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The Price We Pay for Poor Planning in Los Angeles

PLANNING WATCH-If you work as a city planner in Los Angeles, you quickly learn to roll with the punches, typically when visitors ask you, “What’s it like to work in an unplanned city?”

At first, I thought, what are they talking about? Don’t they know that LA has reams of adopted plans and one of the largest municipal planning departments in the country? Later, as one of these city planners, I begrudgingly realized that their jokes had a grain of truth behind them. For these comics, LA was a large, smoggy city, crisscrossed by packed freeways delivering shoppers to malls. What they did not realize, though, is that their barbs revealed a larger truth. LA is largely an unplanned city, but not because of its bad air, freeways, and shopping malls. It is because of the following: 

LA’s official plans are mostly out-of-date. California law requires local General Plans to be timely and internally consistent, even though in LA the plans’ base years, horizon years, population forecasts, formats, goals, policies, and implementation programs are a hodge-podge. While some of the adopted plans were once accurate, like the General Plan Framework Element, time has taken its toll. The Framework is now 25 years old, and City Hall has never updated it. As a result, the Framework’s population assumptions are now wildly inaccurate and undermine this once commendable plan. In the mid-1990s the Framework forecast that Los Angeles would have 4.3 million people by 2010. This figure turned out to be 500,000 people too high according to the U.S. Census. 

When City Hall occasionally updates a General Plan element, it is almost always in the wrong order.  For example, the Department of City Planning is slowly updating LA’s Land Use Element, its 35 Community Plans, prior to, not after, it even more slowly updates of LA’s other out-of-date citywide General Plan elements.  Furthermore, the implementation of Updated Community Plans through zone change ordinances is independent from the update process. These are the grains of truth behind the jokes that Los Angeles is an unplanned city. 

City Hall never monitors adopted plans to determine if they are working as intended or need mid-course corrections. Any plan is only as good as its monitoring program, and to its credit, the 1996 General Plan Framework Element was unique. It required the City of Los Angeles to create a General Plan monitoring unit, which would then prepare annual monitoring reports. These reports needed to determine whether population, housing, and employment forecasts were unfolding as planned, of whether the plans and their underlying assumptions, including remaining zoning capacity, should be amended. These reports also were supposed to determine which implementation programs had been adopted and if they met the Plans’ goals or should be revised. 

Finally, these annual monitoring reports needed to assess the city’s many categories of public infrastructure and services, to determine if Los Angeles had sufficient capacity for both existing and forecast building construction, population growth, and user demand. While several partial monitoring reports made it out the door in the late 1990’s, they are no longer available on-line. 

As for new, emerging planning concerns, such as climate change, they too, were ignored in these early reports. Two decades later, nothing has changed. 

Easily swept aside.  The adopted plans, some dating back 50 years, have been frequently ignored, without any actions to rescind, replace, or update them. The exceptions are Mobility (2015) and Housing (2013), which has already begun its periodic 2021-2029 revision. 

The consequences of poor planning confront us every time we venture out the door: 

First consequence - City Hall corruption. Because development pressures are enormous and always changing, the old plans are easily cast aside through discretionary zoning approvals. City Hall reflexively supports these pay-to-play applications 90 percent of the time, and the recent FBI arrest of former Councilmember Mitchell Englander indicates that the corruption oozing through City Hall is linked to this high approval rate. 

FBI enters Los Angeles City Hall through a back door. 

Second Consequence - Overlay zones. Because the existing Community Plans are so old and incomplete, local communities have learned that elected officials are willing to oil squeaky wheels. As a result, Los Angeles has a become a mosaic of overlay zones, such as HPOZs, RFAs, Specific Plans, CDOs, CPIO’s, TOC Guidelines, R1 Variation Zones, and POD’s. The City’s Department of Building and Safety cannot keep up with this legislative onslaught, one reason that developers have become adept at gaming these overlay ordinances to build whatever they determine is most immediately profitable. 

Third Consequence - Gentrification and housing crisis. LA’s closely linked gentrification and housing crises are one of many unintended consequences of poor planning. The Community Plans were supposed to monitor local housing construction, zoning capacity, and the adequacy of infrastructure and public services. But this did not happen because short-term real estate trends substituted for LA’s adopted citywide and community plans. Yes, Mayor Garcetti’s Executive Order 19 imposed time lines on the planning process, but this turned out to be a cynical ploy to defeat Measure S, the Neighborhood Integrity Ordinance.  

Fourth Consequence - Climate change. In the last 20 years knowledge about and direct experience of climate change should have penetrated every planning process. Some localities have proved up to this challenge, such as Seattle and it surrounding King County, but LA is a different story. Even though the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research offers California cities detailed guidance to prepare a General Plan Climate Change element, LA is totally immune to Sacramento’s help. Our immediate experience with wildfires, street tree die-offs, cliff erosion, mega-droughts, and heat waves has not made a dent in the city’s planning process 

Fifth Consequence -Traffic congestion. A thorough planning and monitoring process should keep careful track of all infrastructure issues, including street capacity and traffic volumes. While this happens sporadically through EIR’s for specific real estate projects, it never happens at the Community Plan level. As a result, increases in local traffic congestion resulting from upscale office and apartment buildings construction are treated on an ad hoc basis. The missing or quick-and-dirty Community Plan updates ignore the cumulative traffic congestion created through LA’s current building boom.   

Sixth Consequence - Public safety. Public safety not only includes “crime,” which is steadily declining, but also threats from major earthquakes, climate change, and pandemics, all of which are on the increase. For the second largest city in the United States to ignore its required planning process, which considers these inevitable public health and safety risks, is a powerful indictment of LA’s elected and hired officials. 

While this list of the adverse consequences of poor planning is not definitive, it is alarming enough for Angelinos to understand what happens when short-term real estate investment criteria, not a rational planning process, determine how Los Angeles is governed.

 

(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatchLA. He serves on the board of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA) and is co-chair of the new Greater Fairfax Residents Association. Please send comments and corrections to rhplatkin@gmail.com.