November 30, 1988 - From the November, 1988 issue

Two Years at The Top: The Planning Report's Conversation with Kenneth Topping, Director for the City of Los Angeles' Planning Department

On June 30, 1986, Kenneth Topping, appointed by Mayor Bradley, was confirmed by the City Council as Planning Director, succeeding long-time planner Calvin Hamilton. Topping had previously been the Planning Director for San Bernardino before being promoted to Deputy Chief of the County's Environmental Public Works Agency. The Planning Director, who oversees a $15 million budget and 260 employees, reports to the City Planning Commission, the Council, and the Mayor's office. At his confirmation, Councilman Howard Finn remarked, "We won't know how Ken Topping is doing until 25 years from now." The Planning Report met recently with Topping as part of an ongoing discussion with him throughout the year to discuss the current focus of the Planning Department.


What areas are the Planning Department focusing on presently?

One of our major efforts has been to conclude all the work mandated on Assembly Bill 283, which insisted that city zoning has to be in compliance with the community plans of the city. The original zoning levels allowed under the community plan would have permitted 10 million people at build­out, and we've changed that to 4.2 million which is what the general plans reflect. 

All of the existing community plans have now been matched with zoning. It's a Herculean effort that was done within the bounds of the consent decree's 3 year deadline. The program is almost complete---except for South Central, Boyle Heights, Van Nuys, and an industrial/residential area. In these pans, the zoning did not match the plan, but the property owners requested that the zoning stay the same while the planning be modified.

What’s been the importance of A.B. 283 in your planning process?

A.B. 283 has increased our capacity to map general planning, land use, and zoning information throughout the city. As we move into detailed community planning, we will be able to ask a lot of "What If?" questions as we're going along rather than having to wait until the vital decisions were made. 

We're also working more closely with the Department of Transportation and that will allow us to anticipate future traffic demands for both auto-oriented trips and public transit We will then be able to determine more systematically and rationally what effects any changes in land use will have, not just for an area but for a given location. We will also be able to question whether or not the means can be found to make traffic flow more easily. We'll also have to determine what constraints there will be on land use alternatives.

How has the planning process been changing?

We now have the possibility for a new vision to emerge on how the city should develop. With more staff, we're getting much better at anticipating problems. A.B. 283 did several things. First, zoning will never again be divorced from planning as it has in the past. The work we did also highlighted some of the areas in the plan which need another look.

The need to get at a better level of air quality is also a pressure point, and the city's response to the Air Quality Management District's plan will be far-reaching. And we've got enough experience now with traffic linkage and demand management measures in certain parts of the city that we should be able to take those experiences and get a system of traffic management and transportation planning.

 Several recent reports are discussing the idea of regional land use decisions.

There is a recognition now that many of the transportation issues are regional. Solutions aren't simply local. A lot of legislation is coming forward which would require greater coordination between cities--some formal coordination so that broad transportation plans are coordinated with land use. You can't go forward in this city just looking at land use. You have to also constantly consider transportation, planning, air quality, and housing.

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Assemblyman Richard Katz is thinking of initiating legislation this year. But it's not just various assemblymen, it's a whole movement. Even the building industry is moving in this direction.

We, in effect, do have regional land use through the Air Quality Management District. But there's a long term shift towards thinking beyond slow growth issues to planning for the refurbishment of the systems that exist or strategic improvements of the systems that are badly congested. We also have to stan bringing people's habits around to reducing single driver trips and getting more of a transit orientation.

Why not merge the Departments of Transportation and Planning as a city structure?

The Department of Transportation is largely an engineering, operational organization. There's a small brain trust of planners with whom we now work. The idea is to build teamwork between the operations like we've done with the CRA. That's been an intensive effort over the last several years. We now have weekly joint management staff meetings. It'll take something like that to work with DOT.

What is the current workload of the Planning Department?

Between the community plan revision program and the citywide program, we have a full plate. Above that, there are the hundreds of zoning modifications, general plan modifications and interim control ordinances that we are administering. We have close to 50 interim control ordinances in place which are a form of growth management, and it hasn't slowed down.

In April, when we place our Work Program for the year, we've had dozens of additional motions from the City Council on what ought to be done. We're now planning a 5 year strategic management plan by division within the department to get the work out. There is still an enormous overload in our neighborhood planning division. Our management of the whole system will rest on how well the Council cooperates with each other and recognizes priorities for the Work Management Program.

What particular ordinances are you keeping track of?

Well of course the Site Plan Ordinance is extremely critical to get out.(in this issue) The Planning Commission acted on it in July. It's been undergoing revision in the city attorney's office. The mini-mall ordinance is supposed to be coming out. That will hopefully be enacted and underway before too long. It was also acted upon in June by the Commission.

I think the Site Plan Ordinance is one of the most critical pieces of legislation that needs to get accomplished. We will close the gap between two systems we've run parallel--the by-right system and the discretionary system. It will integrate the Environmental Impact Report procedure which now often comes into action too late. We would like to see this integrated approach extended to the codes. People need to know what requirements are coming at a project before it's too far committed either on the public or private sides. After all, nobody likes nasty surprises.

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