Los Angeles: Planning as Manifest Destiny 

GUEST WORDS--Soon after taking over as LA Planning Director in 2006, Gail Goldberg said “In every city in this country, the zone on the land establishes the value of the land. In Los Angeles, that's not true.

The value of the land is not based on what the zone says, it is based on what the developer believes he can change the zone to.” She went on to say that “this is disastrous for the city, disastrous. Zoning has to mean something in this city.” 

She was right of course. Zoning in Los Angeles it turns out is simply an obstacle to overcome. It is not just an obstacle to developers but to politicians as well. In approving projects, they routinely ignore or give scant notice to the Charter, the City Code (LAMC), as well as General, Community and Specific Plans. They ignore everything that came before and push to build the biggest, most dense projects possible. Aiding and abetting those decisions are the current Planning department and the City Planning Commission (CPC).

The Planning department staff write reports supporting projects that are almost identical to the reports written by the project consultants. None of those reports benefit the people and input from the community is brushed aside by the planning department, especially those in the Major Projects Division. Often those reports are viewed as simply a starting point by the CPC where many of their members can only be described as density hawks. They believe more is better when it comes to development but strangely not cars. They often argue with developers that they should not put as much parking in their projects because all of us should be walking, riding bikes or taking public transportation.

The arrogance and elitism on display at CPC hearings is mind blowing but their recommendations along with those of the planning department are mostly accepted by the City Council and Mayor at face value. If you are a member of the public who has concerns about the goings on you have only two choices. You can accept the decision and move on or you can try to raise enough funds to challenge the City approval. When you do that you are immediately labeled as a NIMBY (not in my back yard) or worse if you live in a single-family neighborhood.

The expansion of density in Los Angeles has taken on an aspect of inevitability in the Planning department, Council offices and certainly the Mayor’s office. The theme that California and Los Angeles is for everyone is seen everywhere as if it is the manifest destiny of this City and State to expand indefinitely. It is a policy that has driven people out of communities where they have lived for generations so their neighborhoods can be gentrified. It is a policy that has destroyed many affordable apartment units displacing those who are vulnerable and without the means to fight back.  It is a policy that turns a blind eye to all the suffering it leaves in its wake. It is a policy that has brought the FBI to our doorstep investigating pay for play schemes connected to development.

It is also a dangerous policy because it ignores everything people need to sustain a healthy life, infrastructure. You cannot continue to build, to expand indefinitely without expanding the services necessary to sustain life and a healthy City.

Adequate infrastructure as required by the City’s Framework Element and Community plans, is the only thing that separates a world class city from a third world City. Density in and of itself is not the problem, but density that is not adequate to sustain a healthy life is a problem. In a way this problem was first addressed by the State (AB 283) when it compelled Los Angeles to make sure its zoning ordinances were in compliance with its general plan.

Secondly In the early 1990’s the Federal government (EPA) required the City of Los Angeles to update its General Plan to make it consistent with the Regional Air Quality Management Plan. The City then stated that it is the intent of the General Plan Framework Element to reduce the cumulative capacity for growth and re-direct patterns of development to ensure that adequate levels of infrastructure and services can be provided, environmental impacts, such as traffic congestion and air emissions, are reduced, and the quality of life can be maintained or improved. When you look around what you see is only a small fraction of what is necessary to sustain life.

The General Plan Framework Element’s project description called for the provision of adequate infrastructure and public services such as parks, utilities, solid waste disposal, and wastewater treatment to meet the demands posed by a growing population. It requires that if you don’t have adequate infrastructure you can’t build until you bring it up to adequate. That is not what is happening in todays Los Angeles because the density hawks want more at all costs.

The planning department, CPC and all of our elected officials need to make all their decisions within the 4 corners of the Charter, LAMC and various Plans because they have provisions imbedded in them to  protect the public and frankly our City officials from cutting corners that  bring the FBI to our doorstep.

Not everyone gets bags of cash, some most likely hope to be remembered later on when a new position opens up or a favor is needed. Some are true believers who think they know what is best for everyone else, while others have just forgotten what it is like living in the real world.

Following the rules protects everyone. Not following them brings the FEDS and cutting corners can be viewed as complicit.

(Jim O’Sullivan is the President of the Miracle Mile Residents Association and a long-time community activist.)