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A Tip from a City Hall Vet: Pay Attention to What’s Not Being Said

PLATKIN ON PLANNING--In last week’s CityWatch column I speculated that City Hall’s sudden, slipshod effort to again update the Hollywood Community Plan, is intended to promote three hidden agendas: 

  • Create a template for the subsequent updates of LA’s 34 other Community Plans, as well as two District Plans.
  • Create a backup to re:code LA, the current program to rezone the entire City of Los Angeles, in case it falters.
  • Undercut the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, which is headed for voter consideration and likely approval in March 2017.   

Neglected topics: After attending the May 31, 2016, meeting of the Los Angeles City Council’s Planning and Land Use Committee (PLUM), and reviewing City Planning’s report to PLUM presenting their work program to update LA’s Community Plans, Environmental Impact Reports, and General Plan Amendments, I think the evidence is now overwhelming. There is little hidden about their hidden agenda because the silence is deafening. (Photos above: Los Angeles City Council's Planning and Land Use Management Committee. They reveal the real, underlying issues by what they don't say.)  

How can we be so sure? We only need to look at this long list of important topics related to the update of the General Plan, to future General Plan Amendments, and to Environmental Impact Reports (EIR’s) that the PLUM Committee and the City Planning report glossed over: 

  • Successful lawsuit against the Hollywood Community Plan:   In 2013 Superior Court Judge Alan Goodman rejected the Hollywood Community Plan Update that the City Council had unanimously adopted. He ordered that the Plan’s text, EIR, and implementing zoning ordinances be rescinded because of the plan’s shoddy and inflated demographics. The City Attorney did not contest Judge Goodman’s ruling, and, as a result the City Council rescinded this Community Plan Update template and reinstated Hollywood’s previous 1988 plan. 
  • Updating the non-Land Elements: The General Plan’s mandatory and optional elements extensively examine the city’s public infrastructure and services, yet the City Planning report and the PLUM committee never mentioned any of these elements. Nevertheless, they must be properly updated before local community plans can be updated. As indicated in the City Council’s April 14, 2016, resolution regarding the necessity of updating the entire General Plan, without a timely, comprehensive, examination of citywide planning issues, it is impossible to properly update any Community Plans. 
  • Public Safety Issues: One of these outdated elements is Safety (1995). It is absolutely critical for a city whose elected officials have been far too blasé about seismic safety (“The Big One”), as well as the already observable impacts of climate change on the Los Angeles region. 
  • Climate Change General Plan Element: Many California cities have addressed these newer public safety issues by preparing an optional Climate Change General Plan element that focuses on both climate change adaptation (i.e., resilience) and mitigation. While the City of LA has two Climate Action Plans, one prepared under Mayor Villaraigosa, and the other under Mayor Garcetti, it does not yet have an integrated set of planning goals and programs to guide and monitor either of these climate action plans. 
  • Monitoring Unit: The most important discretionary General Plan element, the General Plan Framework, required the City of Los Angeles to establish a General Plan Monitoring Unit charged with the production of annual monitoring reports. The Council and City Planning failed to establish this monitoring unit, and in the 20 years since the City Council adopted the Framework, City Planning has only issued four incomplete monitoring reports. Yet, without these reports, updating existing plans is pure guesswork. In their absence there is no way to determine if the old plans have been implemented and if their implementation programs have effectively met the plans’ goals. 
  • 1968 Citizens Commission Report and Law Suits: In 1968 the City of Los Angeles issued a report from a Grand Jury investigation and appointed citizens commission entitled, A Program to Improve Planning and Zoning in Los Angeles. It became the basis for the two Charter Reform Commissions planning recommendations, and it required Community Plan amendments to be comprehensive, as opposed to the City Council’s current approach of spot-planning, spot-zoning, and intricate zoning ordinances appended to Community Plan Updates. 
  • Re-Code LA:  This program, which aims to rezone all private parcels is Los Angeles, will be nearly completed before any Community Plan updates are prepared and adopted, yet zoning is one of the primary implementation tools for Community Plans. As I have repeatedly written, this places the cart before the horse because the planning process is sequenced in reverse order.   In fact, based on the latest Hollywood template, the zoning ordinances that implement Community Plans will be drafted before the Community Plans themselves are completed.           

The not very hidden agenda items: While my list of important missing issues related to the update of Community Plans is hardly definitive, these “structured absences” from City Planning’s report and the PLUM Committee’s discussion lead to several inescapable conclusions. 

The most important excluded topic was the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. If/when Los Angeles voters adopt it, it would force City Hall to update all General Plan elements, including but not limited to the 35 Community Plans. It would also prohibit parcel level legislative actions, such as zone changes and General Plan amendment for individual lots. And, it would also require all ministerial actions related to building permits, as well as all discretionary actions, to be consistent with the General Plan. 

Once adopted, this Initiative would box in the City Council’s actual city planning process: accommodating investors’ whims through special ordinances. This truncated approach to city planning self-limits itself to discretionary actions for the private parcels that comprise 20 to 40 percent of each community. In this world city planning becomes lot-by-lot zoning and planning ordinances driven by the financial computations of private investors/City Hall players/major campaign contributors. 

In March 2017 this game would grind to a halt because the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative would stop it. That is why it is now imperative for public officials intent on salvaging their business model to lock in as much up-zoning and up-planning as quickly as possible, as well as to preserve the City Council’s future right to spot-zone and spot-plan on behalf of major contributors. 

While I realize this sounds like bribes and corruption, I am a city planner, not an Assistant District Attorney, so I will let others make that call. But, one historical footnote can guide us. In the late 1960s the Grand Jury and the Citizens Advisory Committee that carefully examined the City of LA’s zoning and planning practices, did more than successfully recommend many fundamental changes. Their work also resulted in the prosecution and incarceration of a City Councilmember.

 

(Dick Platkin reports on city planning issues in Los Angeles for CityWatch. He is a former LA City Planner and current advocate planner.   He welcomes comments and corrections at [email protected].) 

-cw