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Wed, Jun

Translating Mayor Garcetti’s Latest Press Release on City Planning into Understandable English

LOS ANGELES

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-We live in a city where the Mayor’s ambitions are as high as the luxury high-rise buildings he promotes as his program to address LA’s affordable housing crisis, including homelessness. These ambitions and high-rise buildings are matched by a Mayoral staff skilled at writing press releases that make crony capitalism actually sound enlightened.

So, to lighten your load in reading between the lines, here is my effort to make the Mayor’s most recent press release – this one on three Council proposals to take the wind out of the sails of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative – accessible to CityWatch readers.

April 13-CITY LEADERS LAUNCH REFORMS TO STRENGTHEN PLANNING PROCESS AND PROTECT NEIGHBORHOODS

LOS ANGELES— Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council today introduced reforms to help guide the City’s growth and development, and protect the unique character of our neighborhoods.

1) The Mayor is calling for the update of all of the City's community plans and will include funding in his upcoming budget to support this effort. And in a motion introduced today by Councilmembers José Huizar, Gil Cedillo, David Ryu, Bob Blumenfield, Mitch O’Farrell and Mike Bonin, and seconded by Councilmember Paul Krekorian, the City Council instructed the Planning Department to report back on overhauling the Community Plan program. They also called for recommendations on ways to increase oversight of the environmental review process, and upgrade outdated technology.  

Translation: The City’s elected officials always focus on updating the Community Plans because they are the only component of the General Plan that allows them to slip elaborate up-zoning and up-planning ordinances into the adoption process.  If their approach were to force real estate proposals to accommodate themselves to plans -- rather than making plans and zones accommodate themselves to real estate speculation -- they would update the entire General Plan. Their first step would be to update the many citywide elements, such as Air Quality and Open Space, then move to local land use plans (Community Plans). It makes little sense to update these local plans before updating citywide plans because the latter allow us to know which portions of LA have sufficient infrastructure capacity and population needs to accommodate and justify real estate projects.

2) City leaders also called for a new Citywide General Plan, a blueprint that guides responsible growth and lays out a framework for key areas of urban life, including transportation, housing and open space. The General Plan has not been fully updated in more than 20 years. 

Translation: The elected officials want to make a grand gesture to deflect the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, so they picked the most prominent General Plan Element, the Framework, which also happens to be 20 years old. But there are much older and truly important General Plan elements, specifically service systems and infrastructure. They date back to the 60’s, while a number of other required elements are less than 20 years old. Old or new, though, all General Plan element should be updated based on current population numbers, not imaginary ones, and this would happen under the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative they are trying to fend off with these three sudden proposals.

3) “We have a responsibility to plan for prosperity and growth in ways that reflect the energy of this great City and protect the character of our neighborhoods,” said Mayor Eric Garcetti. “I want Angelenos to have a sense of ownership over the development of their communities and these reforms help us get there. Together, we’re creating a blueprint for the Los Angeles of today, and the Los Angeles of tomorrow.”  

Translation: The update of the city’s General Plan is more than a responsibility; it is a legal requirement according to State law and the City Charter. And, elected officials needs to plan for all growth scenarios, not just ones favored by their cronies, planning and zoning alternatives that lead to a high rate of return on real estate investments (i.e. “prosperity and growth”). Furthermore, when elected officials, like the Mayor, talk about ownership of the City’s General Plan, they really mean that City Planning will hold scores of community meetings to explain and solicit comments over draft updates of various General Plan elements. These community meetings will give local participants the subjective feeling that they are part of the planning process, even though real decision-making will still be retained by elected officials. These officials will continue to have power, while the public is left with public outreach, otherwise known as “empowerment.”

4) The City’s 35 Community Plans lay out guidelines for what can and cannot be built in any given neighborhood. This helps determine the different types of housing that can be developed, the jobs that can be supported in a community and other key quality of life measures. The City Council motion will be heard in the Planning & Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee.  

Translation: Since City Planning does not and has not monitored housing and employment levels in Los Angeles in over 20 years, there is no way to determine if any General Plan policies related to housing or employment are successful. The failure to mention General Plan monitoring in the three proposed Council motions indicates that the Mayor and the City Council are reluctant to take on a comprehensive General Plan update, an approach that would truly make a difference. Rather they are focused on the portions that can be utilized by private investors: appended zone changes and General Plan Amendments for privately owned lots suitable for market housing. The elected officials also make no reference to the obvious public services and infrastructure that the City must add when a neighborhood’s population increases.

Bottom line? Even though public services and public infrastructure are of the highest priority to local communities, it did not even occur to the City’s elected officials to include them in their three planning-related motions or in their self-serving press release.

5) “As the chair of PLUM, my colleagues and I have been working with the Planning Department to review and improve a myriad of planning processes through re:codeLA and other efforts,” said Councilmember Huizar. “Our 35 Community Plans affect scores of communities, each as distinct and vital as the next, and cover more than 500 square miles across the City. Addressing the backlog and updating our Community Plans is a priority that needs immediate action. Today's collaborative Council action looks to expedite this process so we can bring accountability and transparency back into our General Plan and Community Plan review processes. I thank the Mayor for supporting our Council motion and I am confident that we will have a number of strong recommendations to review in PLUM and the Council in the coming weeks.”  

Translation: Re:codeLA is totally at odds with the General Plan update process since re:codeLA would re-zone all of LA’s privately owned lots, yet zoning is only one of many General Plan implementation programs. This fixation on re:codeLA, as well as Community Plan updates, reveals that the elected officials still do not truly care about planning, or about the 60 percent of Los Angeles that is public or quasi-public areas.  Even their minimal efforts, to focus their updates on Community Plans, is just an extra public step forced on them by the Neighborhood Integrity initiative. Once they tack for this sudden gust of wind, they can quickly return to their highest priority and legislative mission, helping proposed real estate projects pull building permits, even when they violate existing zoning and planning laws.

6) Mayor Garcetti pledged to nearly triple the Planning Department’s community plan staff, to better ensure all plans are updated in no more than 10 years. The Mayor will include $1.5 million in new funding for the Community Planning program and General Plan program, as part of his upcoming 2016-17 budget. He also laid out a plan for ongoing funding for the program to ensure updates are completed – start to finish - within 36 months.

Translation: All budget items are priorities, and when they rise in importance through political actions, the money appears. If it were not for the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, even the meager reallocations referenced in the Mayor’s press release would not have materialized. What is needed, however, is far more resources, in terms of positions and budgets, to undertake a proper General Plan update, and then to maintain it through comprehensive monitoring, annual reports, build out analyses, and follow-up updates. Once this process is set in motion, when approved by the voters, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative mandates that all General Plan elements then be updated on five-year cycles, based on local evening meetings and proposals from local community groups and Neighborhood Councils.

7) Updated plans will provide new guidance and respond to current land use changes, minimizing the need for general plan amendments. Creating a cycle of regular city-initiated updates to Community Plans will ensure these plans are current and reflect community-driven goals.

Translation: Based on previous General Plan elements and updates, each future effort will be based on inflated population forecasts prepared by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG).  These numbers, much higher than what has and will undoubtedly appear in Los Angeles, are a repeated ploy to justify up-zoning and up-planning of local communities through exaggerated population predictions. Quite tellingly, when the numbers prove to be wildly high, such as in the General Plan Framework Element, no explanation or recalculation is ever offered. Also, these same inflated population numbers are never used to justify any corresponding changes in capital budgets to upgrade local services and infrastructure, such as parks, recreation programs, schools, streets, sidewalks, street cleaning, garbage collection, or public utilities.

8) "Our city, simply does not have adequate housing to meet our current population needs, renters are currently paying more then 30% of their income towards rent. Our General Plan and Community Plans must be updated to reflect the current population and allow for smart and responsible housing production. These new plans will allow Los Angeles to plan adequately for our current and future housing needs all while keeping the character of each of our communities intact.

Translation: Regardless of population trends or infrastructure capacity, City Hall’s real agenda for the General Plan update it to jimmy planning data so they can be used to justify speculative investment in up-scale market housing. Nevertheless, City Hall does not have any current zoning buildout statistics for housing to justify any of it claims. No one at City Hall knows how LA’s existing zoning -- one of the most permissive zoning codes in the entire country – could translate into new housing units or additional people. This is why any claim about LA having inadequate zoning for future housing needs is nothing more than a helpful hand for luxury housing projects that do not conform to existing plans and zones. This repeated claim from City Hall that the LA's housing crisis is the result of local zoning laws -- not increasing inequality, foreign real estate investment, and the end of public housing programs – is baseless. It is also at odds with another startling fact: the housing crisis is national. There is not a county in the entire United States that has enough affordable housing.


9) The City Council’s reform-driven motion requests the Planning Department to report back on options that will improve management over the environmental review process, increasing transparency over the preparation of technical documents including creating a list of professional consultants aimed at streamlining the process.                                                                                                             

Translation: Even if City Planning chooses the consultants for each required EIR instead of the developer, this reform will not make a qualitative difference. The City Council can always be depended on to adopt a Statement of Overriding Considerations when a DEIR reveals that a project or a plan has unmitigated environmental impacts. he logical alternative, for the City Council to require that a project be scaled back to eliminate it environmental impacts, never occurs. 

10) "Our General Plan and Community Plans set the direction for the future growth and character of the City, and that's why it's crucial to update them with modern standards in line with each community's vision for their area,” said Councilmember Bob Blumenfield. “It's time to modernize our plans, establish more certainty and transparency about those plans, and take advantage of technology to educate and engage people in this work.”                

Translation:Establishing certainty” means that elected officials are soliciting new General Plan designations, map footnotes, and zones that are “business- developers.” Once adopted, developers would no longer need the City Council to adopt parcel-level legislative actions on behalf of their projects. In effect, the elected officials want enough built-in up-zoning and up-planning so nearly all future real estate projects can roll through the Department of Building and Safety as “by-right” projects. His would eliminate the need for future City Council legislative interventions, one of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative’s key provisions.

11) “Angelenos deserve a transparent and fair process when evaluating impacts on their residential neighborhoods and to ensure that the city can effectively deliver on its land-use responsibilities,” said Councilmember David Ryu. “Today’s motion is a step in the right direction to rebuilding trust in the city’s planning process.”  

Translation: The elected officials hope to defeat the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative with sweeping visions of change, matched by token actions. But talk is cheap at this point, and the officials will need to spend far more than a few million dollars to hire some new city planners if they are serious about any of their promises. If they were committed to finding the money, they could begin by reallocating what is left of the $5 million consultant contract for re:code LA.

12) "We must approach planning reform in a responsible way that addresses homelessness, increases and preserves affordable housing, and creates jobs to grow our local economy,” Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell said, “Our motion strikes the right balance, with a look to legislatively tackle the issue of updating the city's community plans in a more timely manner and effectuate an independent CEQA process, while encouraging the kind of investment and infrastructure improvements that will enhance the quality of life for all Angelenos."  

Translation: By focusing on the 35 Community Plans and not the entire General Plan, including monitoring of housing, jobs, infrastructure capacity, and zoning buildout, the elected official are revealing that their ultimate agenda has not changed: green lighting real estate speculation.  They have not backed away from this goal -- whispered in their ear by private real estate interests – the one that guided the Hollywood plan thrown out by the courts several years ago. That totally discredited exercise appended lengthy zoning ordinances to the actual plan text.

If Superior Court Judge Alan Goodman had not rejected it, this Update would have massively up-zoned and up-planned Hollywood. At that point developers would have no longer needed to hit up the City Council for time-consuming and expensive (“pay-to-play”) parcel level General Plan Amendments and zone changes. They would have been able to build by-right, a citywide goal that is still tucked away – almost out of view – in this press release and the Council motions.

With this translation table now at hand, I hope CityWatch readers will now be able to read between the lines of future City Hall press releases, Council motions, press interviews, and staff reports on city planning issues.

 

(Dick Platkin is a former LA City Planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatch. He welcomes comments and corrections at [email protected].) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

 

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