April 30, 1989 - From the April, 1989 issue

Urban Design Meets the Planning Commission: The Planning Report’s Conversation with William Christopher, a recent appointee to the Commission

Architect William Christopher, appointed to the Planning Commission in September, 1988, has already been described by one Councilperson Planning Deputy as an “involved, hands-on Commissioner who wants to write compromise legislation.” Christopher has recently played a significant role when the Commission reviewed hillside restrictions, parking standards, and urban design requirements. Originally from Chicago, Christopher was trained as an urban planner and currently works for Arechaederra, Hong & Treiman Architects.

How has your academic back­ground influenced your work on the Planning Commission?

Most of the models I studied in academic life did not have to deal with traffic, set asides, or traffic generation. My background in urban planning focuses more on green belt/open space pedestrian linkages than on transportation linkages. I'm looking to improve the state of the pedestrian linkage in Los Angeles and begin to consider open space as a network-something that can be linked together either through boulevards or street­scape planning.

We are only now building an urban design staff within the Planning Department. It is essentially a first. I intend to steer the Planning Commission towards urban design considerations, because the one thing we all experience in the City on a daily basis is what we see. We look at the streets, we walk down the sidewalks, we look at billboards and advertisements, and our perception of the city is based not so much on the buildings and the architecture as much as it is the streets that hold them together. Your image of the City is probably based on where you drive, where you walk. And freeway corridors, for instance, are poorly utilized as urban connectors.

And what is that image people see?

Asphalt, concrete, intrusive bill­boards and signage. Less landscaping and recreational facilities. Caltrans currently has a program to sell off excess freeway land for commercial development in order to generate public funding. This is extremely short-sighted, because once property goes into private hands, it is lost forever as a public asset. There have been several cases on the Commission when Caltrans sought approval of a building within a right-of-way, and in several cases they have passed without my vote-much to my regret

How can we create more open space in the city without further damaging the affordability or our housing market?

When we are discussing private development space, we really have a trade­off. Every square foot that is not devoted to building but is devoted to open space is a lost square foot of housing profile. But people we are warehousing in private developments held in trust for low and moderate income families are entitled to the same amenity rights of those with backyards from West L.A. or the Valley.

In fact, the low-income elements of the community probably need that space more than other groups. The debate I've had with Commissioner Ted Stein centers on how much open space requirement is too much? My contention is that there is still a significant amount of buildable lots, and we can provide open space because we have not reached the point where the City is built out.

Where can we build?

There are a lot of areas in the City where people can still build-in South Central and East L.A.-that are crying for redevelopment. On the Westside, developers are knocking down 16 unit buildings that were built in the 1920's around old courtyards and propping up stucco box R4 housing. I'm often told, "no more pink boxes." Such activity docs not have to happen where there is a reasonable housing stock. It would be more beneficial and benevolent if we could redirect redevelopment into other areas.

How do you do that?

By a combination of adjustments to public policy. We want to make it easy to develop in certain regions and extremely difficult in other areas. The same is true for commercial development; it's a question of how you address the system. How many set asides and exactions you lay on where you want to control growth versus how much you take off in areas where it's necessary.

The problem is that people don't want to build housing in some areas. And that's where housing trust funds and financial mechanisms come into play to mitigate developers' concerns and offset some of the economic problems. It's a rather large puzzle, and I'm not sure we can put all the pieces in place. It will require on the housing side the cooperation of our Commission, the Housing Commission, the Mayor, and a number of the leaders of the housing and financial industries, but we’re going to have to back some of these projects to literally create the market.

To what extent is the current approval process responsible for the lack of affordable housing?

I don't think the process is getting in the way of supplying the housing demand. What is more in the way in supplying the housing demand is the cost of land and the rental return. Most of the 25,000 families which increase our population each year cannot afford to live in the R4 units being built on the Westside or in the Valley. Their demand is not being met by the industry, by the supply side.

I haven't seen anyone in the city who is developing rental housing that will go on line for $300-$400 units. I don't think that can be done in the city given the cost of land. The approval process is certainly not a problem in areas where housing is intended to be built. The only time developers face an 18-24 month approval process is when they are going through discretionary action when they want to build housing where someone else doesn't want it to be built.

And when the City does not want something to be built, it is going to make it as miserable as possible for developers within the limits of the law. If you want to go where there is an R4 designation on the map today, you can have a building permit within 90 days.

What is the role or the Planning Commission, therefore, in adjusting public policy?

Our role is to lay down a blueprint for what happens next. We try and define the future path of the city through several actions-through the growth management plan we are now beginning to develop, through the community plan revision process which will begin in earnest this year, through the housing element of the General Plan. Through those frameworks, the Commission is empowered with setting up the overall framework for managing growth.

After six months, what are your initial impressions of the Commission?

I was under no illusions arriving at the Commission, and I know the task is enormous. It's almost impossible to do on a part-time basis. Some people say that from a work-load standpoint, we should have a full-time Commission. But then you'd lose the spontaneity from the outside viewpoints.

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When you vote on each specific project-this zone change, that density bonus-what are some or the criteria you consider.

My priorities focus on how the neighborhood fit is. What is its relationship to its neighbors? Is it a good thing for the community at-large? Will the project impact the community? How can those impacts be mitigated? From there, my bent on the Planning Commission is to do more in-depth analysis of the project itself. We tend to have a lot of blank paper projects come through.

For instance, to change a project's zoning, you are not required to present a project along with the zone change. You simply supply the facts of the zone change, and in most cases you don't have to support the application with a project, a plot plan, or elevation of the project. In most other jurisdictions, you would go through a fine tooth comb process that says, before we will change your zone, you will have to· convince us that your project is the greatest thing that ever happened.

We don't do that for the most part. We leave that to further points down the line-the plan check process, for instance. We have to reestablish the fact that a zone change is a privilege under our system, not a right. Before granting the zone change, I want to be convinced you are doing a good project.

When you say good project, I assume you are talking about design.

I am talking about design, and I'm talking about design review as a process for the city. We have sort of stuck our toe in the pond of design review. We have a few design review boards that are operating as quasi-judicial boards around the city. They are not coordinated, they do not have a standard outlook on life, nor do they have written design criteria for evaluation.

What do you plan to do on the Commission about this?

My bent there is to coordinate the policies of the design review groups so that we have a rational system that professionals and landowners can come to and know they are going to be treated fairly.

We also have four new urban design positions in the Planning Department. We need to develop an urban design element for the City's general plan. We need to define our goals and some of the implementation procedures in order to better utilize our public space. Our first task is to develop a framework for this urban design approach. This urban design element will focus on the public rights-of-way, and how the City, State, the County, and Caltrans operate with public land.

When we consider individual development projects, we have to ponder design review criteria. Yes, it is another layer of review through which a development project must go, but I think without that layer and without subjecting a project to community values, the result tends to be chaos more often than not. Most other jurisdictions have come to the conclusion that some element of design control produces a better product. We have avoided it so far because most of the development community has not wanted to go the extra mile; they say, how can you tell me what my building is going to look life. And if a greater expenditure of funds is needed based on design review, that is money that definitely needs to be spent.

We don't want to end up in a place where nobody wants to live. And it's already beginning to happen. At some point we have to say enough is enough, we're going to do something to upgrade or arrest the decline in quality of life that we seem to be experiencing in Los Angeles over the years.

How will the proposed restructured committees or the City Council affect the way the Planning Commission will work with the C.R.A.?

My understanding is that C.R.A. projects will ultimately come through full review by the Commission. The implication for that change is that the Commission will have the opportunity not afforded previously for some public input on what the C.R.A. is up to in a physical sense.

The C.R.A is one of the most ambitious agencies within the City. Their ability to get things done given their frame­work makes them more productive than if they were operating in a complete fishbowl. This has several consequences. They do a lot of building downtown. They have impacts in the community that are not mitigated to a great extent.

There is significant housing displacement occurring near the Convention Center, and there is a greater need of housing within the redevelopment itself. It should be tied more directly to the displaced people. I would rather see a C.R.A. program building housing first, moving displaced residents l0 the new location, and then going in and removing some of the housing, instead of doing it after the fact.

Should the CRA take the lead in building affordable housing if the cap is raised?

Probably. They are set up to do that kind of construction. If they can do it, not necessarily as a house project but by private developers under funding agreements with the CRA, so much the better.

Speaking or large entities, bow can the Commission plan and select sites with the School District?

I don't know how you rein in the school district. Somehow, someway we've got to communicate with them and make sure we're all playing the same game. Without their input and their cooperation, no matter what our planning says, we might as well throw it out now and start over again because they have the ability to make it work or undercut it at will. 

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