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Corrupted Planning Rules and the Downward Spiral of Los Angeles: A Strategy to Turn L.A. Around

EDITOR’S NOTE: Retired LA City Planner Dick Platkin, now consulting to community groups and teaching about sustainable city planning, wrote a version of this article for the Summer 2012 issue of Progressive Planning magazine ( www.plannersnetwork.org ). The article provides a valuable analysis of what has gone wrong in L.A. and what it takes to fix the city. Platkin can be reached at rhplatkin@yahoo.com

“If you cannot predict, how can you plan?  The answer is clear; you cannot; you proceed blindly.” -- Gabriel Kolko, “Why America is Doomed to One Disaster After Another,” CounterPunch, May 14, 2012.

How the Planning Process Contributes to LA’s Malaise

By Dick Platkin

There is a widespread feeling inLos Angelesthat the bloom is off the rose, that a formerly dynamic city has been in the doldrums for several decades and that, at best, its future offers more of the same.  I have no argument with this view. Instead, I would like to explain how the city’s planning process has contributed to this malaise by accommodating a political process molded by economic forces.  Hopefully my account will also offer an alternative model to the governance and planning ofLos Angeles.

Part of the explanation is, of course, that LA has been whipsawed by global and national trends.  In this regard Gabriel Kolko’s article was about this country’s endless, futile, bankrupting foreign wars.  He argues there is no end in sight for these military interventions, and the U.S. government will continue to mindlessly wage them because they are no longer capable of either predicting or planning.

Sadly, the domestic consequences of these wars, combined with local government’s similar inability to predict and plan, have become a curse on American cities.

The bipartisan, neo-conservative foreign policy that Kolko dissected neatly dovetails with the neo-liberal (i.e., austerity, deregulation, heavy policing and surveillance) approach to local government is painfully visible in most large American cities, including Los Angeles.  In both cases the quirks of market forces, whether global or local, subvert the planning process because of our economic system’s regular booms, bubbles, and busts, as well as it periodic breakdowns into crises and conflicts.

CASE STUDY OF LOS ANGELES:  A close look at Los Angeles, the second largest metropolis in the United States, reveals how this downward spiral is unfolding, and how it is abetted by a corrupted planning process.

While the city’s increased emphasis on policing and surveillance parallels the globalized militarism of the United States, so too are City Hall’s selective business subsidies and tax breaks, encouragement of new real estate bubbles, and local austerity programs.   For example, in the past several weeks alone, the local press has reported a $67 million dollar tax break for a new, downtown hotel, unprecedented cutbacks in public education, and a large surge in police murders.

On the 20th anniversary of the 1992 civil disturbance that torched 1000 buildings, murdered 50 people, wounded over 10,000, and arrested another 10,000, Los Angeles is a sad sack of a city.  Despite City Hall and media boosterism, decay and decline are in the air.  While the city’s elected officials, nearly all centrist Democrats tethered to the real estate sector, still portray Los Angeles as a boomtown, the city is tired, aging, with many unattractive neighborhoods.  In reality, it perfectly reflects the broad plight of the United States described by Kolko.  Imperial over-reach is far from over and has already resulted in substantial domestic stagnation, with long-term prospects even worse.

Furthermore, the revival strategies of the Los Angeles’s business elites and their political sidekicks are comedic.  In response to long-term economic decline, accelerated by the bursting of the housing bubble, they have spared policing and spying, while otherwise cutting public payrolls, employee compensation and hours, and public services and infrastructure to the bone.  At the same time they are systematically deregulating private real estate investment and environmental review processes in the pollyannaish, neo-liberal belief that, investors will then rush in for another building boom – a tide that will lift all ships.  The absence of sufficient consumer demand due to the City’s stagnant economic base and the resulting high levels of unemployment, does not, apparently enter into their municipal strategy/business model.

To their credit, a small part of their calculation might be correct.  There certainly are enough dormant piles of capital stashed around this planet to build many new shopping complexes and upscale apartment buildings in the ritzier parts of Los Angeles.  City Hall may even find a few bold investors willing to plunk someone else’s money into the distressed inner-city neighborhoods that revolted 20 years ago in the largest urban unrest since New York City draft “riots” of 1863.  Even today, a drive through these scarred neighborhoods reveals how little they have changed and how much vacant land is ripe for real estate speculation.  In fact, some of the empty lots on major streets, such as Vermont Boulevard, are the remains of fires set in 1992 by local residents when their anger at police violence and decrepit neighborhoods boiled over.

Unlike the previous Watts civil disturbance of 1965, which was a catalyst for public investment, much of it from the Federal government, in the two decades since 1992 public investment has dwindled.  Furthermore, the disbanding of the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) has reinforced these cutbacks since the CRA was one of the few remaining sources of public investment.

In response to these developments, local officials have never mentioned the obvious: military spending, coupled with tax breaks and bailouts for the well off, the national recession, and Prop. 13’s two-thirds requirement to raise taxes in California, have totally undermined state and local government.   Furthermore, deindustrialization due to the outsourcing of factory jobs to low wage foreign countries, has undermined the economic base of Los Angeles and many other American cities.

NEO-LIBERAL NOSTRUMS:  Instead, city officials have resorted to the same neo-liberal nostrums associated with Presidents Reagan and Clinton: deregulation of private investment to spur the economy.  Their municipal cure-all is the flush real estate sector that is supposed to ensue.  While there has been a minor boom in illegal garage conversions, McMansions, billboards and supergraphics, and marijuana dispensaries, there is little evidence that their arsenal of local give-aways has “unleashed” the private sector.

According to the Bureau of the Census, Los Angeles’s population has been nearly flat for the past 20 years, with many historic neighborhoods, such as Hollywood, losing population – despite the introduction of subway stations, zoning exceptions, and investment subsidies.  As for employment, there has been no gain at all, with visible weakening in the city’s core historic industries of construction, heavy manufacturing, garment, and entertainment.  In fact, Los Angeles no longer hosts the head office of any Fortune 500 company.  Because of the stagnation of the City’s economic base, there is less population growth and purchasing power to support new development.  Furthermore, the city is still one of the most unequal in the United States.  It Genie Co-efficient is .49, ranking it fifth in the entire country.  Another index of economic stagnation and decline, unemployment, has been stuck at an official rate of 12-14 percent since 2009.  Inequality and unemployment results in more poor people and poorly paid working people who cannot afford to rent new apartments or buy homes because they are priced higher than they can afford.

A more careful look at the planning process in Los Angeles reveals how this decline is unfolding.  It also reveals why further deregulation will compound the deteriorating conditions experienced by most Los Angeles neighborhoods.

In the boom years prior to the 1992 civil disturbance, the Los Angeles Department of City Planning had 350 employees serving a population of 3.2 million people.  In response to lawsuits from the politically powerful Canyon and Hillside Federation, local slow-growth movements in many Los Angeles neighborhoods, and a legal mandate from the Environmental Protection Agency, this Department undertook an ambitious planning program.

The first component was AB 283, an enormous zoning consistency program.  It comprehensively revamped the city’s parcel-level zoning and plan designations, to bring zoning into conformance with the City’s General Plan’s Land Use element, the Community Plans. This program reduced the build-out population capacity of the city’s zoning to prevent over-development in most of the city.

At approximately the same time, many local community organizations responded to overly dense and poor quality commercial projects with such sustained political pressure that the City Council adopted a dizzy array of overlay zoning districts.  In addition to Specific Plans, there were HPOZs (Historical Preservation Overlay Districts), CDOs (Community Design Overlay Districts), PODs (Pedestrian Overlay Districts), and SNAPs (Station Neighborhood Area Plans).  Recent additions include CPIOs (Community Plan Implementation Overlays) and RFA’s (Residential Floor Area Overlays) to stop mansionization.   However, the specific plans and overlay zones cover only a small portion of the City’s land area, leaving the rest of the Los Angeles unprotected from poor quality development. Only the squeaky wheels got oiled with strengthened regulations for small geographical areas, while the underlying citywide problems of weak land use and design controls were left to fester.

The final leg of this triangle was a legal directive from the Environmental Protection Agency that forced Los Angeles to update its General Plan.  This resulting plan, the General Plan Framework Element, was based on 1990 census data and adopted in 1996, with a 2010 horizon year.  Its intent was to politically balance the interests of neighborhoods and real estate developers through a policy of growth neutrality and a program of extensive monitoring of citywide and local trends, including demographics, traffic, construction, infrastructure, and public services.

An exemplary General Plan that could have addressed the citywide problems responsible for the multiple zoning overlay ordinances, the Framework’s policies were quickly ignored and its monitoring program was abandoned in 1999.  Ironically, several Framework goals, particularly those related to transit, have often been quoted out of context to justify zoning waivers for large commercial projects.

REVERSAL OF PLANNING INITIATIVES:  Likewise, the plethora of zoning overlay ordinances ground to a halt because a change in City Hall’s governing philosophy was reinforced by staff reductions – but not because the wheels stopped squeaking.  The original impetus of many of the planning initiatives from the 1980’s and 1990’s was to manage market forces through carefully prepared plans and zoning rules.  But by the late 1990’s until today, unpredictable market forces have prevailed over community concerns.  In this period the city’s planning and zoning processes have been systematically weakened to the point that the City’s elected officials and their appointed managers consider the planning process to be little more than an annoying barrier to real estate investment.

For example, the General Plan Framework Element seriously over-estimated the city’s population, projecting it to grow from 3.2 million in 1990 to 4.3 million by 2010.  Even though the Bureau of the Census only counted 3,750,000 Angelinos in 2012, the General Plan has not been updated to reflect the new census data or augmented with an Economic Development Element to address the city’s financial doldrums.

Instead, the Framework has been left to languish, demonstrating Gabriel Kolko’s insight that without the ability to predict, there is no ability (or intent) to plan.  Old census data, left over from the boom era, is still used by a City Planning Department whose staff was reduced from 350 to 240 staffers by budget cuts.  (Factoring in furloughs, the number of full-time positions is closer to 220.)  These old population numbers are now being used to justify (but not predict) expansive programs of up-zoning and up-planning disconnected from the city’s actual demographic and economic trends.

Instead of updating the General Plan Framework Element and its related planning elements (e.g., Air Quality), or preparing critical new elements addressing the economy or climate change, a planning program called Community Plan Updates has been rolled out.  It will revise Los Angeles’s 35 community plans.  Seven are under preparation, but all 35 will eventually be tackled.  These Updates have only the most superficial connection to the Framework Plan, without any link to observable demographic or infrastructure trends.  If the recently enacted Hollywood Plan Update is any indication, the role of the Updates is to green light speculative real estate development.  This is being done through companion ordinances that allow higher densities in selected locations, permitting much larger and higher projects to be quickly approved.  Missing in action is secured funding for Hollywood’s infrastructure and public services, as well as programs to monitor the Update itself and the impacts of new private projects.

Unfortunately, or luckily, in seven years of work on these Community Plan Updates, only the Hollywood Update has been presented to the public.  Approved by the City Council on June 11, 2012, lawsuits will tie it up in the courts for an extended period of time.  Although the Hollywood Update was intended to be a template for the remaining 34 Community Plan Updates, staff shortages, the lengthy, multi-step approval process, and a loss of expertise has stalled the release of the other plans.  While their exact status has been kept under careful wraps, their slowdown has become an unintended blessing for many Los Angeles communities.  They had braced themselves for an onslaught of new zoning ordinances permitting much larger buildings, oblivious to local character or infrastructure capacity.  Despite years of delay, the communities are still holding their breath in anticipation of what comes next, in particular when the law suits challenging the Hollywood Community Plan Update are adjudicated.

NEW FORMS OF LAND USE DEREGULATION:  At the same time, the shrunken Department of City Planning has undertaken three programs to further deregulate private land use:

  • It is preparing over 20 piecemeal amendments to the Los Angeles Municipal Code (LAMC) to insulate applicants for discretionary zoning actions from strict rules, environmental reviews, public hearings, and appeals.
  • It is undertaking a new five-year program, recently funded by the cash-strapped Los Angeles City Council, to totally revamp the city’s zoning code.  The details of this program are still murky, but critical observers assume this is one more effort to deregulate real estate investment.
  • It is showcasing Transit Oriented Development (TOD).  In theory, Los Angeles, one of the country’s most polluted, auto-centric cities, desperately needs sustainable development.  Unfortunately, the Department of City Planning’s is promoting TOD on the cheap.  While the successful model for transit-oriented development consists of a dense mass transit system, bike lanes, extensive local amenities at or near transit stations, and pedestrian improvements such as sidewalk widening and street trees, in Los Angeles TOD has been simplified.  Forget the public improvements.  Instead, private lots near minimalist transit stations will be up-zoned in the belief that developers will then rush in to build mostly market rate apartments in run-down neighborhoods lacking market demand.

This combination of a truly stagnant economy and drought in government investment, especially in public infrastructure and services, such as education, suggests that these planning schemes are doomed.  After all, when the city’s air is still highly polluted, the highways and roads are as congested as ever, the transit system is embryonic and underfunded, the sidewalks and streets are in deplorable shape, the overhead wires and billboards are an assault on the eyes, and the schools and colleges are in free fall from years of cutbacks, how could most new upscale projects succeed?

While a few projects, such as USC’s expansion or a new AEG football stadium in the downtown, might succeed because they are near major employment centers, most new projects will either languish or fail.  Local subsidies, usually in the form of tax breaks favored by the city’s elected officials, can temporarily help a few of the well-connected, but the fate of most new projects is sealed.  Private investment, no matter how large or touted by squadrons of expediters, publicists, and technicians, cannot succeed when the city’s economic base is stagnant, when public investment is so stunted, and when even worse reductions are likely.

Furthermore, there is no white knight to rescue Los Angeles.  Unlike 1965, there are few remaining Federal urban programs other than Department of Justice grants for police spying on Moslems and occupiers.  As for the State of California, it, too, is in desperate financial shape, so Sacramento cannot be relied on.  Prop 13’s two-thirds requirement to raise taxes, which gives conservative Republicans a veto power, has contributed to structural deficits decimating the state’s public infrastructure and public services for the foreseeable future.  Even hopes that the private sector could come to the rescue, truly an idea born of desperation, have not panned out.  Rebuild LA was the business community’s program for the Los Angeles neighborhoods decimated in 1992.  It eventually folded because the lack of purchasing power in low-income communities could never attract enough private capital to replace reduced public investment.  It only lasted a few years, and it sole legacy is five oversized boxes stored at the library of Loyola Marymount University.

PROSPECTS:   With no help on its way, and with local officials who consistently manage to weakly play the poor hands they have been dealt, what are the options?

In this case the ball is in the court of the public.  While the local campaigns of the 1980’s and 1990’s that resulted in a new General Plan, many specific plans, and the wholesale revamping of the city’s zones have fragmented, they have not been forgotten.  Los Angeles still has many active community groups and official neighborhood councils.  While some neighborhood councils have been hi-jacked by real estate interests, many still represent highly committed local residents.

Furthermore, many of the neo-liberal schemes originating at City Hall have met stiff resistance from local opponents and citywide alliances.

What is needed in Los Angeles, however, is a citywide political force that can tackle the city’s enormous problems, in particular its stagnant economy, by supporting increased public investment.  While the LA Weekly and on-line journalism have chiseled away at City Hall’s veneer and occasionally pried it back enough to peek inside, at this point Los Angeles is, at best, moving sideways.  Exposes of poor management and backroom deals are helpful, but, like Rebuild LA, in themselves they cannot replace major improvements to municipal services and infrastructure.

For a short time many local activists had great hopes in enormous immigration marches and most recently in Occupy Los Angeles (OLA).   While Occupy Los Angeles did captivate the public and had hundreds of people living on the grounds of City Hall, few of the occupiers managed to successfully analyze what took place within the building right next door.

Even though OLA fractured after the Mayor directed the LAPD to evict it from the grounds of City Hall, it has survived.   Many people expect its spirit to combine with LA’s ongoing deterioration to spark a serious, long-term, fully engaged, inclusive, and deeply analytical movement before another civil disturbance rips the city apart a third time.

This entry was posted in City Hall, Community Activists, Development/CRA, Hot Topics, Los Angeles. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Corrupted Planning Rules and the Downward Spiral of Los Angeles: A Strategy to Turn L.A. Around

  1. Wayne from Corruptopia and why I say TO HELL WITH L.A. says:

    The article is an accurate and correct discussion of the problem.
    BUT, in response to the “answer” of what to do?
    MOVE OUT OF L.A!!!!!! AEG and the 75 campaign donors decided no one else BUT THEMSELVES would be able to vote and participate in all decisions. I want to formally CONGRADULATE AEG and these other guys who have now BOUGHT THE ENTIRE CITY OF LOS ANGELES!! They own it all, lock, stock, and barrell.
    People DON’T MATTER—they are FOOD for this MACHINE. Homes are one thing and one thing only—ATM MACHINES FOR CITY HALL!
    That’s the one point this otherwise excellent article fails to conclude.

  2. Teddy says:

    Wayne – I still believe in America. Remember when you recited this in the classroom?
    “I pledge allegiamce to the United States of America and the Republic for which it
    stands. One Nation, under God, with Liberty and Justice FOR ALL.”

    It is still our pledge and applies here in Los Angeles as it does in places
    like Wapakoneta, Ohio. I would like to hear something positive from you, Neighbor.

    • Vote blindly, then complain says:

      I suggest that you refresh your memory of the wording of the Pledge before you trying posting it on-line.

  3. Wayne from Corruptopia and why I say TO HELL WITH L.A. says:

    In L.A. the Pledge of Allegiance is much different:
    “I pledge allegiance to AEG and all the other campaign donors,
    One City, Under control, with no human rights, for corruption and profit for THEM.”
    John Walsh came up with the “new pledge” at public comment. Funny and yet so true at the same time.

  4. Dick Platkin says:

    AEG is a major issue, as are other recipients of special zoning waivers and subsidies. But, my point is that the problems run much much deeper, in particular the failure at all levels of government to invest in and maintain public infrastructure and public services. Furthermore, the decision of City officials to abandon the monitoring inherent to good planning and required by the City’s legally adopted General Plan is another nail in the coffin of Los Angeles. I could have also added that the City’s approach to zoning exceptions, “Approve with conditions” has also gutted the zoning process, one of the basic implementation tools of adopted plans.

  5. Noel Weiss says:

    Thanks Dick for your continuing diligence. . . .

    Never underestimate the power of passion and the committed efforts of individuals armed with a belief in the power of the people and the power of ideas to effectuate meaningful, sustainable change.

    Noel Weiss

  6. Lisa Cerda says:

    We need a dedicated group of land use experts to become a filtration system for planning dept decisions, who can disempower the sledge hammer approval approach, Nice that we have area planning commissions, but they can only stop legally what the appellants make legal arguments for. We must give them the legal arguments to stop this abuse.

  7. Vote blindly, then complain says:

    Los Angeles like the rest of the nation is suffering from Corruption and Incompetence.

    The public did abolish the horrid CRA’s which had become nothing but a huge funnel of tax dollars into the pockets of corrupt developers. The CRA was centralized, soviet style planning where the central government, the CRA, made development decisions on the basis of corruption. We see the same foolishness with the trillions of dollars of subways which developers want to construct in Los Angeles. By the MTA’s own estimate, the Subway to the Sea would reduce traffic congestion by 1%.

    In contrast, if we invested in Virtual Presence (Telepresence by Cisco), we could cut traffic congestion by 30% without building one more inch of freeway and without any subways. However, the corrupt plutocrats who own City Hall and Congress have their investments in technology from the 1900′s — fixed rail transit and high rise tenements. Thus, America is behind Solvenia in Internet capacity (and we are behind Solvenia is reading, math and science). The 1% have literally trillions of dollars to rip off from the public in constructing these subways and high rises.

    Then, the 1% discovered that unlike the soviets, they cannot assign housing to people and residents simply move away from the tenements. With the advent of the subway and the CRA projects, Hollywood lost 7.3% of its population and the decline continues. Garcetti calls this 20+ year of unbroked population loss a population increase and we must plan for 250,000 residents in 2030, even tough we’re down to about 196,000 ppl and falling.

    The most outrageous lies are set forth as fact, but when you’ve got judges like Chalfant who believe that the City Atty gets to decide what the law says, there is a good chance when Garcetti labels a 20+ population “decline” as a 20+ year population “increase,” Chalfant will get out his rubber stamp and once again “Down” will mean “Up.”

    No political or economic system can withstand such endless Corruption and Incompetence. There can be no corrupt city hall without a corrupt judiciary.

  8. Anonymous says:

    “In contrast, if we invested in Virtual Presence (Telepresence by Cisco), we could cut traffic congestion by 30% without building one more inch of freeway and without any subways.”

    Read the article again. Dick Platkin, a labor guy, is decrying the loss of union jobs. He wants more planners–not the quality–but the quantity of planners. He is lamenting the loss of Prop 13 taxes that would fund more labor union jobs. He blames the local economy on the loss of such taxes & the Federal government wars in other countries. Not once does he blame our current corrupt politicians and their lack of competence or strategic, operational, or financial plan for the City. He has a few good points about planning issues, however, the remedy is not more taxes and more employees. It is so last era.

    • Vote blindly, then complain says:

      Platkin writes what he writes and I write what I write.

      Prop 13 was one of the few times that voters did something smart. Prop 13 stabilizes communities and allows the government a steady increase in property tax revenue. However, the corrupt politicos continued to squander our money like drunken sailors on shore leave in a whore house. Had politicians lives within the limits set by Prop 13 and had they abolished the CRA in 1970, Los Angeles would be thriving.

      Not only would we have the gentle increase in property taxes from Prop 13, but also without the CRA we would not have lost $2 Billion in property taxes.

      One of the biggest frauds occurred decades ago when they changed the idea of Los Angeles being compose of city areas like Westwood, Van Nuys, Hollywood, San Pedro and instead invented TOD’s like Bunker Hill. Under the “cluster” idea, there would be smaller cities with all the employment needs and shopping and entertainment and residences for people to settle in one place and live within that “cluster.” However, being part of a larger L.A. City, and even larger L.A. County, and far larger Southern California, there would be an array of opportunities. That was the proverbial idea of snow skiing in the morning and at the beach in the afternoon.

      However, the greedy developers wanted to crowd more and more density on their own little parcel and then foolishly locate business centers for the entire L.A. in place like Bunker Hill and Century City. As far back as 1915, the LA City planners warned against TOD’s as scams to make a few wealthy while making life worse for everyone else.

      That plan is still being carried out and Garcetti is imposing this corrupt scam on Hollywood in his delusions that some day he should be mayor and then Senator. The best one can say about Garcetti is that he makes the sleaze bag mayor look good in comparison.

  9. Dick Platkin says:

    I think Mr. or Ms. Anonymous should re-read what I wrote when they complain that “Not once does he blame our current corrupt politicians and their lack of competence or strategic, operational, or financial plan for the City.” My entire article was a critique of the strategic vision of LA’s elected officials and their hired managers. I explained that their approach to reviving L.A. was policing, deregulation, and austerity, the latter of which Mr./Ms Anonymous applauds.
    In contrast, I said LA’s revival must come through careful monitoring and investment in the city’s infrastructure and services. Anyone who thinks this approach is from another era or is pretext for public employment, only needs to venture out of LA and go to Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Madison, Toronto, NYC, Otttawa, Washington, Boston, and many other North American cities to see how much nicer and more successful they are because of their attention to services and infrastructure. Or, they could simply sneak into Beverly Hills, Culver City, West Hollywood, San Fernando, Pasadena, and South Pasadena, and other nearby cities where streets and sidewalks are maintained, where parkways have well maintained trees, and where billboards and overhead wires do not pollute the visual environment.

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