Why LA Needs a Strong Planning Process and Measure S is Essential

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-My support for Measure S did not just drop off a turnip truck. It is based on my long career as a city planner. This includes positions in two large urban planning departments, a private planning firm, a small non-profit, and a large non-profit. In addition, I have worked as an independent consultant, taught planning courses at three local universities, and written many articles on city planning topics, mostly Los Angeles. 

Three lessons from these assignments lead me to support the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, now called Measure S. Over the past year my support has only grown stronger when I encountered so many half-truths and flat-out lies mounted against Measure S. In fact, I recently learned that the big real estate firms funding the No on S campaign hired Parke Skelton’s and Michael Shiplock’s SG&A campaign firm. Their goal? To defeat this voter Initiative by any means necessary, which is the source, I assume, of the disinformation campaign now at large in LA. 

These are the three reasons why I have consistently supported the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative/Measure S: 

  • Competent governance of a massive metropolitan area.
  • Government transparency in land use decisions.
  • Certainty for local communities and businesses. 
  1. Competent governance of a massive metropolitan area. 

Los Angeles is a big, sprawling, complex city in an even larger, complex metropolitan area. The city has nearly 4,000,000 people, the region has over 12,000,000 people, and there are even more visitors and employees. It has the largest and most congested street system of any American city. For these and many related reasons, such as climate change, LA desperately needs to be well governed, and this is only possible with a strong, timely General Plan that is carefully prepared and adopted, then implemented, adhered to, regularly monitored and updated. LA’s alternative model, of muddling through by riding the erratic booms and busts of speculative real estate cycles, is simply not up to the task. Infrastructure and services slowly fail, at least until the Big One ushers in systemic failure to most infrastructure and service systems. As for the rest of the built environment, such as housing, it becomes disconnected from the public’s need (and right!) for shelter. 

Without a clear understanding and blueprint for Los Angeles that is meticulously prepared, regularly monitored, and periodically updated, an unplanned Los Angeles will never be properly governed. In fact, the messy, corrupt real estate-driven model that now dominates LA’s City Hall is not based on any systematic planning at all. It just muddles through, lurching to and fro, dealing with major social and environmental problems like homelessness, gridlock, and air pollution, with election year clichés and short-term fixes. 

  1. Government transparency in land use decisions. 

The planning process is politically charged. If done correctly, it is based on extensive community participation in formulating plans, and then reviewing deviations from these plans. These tasks should all be out in the open, with total transparency. Nothing should be decided in back corridors and behind closed doors, with a special role carved out for lobbyists and campaign donors. 

But, from LA’s earliest days to the present, the default planning model has been wheeling and dealing, what the LA Times now politely calls “soft corruption.” But, it is really much worse since it turns on pay-to-play. Real estate investors pay off politicians to get the land use approvals they need for their otherwise illegal projects. There is not much that is new about all of these backroom deals, except for the spotlight shined on it by Measure S and Los Angeles Times investigative reporting. 

From the 19th century until the 1970s, pay-to-play meant the transformation of raw land, mostly agricultural, through low-density housing and strip malls. This transformation took place in Los Angeles and smaller cities between the ocean and Western Ave., as well as the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys. Since the 1970s, City Hall’s back room deals changed to become mostly urban in-fill. This presents itself as the redevelopment of existing building sites with larger, more expensive structures. It takes the form of McMansions, Small Lot Subdivisions, and the controversial mega-projects that require special City Council parcel-specific ordinances, mostly spot-zone changes, to become legal. 

In short, pay-to-play has become the handmaiden of unplanned, market-driven urban infill. The consequences, though, are more devastating than the previous suburban model because of the systematic loss of affordable housing through demolitions, displacement, dislocation, and gentrification. In broad terms, the market forces celebrated at City Hall – and even in some university planning programs -- lead to the replacement of lower priced housing with more expensive housing in order to maximize real estate profits. The situation has become so bad that those who can only afford middle income and lower priced housing turn to cheaper housing in far flung exurban areas, like Palmdale and Moreno Valley. This move, unfortunately, is highly unsustainable because it necessitates long commutes, mostly in cars.   

As for those who choose or are forced to remain in Los Angeles, their reality has become homelessness, overcrowding, and unsafe housing in illegally converted garages. Furthermore, LA’s local housing crisis has worsened through the bi-partisan elimination of most Federal HUD housing programs, as well as the dissolution of the Community Redevelopment Agency. These public programs to build or subsidize affordable housing have become historical footnotes. 

The bottom line is that City Hall’s pay-to-play has led to two bad planning outcomes. The first was urban sprawl and low-density development. The second, when the raw land ran out, is unplanned and poorly planned urban infill driven by profit maximization. These two urban forms appear to be different on the outside, but at City Hall the transition was seamless. Real estate interests funded campaigns in order to get what they needed for their short-terms gains, whether it was tract housing in the immediate post WWII era or high-rise luxury condo projects replacing older, low-rise, commercial buildings in the 21st century. 

  1. Certainty for local communities and businesses. 

General Plans, including their mandatory and optional chapters (Elements) and their implementation through a range of zoning ordinances, including specific plans, are only useful when they are followed. If the City Planning Department, the City Planning Commission, and City Council allow these carefully prepared plans and zones to be cast aside by any developer with deep pockets, the plans become irrelevant. The certainty they provide to all parties is discarded, and the adopted plans quickly become shelf documents. They play little or no role in land use decisions, which consist of City Hall welcoming nearly all speculative real estate projects that knock of their door. Since City Hall approves over 90 percent of such in-fill projects, usually with spot-zoning, this is LA’s real land use decision making process. It is totally arbitrary, with all certainty eliminated. 

In contrast, through Measure S we know that LA’s General Plan, including the Community Plans that comprise its required Land Use Element, will be quickly and regularly updated. We also know that this Update process requires extensive community input at all stages, based on open meetings held on weekends and in evening in local communities. 

We further know that any effort to circumvent the updated General Plan must conform to the rigorous legal findings spelled out in the City Charter, as clarified by Measure S. These criteria include limiting General Plan Amendments to Community Plan areas, Specific Plan areas, or collections of parcels at least 15 acres in size. Finally, we know that any efforts to undo these adopted plans will force developers to use EIR consultants selected by the City of Los Angeles. They can no longer rely on their hand-picked consultants. 

In short, Measure S ensures that the land use decision-making process is based on certainty. LA’s current reality, that your neighborhood’s planning and zoning can be pulled out from underneath your feet by City Hall backroom deals, will finally end. 

Coming in my next column: The components of the high quality planning process that Yes on S will usher in. Stay tuned.


(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatch. Please send any questions, comments, or corrections to rhplatkin@gmail.com.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.