PLATKIN ON PLANNING-Among City Hall’s elected and appointed officials it easy to round up a quorum of Clinton Democrats, with non-presidential candidate Mayor Eric Garcetti at the head of the table. If you look hard you can also find a momentary Berniecrat, recently re-elected Councilmember Gil Cedillo, and a plain vanilla Republican who lost his bid to become an LA County Supervisor, Councilmember Mitchell Englander.
If you squint hard and look beyond City Hall’s limestone walls, you can also spot Libertarians, Tea Baggers, and assorted Progressives.
Despite their political differences, when it comes to the underlying rationale and legal requirements for real city planning to guide the city of Los Angeles, most of these strange political bedfellows are all on the same page. For them, planning is one of LA’s lowest priorities, at the level of new pocket parks and playgrounds, sidewalk repairs, tree planting, and billboard code enforcement.
Even if the rest of us see planning from from the perspective of extensive State of California legal requirements and guidelines, or through the straightforward General Plan provisions of the City of Los Angeles Charter and its implementing Municipal Code (LAMC), real city planning is the runt of the litter at City Hall.
You might wonder, how it is possible to competently govern Los Angeles without comprehensive and regularly updated citywide and local plans. After all, Los Angeles has almost 4,000,000 residents, 472 square miles of land, 6,500 miles of streets, 4,000 miles of alleys, 1,450,000 housing units, 35 official community plans, 114 self-identified neighborhoods, 95 certified Neighborhood Councils, and thousands of local civic organizations. Los Angeles is also the largest manufacturing, import-export, and in-migration center of the entire United States.
This is a good question indeed, and it leads us to the principles guiding the State’s complex planning laws, the City’s Charter, and the Los Angeles Municipal Code. The answer is that skilled governance depends on serious planning. It needs a thoroughly maintained database tracking the city’s residents, employees, and housing stock. It needs long-term goals and programs to service the daily needs of residents, visitors, tourists, employees, and its built environment through the full gamut of public services, public infrastructure, and regulated utilities, like telecommunications.
Furthermore, competent governance needs to continuously monitor this information and then use it to prepare the City’s annual operating budget, its long-term capital budget, and the work programs of every City department and agency. In addition, the outside forces impinging on Los Angeles are hardly standing still. They include natural disasters, migration, climate change, and topsy-turvy Federal budget allocations. They must all be factored into the planning and governing process.
To be clear, not all City Hall officials, past and present, neatly fit into this Luddite category. There have been a few notable exceptions, such as several planning directors who clearly understood how the State’s and the City Charter’s legal mandates obligated Los Angeles to properly plan itself. In fact, an exemplary city planning policy statement, Do Real Planning, prepared by former Director of Planning, Gail Goldberg, is still languishing on the City of LA’s website.
Despite these exceptions, there is virtually no real planning at City Hall. True, there are dusty planning documents prepared after the 1965 and 1992 civil disturbances, a few recent General Plan elements, as well as short-lived responses to lawsuits, public outcries, and occasional voter threats, such as Measure S, which would have forced City Hall to quickly and systematically update LA’s General Plan. But, if you want a legally adopted plan that adheres to State and City laws, that is timely, internally consistent, and annually monitored to ensure that it is up-to-date, you are out of luck. It does not exist, and the current efforts to update the General Plan are moving too slowly and in the wrong order to make a difference.
But, when lawsuits, voter Initiatives, and community outrage occasionally upset the apple cart, City Hall quickly circles the wagons. Such pliant labels as liberal, centrist, conservative, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or even Progressive, converge into an anti-planning consensus, as evidenced by their top-down united front against the planning requirements of Measure S. Like a well-oiled machine stored away for an emergency, these divergent political forces suddenly moved in unison through the experienced guiding hand of SG&A campaign consultants. These consultants cobbled together an anti-Measure S alliance entirely funded and led by large real estate developers. They all united behind Big Real Estate, which, for its own short-term self-interest, abhorred planning because it constrained their speculative business model.
In this case Big Real Estate spent a record amount of money through SG&A to defeat a voter Initiative that would have forced City Hall to comprehensively update the city’s General Plan and would have also prevented the soft corruption of “pay to play” continuing as LA’s de facto planning process.
Why is City Hall so opposed to the underlying rationale and legal requirements of planning?
As best I can determine, deliberately or through naiveté, City Hall, its deep-pocketed patrons, and its camp followers view Los Angeles through the lens of exchange value. When these denizens of City Hall and their supporters cast their gaze on the city, they only see apartment buildings, houses, factories, stores, and office buildings that can be built, operated, bought, and sold as investments. If you can imagine a pair of high tech glasses that overlay calibrated dollar signs on every building and parcel, you can grasp City Hall’s worldview.
At City Hall, the contrasting use value of these same items escapes notice. This means that independent of their exchange value to private investors, such “commodities” as houses are appreciated in themselves by their residents. These are people who live in homes, not houses. They live in real, organic neighborhoods, as already uncovered by the Los Angeles Times, not in such administrative categories as Building and Safety’s and LADOT’s geographical Districts, City Planning’s Community Plan areas, LAPD’s Divisions, and Housing and Community Investment’s Regional Offices.
These two wildly divergent takes on the same objects explain why Los Angeles is a boiling cauldron of land use disputes. It also explains why LA’s residents are so frequently at odds with City Hall’s elected and appointed officials. They have totally different perspectives, and they cannot possibly be reconciled through comments on planning websites, EIR scoping meetings, community workshops, and public hearings. These types of public participation only allow the public to vent about irrelevant use value. Speakers may feel empowered after their minute at the microphone, but their testimony should never be confused with power. It is the elected and appointed officials who make the real land use decisions, and for them Los Angeles is little more than a scaled-up Monopoly game of buying, selling, or holding real estate.
True, their resulting land use decisions are not based on accurate demographic data, the status of public services, or the capacity of supportive infrastructure. But such technicalities seldom get in their way. And, if or when political earthquakes like Measure S confront them, they have an uncanny way of turning these threats to real estate speculation into moneymaking opportunities.
Compelled to update the General Plan? No problem, just prepare and adopt the citywide zoning ordinances that implement the General Plan up front. While the whole process might eventually get done, massive re-zoning through re:code LA does not need to wait a decade until the entire planning process reaches its conclusions. Re-code LA is barreling through on its own five-year timetable, creating many new zones, including relaxed laws determining what can be built where, without any role for the California Environmental Quality Act or subsequently adopted General Plan elements.
Committed to Community Plan Updates? No problem, City Hall simply attaches lengthy land use ordinances to updated Community Plans. These appendices list zone changes, height district (mass) changes, and General Plan Amendments. Just because this approach blew up in Hollywood, does not mean that up-zoning and up-planning ordinances cannot be pushed through in less combative neighborhoods.
Badgered with lawsuits about General Plan Monitoring? No problem. Unlike all other cities in California, Los Angeles made sure that the State’s formal planning requirements were amended so LA alone does not have any imposed General Plan monitoring requirements. But just to fend of pesky critics, like litigious resident associations and CityWatch writers, City Planning now publishes an annual monitoring report that skims over serious planning issues and has no bearing on General Plan updates, the City’s budget, or Department work programs.
Solutions? They are still in the wings and take the form of more citizen revolts, lawsuits, citywide voter initiatives, and dogged exposes of endless City Hall corruption.
(Dick Platkin is a form LA city planner who reports on local planning issues for City Watch. Please send any comments or corrections to [email protected].) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.