By Dick Platkin*
I recently went through this exercise at a presentation by the Department of City Planning on the proposed Master Planned Development (MPD) zone, (CPC-2010-3315-CA). This is a new land use category for Los Angeles that would expedite permits for mixed use, campus-type projects. If you are not sure what that means, imagine scaled down versions of The Grove that are at least three acres in size.
And, if you are not sure what this new zone has to do with the urgency question, it is because this the reason why this new zone is being stampeded through the city’s legal adoption process and not folded into the five-year re-Code LA program. There is a backlog of 41 potential MPD projects, and – presumably – their investors want their projects to be quickly approved before market conditions change.
My first response was to review the hundreds of community meetings I have either run or attended as a city planner in Los Angeles over the past 30 plus years. I can remember many meetings where local residents expressed an interest in a supermarket, a Trader Joe’s grocery store, a Target, or a Starbucks. But other than requests for public improvements, such as better street lighting and schools, this was it. Furthermore, none of these public improvements or small commercial uses requires a special new zone to be quickly pushed through the City Planning Commission and the City Council.
My second response was my own list of urgent planning-related issues. I initially included the topic I have often written about on CityWatch, the mansionization of Los Angeles, or less politely, the construction of McMansions in older neighborhoods by sleazy, profiteering real estate speculators.
But, I then realized the McMansion problem is trivial compared to the truly serious planning and planning-related issues facing Los Angeles. This is my list, and I am sure City Watch readers could add other issues that strike them as more urgent than the quick approval of MPD projects.
1. Outdated General Plan. By professional planning practice, common sense, and State of California law, every California city requires a timely and internally consistent General Plan to guide local government. Unfortunately, most of LA’s General Plan is in need of an immediate and total update. Its backbone, the General Plan Framework Element, is based on 1990 census data, was prepared in the early 1990’s, and was adopted in 1996. Of the other mandatory and discretionary planning elements, only the Housing and Transportation Elements have been properly updated. Everything else is old, and some General Plan elements, like Infrastructure, are downright ancient. The City Council adopted them in the 1960’s, and they have not been updated in nearly a half-century!
2. Monitoring. No General Plan element can be relied on if it is not regularly monitored. This monitoring process and program was built into the framework, but it has been ignored for the past 14 years. In fact, there is no functioning plan monitoring program in Los Angeles. This means that elected officials and city staff do not have current statistics for population, employment, and housing. They also have no way to know which proposed and mandated programs have been implemented and if they are effective. They have no way to know if the demand for municipal services and infrastructure has kept up with capacity. And, these just scratch the surface of what a useful General Plan monitoring program should encompass.
3. Traffic Congestion and Air Quality. LA’s fledgling efforts at mass transit and bicycle lanes are a step in the right direction to address the country’s worst traffic congestion and air quality, but just a step. To tackle these momentous problems, it is urgent that LA not just have a transportation plan, (the new Mobility Element), but well-funded implementation programs to get residents, employees, and visitors out of their cars. The means much more money for mass transit, for bicycle infrastructure, and for pedestrian improvements, especially sidewalk repairs. These projects are expensive, but they are of the highest priority, and to be truly effective they must be partnered with better land use policies. Once the transportation infrastructure is qualitatively improved, along with comparable improvements in other municipal services, the city can transition to higher densities. If higher density is encouraged – as is the current practice — without adequate transportation capacity, recreation and parks, schools, libraries, public safety, animal regulation, and a host of other categories, Los Angeles will experience a relentless downward spiral of urban decay. Shiny new luxury apartments, office buildings, McBoxes, and shopping malls – even if rapidly approved as MPD projects – are hardly enough.
4. Seismic Safety. We live in earthquake country, and the “Big One,” an earthquake much larger than the 6.7 Northridge earthquake, (1994), is certain. Yet, the active earthquake faults have not been properly identified, and the list of extremely vulnerable older buildings UC Berkeley engineers predict will fail in a large earthquake has not been made public. Furthermore, unlike San Francisco, Los Angeles does not yet have an actual program to retrofit these structures so they can withstand a massive earthquake. As a result of this thousands of preventable deaths and major injuries are a certainty.
5. Urban Beautification. For lack of a better word, hundreds of miles of LA’s commercial, industrial, and residential streets are insufferably ugly. Drivers, passengers, bicyclists, and pedestrians must endure relentless visual pollution defined by a lack of trees, billboards, super-graphics, pole and roof signs, overhead wires, and ragged heights and building lines. Most surrounding cities, such as Culver City, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Glendale, and Pasadena, have shown how the same climate and geography can look wonderful. This means the model is literally in front of our eyes.
6. Urban Forest. Of all the low hanging fruit to address many of LA’s most urgent issues, planting and maintaining a vibrant urban forest, is the most obvious. True, Mayors Bradley, Villaraigosa, and Garcetti have had Million Tree campaigns, but these were largely public relations shows. They depend on volunteers, not the expertise and professional resources of the City’s Urban Forestry Division. This is obviously the easiest way to literally green Los Angeles, and then reap a wide range of benefits, including carbon sequestration, recreation, habitat and water supply protection, improved pedestrian paths, passive solar heating and cooling, removing air pollutants, including Green House Gases, and neighborhood beautification. While trees may not have the same team of City Hall lobbyists promoting new shopping centers, can there be any doubt which category will most benefit Angelenos?
* Dick Platkin teaches, writes, and consults on community planning issues in Los Angeles. Please submit any questions about this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.