City Hall’s Magic Elixir: Ban Soft Corruption, Update Our Community Plans

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-We could surely address growing social and economic inequality in Los Angeles if each call to update the Community Plans was matched with a nice raise for all those who live and work in the City of Angels. 

But, please don’t hold your breath, because there are tremendous barriers to effectively updating the Community Plans. When the job is finally completed, the curses of time, a rudimentary planning process, and City Hall’s pay-to-play political culture will have rendered the final product useless. This hopeful City Hall magical elixir is just a will-o-the-wisp

Furthermore, there is every indication that if and when the Community Plans are eventually updated, the Updates will be used to placate developers, not a concerned public rooting for a well-planned city. And, if Measure S, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, wins on March 7, the timetable to update the Community Plans will dramatically speed-up. Like the botched and annulled Hollywood Plan, each future Update will be quickly appended with extensive up-zoning and up-planning ordinances to circumvent Measure S’s ban on spot-zoning and spot-planning. 

Private Greed, not Public Need 

As described in a recent Los Angeles Times editorial, City Hall’s slimy pay-to-play land use decision-making process has become “soft corruption.” But, this corruption is much more than a problem of public perception. It also means that land use decisions – especially for mega-projects – are disconnected from the legally mandated planning process. This is because LA’s money-infused pay-to-play culture annually spawns hundreds of parcel level zone-changes, height district changes, and General Plan amendments. Called spot-zoning, the result is that many Los Angeles neighborhoods are already dotted with parcels that exceed legally adopted zoning, height districts, and General Plan designations. 

Furthermore, if and when the City Council eventually adopts updated Community Plans, continued spot-zoning will render every Community Plan irrelevant. Each Plan’s land use maps and implementing zoning ordinances will become a shelf document because deep-pocketed developers will continue to overturn adopted plans and zoning at whim. When their bean counters tell them, for example, they can make considerably more money through a high-rise luxury apartment tower than a low-rise retail store, contributions will flow, followed by zoning applications and eventually by building permits. 

In this world unrestrained market forces, not official plans and zones, remain LA’s de facto planning process. The City’s legally adopted General Plan, including its Community Plans and their implementing zones, will stay on the books, but as minor speed-bumps on the yellow brick road to private enrichment. 

Like today, pay-to-play will continue to squeeze certainty and predictability out of the planning process. 

Technical barriers to effective Community Plan Updates 

In addition to these formidable political barriers to effective Community Plan updates, there are three technical barriers begging for solutions. 

  • Community Plans should be updated every five years, not on a 20 or 25 year cycle. The current Update process, called the New Community Plans, began over a decade ago, when Gail Goldberg was the Director of City Planning. Beginning with her administration, the City Planning Department has only updated several Community Plans, and its latest estimate is 7 to 10 years to complete the job. Long before then, however, the entire updating process should start all over again. 
  • The Community Plans -- the General Plan’s Land Use Element -- apply the Updated General Plan’s many citywide elements (chapters) to local communities. But, City Planning is updating the Community Plans on a separate timeline. They will complete most of these local plans without the benefit of updated citywide General Plan data and policies. Cities with such a fragmented, cart-before-the-horse approach, therefore, rely on dumb luck that their local Community Plans properly knit together and cohesively guide the entire city. 
  • There is no accurate and timely data of the buildout potential of Los Angeles’s existing zoning. City Planning computed such buildout calculations 25 years ago, but since then City Hall has implemented SB 1818, the Density Bonus ordinance. It allows up to two more stories of residential development on all commercial lots. This means that LA’s long, one and two story commercial corridors could now be rebuilt with four or even five story mixed-use or totally residential apartment structures. 

What is already visible on the Miracle Mile could repeat itself on all other commercial thoroughfares, such as Pico or Washington. While this zoning potential certainly varies among Community Plan areas, an effective planning process needs to carefully consider this data, especially in light of forecast demographic trends. Even if City Hall relies on SCAG’s habitually inflated population numbers, there is every indication that LA has far more land zoned for apartments than would be required by all conceivable General Plan growth scenarios. 

My conclusion 

For the Community Plans to be a magic elixir, the City of Los Angeles must overcome two barriers. First, City Hall’s soft-corruption has to go. If it remains, it totally undermines any planning process. Second, the technical planning process needs to be accelerated, properly sequence, and based on reliable data for the city’s zoning build-out potential. 

This is certainly a tall order, but it is necessary.


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