Wed, Apr

Angelinos Pay a Steep Price for Bad City Planning


PLATKIN ON PLANNING--Cities, like Los Angeles, have no shortage of politically inspired schemes to sandbag good city planning, especially the successful updating of their General Plan. They can: 

  • Understaff and sideline the units responsible for maintaining the General Plan.
  • Prepare the General Plan’s elements out of sequence.
  • Implement the General Plan through new zoning ordinances adopted before the plan is actually updated.
  • Neglect monitoring and enacting mid-course corrections to the plan.
  • Use old or inaccurate population data to skew the plans’ demographic assumptions.      
  • “Forget” to calculate the build-out potential of existing zoning.
  • Fail to connect the General Plan process to the City’s operating and capital investment budgets and work programs. 

When cities, like LA, resort to these strategies, the resulting vacuum is filled by the wavering impulses of real estate investors. Because fluctuating interest rates, available capital, tax laws, and changing consumer tastes quickly change, the decisions of real estate speculators also quickly change. When this happens, their short-term penchants substitute for the planning process, and the public then pays a steep, long-term price. 

This is my initial list of such hidden costs, but I have no doubt that City Watch readers will identify other harmful outcomes.  

Consequences of bad, negligent, and delayed city planning in Los Angeles. 

  • Corruption. As revealed by the LA Times reporting on illegal campaign contributions for the Sea Breeze apartment complex in the Harbor Gateway area, when city planning land use decisions are determined by real estate speculators, City Hall is rife with corruption. Campaign contributions determine which ambitious projects qualify for building permits, not the General Plan and its implementation through zoning. 
  • Traffic Congestion. Auto-centric mega-projects, like Caruso Affiliated’s luxury high-rise at 333 S. LaCienega obtain their approvals by claiming they are transit-oriented developments. But, they are not, and when built, they add to LA’s terrible traffic congestion, in this case at an intersection so gridlocked its local nickname is the Bermuda Triangle. 
  • Inequality. Zone Changes, General Plan Amendments, and Height District Changes yield enormous financial benefits for property owners. These gains, however, only generate increased property taxes when the owners demolish existing buildings and replace them with new ones. As for the rest of us, our only dubious benefits are more colorful election flyers and more upmarket places to shop. 
  • LA’s housing crisis began in late 1980s, and thirty years later there is no end in sight; homelessness, overcrowding, high rents, and lack of middle-income and affordable housing prevail. But, good planning would tell us where there is the greatest need for new housing, where there is existing planning and zoning capacity for by-right housing construction, where sufficient public services and infrastructure allow for increased population, and where existing affordable and rent stabilized housing has already been lost and the remainder should be preserved. 
  • Climate change requires extensive local mitigation and adaptation. The General Plan is the obvious way to plan and monitor such efforts as reducing the generation of Green House Gases, hardening infrastructure, adjusting to long-term drought, converting homes to decentralized rooftop solar electricity and hot water, and building transportation infrastructure for non-automobile modes. 
  • Economic development requires a detailed assessment of the city’s work force, market trends, industrial land, and supportive infrastructure, such as the transportation system. But, in LA, economic development only means pitches from the Mayor’s office to attract and serve high-end real estate investors
  • The continued maintenance of and investment in public services and public infrastructure is essential to Los Angeles. But the General Plan elements for infrastructure and public services date back to the 1960s. Now, a half-century later, the city’s streets are filled with potholes and bursting water mains, sidewalks are crumbling and buckling, and a maze of overhead wires is a disaster waiting to happen. Furthermore, private parcels, which comprise 20 to 40 percent of local communities, have become the preoccupation of City Hall, not the public realm and public improvements that are essential to the city’s residents, employees, and visitors. 
  • The lack of accurate, frequently updated data generated by careful General Plan monitoring means that public policy is determined in a vacuum, allowing the well-oiled requests of real estate speculators to prevail. 
  • City Hall has incrementally responded to stalled General Plan updates by adopting an incomprehensible mosaic of overlay zones and site-specific approval conditions. In order to appease opponents of discretionary land use decisions, these overlay zones and conditions make reliable plan check and code enforcement impossible. 
  • Urban design. Since the mega-projects blessed through the political process, like 8150 Sunset, clash with the scale and character of existing development, they degrade the appearance of a city that is already burdened by unsightly communities, corridors, and buildings. While some of this also results from slip-shod code enforcement, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative could prevent a big part, especially if it can be followed up with the design review of new public and private construction, similar to Beverly Hills. 
  • Downward spiral of bad planning. As effective city planning is stymied, City Hall weaves a downward web of self-imposed hardships. Real estate lobbyists and expediters then repeatedly claim that an outdated General Plan warrants parcel level spot-General Plan Amendments, spot-Zone Changes, and spot-Height District Changes. Their unstated assumption is that more permissive zones would have appeared if the ageing plans had already been updated, and, hey, their clients need them now. But, there is no basis for their claims and the precedents they set. In fact, in many communities there has been negligible demographic change or even, like Hollywood, population decline.  When these trends appear, the proper response is to either keep existing zoning in place or in some cases, reductions in permitted planning and zoning, not increases. 

Last, but hardly least, shoddy city planning thwarts City Hall's grandiose plans to transform Los Angeles into a world or global city. Anyone who spends time in London or Paris quickly learns they have wonderful transit and other public services, high design standards, and carefully controlled public and private construction. In contrast, Los Angeles needs far more that 3.9 million people and struggling entertainment and import-export industries to eventually become a city of this caliber.


(Dick Platkin is a former LA City Planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatch. He is also a supporter of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative [[ http://2preservela.org/faqs/ ]]   and welcomes comments and corrections at [email protected].) 


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