September 30, 1992 - From the September, 1992 issue

Ventura Blvd. Plan, at a Crossroads, Provides Insights on L.A. Planning

Richard Platkin was the Project Coordinator for the Ventura/Cahuenga Boulevard Corridor Specific Plan for the past three and a half years. During this period the Specific Plan was prepared, adopted, and implemented. He recently moved to a new assignment within the Los Angeles City Planning Department, and The Planning Report asked him to assess the plan’s achievements, short­falls, and implementation prospects.

In terms of size and breadth of concern, the Ventura/Cahuenga Boulevard Corridor Specific Plan is one of the most ambitious plans ever undertaken by the City of Los Angeles. It incorporates both a vision and detailed regulations for a continuous 17-mile commercial corridor in the south San Fernando Valley. It addresses such diverse issues as traffic, parking, transit, pedestrianization, land-use regulation, design review of architecture and landscaping, streetscape, signage, public information, citizen participation, on-going monitoring, and funding mechanisms.

With this list of accomplishments, all parties involved in developing the plan might rest on their laurels and celebrate a major planning achievement. Unfortunately, such celebration would be premature.

After a year and a half of implementation, the Ventura Boulevard Specific Plan faces serious obstacles. In microcosm it reflects the mottled status of city planning in Los Angeles. The plan, like the city, can proceed along widely divergent paths, some bleak and some rosy. Will the quality of life further degrade? Will current conditions, for better or worse, be maintained? Or can conditions actually improve?

The Roots of a Specific Plan

To understand why this plan is at a crossroads, we need to understand what factors gave birth to the plan and why it could be a prototype for planning in Los Angeles. Like the many other specific plans and interim control ordinances (ICOs) initiated by the City Council during the 1980s, this plan was necessitated by the historic weakness of planning in Los Angeles. Consultants, city staff, citizen representatives, and elected officials spent over four years on the Ventura/Cahuenga Boulevard Plan developing detailed remedies to overcome the following weaknesses.

First, traffic congestion approached intolerable levels in portions of the Ventura/Cahuenga Boulevard corridor by the mid 1980s, because prior planning efforts did not ensure an equilibrium between land use and transportation. On the land use side, building intensities and densities were not linked to the city’s physical infrastructure, while on the transportation side most of the public was either forced or encouraged to use automobiles.

Second, unlike planning agencies in other cities and countries, the focus of planning in Los Angeles has been restricted lo the regulation of private land and private construction: planning functioned as an appendage of the City’s Department of Building and Safety. As a result, a long list of planning and design issues related to both private and public areas were neglected.

On the Ventura/Cahuenga Boulevard corridor, for example, most decisions related lo building heights, architecture, landscaping, and signage were made by individual property owners. Despite several diamonds in the rough, the results along the boulevard are, to be charitable, eclectic and mediocre. As for the public areas, such critical pedestrian features as sidewalk width, street trees, signage, utility undergrounding, vest-pocket parks, and local shuttles were ignored, and are now woefully deficient.

Third, the City could not rely on its general fund for developing and implementing the remedies to these problems. The Ventura Boulevard plan, therefore, contained a detailed program of trip fees, processing fees, and proposed assessment districts for recouping these costs.

Although the Specific Plan undoubtedly has its limitations, it is nevertheless an innovative experiment because it utilizes complementary planning mechanisms meticulously designed to address the above problems. If fully implemented and periodically refined, it should both enhance the corridor according to its well-crafted vision, as well as provide a tested model for other plans.

Obstacles to Implementation

With such detailed preparation and marked potential, why then is the Specific Plan at a crossroads? The answer is quite simple. The plan’s success depends on both its day-to­ day administration and its full implementation. Both sets of tasks are now on the line.

In the short-term, the Plan has been struck hard by the recession. While many projects have been approved by staff, few have been substantial enough to generate appreciable trip fees. Furthermore, only a fraction of the $14 million owed to the city from completed projects(1986-1991) has been paid by property owners. Though the reasons for non-payment vary, they apparently stem from some combination of weak enforcement and hard times.

The impacts of this funding shortfall are clear: there is no money for the four staff positions dedicated to the administration and implementation of the Specific Plan. At any moment these positions may be scrapped and Ventura Boulevard staff reassigned to other projects.

At a longer-term, structural level, the Specific Plan was divided into two phases. Phase I consists of project and plan review, tasks which are largely completed. The Departments of City Planning, Transportation, and Building and Safety have become adept at the tedious work of providing information about the plan, reviewing building plans, and maintaining records. Other Phase I tasks are well underway, including the convening of the City’s first Plan Review Board (appointed by the Council and Mayor) to oversee the plan’s implementation, and the preparation of an annual report and correction ordinance.

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But Phase II — the development and implementation of the Plan’s public improvements — has proven much stickier.

The adopted plan itself, as well as numerous City Council actions, direct staff to implement the Plan by preparing bond issues and benefit assessment districts, by identifying sites for intersection widening and parking facilities, and by preparing detailed plans for intensive streetscape treatments. We now know that these tasks are labor intensive, involve a host of other City departments, and require high levels of specialized expertise. With existing staff committed to Phase I projects, virtually no resources remain to develop and implement the public improvements required by the plan and the Council directives. Even if the recession ended and the necessary funds suddenly materialized, the implementing departments would not readily be able to implement the second phase of the Plan.

Thus, after our first one-and-a-half years, we must grudgingly admit that the entire second phase of the Plan is on permanent hold. It is one thing to call for traffic improvements, well-sited parking facilities, new financing mechanisms, and beautiful streetscapes to invigorate a commercial corridor. It is an entirely different thing to implement them.

Which Way Ventura Blvd?

With this combination of short-and long-term obstacles firmly in place, the plan can proceed in one of three directions.

The first is towards an accelerated decline of the Ventura/Cahuenga Boulevard corridor. Without adequate staff, the bulk of Specific Plan administration will rest with Building and Safety’s standard review of building and sign plans, which does not include adequate transportation and design review. Without staff or money to design and implement the Plan’s improvement programs, the corridor would lack any new stimulus.

The second direction, which at first glance appears to be the maintenance of the status quo, in fact would gradually lead to the deterioration of the corridor. If current staffing were maintained, all building plans would be subject to the Specific Plan’s rigorous review of transportation, design, and landscaping. But with the delay in traffic, parking, transit, and streetscape improvements, traffic conditions would deteriorate as additional automobile trips were loaded into the corridor. Furthermore, the expected lift to commercial activity anticipated from well-planned pedestrian zones would not appear. The plan area would experience economic stagnation lasting well beyond the current recession.

The third direction is the full implementation of the Specific Plan and the related directives adopted by the City Council. On a modest scale, the plan would become a successful model for the type of aggressive, integrated planning that should take place throughout the City of Los Angeles.

The Need for Leadership

For this final scenario to emerge, strong leadership is required by all parties:

  • All policy makers must view the current recession and the Specific Plan’s funding crisis as an opportunity to proceed with the implementation of the plan, not a pretext for its incremental unraveling.

Now, when we are in a period of slow construction between building booms, we should take advantage of this interlude to move aggressively on the Specific Plan’s improvement program. Furthermore, if the integrity of this plan can be maintained during such a period, it would present a positive example for other plans, as well as the overall planning process.

  • For the City Council, lessons regarding staffing and expertise must be carefully considered. Having adopted a detailed Specific Plan, along with supplementary instructions for its implementation, it is essential that the Council periodically revisit the plan as a whole to assure that it is on the right track. Furthermore, Council members must consistently communicate their stewardship over the Specific Plan corridor to implementing City Departments in order to confirm that Council’s ordinances and directives are being carried out.
  • For Department managers, strong leadership is needed to assure that the changes required by the plan within their Departments and staff are carefully identified and realized. At times this also may mean forceful direction to staff, and closer coordination between Departments and outside agencies, such as LACTC and DWP.
  • Departmental staff, especially those who work with a plan on a regular basis, must consistently share their lessons and insights about plan implementation with superiors. Greater contact invariably produces greater knowledge, and staff cannot assume such knowledge can be intuited by others.
  • For local constituents of the plan — the residential and commercial interests intent on revitalizing the Ventura/Cahuenga corridor — vigilance is also required. They must maintain a long-term view, never lose sight of the plan’s improvement program, and earnestly communicate their concerns over these issues to elected officials and City staff.

Implementation or Tragedy?

Finally, the best leadership, the closest coordination, and the most thoughtful communications cannot take the place of adequate staffing and training for the full implementation of the Specific Plan. This is especially critical at a plan’s early phases, when intensive work is necessary to develop bond issues, benefit assessment districts, and streetscapes.

With so much analytical work conducted, with a detailed vision and program for the boulevard completed, with so much additional information compiled during the Plan’s first year and a half, and with so much potential before us, it would be a quiet but nonetheless grave tragedy, for the Plan to be unceremoniously discarded in its infancy.

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