November 30, 1991 - From the November, 1991 issue

The Warner Center Specific Plan: Local and Regional Visions Crash

The Woodland Hills' Warner Center is currently under scrutinity and debate by consultants, business groups, homeowners' groups, and public officials. Ken Bernstein, Editor of The Planning Report, expounds the Warner Center Specific Plan's impacts to the San Fernando Valley and beyond, "as a textbook illustration of the dominant planning themes in today's Los Angeles: local control vs. regional planning, the transforming role of LACTC,... planning by ICO,... and the Centers Concept." 


Jane Blumenfeld: "The trick is to make decisions that are good for both the whole city and the immediate area. The optimal balance must be found."

Given today’s economy, arguments about controlling booming growth in commercial development might seem as nostalgic as a Cold War debate. But such is life today in the West San Fernando Valley — more specifically, in Woodland Hills’ Warner Center. 

The City of Los Angeles is considering a proposed Warner Center Specific Plan and an interim control ordinance (ICO) to manage the an­ticipated growth, generated largely by expansion plans of major Warner Center landowners (including May Centers, JMB Development, Rockwell, and Kaiser Permanente). 

On November 14th, the Planning Commission will hear a status update on the Specific Plan and will hold a public hearing on the ICO. Consult­ants, business groups, homeowners’ groups, and public officials have been mobilizing in recent weeks to shape both measures. 

What’s At Stake 

In Los Angeles, a self-proclaimed city of “centers,” Warner Center has undoubtedly become a center among centers. Though many non-Valley residents are only dimly aware of its existence, Warner Center boasts 14.6 million square feet of office space spread over 942 acres, and its size may nearly double under the draft Specific Plan. With the perceived stagnation of Van Nuys, the San Fernando Valley — a region of well over a million residents — has found a new downtown in Warner Center, and the destiny of that downtown is now at stake.

For those outside the Valley, the Warner Center Specific Plan bears watching as a textbook illustration of the dominant planning themes in today’s Los Angeles: local control vs. regional planning, the transforming role of LACTC, TRIP fees and housing linkage fees, planning by ICO, job retention during a recession, jobs-housing balance, and the Centers Concept.

The Plan — Laying an Egg

Preparation of the Warner Center Specific Plan began in 1985. It was designed to replace the 1971 Warner Center Specific Plan, an early specific plan with limited provisions. Two Community Advisory Committees (CAC’s) worked to develop the plan, with one addressing land-use issues and the other developing a transportation element.

The work of the CAC’s resulted in a summer 1991 draft plan, which proposes a two-phase implementation: commercial development would increase from the present 14.6 million square feet to 20.8 million in phase one, and to 26.8 million in phase 2. The plan contains extensive transportation improvements, including grade separations on the main boulevards near Warner Center, which would become high-flow arterials. To finance these improvements, the plan proposes a fee of $14,990 per PM trip generated. 

The draft plan has elicited a hailstorm of criticism from all sides. Developers have claimed that such a large TRIP fee would shut down development. Adjacent homeowners, supported by Councilwoman Joy Picus, have viewed the super-streets and fly-overs as incompatible with the suburban ambiance of Woodland Hills.

The plan contains no specific provision for additional housing, though it does propose a linkage fee of $3.73 per square foot to produce housing in the Specific Plan area. “There was pressure from the Mayor’s office to say something about housing, so they just plopped [the linkage fee] in there,” says one consultant.

Picus believes that sufficient housing already exists in the Woodland Hills community adjacent to the Specific Plan area. Indeed, Warner Center was touted during the 1970’s as bringing badly-needed jobs to a bedroom community. Yet the Southern California Association of Government’s (SCAG) response to the plan’s EIR indicates that a shortfall of over 4,000 housing units needs to be met to restore jobs-housing balance.

Local vs. Regional

Warner Center represents another struggle between local control and forces — including the Mayor’s office and regional agencies — seeking to inject citywide and regional considerations into planning. But the contrast in this case is more striking than usual because it pits Picus, the City Council’s most vocal defender of home rule, against institutions that are becoming increasingly forceful in pushing regional perspectives.

Indeed, regional agencies have entered the fray on Warner Center, insisting upon revisions to the plan. In addition to SCAG’s letter critical of the jobs/housing balance, the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) has written a letter criticizing the draft for failing to consider transit programs and regional transportation policies.

Also potentially at stake are thousands of Warner Center jobs that could move out of the city if the plan proves too restrictive. “I don’t think those industries are bluffing,” says Jane Blumenfeld, Mayor Bradley’s planning deputy. “They need to know where they’ll be in 10 years. And that’s something we need to examine from a citywide perspective.” 

“The trick is to make decisions that are good for both the whole city and the immediate area,” says Blumenfeld. “The optimal balance must be found.”

The Centers Concept

Lying behind many other issues is Los Angeles’ Centers Concept, developed by former Planning Director Calvin Hamilton. It placed at the heart of the City’s General Plan the notion that high-density development should be concentrated in several major centers around the city, leaving other portions of the city for lower densities. But the application of the Centers Concept, circa 1991, leaves unanswered questions: Is the City still committed to this concept? What should centers look like? What types of uses should they contain? And how should centers be linked?

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The development community and the Mayor’s office are trying to focus attention on the importance of applying the Centers Concept to Warner Center. Proposed FAR’s for the Specific Plan area are as low as 0.5, as against 1.5 just outside the area. As a result, says Mark Winogrond of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky and Walker, “growth will be squeezed out of the center, where it belongs, into the surrounding areas, where it doesn’t belong.”

But because even opponents of growth agree that Warner Center is a center, the real dispute is over what kind of center it will become. Architect Bill Fain developed a vision of Warner Center that would create “a downtown for the Valley,” with a more urban, pedestrian-friendly feel.

Local residents, however, note that Warner Center is a different kind of center. “Warner Center is unique in that it’s an urban center surrounded by suburbia,” says Picus’ planning deputy, Jim Dawson. “The community likes the park-like atmosphere, and that’s what could be destroyed.”

Transit and Warner Center

Since a commonly cited failing of the 20-year-old Centers Concept was that it failed to link the Centers with mass transit, it is no surprise that mass transit for the Valley is also at stake in the Warner Center debate.

To lower the TRIP fees, transportation planners are considering eliminating the flyovers and placing a greater emphasis on other transportation mechanisms, including mass transit. LACTC will likely purchase a three-mile right-of-way along Canoga Avenue to link a commuter rail line, passing through Chatsworth, to Warner Center. HSST Corp., a Tokyo-based firm, has also discussed the possibility of building a magnetic levitation line as a “no-cost” demonstration project. 

Discussions between LACTC and City officials may also result in Warner Center moving up by 10 years on the transit priority list. “But the only way transit will work in the Valley,” says Blumenfeld, “is if there is a critical mass at the centers and if development is intensive enough at the centers that developers pay for some of the infrastructure.” 

The ICO 

On a second track, Picus has proposed amending the ICO for Warner Center (to continue in effect until the passage of the Specific Plan) to limit FAR’s in the area to 0.35. Warner Center property owners argue that this amendment amounts to a moratorium. But according to Picus, with development racing ahead of the Specific Plan, “the purpose of the ICO is simply to see that the remain­ing density is apportioned fairly. If there's another way of accomplishing that, I’m open to it. I’m not wedded to that ICO with the .35 number.” Some are betting that the final ICO will utilize a conditional use process. 

Picus still hopes to wrap up the Specific Plan within the next year, and the next revision may be released as soon as January. But the fact that the development community is dig­ging in for a fight on the ICO indicates that faith in a timely completion of the Specific Plan is not widely shared. And Bob Gross, President of the Woodland Hills Homeowners Orga­nization, says, “If we don’t get people to the table to talk through the key issues, it’s a couple of years away.” 

Common Ground?

To many, getting “people to the table” calls to mind the consensus planning process of Central City West, particularly because several of the private sector players in CCW are now involved in Warner Center. But the political environment is far differ­ent at the western edge of the San Fernando Valley than at the western edge of downtown. 

That environment became charged recently with the much-pub­licized leak of Picus’ deposition in the Warner Ridge case (a proposed de­velopment just outside the Warner Center Specific plan area). Picus spoke bluntly in the deposition about her lobbying efforts to protect the local control of planning issues and to defeat Mayor Bradley’s intervention in a local planning matter. (For back­ground on Warner Ridge, see TPR’s interview with Picus, October, 1990). 

The reverberations from the Warner Ridge depositions will be felt in the politics of Warner Center. “Joy’s gotten a lot of support from the com­munity by being feisty on Warner Ridge,” says one city official. “I don't see her giving any ground on Warner Center.” Others feel that Picus’ hard-line stance on Warner Ridge will give her breathing room to pursue compromise on the Warner Center Specific Plan. 

But what frustrates many is the sense of a squandered opportunity. “There’s been a total lack of creativity here,” says one consultant. “There’s an opportunity to do a state-of-the-art plan, but there’s been no vision from the Council office or the Planning Department.” Adds one city official, “Warner Center shows that the Planning Department is in a state of chaos, that it’s a moribund department. To work for years and then produce this indicates the de­partment has no brains.” 

Time still remains to craft a Plan that protects the local community while responding to regional reali­ties. And there is common ground. The flyovers, the high TRIP fees and the lack of mass transit will likely be corrected. Some additional provision of housing appears likely. In time, the differences may boil down to density and phasing. 

“We’re going to modify the plan so that it meets the needs of all the stakeholders... ,” says Joy Picus. “It will require some compromise on everyone’s part.” 

“I’d like to see all of the parties sit down in a room and work this out,” adds Bob Gross. Perhaps when that occurs, the Warner Center Specific Plan can prepare the Valley — and the planning process itself — for the 21st century.

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