Platkin, a former city planner and now a planning consultant, wrote this analysis of what the change in leadership in the LA City Planning Department means for the city. He welcomes
comments on this article at email@example.com )
Why a Change in the Planning Department’s Management
Will Not Produce Changes in LA’s Planning Process
By Dick Platkin
City employees and members of the public who follow city planning issues in Los Angeles rapidly traded emails in response to the June 30 announcement by the Director of Planning, Gail Goldberg, that her last day of work would be July 16, 2010. Her bombshell was paired with a similar announcement from the Mayor’s office, indicating that one of Gail Goldberg’s deputies, Vince Bertoni, would become the acting Director of Planning though late August. What happens after that is anyone’s guess.
Those who think that Gail Goldberg’s departure will usher in new planning policies or practices, such as the enforcement of conditions and codes, in Los Angeles are well meaning, but engaged in wishful thinking. In reality, changes in the management of the Department of City Planning are highly unlikely to affect any planning policies and practices. If there is any rift between the Planning Department and the city’s elected officials, it is not over planning policies, but only over the speed at which discretionary actions, such as zone variances and zone changes, can be processed so over-sized real estate projects can more quickly receive building permits.
Nevertheless, Los Angeles is in desperate need of serious city planning and code enforcement. After all, its General Plan Framework was adopted in 1995 and is based on antique 1990 census data. It has not been monitored in over a decade, should have already been replaced, and is generating law suits against the city. Similarly, most of the other General Plan elements are out-of-date, such as several infrastructure elements. They were adopted in the 1960s, years before many current Los Angeles city planners took their first breath. Even the city’s 35 community plans, several of which are now being updated, are on a slow track. Based on current schedules, it will take over a decade to revise these aging community plans, at which time the fresh 2020 census data will quickly render them obsolete.
This failure of the city’s elected officials to properly plan Los Angeles is unfortunate for many reasons.
First, Los Angeles is legally required by California State law, as well as its own Charter, to have an accurate and timely General Plan. When it fails to comply with these laws, it not only sets a dismal example for its own residents, but also leaves itself wide-open for law suits. Second, without accurate and current plans, City Hall muddles through its frequent budgeting crises with short-sighted political haggling, rather than turning to carefully developed planning policies based on rigorous data analysis, community participation, and a long-term policies.
But, despite these compelling reasons why Los Angeles’s official city plans should be updated and implemented, there are even more pressing reasons for the city to follow it own laws and policies. It is L.A.’s miserable day-to-day realities: its declining quality of life. After all, we have this country’s worst traffic congestion, worst street conditions, and worst air quality. Furthermore, Los Angeles has experienced two highly destructive civil disturbances, Watts in 1965 and the aftermath of the Rodney King trial in 1992. Finally, L.A. is sitting on dangerous earthquake faults and could, at any moment, face the famous “Big One,” an enormous earthquake larger than the 1994 Northridge earthquake. These are all reasons to kick start city planning.
But these reasons fall of deaf ears at City Hall, where the long-range planning Los Angeles urgently needs now rests on the shoulders of two remaining staffers. In reality, only one planning principle now prevails: the primacy of turbulent market conditions. This approach, camouflaged by the benign maxim of making the city business friendly, is antithetical to planning. In planning practice “business friendly” means ignoring or misrepresenting legally adopted plans, while using the business models of flippers and speculators as the criteria for dishing out land use entitlements regardless of local conditions, in particular infrastructure capacity. If this year’s real estate fashion is condos, then that is what gets approved. If next year’s trend is shopping centers, then the rules and procedures will bend that way.
Of course, a city whose compliant local government gives a green light to every developer’s request cannot be planned. This is why the city’s plans are disregarded, why adopted plans become shelf documents which eventually expire, and why the updates of community plans are attempting to increase densities. It also explains why a change in the Planning Department’s management will not translate into a change of planning policies or practices.
It is hard to imagine how this situation can continue for much longer. Will the city become so unlivable that only the very rich and very poor remain, divided by an ever larger LAPD? Or will a combination of law suits and enormous public pressure finally force the city’s planning process to be revived and implemented?
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking.