Cooking Up a Grassroots Community Plan

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-By state law every city in California must have a timely, internally consistent, regularly updated, and annually monitored General Plan. This plan must address the entire land area of a city and must include all infrastructure and services categories. It is far more comprehensive than zoning waivers for privately owned parcels, which pretty much sums up planning in Los Angeles.


Despite this bad news, the good news is that the City of Los Angeles has broken down its planning process into 35 subareas called Community Plans. The other good news is that these 35 Community Plans apply the policy goals and implementation programs from LA’s mandatory and optional citywide General Plan elements to each Community Plan area. 

Unfortunately, any celebrations of good planning in Los Angeles are premature because, like LA’s citywide General Plan elements, most Community Plans are also old. A program to update them, called the New Community Plans, began 12 years, but so far has only managed to update three Community Plans: Sylmar, Granada Hills, and West Adams. This failure lead to the “son of the New Community Plans” a May 2016 follow-up work program, but real progress is still totally lacking.   

The other bad news is that even though each older Community Plan contains a monitoring requirement consistent with the spirit of California’s statewide planning laws, the City of Los Angeles does not monitor its Community Plans.  No one knows if the plans’ demographic assumptions are accurate and if the plans’ implementation programs are working. Los Angeles is quite literally flying blind. 

The other bad news is that the General Plan’s updates are not proceeding in a logical order. Long before the citywide elements and the Community Plans will have been prepared and adopted, they are already being implemented through re:code LA’s comprehensive amendments to the City’s entire zoning code.  The cart is far ahead of the horse. 

Furthermore, the essential guiding elements for updating local Community Plan plans are the mandatory Citywide General Plan elements, and most of these are also out-of-date, some even older than the 35 Community Plans. While several General Plan elements have been recently updated (Mobility and Health), they nevertheless have different base years and horizon years from the plans on the books and on the assembly line. For instance, the Mobility Plan has a 2035 horizon year, while future elements have a 2040 horizon year.  Meanwhile, the most important General Plan element, the General Plan Framework, like the 25-year old Air Quality Element, has a 2010 horizon year. 

Does the City of LA’s disregard for the letter and spirit of the State of California planning laws make a difference? Obviously, City Hall thinks they are doing a heck of a job given (self-imposed) political and budget constraints, but Los Angeles, as well as each local community could tremendously benefit from a properly prepared and closely monitored General Plan, including local Community Plans. All we need to do is look out the window where we live, work, visit, or shop to see broken sidewalks, potholes, dumped couches and mattresses, bad air, world class traffic jams, overhead wires, billboards, homeless encampments, building and zoning code violations, and dying or missing street trees to realize that Angelinos pay a tremendous price for LA’s unmonitored, out-of-date General Plan.  

Unfortunately, the critical importance of good planning does not give us the luxury of waiting another decade until the General Plan’s various elements are slowly adopted, especially if they are top-down documents laced with policies and programs whose purpose is to stoke real estate speculation.  

The Importance of Grass Roots, Bottoms-Up Plans: This why the General Plan, especially its Community Plans, should be updated as soon as possible, and the only way this can properly take place is if local communities take the lead. They have far more knowledge about local conditions than city employees, as well as out-of-state planning consultants.   

But, since there is little precedent in Los Angeles for local communities preparing grass-roots, bottoms-up updates of LA’s General Plan elements, especially local Community Plans, here is a brief outline of how to proceed. This is the basic recipe, to be tweaked as local communities pursue updates and then share their new knowledge with others. 

  1. Organizing Committee: The sponsoring group, such as a Neighborhood Council or a homeowners’ association, needs to appoint a Community Plan Update Committee to shepherd the update process through from initial assessments to annual monitoring reports. 
  1. Review Existing Plans: Already adopted planning documents need to be identified and then reviewed. In general, this means, the existing, but old, citywide General Plan elements since many of their policies and implementation programs are still relevant.   

Furthermore, most of these adopted planning documents can be found on-line, at City Planning’s website. The mandatory and optional elements that would have a bearing on local conditions include the following: 

Mandatory General Plan elements:

  • Housing (2013)
  • Transportation/Mobility (2015)
  • Open Space (1973)
  • Safety (1996)
  • Conservation (2001)
  • Noise (1999)
  • Land Use (i.e., Community Plans, most about 20 years old). 

Optional Elements:

  • Air Quality (1996)
  • General Plan Framework (1996, 2001)
  • Health (2015)
  • Service Systems (Unknown)
  • Infrastructure (ca. 1968. Only section posted on-line is for Public Recreation Facilities) 
  1. Public Meetings: With the major categories of municipal services and infrastructure extracted from the existing General Plan elements, local communities need to hold public meetings to gather as much “crowd-sourced” information on local conditions as possible.  This is key because it is the best way to reframe the City’s minimal planning process.  At present, it is little more than the review and approval with conditions of zoning waivers.  Instead, it should become a holistic view of city government’s role in providing public services and constructing and maintaining infrastructure to enhance the quality of life in each community. 
  1. 4. Public Services and Infrastructure: To collect information and ultimately prepare policy goals and their implementation programs, the following lists are just a beginning.  A fuller list of city services and infrastructure categories can be found in the General Plan Framework’s Chapters 9 [[[ https://planning.lacity.org/cwd/framwk/chapters/09/09.htm  ]]] and 10, [[[  https://planning.lacity.org/cwd/framwk/chapters/10/10.htm ]]]  which address both implementation programs and systematic plan monitoring. 

City Services 

  • Recreation and senior services
  • Cultural arts
  • Animal regulation facilities
  • Street sweeping
  • Garbage collection, including dumping in alleys and streets
  • Building and zoning code enforcement
  • Libraries
  • Police and fire emergency services
  • Street use enforcement, especially business encroachment on public sidewalks
  • Billboard regulations
  • Social services for homeless individuals and encampments
  • DASH lines and bus benches 

City-constructed and maintained infrastructure: 

  • Streets including curbs and gutters
  • Sidewalks, including ADA curb cuts
  • Bicycle infrastructure, including protected bike lanes and parking facilities
  • Urban forest, including parkway and median trees
  • Open space landscaping
  • Park, playgrounds, swimming pools, senior centers
  • Street lights
  • Sanitary sewers
  • Storm drains
  • Water mains
  • Electricity and telecommunications
  1. Population and private parcels:  Since Community Plans comprise the General Plan’s Land Use Element, the following categories require a careful review for each community: 
  • Population trends: Based on local information, have they changed in recent years, and if so, how? 
  • Industrial land: Does your community have sufficient industrial land for anticipated manufacturing facilities? 
  • Commercial land: Does your community have sufficient or even too much commercial land for retail and related businesses? 
  • Residential: Does your community have sufficient residential land for current residents, including commercial zones with permitted residential uses? For anticipated future residents?  Are there adequate review procedures for the size and appearance of new projects to control, for example, mansionization? Are there sufficient municipal services and infrastructure to serve the potential growth of the local population? Are historic structures and neighborhoods adequately protected?
  1. Implementation: Since Community Plans are policy documents covering 1/35 of Los Angeles, how should their policies be implemented? Each goal and policy must have clearly identified programs that will implement them. It is also likely that there will be policy vacuums than can only be filled by new General Plan elements, especially climate change mitigation and adaptation.
  1. Monitoring: The State of California requires most cities and counties to submit an annual monitoring report. Even though the City of Los Angeles has exempted itself from this requirement, it is still required by the General Plan Framework and by nearly all existing Community Plans.  Since City Hall has so little interest in monitoring, especially each plan’s implementation programs, the ball is now in the court of local communities.  If they don’t undertake monitoring, it will not happen, and it will become impossible to determine what works and what does not work in each General Plan element. 

If your community group wants more information on community-generated plans, the Coalition to Preserve LA will hold a public training session on Sunday, October 29. Stay tuned for further details or contact me, as listed below.


(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who on reports on local planning issues for CityWatchLA.  Please send comments and corrections to [email protected].) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.