City Hall has Ignored the Law and Failed to Update the City’s General Plan for Years … Why Should We Trust Them Now?

PLATKIN ON PLANNING--Whether LA voters adopt or reject Measure S, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, on March 7, the Planning Department will eventually update LA’s General Plan, including the city’s Community Plans. This process has already begun, but the unanswered question is how well they will do it. 

While I truly hope I am wrong, based on precedent, it will be a run-of-the-mill job, and once completed, City Hall’s spirits and trolls will quickly attempt to sabotage them.  My crystal ball says that without the combination of Measure S, follow-up voter Initiatives, alert public watchdogs, and numerous law suits, today’s dysfunctional city planning status quo will quickly re-emerge. 

As I previously wrote at CityWatch, based on its work program, the Department of City Planning will update the General Plan, but it will do so in reverse order. More specifically, they are already completing the implementation end-product, a totally revamped zoning code, through re:code LA. 

The City Council has, in fact, already begun to adopt several re-code LA ordinances. When completed over the next several years, LA’s zoning code will become far more permissive. The amended zoning code will permit, by-right, a much wider range of land uses. This will not only allow most new real estate projects to side-step the California Environmental Quality Act, but it will usher in enormous windfalls for commercial property owners. They can sell their properties for a greater price once they are re-zoned and avoid any additional property taxes. Until existing or new owners construct a replacement structure, these valuable City Hall handouts will remain untaxed. 

Meanwhile, the supposed driver of this process, the comprehensive update of the General Plan itself is just starting. What should be one of its final tasks, which actually began over a decade ago, are the updates of LA’s 35 Community Plans and two District Plans.  While the City Council wants these updates to proceed on a six year cycle, this can only happen when the current backlog of Community Plans is finally completed. 

The concluding work product task, which should be the first task, it to fully update LA’s mandatory and optional citywide General Plan elements.  Common sense indicates that you need to carefully understand the big picture before you can drill down to local issues. But, in the case of Los Angeles, common sense appears to be quite uncommon. It is driven by City Hall politics, and in Los Angeles that means the marginally criminal pay-to-play process described in recent months by two astute Los Angeles Times reporters, David Zahniser and Emily Alpert Reyes. In LA’s case, this means that the soft-corruption they exposed at City Hall will prevail over a carefully prepared and adopted planning process. 

This defective planning process will continue to neglect public infrastructure and public services, even though they essential part to urban governance, especially in an era of accelerating climate change. By continuing to separate the planning process from the City’s Capital Improvement Plan and its annual operating budget, we can toss and turn at night knowing that no one is actually minding the store in one of the most tumultuous periods of human history. 

This cart-before-the-horse approach may solve a few imminent political problems, like Measure S, but it is still bad city planning. Plan implementation should follow, not precede, extensive analysis of the entire city and its neighborhoods. It also needs to be mindful of the wide-ranging community outreach process mandated by Measure S.                                                                                                                                

What else should we gird ourselves for, to make sure we will not be hoodwinked during the anti-Measure S “counter-revolution”, especially when it emerges full force on March 8. 

The overturned  Hollywood Community Plan Update is probably the best model we have for turning the planning process into a catalyst for real estate speculation. In its case City Hall used inflated population data to justify 100 pages of up-zones and up-plans for Hollywood. To justify this slight of hand, City Hall resorted to an illusory claim that Hollywood’s existing zoning was not sufficient to house waves of new residents supposedly moving to Hollywood over the next two decades. Reality was just the opposite. Hollywood experienced notable population decline, not growth, from 1990 to 2010, and the most recent data indicates these trends have and will continue. As for a lack of sufficiently zoned parcels, there is no data whatsoever to support this parallel claim. It was and remains a total fiction. 

City Planning will also avoid serious technical monitoring of the completed updates, whether citywide General Plan elements or Community Plans.  At best monitoring will continue to be a public relations exercise. Reports will have the appearance of monitoring, but not its content. The cover page will surely have the word monitoring, but the contents will be so general that no revisions in planning policies or programs will ever be included or solicited. 

Finally, unless Measure S passes and is faithfully implemented, the City Council will incrementally undermine the updated General Plan Elements and zones it adopts through spot-zones, spot-General Plan Amendments, and spot Height District Changes. 

As for sustainability, the City Planning Commission and the City Council will continue to adopt un-monitored, boilerplate Statements of Overriding Considerations for Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs). These statements, will, of course, promise transit ridership and jobs whenever the EIR's forecast unmitigatable levels of Green House Gases resulting from the un-planned projects so favored by LA’s elected officials. 

This grim future, though, is only one alternative. The future is open-ended. It depends on the long-term approach of those who support Measure S. Like earlier waves of community activists who fought for specific plans, Historical Preservation Overlay Ordinances, Proposition U, and important law suits like AB 283 and the General Plan Framework, today’s activists will also need to work on many fronts. This will includes campaigns against individual projects and give-away ordinances, still more voter Initiatives, endless law suits, and electing independent officials who comply with adopted planning and environmental policies and laws.


(Dick Platkin is a former LA City Planner who reports on local planning issues for City Watch. He also serves on the board of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association.)