Ken Bernstein—Manager at the Office of Historic Resources, Principal City Planner at the LA Department of City Planning, and a former TPR editor—provides an update on the city’s community planning process in light of the legal decision stalling the Hollywood Community Plan. The interview, part two of two, also covers transit-oriented development efforts, Mobility Plan 2035, and Plan for a Healthy Los Angeles.
"That court decision has had significant impacts and has prevented the speedy adoption of the remaining six plans. It’s meant that much of our community plan program this year is addressing the EIRs for pending plans, rather than achieving final adoption and freeing up our staff to begin new plans in other Los Angeles communities." —Ken Bernstein
In addition to your role overseeing the Office of Historic Resources, you are also the Principal City Planner overseeing the department’s Policy Planning work. In the aftermath of the recent court decision on the Hollywood Community Plan, what is the status of the department’s Community Plan program?
The community plans have been a top priority in our department for several years. The city’s 35 community plans collectively represent the Land Use Element of the General Plan and provide the most concrete direction to guide the future vision of our communities. And we had delivered four of the pending community plans to decision-makers for adoption. These four plans—West Adams, San Pedro, Granada Hills, and Sylmar—had been approved by the City Planning Commission in 2013, and two others—the Southeast Los Angeles and South Los Angeles Plans—were following close on their heels.
However, last December, just as these plans were about to go to Council for final adoption, the City received the tentative decision (with the final decision in February) from the Los Angeles Superior Court striking down the Hollywood Community Plan based on perceived inadequacies in the plan’s environmental impact report. That court decision resulted in the City Council rescinding the approval of the 2012 Hollywood Community Plan until the Hollywood EIR can be revised. But it has also led to the need for a fuller legal review by the office of the City Attorney of the remaining community plans’ EIRs.
That court decision has had significant impacts and has prevented the speedy adoption of the remaining six plans. It’s meant that much of our community plan program this year is addressing the EIRs for pending plans, rather than achieving final adoption and freeing up our staff to begin new plans in other Los Angeles communities.
The department is looking comprehensively at our recent experience with the community plan program, and, particularly, the challenges of CEQA compliance when preparing EIRs at a large community plan level. These community plans, I would remind you, are comprehensive plans for areas the size of mid-to-large-sized cities such as Pasadena, Burbank, or Glendale, and they have the complexity and scope of most cities’ general plans. It would be unfortunate if the litigious environment of CEQA in California were to undermine our ability to plan at that level in the City of LA.
We haven’t heard from the planning director on this in over a year. What resources are the Planning Department putting towards community plans, and what’s happening month-to-month about those community plans?
We have staff members assigned to each of those plans, and the department has funding from the General Plan Maintenance Fee—a surcharge on new building permits—that supports several of the staff positions for community planning. Work toward completion of these plans is continuing. We’ve just completed an extensive round of public workshops for the Boyle Heights Community Plan, for example. However, for the six plans that were closest to final adoption, we’ve been heavily focused on the legal review of the EIRs. And we are now beginning work to revise the EIR for the Hollywood Community Plan based on the guidance of the Superior Court decision.
That maintenance fee was reported about a year ago to be $1.8 million. What is the size of that fee?
Based on the recent increase in permit activity, it’s now estimated that the surcharge will be bringing in between $2-$3 million annually to support the community plans and long-range planning work.
In 2012, you wrote an article for TPR on “Seizing the Transit Opportunity”—addressing how the department’s planning efforts are increasingly focused on capitalizing on our transit investment. What progress has been made since then to create transit-oriented development plans for Los Angeles?
We continue to focus much of our long-range planning on the opportunities to reshape the city around transit. We have received two grants from Metro to support transit-oriented development planning in LA. This is part of Metro’s recognition that it needs to partner with local governments that have land use authority to create vibrant, attractive transit-oriented communities around their stations, which also benefits their system in encouraging ridership.
Based on the first grant we received, we’ve been preparing “Transit Neighborhood Plans” for the Expo Phase II corridor through the Westside, from the station we share with Culver City through West Los Angeles, as well as for the Crenshaw Corridor through West Adams and portions of South Los Angeles. We are coming into the home stretch on planning for those two corridors and are about to issue Draft EIRs for these plans. The Crenshaw plan builds upon our recent work on the West Adams Community Plan in this area and focuses heavily on streetscape enhancements. The Expo Line planning addresses the public realm, but also proposes land use changes around several of these stations to help create balanced, transit-oriented communities and address issues of connectivity.
We secured a second grant for three other corridors: the Westside Subway Extension, focusing on the La Brea, Fairfax, and La Cienega stations; the downtown rail stations, including the new Regional Connector; and five Orange Line stations in the Valley. For this grant, we’ll have new plans adopted within three years. In all, we will be addressing more than 20 stations through this Metro partnership.
In addition, since our last update, the Council has adopted our transit-oriented development plan for Warner Center in the West San Fernando Valley. The Warner Center 2035 Plan is a significant reimagining of the Valley’s major regional center as a more walkable, mixed-use, transit-oriented community, transforming it from its roots as a 1970s-’80s-era, auto-oriented “edge city.”
We’ve also seen the adoption of the Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan, often called the CASP, which is a forward-looking TOD plan based on sustainability principles, creative parking strategies, affordable housing incentives, linkages to the LA River, and a streamlined development approval process. The CASP aims to reinvent this neighborhood just northeast of Downtown as a 21st century center for creative industry and a mixed-income residential community connected to the River and the State Historic Park.
Ken, we do this interview the week that the mayor has announced his Great Streets program, which has very little money attached to it. What is the role of the Planning Department in the execution of this program?
Our department has been very involved in this interdepartmental initiative. We contributed suggestions to the selection of candidate Great Streets at the outset, and helped map and study the candidate corridors. Our staff will remain involved, partnering with those departments that provide public improvements on the ground, such as Public Works and Transportation.
Many of the Great Streets are in areas where we have active planning initiatives—whether new community plans, transit-oriented development plans, or existing planning overlays—which the Great Streets program’s focus on implementation will complement. And our citywide planning focus on streets and mobility helps reinforce the Great Streets program’s goals to create walkable “complete streets” and more vibrant communities. Our department will continue to work closely with the other agencies as this goes forward.
For those of us excited about planning in Los Angeles, what are some of the other major citywide policy initiatives our readers should be seeing from your department this year?
I think one of the most exciting and transformative initiatives is our Mobility Plan 2035, a significant rethinking of the City’s Transportation Element of the General Plan, which has not been updated since the 1990s. Los Angeles is a very different city than it was in the 1990s, when our rail and transit system was just beginning to take shape. The Mobility Plan will help reshape our transportation policies around the principles of “complete streets”—to prioritize not only the single-passenger automobile, but also transit, pedestrians, and bicyclists. The Mobility Plan acknowledges that, given a limited right-of-way, not every street can be a complete street to accommodate every mode and every user, and that the overall transportation system works best when certain streets prioritize a particular mode. The Plan therefore creates a set of “enhanced networks”—with proposed enhancements on specific streets for the bicycle, for transit, or for vehicular traffic.
One of the exciting aspects of the Mobility Element, as well, is that we are proposing new street design standards for all of the major arterials in Los Angeles. These standard street classifications and dimensions—say, for what’s today called a “Major Highway”—have not been revisited in Los Angeles for decades, and they have traditionally prioritized only the automobile. The new design standards, which will also be accompanied by a “Complete Streets Manual” to help guide all city departments in street design, will result in streets that better serve all users and needs. In many locations, you’ll see wider sidewalks, separated or buffered bike facilities, and dedicated transit lanes for more regular bus service. The Plan’s policy goals strongly emphasize putting “safety first” to dramatically reduce our deadly collision rate, and creating new mobility choices for Angelenos. The Mobility Plan 2035 is a very significant step forward to implement the city’s vision of becoming a much more transit-oriented metropolis.
Our other major, city-wide plan that will be going to the city Planning Commission during this calendar year is the “Plan for a Healthy Los Angeles,” which is the culmination of a Federal Community Transformation Grant under which the City is a sub-grantee to the County. This is the city’s first-ever attempt to truly link public health and land use—and to create a set of policies in our General Plan aimed at shaping future plans and future development projects in a way that contributes to more healthy communities. The Plan for a Healthy Los Angeles is addressing a number of key issues, including accessibility of healthy foods, active living, healthy building design, access to health services, and many other policies that have not had a strong emphasis in our General Plan. This has been a productive partnership with Los Angeles County and its Department of Public Health, and many other community-based organizations increasingly working on this key relationship between public health and land use. We expect that the Plan for a Healthy Los Angeles will be going to the city Planning Commission for consideration this August.