April 30, 1990 - From the April, 1990 issue

Planning Strategies for the Next Decade: TPR Talks with Ken Topping

As part of our ongoing conversation on Los Angeles City Planning, The Planning Report recently interviewed Planning Director Kenneth Topping in a year that is critical to both Topping and the Department. David Kramer and David Abel met with the embattled director to discuss the latest crises and opportunities for the Planning Department.


A drawing of Kenneth Topping

“I’m looking to be more outspoken on direction-setting issues and will be more involved with major controversies where it is necessary to tie them to larger policies.”

In the past year, what unanticipated events surprised you the most?

I think Councilman Michael Woo’s motion to study the “greater downtown” is unexpected in the sense that I reflect heightened interest in Central City affairs. While we think of downtown as being bound by the 3 freeways, we are finding through our greater downtown study that it goes beyond the Central City community plan area. There is a greater downtown that is a unique combination of functions which is not replicated anywhere in Southern California on this scale. Therefore, we have to raise our sites about what this is and what it means for our future.

The Planning Department is working with the CRA on an initial reconnaissance of policies and goals for downtown. Within a month, we will report to the Planning and Land-Use Committee. I believe there needs to be a restatement of greater downtown policy; important policy questions should focus on this area as a totality.

This will be a critical year to lay out choices. The greater downtown will be a very important choice. It’s like the emperor having no clothes. Because of our tendency to think in an insular pattern, there is a lot of insular thinking about downtown decisions. If the reality of a greater downtown is not brought into the thinking on citywide development, then we won’t be able to see the forest from the trees. I want to get the message out, that there is an organism here, it’s the heart of the City, the heart of the region, and has international relationships.

But we know that there is a serious transport problem. The Harbor Freeway is badly congested, and the downtown streets are getting more congested. There is going to have to be a major shift in transportation habits of people using downtown that goes well beyond the rather modest beginning of peripheral parking. We are going to have to look to heightened ride sharing and intercept parking. We also need transportation management organizations formed for major developments.

What are other critical choices that must be confronted?

We have to deal with regionalism, and how we relate to the growing role of regional entities, such as SCAG and the AQMD. SCAG is about to adopt a set of procedures that will involve formal comment on major, regionally significant developments which will take into account a job/housing balance. This is going to become part of the thinking of private and public decision making, and we will have to continuously address it. The whole purpose is to reduce the amount and length of trips so that there are fewer emissions in the air from automobiles. Magic formulas which count jobs or count houses are not the answer. The approach we need to take is tailored to the degree to which the developments are finding some way to reduce vehicle miles traveled.

Another choice is regulatory reform. Our ultimate task is rewriting and simplifying the regulatory system. We have sent out an RFP for a grand survey to look at some quick fixes in our codes. We need help from the development community to find out what needs to be simplified within the code. We will also identify aspects of the code to help the CPAC’s, and we will rewrite certain portions of the regulatory system to eliminate overlap.

Los Angeles has not been particular effective at linkage transportation and land-use planning. Is that an issue in Central City West where 25 million square feet are planned without a Metro Rail station?

Actually, there’s more square footage allowed along Wilshire, along the Metro Rail Corridor, than is incorporated in the Central City West Plan. A lot of people do not know that. There are 25 million square feet allowed in the Central City West plan, which is a reduction from 42 million. But in the MacArthur Park, Alvarado Specific Plan area, you are adding tens of millions of square feet. In the Westlake community plan, there is a broad band of space, 3-4 blocks wide, of commercial development with a 6:1 FAR, from the Harbor Freeway almost to Vermont. Some of that has been tempered by A.B. 283 and downzoning, but there is still quite a bit of space out there.

This is a reflection of the historical assumptions that Wilshire from its downtown roots would be a commercial spine out to the ocean. There is a Metro Rail station identified in Central City West, the Witmer Station, which dates back to the centers concept of 1974. It did not get honored in the RTD plan because of cost, but there is a possibility of including a Witmer Station. That comes under regional infrastructure, but it’s fuzzy how the funds will be included.

I think the market is somewhat self-limiting in the short term on what is likely to develop. The problem is getting a better handle on how the various infrastructure systems can and should accommodate what is theoretically allowable in the long term. The Westlake density has already been there as a long-term possibility, though no one has ever addressed the saturation capacity of the plan.

How is the Department currently planning linkages between the transportation and land-use elements?

In the future, our aim is to look at how the transit system is evolving and how it relates to the possibility of new centers. We are headed towards a revision of the centers concept and tying it to a citywide transportation element which will tell us what the opportunities are for movement and the reshaping of that movement. This will give us a better handle on advising LACTC on route selection for the Metro Rail.

We have a composite of the density of all the community plans which indicates a strong emphasis on the Wilshire Center Plan and Hollywood. From a locational standpoint, both Wilshire Center and Hollywood are getting a Metro Rail station. Phase 1 goes to Alvarado Street. Phase 2 goes up Vermont, into Hollywood and a leg out to Western. If you’ve seen the movie Roger Rabbit, it is a prophetic planning movie! What the bad guy took away is being put back by LACTC.

In effect we are rebuilding Henry Huntington’s original system pretty much as it was on a radial basis. Within ten years you will see substantial intensification of residential and commercial areas around the system. And that will become part of the new centers concept.

What has happened to the original centers concept?

There are four reasons why the centers concept was not fully realized. We have only had 20 years to look at the results of a 50 year perspective, but it was founded on an extensive transit network. Another problem was that the initial centers concept, as recognized by planners in the early 1970’s, emphasized a very strong, predominant center downtown and at Wilshire Center.

If you look at what was ultimately adopted several years later, you see an interesting transition. Everybody wanted their center in a variety of other places, and there were objections from outlying chambers to put such a value on downtown. What was adopted were a series of centers by which you presumed that the same thing would be repeated in a number of different places. What’s changed is that over the course of several decades, you have the constraints of land ownership that held some areas back.

For example, Century City had a common land ownership and it was able to proceed along the lines of the centers theory. But if you look at some of the centers that were supposed to take place along the strips, many of those have not developed as they had been envisioned. There were so many other places for density to go before A.B. 283, so it was the absence of regulation that dispersed the prime office space.

On the flip side of regulation, there needs to be strong incentives for development of some centers that was missing at the time. The fourth factor is that it really underplayed the role of corridors and boulevards as continuous places.

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The Department has been under intense political pressure to expedite the process of adopting interim control ordinances. Meanwhile Councilman Bernson argues that new legislation will make ICO’s irrelevant. What is the future of ICO’s?

The Planning Commission has blessed a staff proposal to standardize ICO’s and put them on a much shorter time track which would eliminate the issue of the length of time and the temptation to overlay a moratorium. That was received and accepted by the City Council. That gives us a set of tools that we are now able to use on ICO requests, though I think there is some diminution of ICO requests. This is probably attributable to the fact that there have been so many over so many years that many of the hot spots in the City have been temporarily looked at with local regulatory solutions derived on an ad-hoc basis.

I’m not saying that ICO’s are going away, but they have leveled off. The Interim Plan Revision Ordinances are trying to even further reduce the number of ICO’s and handle plan specific issues in an even handed way. What we envision for the IPRO is that each one will be somewhat different but have a standard format. The subjects will be different but they would be handled rather routinely in terms of project permits. Some areas won’t even have any depending on what appears to be needed.

What is the status of the community plan revision process?

It’s probably a good year behind schedule. The reason is related to the fact that we ran out of space last June and had a 6 month hiring freeze that was space-induced, and this has affected everything. We have moved into new offices for many of our divisions which has allowed us to expand on the permit processing side which is part of the problem of the permit backlog. The fact that the same number of people are working on advanced planning now than are working on case processing is a huge difference.

The question now is how do you catch people’s attention on the big issues. We need to create certain forums that don’t exist right now. For example, a means by which the City Council can talk about policy absent a given case. This does not exist at the present time. The Planning Commission does it now. I think the problem is that people are feeling pressures from so many different sides that it’s easy to give in to think there must be some easier answer to the longer term picture. There are no shortcuts. People in the policy levels have to take the time to look at the big picture, and a person in my position can do a lot but unless the discussion can take place, it’s not as easy to help.

Decision making is essentially ad hoc and piecemeal, simply because it’s part of human nature. How does the city begin to insert a vision? Some Councilmembers I speak to say, forget the vision thing, just get me my specific plan. That’s understandable because of the pressure. As a result, regulation often precedes policy, and policy is filled in afterwards because there is a necessity to act. Very often, policy is not formal and articulated but evolves out of individual actions taken.

Does the City plan to start hiring EIR consultants instead of letting developers select them?   

We are looking at how to do EIR’s more quickly with fewer interactions. There are several answers. One would be to add on call consultants acceptable both to the City and the developer who would work off a trust fund basis. We could also add readers to review reports. The reason it’s going slow is because we send EIR’s back so many times. When developers pick the EIR consultants, they tend to want to please the client. It becomes a problem of objectivity.

We are also putting an emphasis on case processing. The City Council just added 15 new positions, and we now have second units on EIR’s, subdivisions, and parcel maps.

What is the future of design review boards?

This City is proceeding in two different directions at the same time. While we are moving towards centralized governance of the City on planning issues, we are moving in the opposite direction in the formation of both community plan advisory committees(CPAC’s) and DRB’s. This could in the long term create an overwhelmingly fragmented and potentially chaotic set of pressures on the City.

There is the possibility of continued disharmony due to these singularly local interests brought forward, and we will try to temper that possibility with common standards on CPAC’s, on how they are formed and what their role is.

The DRB’s were started on a different basis with different sets of rules. These committees are smaller and are more influenced by particular personalities with no common set of rules. Our aim is to create standards for all the groups and to force them to look at the conceptual aspects of design review, not to focus at the end of the development process. I think some reeducation is needed for the existing DRB’s.

There is also the question of where we want them. There is a new DRB for Mulholland which will only deal with what can be seen from Mulholland. In that case, it’s justified. In standard types of development for large areas that simply need to look better, we might need a more specialized design review. Most of the design review functions can be absorbed and delegated and written into regulatory statements.

Is there a morale problem in the Department?

Morale is something that fluctuates. Yes, there is a morale problem with a variety of different sources. The working conditions have been a substantial part of it. A computer literate group of planners have no computers to speak of. There has been a shortage of planners which presses the rest of the staff.

You can postulate any reason for a morale problem. This is a growing, dynamic organization which is responsible to carry out a variety of duties simultaneously. Last year there were 150 City-initiated projects. What’s being witnessed is a syndrome of overwork with staff expected to touch base with so many people who have a stake in an issue.

Creating a centralized body of professionalism within his multi-faceted body is part of the growing pain. And the question of direction is not just one of where we are headed but also having to speak on individual projects. Personally, I’m looking to be more outspoken on direction setting issues and will be more involved with major controversies where it is necessary to tie them to larger policies.  

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