PLANNING WATCH - Looking back on 2022 and the decline in the quality of life in Los Angeles is not a pleasant task. This is what I see, with worse to come, despite Mayor Karen Bass’s obvious popularity.
Climate change has arrived in the form of wildfires, killer heat waves, and mega-droughts. It is time for the City of Los Angeles to respond with bold planning efforts, in particular a new mandatory General Plan element, Environmental Justice, and a recommended General Plan element, Climate Change, both of which are ignored. Instead of granting zone changes and zone variances to legalize new, expensive, and illegal apartment buildings, whose well-off tenants seldom take transit, planning for climate change makes far more sense. The State of California has shown how this can be done, but, so far, City Hall has ignored these prototypes because they undermine the city’s urban growth machine.
Growing homelessness and homeless encampments. With around 41,000 counted people, including families, living in cars or sleeping on LA’s streets, City Hall has demonstrated that its planning practices and policies make the housing crisis worse. The claim that a mix of temporary housing and luxury apartments will fix this crisis is getting harder to believe, despite endless repetition. While City Planning prepared and adopted a new 2021-2029 Housing Element at record speed, its dependence on the private investors to solve the housing crisis dooms it to certain failure, revealed by the increase from 1000 to 1500 homeless people who die on LA’s streets each year.
Deteriorating public infrastructure and public services. The blowback from real estate speculation, massive military budgets, and foreign wars includes the deterioration of public infrastructure and public services, including public health. In addition to the 1.1 million U.S. residents who already died from the Covid-19 virus, there are local examples of LA’s deteriorating quality of life. It is hard to drive or bike in Los Angeles without experiencing cracks and potholes. As for broken and lifted sidewalks – in Los Angeles neighborhoods that even have sidewalks – City Hall’s solution is ugly asphalt patches.
Another deplorable feature of infrastructure disinvestment is LA’s shrinking urban forest. It is not only essential for mitigating climate change, but it is also necessary for better urban design and air quality. The main reason is that the city’s budget for planting and caring for its urban forest is one-quarter that of comparable cities.
Gaudy commercial signs and mismatched buildings visually blight Los Angeles. The current Community Plans contain adopted – but ignored -- policies that new structures should match the character and scale of existing buildings. For example, the Wilshire Community Plan (2002) states, “Improve streetscape identity and character through appropriate controls of signs, landscaping, and streetscape improvements; and require that new development be compatible with the scale of adjacent neighborhoods.” If or when the existing Community Plans are updated, they will contain form-based zoning that further compounds the visual conflicts between existing and future structures.
Worsening traffic congestion. LA’s General Plan transportation element is eight years old, but like other planning policies and programs, it is poorly implemented and monitored, even though traffic conditions are getting worse. As for siphoning off some of those driving to work, shopping, or running errands, to take transit, walk, or bike, these non-car options are woefully under-invested. Even METRO, with its multi-billion dollar mass transit projects, does not fund or build planned first-last mile public improvements.
(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatchLA. He serves on the board of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA). Previous Planning Watch columns are available at the CityWatchLA archives. Please send questions and corrections to [email protected].)