LA Running Woefully Behind on Updated General Plan … and is Paying a Price

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-According to California State law, the Los Angeles City Charter, the Los Angeles Municipal Code, professional city planning practice, and common sense, Los Angeles must have a current, comprehensive General Plan. Minimally, the General Plan must contain elements (stand alone chapters) that address housing, land use, noise, transportation, open space, conservation, and public safety. Many cities, like LA, also have added optional elements to address air quality, health, historical preservation, infrastructure, and public services. Other cities are now adding climate change as an optional element, although the State of California may soon make this a mandatory element. 

Underlying trends: In Los Angeles, the City also prepared and adopted an optional element that tied all of the above together, the General Plan Framework Element. City Planning prepared this element in the early 1990s, and the City Council adopted it in 1996. Nearly 25 years later, this optional element is still binding, but Los Angeles has substantially changed in the intervening quarter century: 

  • Climate change has gone from theory to reality. Mega-droughts and record heat waves are the new normal.   
  • The California State Geologist has recently published new maps of previously unknown earthquake faults running under Los Angeles. 
  • Although LA’s housing crisis began in the 1980s, it has become significantly worse since the early 1990s, with homeless encampments and overcrowding spreading across the entire city and region. 
  • Despite many new transit lines, transit ridership has continued to slide, presumably a result of increased fares, decreased bus service, and gentrification pushing transit riders out of Los Angeles. 
  • Federal urban programs, like Community Development Block Grants, have continued their downward slide. 
  • The City’s infrastructure, especially streets, sidewalks, alleys, and the urban forest, have relentlessly deteriorated. 
  • Gridlock on the city’s freeways, thoroughfares, intersections has gotten much worse. 
  • Zoning capacity has dramatically increased because all parcels zoned for apartment buildings, including most commercial and manufacturing zones, now qualify for major increases in the number of permitted residential units. These bonuses and incentives can now exceed zoning limits by up to 80 percent through SB 1818, Transit Oriented Communities, and Transit Neighborhood Plans. 
  • Population growth rates have significantly declined, from two percent per year in LA’s boom decades, to between 0.5 to 0.8 percent at present. Despite frequent claims, Los Angeles has still not yet reached 4,000,000 people. 

Of course, there is much more, but even this short list is long enough to remind us of the massive task facing the City of Los Angeles to accurately update its General Plan, including the 35 Community Plans and two District Plans that comprise the Land Use element. 

If an updated General Plan were only a bureaucratic nicety, not essential to running a massive city in a county with 10 million people and a region with 23 million, this planning assignment would not be a big deal.  But it is necessary, and it should be L.A.’s highest priority, not an afterthought.  Nevertheless, some optional elements, like Infrastructure, Historic Preservation, and Services Systems, date back to the 1960s. Some mandatory elements, like Open Space, are now 41 years old. As for the Community Plans, which apply the General Plan’s mandatory and optional citywide element to local communities, most are now 20 years.  

Campaign Shenanigans:  Stepping into this mess, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, quoted below, would have forced City Hall to quickly update LA’s entire General Plan.  

“Sec. 11.5.8. Systematic General Plan Review and Accessibility of Hearings 

  • Within ninety days of the effective date of the Act, the City Council, after considering the recommendations of the Planning Director and the City Planning Commission, shall adopt by resolution a schedule and program for the immediate systematic public review and possible amendment of all elements of the General Plan. This review and updating process shall occur every five years. 
  • This program shall include the review and possible updating of the 35 Community Plans and the Port and Airport District Plans… “ 

But, because the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative (Measure S) stopped spot-zoning, spot-planning, and City Hall’s “normal” pay-to-play land use approvals, Big Real Estate generously funded a no on S campaign based on two whoppers:  Measure S was a housing ban, and Measure S stopped all building permits.  This negative campaign also showcased City Hall officials performing on cue. 

Carefully tracking Measure S, in May 2016, the Director of Planning sent a detailed letter to the City Council describing new efforts to update the City’s Community Plans. Then, three months before the March 2017 election, the City Council finally took action. It adopted a December 2016 motion based on the Planning Director’s recommendations. Then, in February 2017, a month before the Measure S election, the City Council finally adopted a program to update LA’s General Plan, concentrating on the Community Plans. 

A year later, we need to ask how the City Council’s last-minute campaign shenanigans fared?  

This is what I can discern from the City Planning’s website, especially its General Plan update section: ourLA2040.  A year after the City Council’s General Plan update directive, City Planning has initiated one General Plan element update, for the 41-year old Open Space Element. So far, this work has consisted of four closed-door meetings by a handpicked advisory committee, plus two informational meetings for the general public. 

As for Community Plans, independent from the February 2017 Council action, the City Planning Department initiated the New Community Plans program 12 years ago.  Since then eight of 35 Community Plans have begun their updates, and the City Council adopted updates for Sylmar, Granada Hills, South Los Angeles, and Southeast Los Angeles.  Although City Planning has recently begun updating several Community Plans in the west San Fernando Valley, these do not yet show up on City Planning’s home page, including its New Community Plans section. 

If the City has hired consultants or turned to internal City resources to update statistics on climate change forecasts, mitigation, and adaptation; as well as population, zoning buildout, earthquake faults and seismic safety, transit ridership, homelessness, gentrification, and traffic gridlock, I cannot find the evidence. 

Considering that the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative would have placed General Plan Element updates on the planning profession’s standard five-year update cycle, the current schedule will minimally require another decade to complete the updates.  After that the “new” General Plan elements would then be out-of-date again, in need of yet another update, including their implementation and monitoring programs. 

For good reason, this planning process never ends.  

Options for the Future. Considering that accurate and updated General Plan elements are essential to effectively govern Los Angeles, the city faces several choices:  

  • Doing it right: It could spend sufficient money on staff development and/or consultants to assemble the background data needed for a proper General Plan update, and then hire enough planners to update and then annually monitor all mandatory General Plan elements, optional elements, and Community and District Plans. In general, this translates into a 10-year update cycle linked to the decennial census, with Community Plans on a five-year cycle. 
  • Kicking the can down the street. With the March 2017 election buried in the sands of time, and endless lucrative real estate deals permeating City Hall to bolster this year’s hot real estate product, market-rate apartments, plan updates are slowly unfolding. After all, when you govern Los Angeles through thousands of disconnected short-range decisions, most resulting from internal and external lobbying, there is not much time, resources, and interest in complying with California and City planning requirements. 
  • Blustering. When challenged, the build-more-market-housing minions resort to blustering to keep LA’s old plans sitting on the back burner. They allege, without providing supporting data, that the deregulation of zoning ordinances and environmental laws is a universal fix, far more important that updating old plans. 

While doing it right is not an absolute guarantee of a decent quality of life for all Angelenos, we already know what kicking the can down the street and blustering leads to: today’s Los Angeles on steroids. We already live in a city shaped by blind market forces and confronted by earthquake threats, wild fires, mega-droughts, heat waves, sea level rise, homelessness, overcrowded and over-priced apartments, gridlocked streets and intersections, dying trees, battered streets and alleys, decomposing sidewalks, inadequate parks, and over-crowded class rooms. None of this will improve on its own, and the status quo will only make these and related trends worse. 

Historian Chalmers Johnson argued that the United States will implode by 2050, and in the case of Los Angeles, he might be an optimist.


(Dick Platkin is a former LA city planner. He reports on local planning controversies for CityWatchLA.  Please send comments and corrections to Previous articles available at the CityWatchLA archives and Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.