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Former Officials Pitch Proposals to Stop City Hall Corruption in LA

PLANNING WATCH-Three former city officials have offered a proposal to stop rampant City Hall corruption in Los Angeles.

In The Planning Report and then in the Los Angeles Times, Gail Goldberg (former Los Angeles City Planning Director), Bud Ovrum (former Los Angeles Deputy Mayor and LADBS General Manager), Rick Cole (former Pasadena Mayor and Santa Monica City Manager), presented their suggestions. 

The two articles were welcome, but, in my view, muddled. They called for updating LA’s aging Community Plans, but not the equally outdated citywide General Plan elements (e.g. Public Safety), or preparing a desperately needed Climate Change element. These General Plan elements are essential to the thorough updating of Community Plans. The two articles also overlooked systematic General Plan monitoring and implied that Community Plans should be implemented through up-zoning ordinances, despite LA's stagnant population, ailing economy, and vast and under-utilized zoning capacity. Their proposals also neglected to connect up-zoning to LA's fraying infrastructure and over-extended public services. If a city, like LA, up-zones its private parcels to encourage more private investment, it also needs to ensure that its infrastructure and public services can meet the day-to-day needs of more people and buildings. When water mains burst, sanitary sewer lines clog, electrical grids sputter out, sidewalks become obstacle courses, street trees die, and cities are not adequately prepared for natural disasters (e.g. heat waves, fires, floods, earthquakes), they chart their own demise. 

In fact, this density-infrastructure connection is hardwired into LA’s General Plan. Its umbrella element, the General Plan Framework, is clear on this for areas up-zoned and up-planned to promote real estate development. 

Policy 3.3.2. a. “Determine the need and establish programs for infrastructure and public service investments to accommodate development in areas in which economic development is desired and for which growth is focused  . . .” 

Let us now take a deeper dive into their proposals to end City Hall corruption: 

  1. They wrote, “To prevent future corruption, the city needs to fix what is broken about L.A planning – by fully updating planning and zoning laws according to the recommendations of an outside commission, not the council. . . . Failure to revise them has consequences beyond corruption – it contributes to the lack of affordable housing . . .new residential and commercial buildings remain subject to cumbersome processes that make our region less competitive by driving up costs. . . Requiring developers to abide by modernized codes and transparent approval processes will enhance the quality of life and standard of living of the city’s 4 million people.” 

Analysis: Each year LA’s Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) processes about 140,000 building permits. Nearly all of these cases are ministerial and only require internal administrative reviews. About 1,700 projects per year, however, do not conform to the City’s building and zoning laws. They are, therefore, assigned to the Department of City Planning for a discretionary approval, such as a Zone Variance or Zone Change. About 300 of the cases are major projects requiring multiple discretionary approvals.  These are the projects typically linked to the high-level land use corruption that the Goldberg/Cole/Ovrum proposals intend to fix. 

The proposal’s implicit solution, deregulating zoning laws, would automatically allow larger, taller, denser private real estate projects with reduced parking, open space, and yard requirements. These zone changes would reduce the number of discretionary projects – along with potential corruption.  Furthermore, greater transparency for these discretionary approvals would leave less wiggle room for City Councilmembers to push through pet projects. 

But, making a higher percentage of private sector real estate projects ministerial, which reduces the need for discretionary zoning waivers and environmental reviews, is hardly good planning. It amounts to adapting LA’s General Plan elements, zoning ordinances, and environmental reviews to developers’ business models. The developers would have less reason to bribe City Councilmembers, but the consequences of bad planning would soon appear.  

Furthermore, no matter how frequently the City of Los Angeles fully updates its General Plan Elements and implementing zoning ordinances, changes in consumer preferences, lending rates, building technology, environmental statutes, tax laws, and availability of capital guarantee that new types of real estate projects will appear. So, even if more certainty is inserted into the reviews of fewer discretionary projects, applications for zoning waivers will continue. This is what keeps the door to corruption open. 

  1. Their articles also argued, “The real fix is to do real planning.” This is true, and Gail Goldberg’s remarkable 2007 tract “Do Real Planning” is still relevant.  But even the best General Plans cannot magically pull rabbits out of hats.  If LA’s entire General Plan was quickly up-dated, built on reliable data, and internally consistent, (essentially 2017’s Neighborhood Integrity Initiative) we would still need to overcome the following: 
  • The City Council controls LA’s capital improvement budget (CIP), and it is not linked to the General Plan. Investments in infrastructure and public services are developed by each City Department, fighting for its own turf, oblivious to the larger planning vision tying them together. 
  • Despite recurring proposals in the General Plan Framework and its Environmental Impact Report, City Hall has not yet established a Plan Monitoring Unit. As a result, there are no current annual monitoring reports assessing the General Plan, including the 35 Community Plans that comprise its Land Use element. City Hall has no way to determine if the plans’ demographic assumptions are correct, if their implementing programs have been rolled out, and if these programs are achieving the plans’ goals. 
  • The City of Los Angeles depends on the Southern California Association (SCAG) of Governments for its demographic forecasts, and SCAG’s data are notoriously inaccurate. For example, SCAG forecast a Los Angeles population of 4.3 million in 2010. Their prediction was 500,000 people higher than the 2010 census figure of 3.8 million. 
  • There is no secret blueprint that can be applied to the City’s plans and zoning ordinances so they will allow the private sector to profitably build low-priced housing. As CityWatch readers know, City Hall could green light in-fill apartment buildings with reduced parking and open space, and greater density, height, and mass. These super-sized structures could be permitted by-right, which also exempts them from the California Environmental Quality Act. But developers are not philanthropists. They are businesspeople who expect annual profits of 15 to 20 percent from their real estate projects. Their profit-driven business model precludes low-cost housing since it would bankrupt them. 

Instead, the construction of low-income housing requires the restoration of HUD’s public and publicly subsidized housing programs, as well as former CRA housing programs. 

  • Poverty and economic inequality, two major factors responsible for the housing crisis and homelessness, cannot be prevented by properly updating General Plans. An obvious fix for poverty is a minimum wage indexed to inflation and the cost of housing ($24/hour). And, if good paying jobs fail to appear or disabilities do not allow people to work, then disability and unemployment insurance must be sufficient to allow people a decent place to live. 

Conclusion: To end corruption and, “to enhance the quality of life and standard of living of the city’s 4 million people,” LA must do more than real planning. It also needs to substantially upgrade the city’s infrastructure and public services, while intensively lobbying for the restoration of public housing programs and the elimination of economic inequality.  


(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatch.  He serves on the board of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA) and co-chairs of the new Greater Fairfax Residents Association. Previous Planning Watch columns available at the CityWatch archives and https://plan-itlosangeles.blogspot.com/. Please send comments and corrections to rhplatkin@gmail.com.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.