Planning LA: Tying All the Noise Together

UNIFYING PRINCIPLE-With so many city planning proposals and disputes overwhelming Angelenos, I have been asked if there is a unifying principle that ties all this “noise” together.  This is my effort to bring some order to what many people perceive as chaos in a city that is too often the butt of city planning jokes. 

In Los Angeles the vast corpus of adopted General Plan Elements, Mayoral executive documents, (e.g. Sustainable City pLAn), hundreds of pages of zoning ordinances compiled in the Los Angeles Municipal Code (LAMC), and associated forms and regulations intimidate nearly everyone, even professional city planners.  

Yet, in practice there is a common thread that runs through all of these documents: they all bend to political pressure and accommodate themselves to real estate speculation.  In Los Angeles short-term market forces – shepherded by squads of attorneys, expediters, lobbyists, and cronies -- drive what is politely called “the planning process.”    

All of the City’s official plans, laws, and regulations are malleable.  They bend, twist, and sometimes are completely ignored in response to real estate projects winding their way through City Hall.  As a result, it is a rare event when developers redesign their real estate projects to accommodate the City’s adopted planning policies, zoning requirements, and guidelines. 

This, then, is the unifying principle that ties all this noise together.  It also why land use attorney, Robert Silverstein, whose firm has won many cases against the City of Los Angeles, said his recurring legal challenge is to force the City of Los Angeles to follow its own laws. 

How does this process of accommodation actually happen?  This is my take on how the unifying principle works on a day-to-day basis. 

  • Municipal Ordinances:  When City Planning, the City Legislative Analyst (CLA), or the City Attorney prepare municipal ordinances, well-dressed land use attorneys and expeditors carrying water for large develops by offering proposals that benefit their clients. 
  • Implementing Regulations: When the City Council adopts land use ordinances, the implementing rules and regulations further accommodate the needs of real estate speculators.  For example, without any mandate from the State or California or from local legislation, City Planning declared that in the case of SB 1818/ Bonus Density incentives, applicants do NOT need to demonstrate any financial need in order to receive a long list of incentives that exempt them from LAMC zoning requirements.   
  • Ministerial Decisions:  The Department of Building and Safety reviews most real estate projects in-house because they comply with the city’s zoning and building codes.  These by-right reviews and approvals take place behind closed doors, without any public access or appeals.  Slipped in among these straightforward projects are McMansions.  In their unique case, Building and Safety can increase the by-right size of a house by up to 42 percent.  The result is a McMansion approved through a secret ministerial decision.  Neighbors are totally unaware of Building and Safety’s de facto discretionary review, without any information about the project; no opportunity to comment; and no opportunity to appeal. 
  • “Approved with Conditions”:  When discretionary actions are reviewed by City Planning, nearly every project is “Approved with Conditions.”  It is rare that any real estate project is rejected or accepted outright.  The conditions, which run on for many pages, appear to carefully restrict the impact of any project in order to mollify critics.  But this is all just a Potemkin Village (i.e., props used for political subterfuge).  

City Planning has no legal authority to enforce these conditions, other than to confirm their appearance on architectural drawings.  While the Department of Building and Safety does have such enforcement authority, they seldom, if ever, use it.  

As a result, community groups are forced, with little success, to submit complaints of code violations.  In serious cases, community groups must resort to lawsuits to make sure conditions of approval are actually enforced.  While City Planning has finally creating a new unit to monitor some conditions of approval, its four staffers only review selected conditional use permits. 

  • Environmental Conditions:  The voluminous conditions of approval play a major role in blunting the application of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in Los Angeles.  When environmental assessments determine that a project has environmental impacts, the long list of conditions added to written approvals becomes the environmental mitigation program.  It doesn’t matter if they work since there are no field inspections.  Once written and approved, they constitute proof that a project’s environmental impacts have been eliminated, typically with a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND). 
  • Statements of Overriding Considerations:  In about 15 rare cases per year, where a project’s environmental impacts are so obvious that a long list of written conditions is not sufficient mitigation, the City requires a full Environmental Impact Report.  While this might sound great, the City Council routinely overrides these long, detailed reports by adopting a Statement of Overriding Considerations

In this way, environmentally harmful projects are exempted from the California Environmental Quality Act through such claims that the project will generate X number of jobs or transit trips. No hard evidence is required to substantiate these claims, nor is effective monitoring required.  If the imagined jobs or transit ridership do not appear when the project or plan is completed, there are also no consequences. 

  • Weak Findings:  In theory, each discretionary action requires a rigorous set of legal findings, such as conformity with the General Plan of the City of Los Angeles.  In practice, however, these findings are written to support a project’s approval, sometimes submitted by applicants to justify their own projects.  On appeal, it is almost unheard of that the City Planning Commission or an Area Planning Commission will overturn a project because of its far-fetched or outright fallacious findings.  Furthermore, at these hearings, the Department of City Planning has unlimited time to defend its recommendations, while Appellants are restricted to 5  - 10 minutes. 
  • Selective and lax code enforcement:  Zoning enforcement is the responsibility of the Department of Building and Safety, but nearly all code enforcement, is reactive, not proactive.  It is up to residents to submit code violations, and then Building and Safety follow-up is a crapshoot.  Furthermore, much critical enforcement is based on affidavits, not field inspections.  This is why mansionization teardowns routinely ignore public health requirements to remediate lead paint and asbestos.  Since Building and Safety only requires a signed affidavit from demolition permit applicants that they will comply with the requirements of other agencies, the applicants are on their own to quickly tear down buildings. This means that when there is no remediation of lead paint and asbestos, which is nearly all the time, neighbors have about one day to file complaints with the South Coast Air Quality Managements District and a L.A. County Public Health.  Their inspectors are invariably a day late. 

Would LA’s approach to planning, bending and ignoring laws and regulations so the accommodate themselves to real estate speculation actually work?  Will it be that mighty shot in the arm that Los Angeles needs to become the world-class city its local boosters wish for?   Or, will one hackneyed real estate project after another – approved through political muscle at City Hall -- result in an even uglier, more unequal, more broken down city than we suffer from at present?  

The answer is simple.  Unrestricted real estate speculation will not make Los Angeles a world-class city.  For that matter, it won’t even make Los Angeles a desirable and livable Tier 2 city.  This is why: 

  • Inequality: Unrestricted real estate speculation increases inequality in Los Angeles.  This happens because the incentives handed over to investors, such as subsidized loans, financial grants, fee waivers, and zone changes increase the value of their holdings, but worsen the city’s already extensive income and wealth gaps.  While some outside investors, City Hall officials, and local realtors can ride this wave of short-term speculation, most of the city’s residents are left worse off.  Their incomes stagnate while their rents go up. 
  • Infrastructure: Unrestricted real estate speculation accelerates the deterioration of the city’s infrastructure.  Even though the General Plan Framework mandates infrastructure monitoring, it does not take place because these data would force the City’s elected officials to consider the documented capacity of local infrastructure and public services when approving projects.  Without this vital infrastructure information, there is no database that could be used to deny a project or force it to be redesigned because of inadequate public services.   
  • Climate Change: Unrestricted real estate speculation accelerates climate change because nearly all such projects are automobile oriented.  They not only generate unmitigatable levels of the green house gases responsible for climate change, but they perpetuate the automobile culture responsible for urban sprawl and deterioration of the urban environment.  While some real estate boosters claim their high-density projects promote sustainability because they are Transit Oriented Developments, so far their claims are spurious.  Without rigorous monitoring, which City Hall abhors, there is no way to verify their claims.  The transportation behavior of residents, employees, customers, and visitors is simply unknown. 

Is there an alternative planning future for LA?  Yes, but it hard to image this alternative future emerging within City Hall, where it would be deeply resisted, even though the answer is right before our eyes.  Most of the city’s and state’s adopted planning policies, environmental regulations, and zoning requirements are totally sound.  But they need to be followed, and for this to happen, it will require extraordinary public pressure to establish a new unifying planning principle for Los Angeles. 

The unifying principle for this alternative vision is that “growth” must no longer be defined as short-term profit for private investors.  Instead, growth should be defined as overall quality of life, with such measures as improvements to public infrastructure and public services, as well as public health and social indicators like educational attainment and longevity.  Indices such as this are not simply hypothetical, but have already been developed, tested, and widely applied by the World Health Organization, the Center for Disease Control, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).  Perhaps more relevant to quality of life in cities, in cooperation with Columbia University, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has developed and used a global Environmental Sustainability Index. 

There are also other existing tools that we can turn to: 

  • To create a sounder approach to growth, the State of California has an adopted series of mandates to ensure that local municipalities promote sustainable growth in lieu of horizontal and vertical urban sprawl.  These mandates include AB 32, SB 275, and the Complete Streets program.  Furthermore, other California laws require each city to have a General Plan, including mandatory elements for land use, transportation, and air quality.  In addition, the Governor's Office for Research and Planning has already prepared extensive guidelines for a discretionary climate change element.   
  • For municipalities to incentivize sustainable growth, they will need to place much greater emphasis on investment in public services and public infrastructure, and then engage in rigorous annual monitoring to continually assess the effectiveness of this investment.  In the case of most cities in California, the state already requires annual monitoring report.  In the case of Los Angeles, this state mandate does not apply, but LA’s own General Plan Framework Element contains detailed monitoring provisions 

After 15 years of foot-dragging, it is finally time for the City of Los Angeles to establish this monitoring program and then use it to produce the required, comprehensive annual monitoring reports.  Furthermore, these annual reports should generate findings leading to mid-course corrections for the City’s General Plan elements, land use ordinances, and administrative procedures. 

  • With improved services and infrastructure in place to create Transit Oriented Districts, cities must then incentivize projects that rely on transit, bicycling, and walking.  Furthermore, any of these truly transit oriented projects must be approved and built in phases so demonstrated transit, bicycle and pedestrian behavior precedes subsequent phases of development.   
  • The final tool to assure that all projects, whether public or private, are truly ecological, the California Environmental Quality Act, has been expanded to include Green House Gases in its Air Quality evaluations.  This information should be of critical importance to decision makers, since they have the authority to redesign or reject all projects with unmitigatable levels of Green House Gases. 

Depending on which unifying principle guides the planning process in Los Angeles, the city faces two very different futures.  One path has an excellent chance of producing a world-class city whose forte would be the quality of public infrastructure and public services for its residents. 

The other scenario, which now prevails, is a formula for a highly divided city.  A few neighborhoods will shine, like the recent movie Her, while most of the Los Angeles will eventually resemble the dystopia in Blade Runner.   

(Dick Platkin is an advocate planner and CityWatch contributor who welcomes questions and comments on this article at rhplatkin@gmail.com.) 

-cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 51

Pub: Jun 23, 2015