February 28, 1991 - From the February, 1991 issue

Ken Topping: Departing Planning Director’s Retrospective on L.A.

After four and one half years, Ken Topping is departing as the L.A. City Planning Director. He gives the analogy of "The Wizard of Oz" to describe the efforts of the City Planning Department and its staff in making L.A. a city of magic and livability. 

In that famous movie “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion and Toto battled the Wicked Witch of the West and found the Wizard, only to realize that the elusive qualities they sought through someone else — heart, brains and courage — were qualities they already possessed. 

In its own odyssey to make L.A. a better place, the City Planning De­partment has had to struggle to over­come obstacles and self-doubts. L.A. has been seen, during much of its comparatively brief history, as the last bastion of unfettered development, where the entrepreneurial spirit could prevail. This has led to enor­mous investment, growth, and de­velopment, but at a substantial price in urban problems such as traffic, smog, poor urban design, and low income housing shortages. 

Inconsistent Zoning 

Since its modest beginnings in the 1920’s, the City Planning Depart­ment has struggled to achieve recog­nition, despite insufficient staffing and detractors’ efforts to undermine per­ceived interference by planners. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, a co­herent General Plan system was set up for the first time. However, zoning established in 1946 was inconsistent with the General Plan, permitting high rise and high density developments in places planned for low rise and single family. 

All along, the Department has battled for staffing because the need for planning was not widely recog­nized. Proposition 13 decimated the staff resources dedicated to long-range General Plan work. In response to court action, however, the Department was given the staff resources in the mid-1980’s to embark on a multi-year program to match zoning to the General Plan.

Not long after the start-up of the AB 283 General Plan/Zoning Consistency program, Proposition U was passed by a two-thirds vote, indicat­ing a clear public sentiment in favor of better planning and development. Since then, staff resources were added, though not enough to meet the up-swing in demand for additional plan­ning projects. 

Department Successes 

Today, despite growing pains, space shortages and increasingly heavy work demands, the department is functioning at an extraordinarily different level. The results are clear. 

Completion of the massive AB 283 General Plan/Zoning Consistency program guarantees protection to neighborhoods from developments inconsistent with the General Plan. Residents and property owners are afforded more opportunities for input on pending development applications through expanded notice require­ments. 

Many developments have better design quality due to upgraded development standards and new design review procedures. A site plan ordi­nance is finally in effect after several years’ public discussion (most other California localities have had site plan review for years). A new parking or­dinance rectifies long standing defi­ciencies and opens the door to geo­graphically tailored parking solutions. 

A new sewer permit allocation ordinance prioritizes developments on the basis of how well they meet cer­tain basic City goals such as clean air, reduced traffic congestion, affordable housing and jobs/housing balance. 

Other significant ordinances adopted in recent years include Neighborhood Protection and Signs, 1986; Slope Density, 1987; Transfer of Floor Area, 1988; Recycling and Mini-mall, 1989; Family Day Care, Floor Area Averaging, Hazardous Waste and a new Open Space Zone, 1990. 

New community plans have been adopted in Westwood, Hollywood and Wilmington. New specific plans guide development in Westwood, the Woodland Hills Girard Tract, the Oxford Triangle and Porter Ranch. The 17-mile Cahuenga/Ventura Boulevard Specific Plan has just been adopted by the City Council. 

A far reaching Central City West Specific Plan, the long awaited Mulholland Scenic Corridor Specific Plan and a new Public Facilities Zone will soon come forward for action. 

Five other specific plans have been approved by the City Planning Commission (Colorado Boulevard, Devonshire-Topanga, Granada Hills Central Business District, MacArthur Park Metrorail Station Area, Valley Village) along with major new ordi­nances dealing with hillside develop­ment, home occupations, single family home size, and a large general plan amendment placing thousands of hillside acres in Sunland-Tujunga under the slope density ordinance. 

The City is being extensively replanned through preparation of six citywide elements (Air Quality, Bal­anced Growth, Earthquake Recovery and Reconstruction, Housing, Solid Waste Management, and Transpona­tion), six community plans (Chatsworth-Pone, Ranch, Granada Hills-Knollwood, Northeast, South­east, Sylmar and West Adams) and several dozen more specific plans. 

Permanent Citizens Planning Advisory Committees (CPAC’s) are now functioning in three community planning areas (Northeast, Sylmar, West Adams) and a fourth (South­east) is awaiting appointment by Council members. 

The Department has undertaken five neighborhood charrettes (workshops)in Van Nuys, Los Feliz, Watts, Central City North and Boyle Heights, successfully involving business leaders, citizen activists and design professionals in demonstrating the value of urban design to improvement of the City’s neighborhoods. 

So, unbeknownst to many, more “real” planning is being undertaken now than ever before. This planning will stick because of the permanent marriage between planning and implementation brought about by AB 283.

Department Problems 


Certainly, the Department has its problems. There are built-in inefficiencies, communications and coor­dination problems, pockets of low morale and productivity, procedures needing updating and streamlining, needs for office automation and modernization, plus a huge training backlog. But many of these can be fixed as an outcome of the departmental audit which has finally gotten underway, two years after it was re­quested by the Department.

The audit will help, but it will not solve more fundamental problems. The Department is profoundly influ­enced by the fragmented, fractious, cumbersome, and often unproductive nature of City government.

While, under the City Charter, the Department is accountable on matters of policy to a Mayor-ap­pointed City Planning Commission, the reality is that it must respond to demands from many quarters, in­cluding the Mayor, the Mayor’s staff, 15 City Council members, Council staffs, the City Administrative Office, the City Attorney and others. More­over, policies emerging from these multiple sources can differ markedly. 

Additionally, the Department is often subjected to public expectations exceeding reasonable standards of courtesy, fair treatment, and effi­ciency, particularly in light of the heavy workload (14,000 case pro­cessing items handled during the last fiscal year, including significant in­creases in tract and EIR filings) and the requirement that recommenda­tions and actions must be professionally objective. 

The very nature of city planning — balancing competing interests for the good of the larger community — leads to irritation and resentment.

Political Imagery 

Finally, the political imagery of the system must be recognized as a very real factor governing the way the Department is perceived. 

In an era when government is seen by many members of the public as not to be trusted, when citizens are aroused about growth, or when de­velopers are exercised about case processing backlogs, the natural re­sponse is to turn a critical eye toward the planners and demand more of an already overloaded group. Instead, it might be more productive to iden­tify changes in the system that might help increase planners’ efficiency and effectiveness. 

Yet certain influential players in and outside the system would welcome more efficiency but defi­nitely not greater effectiveness, which would increase planners’ power and complicate the political process. Could it be that such players find it more useful to portray the Department as a  scapegoat rather than a force to be reckoned with?

Finding a Wizard 

Resuming the Oz analogy, the argument over who should be the next Planning Director will be cloaked in imagery befitting the land of make-believe, where perceptions often dominate substance and per­sonality can triumph over purpose. Truly a Wizard will be needed to handle all the magic expected of the Department.

As for real qualifications, the Wizard should have substantial ex­perience elsewhere dealing with complex urban problems in more than one large regional, municipal or County jurisdiction. 

The new Wizard should also be required to have some considerable commitment to revitalizing the inner city, expanding the fledgling urban design program as well as tending to the reality of seismicity, now gen­erally recognized as a necessary and unforgiving aspect of development planning in California. 

A threat as substantial as a ma­jor earthquake to the Department’s future effectiveness is the current budget crunch which may undo much of the progress made. Its first victims may well be the Community Plan Revision and Urban Design pro­grams which have been injured se­riously by recent cuts.

However, the history of the Department demonstrates that, to a considerable extent, the planning progress in this City reflects the cali­ber and professionalism of the staff as it has evolved against tough odds. 

Farewell to Oz 

Wizards will come and go, and yet, short of the Department’s wholesale destruction, the fundamental re­source that is being developed — the quality of the staff — cannot be taken away. 

It was this Wizard’s dream to build a department more fully re­flective of the changing face of the City and capable of dealing with the future in whatever terms the future itself might dictate. 

In leaving Oz, I am gratified that what the L.A. City Planning Department needs — heart, brains and courage — are available in ample supply, and that this hardy band of dedicated people is truly making a difference in helping this City reach its full potential.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.