies on infrastructure capacity and user need, is totally disconnected from LA’s parallel planning process?  Nope

The Other Great Abdication.  Given this extensive list of obvious topics that the Luskin School planning panel did not talk about, what, then, did the speakers devote their presentations to?  Very simply, they spoke at length about real estate development, calling for greater deregulation of zoning laws so real estate investors could build more market rate housing in Los Angeles.  To the extent that the panelists disagreed with each other, it was whether these new private housing units should be located in single-family home neighborhoods, at transit hubs, or along transit corridors.  Even the obvious correlates of their calls for increased residential densities were missing from discussion.  They never mentioned how the City of LA will provide expanded public utilities (e.g., electricity), other infrastructure categories, and public services for these new buildings, including their residents, employees, customers, and visitors? 

No on S, with footnotes. If this discussion rings a familiar bell, it is because it was widespread earlier this year in the developer-funded campaign against Measure S, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative.  What the UCLA planning faculty presented at their June panel was, essentially, six-months-old no-on-S talking points -- with footnotes added.  It was little more than a thin academic veneer for off-the-shelf, neo-liberal, quasi-free market doctrines popularized by Koch Brothers-funded and related think tanks. 

This is what I call the Great Abdication.  Urban planning professionals at one of this country’s finest graduate planning programs should offer a probing analysis of LA’s broken planning system. They should not resort to talking-points cranked up by real estate speculators, the slick SG and A campaign firm the speculators hired to defeat Measure S, and the developers’ pay-to-play accomplices at City Hall. 

City of LA Charter on City Planning.  After all, if the panelists examined the most obvious sources of official information about city planning in Los Angeles and in California, they would have had a clear sense that private investment in real estate is not the be-all and end-all of urban planning. 

To begin, the faculty could have referenced the City of Los Angeles Charter, since it is straightforward on the content of the city’s planning process.  A quick glance indicates exactly what is broken in Los Angeles because planning officially addresses the totality of Los Angeles, not just private investment in market housing. 

Los Angeles City Charter Section 554.  General Plan – Purpose and Contents.  

The General Plan shall be a comprehensive declaration of goals, objectives, policies and programs for the development of the City and shall include, where applicable, diagrams, maps and text setting forth those and other features.

         Purposes.  The General Plan shall serve as a guide for:

  • The physical development of the City;
  • The development, correlation and coordination of official regulations, controls, programs and services; and 
  • 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. 

State of California Planning Laws and Guidelines on City Planning.  Next, UCLA’s urban planning specialists only needed to reference the State’s explicit guidelines for the planning process in all California cities.  Like the City of Los Angeles, the State’s planning requirements also radiate out from the General Plan.  

The general plan is intended to guide most planning decisions. Under state law, subdivisions, capital improvements, development agreements, and many other land use actions must be consistent with the adopted general plan. . . In addition, preparing, adopting, implementing, and maintaining the general plan serves to:

  • Identify the community’s land use, circulation, environmental, economic, and social goals and policies as they relate to future growth and development.
  • Provide a basis for local government decision-making, including decisions on development approvals and exactions.
  • Provide citizens with opportunities to participate in the planning and decision-making processes of their communities. 

This, then, is the conundrum.  If the most basic urban planning documents from the City of Los Angeles and the State of California are clear that urban planning addresses the entire city, not just private investment in market-rate housing, why, then, did this one topic totally dominate the Luskin panelists’ remarks? 

I am afraid the answer is little different than what I have previously explained.  In Los Angeles real estate investment, largely in private sector housing, is pawned off as the magic elixir that cures all urban ailments, including the housing crisis.  Other obvious solutions, such as the restoration of local and Federal public housing programs, do not even warrant discussion.  And, as for the extensive public services and infrastructure systems necessary to meet the needs of the new buildings and their occupants, that, alas, is waiting for the next panel, assuming the sponsors are not forced to abruptly cancel it because of another electricity black out or burst water main.  

(Dick Platkin reports is a former LA City Planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatch. Please send any comments or corrections to rhplatkin@gmail.com. Selected previous columns are available at http://plan-itlosangeles.blogspot.com/ and http://www.citywatchla.com/ .)

-cw

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