The LA Times Should School Itself before Preaching about Planning the Future of LA

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-It is distressing, but hardly surprising, that the Los Angeles Times would use a lead editorial to preach about planning the future of Los Angeles without cracking open the city’s adopted General Plan or mentioning climate change and its own articles on City Hall corruption and new earthquake threats. Apparently, their view of Los Angeles is not 600 amazing complex and vulnerable square miles, but a checkerboard of private lots waiting for real estate investors to swoop in from around the world for short-term profits. 

I will post my full critique of this lead editorial on my blog, Plan-it Los Angeles, but here are some of the paper’s more far-fetched claims, followed by my debunking: 

LAT: For what may be a brief moment in Los Angeles, planning is hot. Measure S, the slow-growth, anti-development initiative, failed at the ballot box but succeeded in one very big way: It drew attention to the city’s broken land-use process and the need for a new comprehensive vision for how Los Angeles should grow.”  

LAT: “Every new project is a political negotiation and a fight over height, density and community impact, making housing construction a high-stakes gamble and turning residents reflexively into NIMBYs.” 

Debunking: Less than one percent of real estate projects in Los Angeles involve the City Council legislative actions that Measure S addressed. And only a small percentage of these cases involve any negotiations, appeals, or legal challenges. In these cases local communities want the City to follow its own planning laws and regulations, as well as the California Environmental Quality Act. 

This means local communities are in no way reflexive in challenging projects. To the contrary, they are highly selective in opposing illegal projects that adversely impact their neighborhoods and depend on City Council spot-zoning to become legal. 

LAT: “Can Los Angeles finally fix this broken system that doesn’t produce enough housing, erodes public trust in government and doesn’t result in well-planned communities?” 

Debunking: Public distrust in local government results from City Hall’s rampant pay-to-play land use decisions. The LAT’s own reporters carefully exposed these practices until several months ago. This is when the newspaper’s editorial page became LA’s highest profile voice championing the city planning status quo -- by leading the charge against Measure S. Furthermore, LA’s plans and zones are not the cause of insufficient housing production and poorly planned communities. The cause is the business model of real estate developers. They do not build affordable housing because it is unprofitable, and they do not follow adopted plans and zones to create well-planned communities because these laws interfere with their bottom line. 

LAT: “Los Angeles runs the very real risk of repeating what it has done time and again: The city develops a plan for growth, homeowner groups oppose it, and then elected officials ignore it.”  

LAT: “Los Angeles as a whole needs to be far more walkable, bikeable and transit-oriented, with most communities within easy reach of frequent bus or rail service and amenities such as parks, libraries and grocery stores.” 

Debunking: The Framework and all other General Plan elements, such as the new Mobility Element, are fully consistent with all alternative transportation modes, including walking, biking, and transit. The adopted plans already address these issues in great detail. Likewise, even though the City Council adopted the General Plan Framework in the 1990s, it is still a visionary document that addresses parks, libraries, and the location of retail stores. Furthermore, the Framework mandated (but never pursued) careful monitoring of its goals and policies to ensure the adequate construction of transportation facilities and other infrastructure categories, such as parks and libraries. 

To cite one of many examples that the Los Angeles Times is apparently unaware of, this is what the Framework proposed regarding parks: 

P14: Formulate/update a Recreation Master Plan (a Recreation and Parks Department document) to provide sufficient capacity to correct existing deficiencies as well as meet the needs of future population. Consider the following actions when developing/updating this Element: 

a.  Identify improvements to the recreation and park system including additional parklands and recreational programs. Priority should be placed on the identification of improvements for the underserved areas of the City. Both traditional and non-traditional solutions to the expansion of facilities should be considered, including the following: 

(1) Revise standards that permit the acquisition of parks smaller than five acres, particularly in those communities with the most severe neighborhood park deficiencies; 

(2) Acquire use, and maintain of properties for recreation and public open space, that are as small as 5,000 square feet in area; 

(3) Develop community gardens on small lots in residential neighborhoods and commercial areas; 

(4) Develop active and passive greenways along fixed rail transit lines and utility corridors, as well as for the development of open space along rivers and principal drainages (as depicted on the Citywide Greenways Network Map); 

(5) Adopt joint use strategies for recreational facilities, wherever appropriate; 

(6) Require for the inclusion of recreational facilities in multi-family residential and mixed-use development projects. 

Will the Los Angeles Times accept this scolding about its need to undertake basic research about LA’s plans and planning process before blathering on about a new planning vision? 

There is always hope, but there is no reason to think that the paper has or will ever give up its fundamental role in what I previously dubbed the Urban Infill Growth Machine. For over a century, even with its founding families departed, the paper has considered real estate speculation to be LA’s economic development machine. Even though conditions have dramatically changed since the 1970s, the paper’s unwavering support for real estate speculation has never faltered. But, the paper will eventually have its come-uppance when thoughtful planning cannot be reconciled with a welcome wagon for every global speculator targeting Los Angeles for its sand castles and Lego buildings.

(Dick Platkin is a former LA city planner who reports on local planning issues in Los Angeles for CityWatch LA. Please send your comments and corrections to Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.