May 30, 1989 - From the May, 1989 issue

Councilman Michael Woo: Land Use Planning After the Voters Have Spoken

Councilman Michael Woo was recently elected to a second term to represent the 13th District of Hollywood, Los Feliz, Studio City, and Sherman Oaks. He met with The Planning Report to discuss the city elections and anticipated changes in the city's planning process.

"I think it makes a real difference whether Emani Bernardi or Lyle Hall is the council member of the district. For instance, on such ballot propositions as Prop U or the Occidental oil drilling issue, I think there's a clear cut difference between Bernardi and Hall."—Michael Woo

What conclusions can you draw about the Council's mandate for land-use planning from your election and the other city races this year?

I can read my own district which wants to maintain the low-density characteristic of Studio City and Sherman Oaks and is concerned about over­development in the district. I don't think the citywide conclusions are very clear. It's much harder to evaluate because growth issues were not adequately addressed in the mayoral campaign; I think there's no clear citywide mandate on growth and development issues coming out of the city.

Furthermore, given the absence of a strong mandate emerging from the city elections, I think we are in store for four years of uncertainty and instability in the political process. There may be a shifting balance of power with more members of the Council becoming more assertive than in the past—and not just in development issues. This may be reflected in the changing committee structure in the City Council which will enable us to deal more effectively with issues of planning, housing, redevelopment, and transportation.

On what issues will you be assertive?

Some of us on the Council will become more active on citywide issues relating to planning such as parking, the future of the center's concept, questions of inclusionary zoning for the city's housing policies. I think there may also be a greater willingness to consider possible regional remedies to problems of air quality and transportation which may or may not be voluntarily accepted by existing local government leaders.

There are many changes now occurring in the land-use planning process: from restructured Council Committees to the new Commissioners in Planning and at the CRA. How will things change from the Planning Department to the City Council?

These are largely unanswered questions. I am concerned that the Planning Department is overburdened with the task of responding to problems instead of doing real planning and looking ahead to the future and trying to anticipate some of the growth and development-related problems which the City inevitably seems to be heading towards. It's unfortunate that the Planning Department has failed 10 develop the same kind of political constituency that other departments such as the Police Department and the Fire Department have.

I think in many ways the Planning Department is woefully understaffed for the kind of expectations that Council members and the general public have developed. Much of the impetus for change will not come from the Planning Department but from either politicians or the general public.

Is the Planning Commission initiating policy?

Until recently, it seems to me that the Commission has not been playing a very aggressive role—partially due to changes in personnel, partially due to the structure of the process whereby the Plan­ning Commission responds rather than initiates action. I think the Planning Commission does have the opportunity, but in some ways the Planning Commission suffers from the same problems that the Planning Department does. It has a limited period of time, and it must respond to requests of others rather than initiate its own solutions to planning problems of the City.

How will the appointment of the new Planning Commissioner change the decision-making process at the Planning Commission?

Fernando Torres-Gil's opinions about planning issues are not fully fleshed out as far as I'm concerned. I know him personally in terms of his expertise on gerontology issues, but I have never had a serious conversation with him about city planning. To a large extent I consider the new appointee to be an unknown quantity. We asked him some questions when he appeared before Council, but I don't think his planning background is the reason for his appointment.

If the Planning Department and Commission have not been able to un­dertake pro-active planning, bas the Planning and Environment Committee?

I've been somewhat frustrated in the tendency of our committee to spend more of our time on individual cases, which may be very important to the property owner involved in the case, but which are a distraction to some of the broader planning issues facing the city. I would like to see our committee deal more directly with the key issues, whether they are the provisions of parking, or the relationship between commercial space and parking. We tend not to deal with the larger questions as much.

What initiatives should come out of the new committee structure?

The first big issue has to be the Mayor's proposal to lift the CRA cap. There are very high level games of chicken going on between the City and the County. The City would receive revenue to be used for housing and social services, and the County has its own interests to develop County-owned properties. I think it would be appropriate for the new Redevelopment and Housing Committee to deal with this issue—to not only mediate between the City and County, but initiate more public discussion.

Another issue would be management issues within the CRA. In the transition from Ed Helfeld, as Administrator, to John Tuite, I heard a number of public statements made by CRA Board members who felt that the CRA had become too much of a planning agency and not enough of an implementation agency. There was a desire to shift the focus of the agency. In my own experience in Hollywood, I have some questions that the agency has gone too far in this direction and has failed to do an adequate job of planning in favor of the implementation side of its work.

I also think there will be specific issues relating to current redevelopment projects such as the downtown and Hollywood project. In Hollywood, the committee should rightfully scrutinize decisions made by the CRA. For example, a past decision about CRA subsidies for the Stock Exchange has been brought up as an example of a misguided priority on the part of the CRA Board. I think some of these specific decisions need to be looked at. In doing that, the Council could restore a higher level of public confidence in the re­development process.

What does the next four years look like for the CRA—in your district and citywide.

The CRA faces a future of increased scrutiny from elected officials. In a couple of weeks, I will be presenting to the Council a package of redevelopment related reforms which will increase the Council's oversight of redevelopment policies. Specifically, I am proposing to give the Council greater oversight over the CRA budget and work programs, and giving the Council the ability to vote on CRA decisions at an early stage in the game rather than waiting until after Council input.

I don't think the alternative proposals that the Council itself become the Board of the CRA are well justified. I think we can accomplish the goals of greater Council oversight by forcing the CRA to disclose more information and more knowledge about available options at an earlier stage in the game so that the Council will not be impassive.

Do you see any potential dangers in increased oversight of what was a semi-autonomous body?


The danger would be more political meddling. Under the current structure, the CRA primarily relates to the council­member in whose district a redevelopment project is located. This has been a very convenient process for me, but it may lead to inattention to the relationship between activities of the CRA and goals as set forth by the Council. With the restructuring, there will be a closer connection between the Council-adopted goals and actions by the CRA.

There is still no CRA Board member from Hollywood. You represent the district in a major redevelop­ment project. What's your attitude about the composition and responsiveness of the CRA Board to your district and the City in general.

I've told the Mayor that I think it's a very high priority to appoint a Hollywood resident to the CRA given the fact that Hollywood is the largest project in the city outside of downtown. I consider it extremely important to get a representative from the Hollywood community onto that Board. The Mayor hasn't yet made that choice, however.

What’s going to happen with the parking ordinance?

I think that the future of that ordinance is not clear. Personally, I am very skeptical of whether certain kinds of commercial projects need to have more parking required. I'm especially concerned with the potential impact of increasing the parking requirement upon demand for public transportation. Since shopping centers and commercial uses might otherwise be served by public transportation, I would not want to take an action that discourages people from taking public transportation.

The problem is trying to protect surrounding neighbors from the impact of overflow parking without gutting the demand for public transportation which I think is going to substantially increase over the next ten years.

The Mayor's Office has begun to trumpet a mixed-use policy. How will the City Council receive it?

The natural inclination will be to view the proposal very parochially by what the short-term, localized impact will be. Some neighborhoods will not look kindly upon the idea of mixed-use development in the more suburban sections of the City. But for the more built out areas such as the Wilshire district, and Hollywood, I think it makes a lot of sense. I think Los Angeles is going to become much more like other cities with more efficient use of its land reflected in mixed-use.

Will the outcome of the Bernardi-Hall race affect the balance of power on Council?

On broad citywide issues, I think it makes a real difference whether Emani Bernardi or Lyle Hall is the council member of the district. For instance, on such ballot propositions as Prop U or the Occidental oil drilling issue, I think there's a clear cut difference between Bernardi and Hall. There is also a difference on more procedural matterssuch as the unspoken rule that council members generally support the policy directions taken by the Councilman of the district on disputes within one particular district.

What housing initiatives do you plan to take?

In past years, housing policy has been one of the great mysteries of the City Council. Different aspects of housing were divided among different committees. My committee, Government Operations, traditionally has dealt with rent control issues. Another committee of the Council, Grants, Housing and Community Development Committee, has tended to deal with HUD grants. Meanwhile the Planning Committee has actually dealt with the land-use decisions of housing. There was no coherent look at the totality of housing issues facing the city.

The new committee, Redevelopment and Housing Committee, will enable the Council to deal more effectively with these issues. It makes sense to relate rent regulation issues with other housing supply issues relating to density bonuses, or the work of the Housing Authority. Another problem is that I don’t see a consensus emerging from the Council. How we will move on the future of SRO housing? A key issue which is never discussed on the Council is the difficulty of first-time home buyers entering the housing market

Isn't the proposed Housing Commission in Mayor Bradley's budget supposed to coordinate the totality of housing issues?

The Housing Commission has not yet been approved by the City Council although I predict some form of the Commission will be approved. There has been some legitimate concern raised whether or not the proposed new Housing Commission may complicate matters by proposing one more level of government with housing in the title rather than consolidating what already exists. I prefer to think that the new Housing Committee can serve the function of coordinating housing actions.

The $100 minion general obligation Seismic Rehabilitation Bond recently railed to garner 2/3 or the vote. How significant is this?

Many of us on the Council, including Gloria Molina, are concerned about the bond not passing. There is an intense effort to try and identify other financing sources to pay for the same kind of earthquake related improvements. As of now, I don't know of many optimistic solutions to provide for that money quickly. We may need to go back to the ballot and try again. I took it as one sign that housing conditions were viewed as a lower priority to the public than building police stations.

As a councilman, I have found that there is not a general consensus in the public about the need to provide more affordable housing. It's very frustrating, because it's clear that providing housing is one of the key unmet needs of the city, and yet by definition, the people who would benefit from better policies do not exist, nor are they organized. Politicians such as myself are caught in a terrible bind between perceiving problems but failing to identify a political constituency which either provides the momentum or political pressure to cause some action to take place.

It's a terrible problem. As long as we have a system that continues to operate on the squeakiest wheel getting the grease, it becomes really difficult to motivate members of the Council to take a stronger, more active interest in housing policy. Actually with this issue, there’s more of a squeak coming from those who don't want affordable housing coming into the area

Does planning have a squeak?

There is no squeak in the planning process. The only time people get together is when homeowners organize to enforce a veto of a planning project. The problem with good planning is that it would create unpopular political decisions, so there is not much of a political constituency to organize.


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