Editor’s Note: Radical changes are being made to LA’s planning rules by First Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner — changes intended to simplify and expedite approval of new developments as he explained this week in an LA Business Journal article. Already, community leaders have filed one lawsuit and others are expected as elements of Beutner’s scheme are rolled out. What is going on is widely seen as a threat to quality of life in neighborhoods, nothing but an attempt to densify the city for the benefit of developers by bulldozing zoning protections and the environmental review process. If you want to know where the City Council stands read what Greig Smith and his chief-of-staff Mitch Englander, his wannabe successor, has to so say (smith-pleanning.rtf).
By Dick Platkin, former city planner
The Los Angeles Department of City Planning is currently preparing three related sets of detailed urban design guidelines. They separately address future residential, commercial, and industrial projects subject to a discretionary action.
Once approved by the City Planning Commission, these guidelines will become an appendix to the General Plan Framework Element, the backbone of the Los Angeles General Plan. These guidelines are not binding, but would be advisory for discretionary actions (e.g., plan amendments, zone changes) for which there are no approved or adopted design guidelines otherwise available to decision makers.
Full copies of these guidelines, including background information, can be found at City Planning’s web-site.
The preparation and on-going public information campaign to promote these Design Guidelines is baffling for at least three reasons, and I have little doubt that readers will find additional wrinkles regarding the preparation or use of these guidelines.
WHY THE PROPOSED DESIGN GUIDELINES ARE SO BAFFLING
Baffling Reason #1: The main problems of the General Plan Framework Element have absolutely nothing to do with the presence or absence of advisory urban design guidelines for residential, commercial, and industrial land uses. Therefore, why allocate so much time and energy to their development, promotion, and adoption?
The most serious problem of the General Plan Framework is that it has reached the end of its intended life span. This plan was based on 1990 census data, was prepared by the Department of City Planning in the early 1990′s, and was adopted by the Los Angeles City Council in 1995. Its horizon year is 2010, which means that 2010 is the final date for which the plan’s demographic estimates, infrastructure data, goals and policies, and implementation programs.
According to my calendar, it will soon be 2011, and by the General Plan Framework’s own internal logic it ought to be sent to the City’s archives at Piper Tech. It also should be immediately replaced by a new General Plan element, one which is based on 2010 census data and which has 2030 or a later date for its horizon year.
Furthermore, because California State law (Government Code 65040.2), the City of Los Angeles Charter (Sections 554-558), and Los Angeles Municipal Code (Section 11.5.6) all require the City to have a current and accurate General Plan, and because the General Plan Framework Element is the heart of the Los Angeles General Plan, it is now crunch time. This is not a discretional project; it is a legal requirement!
The process of replacing the General Plan Framework with an updated General Plan document should have begun several years to assure that the new General Plan Framework Element would be adopted as soon as the old plan expires at the end of December 2010. This update would have, however, only assured formal compliance with state and local legal requirements because professional city planning practice calls for municipal general plans to be updated on a 10 year cycle, not the 20 year plus cycle which is the default practice of Los Angeles, and then usually in response to law suits.
In the meantime, however, despite the imminent end of the General Plan Framework’s period of intended use (1996-2010), and the City’s failure to update the plan, the Department of City Planning has undertaken a series of Community Plan updates apparently based on the rapidly expiring 1995 Framework document. At this point, both Hollywood and Granada Hills are in the pipe-line and could soon be considered for adoption.
So, instead of waiting until an updated General Plan Framework document, which will be based on 2010 census data and its 20 year extrapolation to a 2030 horizon year, the outdated 1995 General Plan Framework is driving the update of local Community Plans.
In effect, this means that the original data base for the General Plan Framework, 1990 census data, will be extrapolated 40 years into the future to determine the growth trends, infrastructure needs, and implementation programs required for such dynamic Los Angeles communities as Hollywood.
The chance that a 40 year extrapolation of 1990 data could be accurate and a reliable basis for an extensive General Plan implementation program, including proposals to increase the density of zones and plan designations in Hollywood, is nil. In fact, the Planning Department’s own data already indicates that the General Plan Framework was wildly inaccurate for Hollywood. It predicted Hollywood would grow by 43,000 people between 1990 and 2010, but by 2008 City Planning’s own data revealed that Hollywood’s population had only increased by 12,700 people. 30,000 predicted people never materialized.
Similarly, the General Plan Framework had predicted that there would be 17,610 new housing units constructed in Hollywood between 1990 and 2010, but by 2008 the number had only reached 2,686, despite the active intervention of the Community Redevelopment Agency and numerous discretionary planning and zoning actions approved by the City of Los Angeles.
Furthermore, if the amount of affordable housing removed to make way for new construction in Hollywood had been factored into the analysis, the net housing gain in Hollywood would have been even smaller, and the Framework’s 2010 projections would have been even more inaccurate.
Conclusion: The resources used to develop these optional design guidelines should have been spent on remedying the Framework’s main problem: it is an out-of-date General Plan document in urgent need of replacement.
Baffling Reason # 2: To assure that the General Plan Framework Element
remained accurate during its intended life 1995-2010 lifetime, its
underlying statistics regarding growth and infrastructure, as well as
its track record of successfully implementing required policies and
programs, were to be monitored through an annual report prepared by the
Department of City Planning.
The need for this annual report, the legal obligation to prepare it, and
the report’s contents, are all spelled out in detail in the General
Plan Framework, as well as the Framework’s extensive Final Environmental
Impact Report (FEIR). To assure the Plan’s relevance and accuracy, the
annual reports were to include both raw data and analysis of the
35 Community Plan areas, such as Hollywood and Grenada Hills, where
local Community Plans are now being updated.
* Infrastructure construction, changes in user demand for
infrastructure and municipal services, and the availability of
sufficient infrastructure capacity to absorb actual and anticipated
construction and user demand through the plan’s 2010 horizon year.
* Extent to which the General Plan Framework’s implementation
program has been funded, rolled out, and met the goals of the General
* Overall analysis of the General Plan Framework’s accuracy and
effectiveness. Since the General Plan Framework is a growth neutral
document, this means that all discretionary actions by the Department of
City Planning or City Council to increase density (e.g., zone changes
and variances) must be based on hard data demonstrating that the
Framework’s projections – both local and citywide – had been exceeded
and that it policies and implementation programs were no longer capable
of meeting the needs of the city’s residents.
So far so good, except for one minor glitch. The Department of City
Planning never monitored the implementation of the General Plan
Framework, and it stopped any monitoring of the Framework’s underlying
growth and infrastructure data over 10 years ago.
In other words, the City of Los Angeles has been flying blind since the
year 2000 because its General Plan has not been monitored. There is no
way to know if the city’s underlying growth and infrastructure data are
accurate or if the city’s policies and programs are effective. For that
matter, we don’t even know which implementation programs were rolled
out, and if any of them functioned as intended. To say the least, this
is a serious planning problem, and it is wholly oblique to the
preparation and approval of supplementary design guidelines which will
become nonbinding appendices to an outdated General Plan.
This failure to either update or monitor the General Plan Framework may
have slipped under the radar at City Hall, but some local planning
activists noticed this lapse. As a result two law suits have been filed
against the City of Los Angeles. When the suits are resolved, it is
likely that the City will be forced to resume and expand General Plan
monitoring, which means collecting, analyzing, and applying current
growth and infrastructure data. Furthermore, the City could also be
required to prepare 10 years of missing reports, from 2000 to 2010.
Finally, if the trial or appeal judge develops an understanding of
California State planning laws, he or she should also require the City
of Los Angeles to quickly and fully update its General Plan. This means
that the judge would conclude that rigorous monitoring of an expired
plan was not sufficient, and that the new 2010 census data must be used
to develop a new General Plan, including all legally required elements,
such as transportation.
If the City were to immediately address these serious problems, or if it
finally acts in response to a court order, it will quickly discover
that the proposed supplemental design guidelines are of little help.
At that point the public might wonder why so much time and energy had
been devoted to such secondary activities, especially when it could have
been devoted to the formidable tasks or monitoring and/or updating the
General Plan Framework and other General Plan elements…
They might even wonder why such obvious tasks were neglected to the
point that community groups had to sue the city to force it to comply
with own laws, as well as to pursue what every city planning student is
taught: maintain your city’s general plan.
Baffling Reason #3: The three sets of supplemental design guidelines
intended to become an appendix to the General Plan Framework do not
appear to have any connection to the Framework’s actual chapters,
including their policies and programs. For example, the Framework’s
Chapter 5, Urban Form and Neighborhood Design, offers 17 pages of
detailed design goals, objectives, and policies, all of which are then
linked to the Framework’s Chapter 10, Implementation Programs.
These design guidelines were part of the original Framework document
adopted 14 years ago by the City Council. Since then they have quietly
rested on a shelf at City Hall. In fact, their profile was so low that
apparently the proposed design appendices do not even reference the
Framework’s own legally adopted design guidelines. While this is a
baffling, the situation is actually more curious because in June 2009
the Department of City Planning presented detailed amendments to the
Framework’s adopted design guidelines to the City Planning
Commission. The curious can listen to the full discussion on the City
Planning Commission’s web-site. When they do, they will learn that the
City Planning Commission endorsed the proposed General Plan amendments,
including the accompanying staff report.
At this point, however, the trail inexplicably goes cold. Despite the
positive action of the City Planning Commission, the proposed General
Plan amendments and staff report have not been considered by the City
Council, including a hearing before the Council’s Planning and Land Use
So, for over a year and a half these amendments and the staff report
have languished at City Hall, while advisory design guidelines were
prepared which do not appear to make any references to the Framework’s
Chapter 5 on neighborhood design or the Planning Department’s proposed
2009 amendments to the same Framework chapter.
Baffling Reason #4:
The Framework’s existing design guidelines in its
Chapter 5 could have been used, as these appendices are intended to be
used, to impose design conditions on any of the thousands of
discretionary actions which moved through the City’s bureaucracy between
1996 to date. Yet, they never were. (If any readers of this column
have information to the contrary, they should share it.)
That’s right. From the date the Framework was adopted in 1996 to the
present any decision maker could have invoked 17 pages of existing urban
design guidelines to condition design changes for any building in any
discretionary action considered by the Department of City Planning, the
City Planning Commission, or the City Council.
So, the obvious question is: if the adopted urban design guidelines were
never invoked by decision makers, even though they were fully part of
the adopted General Plan, why should appendices only approved as
advisory design guidelines by the City Planning Commission be utilized?
If quasi-judicial zoning administrators, City Planning staff acting on
behalf of the Director of Planning, the City Planning Commission, the
Council’s Planning and Land Use Committee, or the full City Council
never found the time or necessity to utilize the Framework’s Chapter 5
for the thousands of land use decisions they made over the past 14
years, why will they now turn to these appendices?
ARE THE ADVISORY DESIGN GUIDELINES BAD?
Considering that the General Plan’s existing design principles and
guidelines have been shelved since they were formally adopted by the
City Council 14 years ago, it is certainly likely than non-binding
design guidelines only approved by the City Planning Commission, not the
City Council, and which will become appendices, instead of adopted
policies, will have little impact. Does this, therefore, mean that such
potentially innocuous documents lay below the threshold of being either
good or bad?
Not necessarily. On the good side there always is the possibility that
the current public outreach campaign regarding the proposed appendices
will be a catalyst for City Planning and/or City Hall decision makers to
utilize the new design guidelines for future discretionary actions. If
this happens and the design guidelines are actually used, they could
improve the appearance of some projects. This would be a positive
But, the guidelines might also add a design patina to real estate
projects which could not otherwise be built according to the Los Angeles
Municipal Code (LAMC). This means that projects requiring zone
changes, plan amendments, variances, or other special approvals to
side-step the LAMC’s zoning restrictions, could be made more palatable
through design enhancements. Based on current practices, it is also
likely that contentious projects will make amends toward critics by
changing their external appearance and citing the guidelines – while
holding fast to the zone changes or related discretionary actions they
This means that, in effect, the design guidelines would function quite
differently than those now attached to Specific Plans or Historical
Preservation Overlay Districts. In those cases the overlay ordinances
ensure that projects are not only built below existing zoning
limitations, but that the same projects are also given an additional
review regarding their design. In effect, under Specific Plans a good
(i.e., undersized) project becomes better, while, in contrast, a bad
(over-sized) project approved through a discretionary action becomes
more acceptable through a design “make-over” intended win over some of
the project’s critics,
If this happens, then the extensive efforts by the City of Los Angeles
to reduce barriers to real estate speculation now underway will have
been augmented through the use of non-binding urban design guidelines
for a wide range of discretionary actions.
Former city planner Dick Platkin is a Los Angeles based city planning consultant. He invites comments or questions on this article at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also blogs at http://plan-itlosangeles.blogspot.com.