October 30, 1990 - From the October, 1990 issue

Picus: Neighborhood Planning Should Remain Council's Domain

While many neighborhood planning struggles erupt in the City of Los Angeles each year, a dispute over the Warner Ridge development in Woodland Hills recently gained widespread attention when Mayor Bradley’s veto of a proposal to prepare an EIR for the site was overridden by the City Council.

It is worth revisiting the Warner Ridge case as a case study on the struggle for control over planning matters between the branches of government—the Mayor, the Council, the Planning Department and Commission, and the courts. Kenneth Bernstein of The Planning Report therefore spoke recently with Third District Councilwoman Joy Picus about Warner Ridge and other Valley planning issues.

“The Mayor’s role in planning is limited, and is mostly restricted to the downtown area. He should leave the specifics up to the Council member and City Council.”

For those who aren’t familiar with this case, could you begin by explaining how the Warner Ridge issue emerged over the last several years?

Warner Ridge is a piece of property at De Soto and Oxnard Streets in Woodland Hills, adjacent to both Pierce College pastureland and single family homes. It is the former site of Harry Warner’s home that used to look out westerly over Warner Ranch, an area which has now been developed into a major urban center. The issue really is whether Warner Ridge is part of Warner Center and how is it affected by Warner Center’s zoning. Most people observe that the Ridge is separated from Warner Ranch by De Soto Avenue, a major highway and a flood control channel. Also there is no commercial development east of De Soto Avenue.

The history of this project is long and colorful—it has been under three different ownerships since I’ve been in office. In 1980 the then-owners proposed a condominium development and the people in that vicinity came unglued at the thought of multi-family housing.

I received a petition signed by 16,000 people (and in 1980 that was the largest petition I’d ever received) saying “cows and condos don’t mix.” People were concerned that the condo owners, once they moved in near the Pierce College farm and smelled the cows and were affected by the flies, would demand that the farm be closed down.

The Planning Department recommended commercial zoning for the site but also recommended that a specific plan be created prior to any zone change. So we appointed a small citizens’ advisory committee to draft a specific plan, which recommended an office development of 810,000 square feet.

It’s significant to note that during the early 1980s the Woodland Hills Homeowners’ Association was hibernating. In the mid-1980s it rejuvenated, and as soon as this proposal was made public the organization and a group from the Carleton Terrace area adjacent to the site provided considerable interest and resistance.

When did you take a position on Warner Ridge?

Despite what Jack Spound (the current developer) says, I never supported his proposal. While I respect what my citizens advisory committees do, and I would like to be in a position to support their recommendations, I remained neutral in this case. However, in November 1988 I took a position in opposition to the rezoning of the property. The Planning Department recommended a zoning of about 545,000 square feet, but the Planning Commission upzoned the property back to 810,000 square feet.

When I told Jack Spound I wasn’t going to support his project, he was, to put it mildly, very angry, and he has behaved in a petulant manner since that time.

The Council followed my recommendation and rezoned the property RS. I met personally with Tom Bradley to educate him and urge him to support that recommendation. He did not respond either for or against. The ordinance was approved by the Council and signed by John Ferraro while Tom was out of town. I believe now that Tom would have vetoed it.

Spound then filed a major suit suing the city, Zev Yaroslavsky, John Ferraro and me for $100 million apiece. He said that since the District Plan read commercial, we could not zone the property RS. Of course, we’d already been through the AB 283 consistency hearings and residential was deemed to be consistent. But Superior Court Judge John Zebrowski said we had six months to either rezone it commercial or amend the plan.

I had previously introduced a plan amendment that was mired in the bureaucracy. This made us move ahead with the plan amendment, requiring an appropriation of $250,000 in order to contract out the EIR. The Council approved it with very little discussion. That was what the Mayor vetoed recently, and the Council overrode the veto.

Meanwhile, the decision on which the judge had based his earlier decision had been “depublished,” resulting in his ruling that we had 30 days to change the zoning to commercial. We’re appealing the judge’s decision but we’ve reluctantly drafted an ordinance to rezone the property for office use. This would include a three-story height limit (as recommended by the Plan) and a significant step down in density.

What was your reaction to the Mayor’s intervention?

I was astonished. The Mayor doesn’t get involved in these kinds of matters. He not only vetoed it, but he twisted the arms of my fellow Council members.

Never in my 13 years on the Council have I seen the Mayor react in this way on a zoning matter in an individual district. I have rarely seen him go to the mat like this on critical citywide matters.

Why he chose to do so is not clear. I don’t believe it’s the $250,000 as he claims, and I don’t believe it was the zoning issue because honest people looking at this matter could come out either way.

I went toe to toe with the Mayor that day and I beat him—I got eleven votes to override the veto.

Didn’t the Mayor have a counterproposal?

His planning deputy, Jane Blumenfeld, talked vaguely of mixed-use. But there are very few good examples of mixed-use in this city, and I don’t think mixed-use would ever be acceptable to the people in that vicinity. If they want to experiment, they can find another place to do it.

What should be the role of the Mayor in planning disputes such as this?


On neighborhood issues the Mayor ought not to meddle in Council district affairs. If he is going to play a role, he certainly ought to talk to the Council member. He never once spoke to me about his veto, nor did any of his aides. I think the Mayor’s role in planning is limited, and is mostly restricted to the downtown area. A positive attitude toward growth and development has been part of his general demeanor. But he should leave the specifics up to the Council member and City Council.

Since you also found resistance from the Planning Department and Planning Commission, do you feel that they too should defer to the Council members?

I look at City staff as valuable professionals who provide expert guidance. But zoning is both a planning matter and a decision made by the citizens’ elected representatives. The ultimate decision resides with the City Council, which has to juggle all the issues involved. The Department doesn’t have to consider the advice of the community—that’s the role of the elected official. As for the role of the Commission, the Mayor has appointed a very pro-development Commission, and Commission members have of­en shown themselves to be insensitive to the political process, as well.

Doesn’t this case also indicate that for all of the influence of homeowners groups, the courts retain tremendous power in land use matters?

That’s right. It’s interesting what this says about the democratic process. It says that one person—a judge on a zoning issue—can override all of the consideration given by the Planning Department, the Commission, and the elected officials.

You hear a lot today about “consensus planning,” apparently so successful ln Maguire Thomas’ Playa Vista project. Would such an effort have made a difference on Warner Ridge?

I don’t think so. I encouraged Jack Spound very early to talk to the community to gain support for his project But I’m not certain that the folks in the vicinity would ever have supported that type of development.

You also have to remember that the world has changed since this process began. In 1982-83 no one had heard of consensus planning—developers could do what they wanted and ride roughshod over the homeowners. Today, developers can’t get what they want unless they bring the homeowners into the process.

Consensus building also requires a developer willing to compromise. Jack Spound was not open to meaningful compromise, even though the homeowners were flexible.

How do you respond to the perception that the Valley homeowners groups with which you’ve sided are parochial “NIMBY’s”?

There are times when that’s true. Recently an orthodox synagogue, located in another Council district, wanted to move into a neighborhood and residents were concerned about traffic. When the synagogue responded that its members walk to services, the homeowners’ response was that the walking would disturb the neighborhood dogs and make them bark. That’s going too far. But in this case, residents of a very attractive neighborhood are faced with 810,000 square feet of development—that’s one of the largest commercial projects in the city. How can you not support a “community” that opposes this?

With Warner Ridge so near the Warner Center development, how is the Warner Center Specific Plan proceeding?

The two citizens committees working on the plan have nearly completed their work. It should begin moving through the discretionary process by the end of the year.

The Warner Center Plan will have the usual land use controls, but it will also contain transportation measures, such as a TRIP fee whose monies will go into a fund for transportation improvements. I’m proud that we’ve already obtained $5 million from one of the Warner Center developers to fund a transportation program, including ridesharing, van and bus pools, and so on.

Given the strong role of the homeowners, can the Valley be part of the affordable housing solution for the City?

That depends on what the affordable housing solution looks like. It won’t be easy. There are a lot of older apartments in areas such as Canoga Park and Reseda with 20 year-old buildings that represent affordable housing.

The best affordable housing programs were the Section 8 programs, now being phased out. It was dispersed, unobtrusive housing, the best type of housing program. You can have affordable housing in the Valley under those circumstances. But if you talk about other kinds of programs, it could be more difficult.

What lessons for the City would you draw from this case?

Planning is not a science. It is and will remain part of a dynamic process, with a lot of give and take. This particular case study reflects the changes that occurred during the 1980s—increased influence of homeowner and community groups, the need for developers of controversial projects to “sell” their projects to neighborhoods. It also demonstrates the need for flexibility and compromise on the part of everyone.


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