October 30, 1992 - From the October, 1992 issue

The “Duchy” of L.A. Confronts a Brave New World

By C. Edward Dilkes, who is a partner in the Santa Monica law firm of Wallin, Kress, Reisman, Price and Dilkes. He specializes in municipal law and represents five independent cities in Los Angeles County.

Los Angeles is best understood if you think of it as a “Duchy” or principality. It is too large to function as a “city,” and too small to be a “regional government.” Because it consistently fails at both local and regional roles, L.A. has opted for the status of a small principality in the middle of a larger nation. If you think of it as an American version of Monaco, Liechtenstein or San Marino, everything makes sense.

The Duchy of Los Angeles

LA.’s conscious decision to function as a Duchy has undermined much of its effectiveness as a municipality, particularly in the area of planning. Now, with universal support for “Rebuilding” after the Insurrection, the Duchy finds it cannot respond to such a complex task.

This should have been predictable. In L.A., even simple issues become overwhelmingly complex. Matters which require a single meeting in most cities take on the air of national debate in L.A.

It’s not a city and it’s not a region. It’s a Duchy.

L.A. has worked very hard to preserve its status as a Duchy. Indeed, it exempts itself from most laws designed for local government, especially in the area of local planning. By 1974, most cities and counties in California developed a General Plan and zoning map which were consistent with one another. L.A. waited 15 years to catch up, and still has a land use system riddled with inconsistencies.

It also avoided modem administration of its planning programs, and today, General Plan amendments, zone changes, subdivision maps and building permits all take months or years longer to obtain in L.A. than in Torrance, Hawthorne or Maywood.

Like a Duchy or royal court, L.A. replaced administrative procedures with courtiers. In Los Angeles, they are called “lobbyists” or “facilitators,” but the process is the same. The result is a slow and cumbersome process which grinds out disappointment as its principal output. If viewed from the perspective of a Duchy, it is easy to see how this developed and why it can’t be changed.

The Duchy vs. Planning

The truth is that no one inside the Duchy has any interest in planning. Most members of the City Council hate the subject. In fact, they love the absence of clear planning guidelines, because that means that developers must seek permission of the Duchy to do virtually anything.

In most cities, the general plan and zoning map tell what can and cannot be done. In L.A., the plans are so vague that for any given property, either nothing is possible or anything is possible. It all depends on politics, and land use politics depends on hiring intermediaries to act on your behalf. From that point on, everything depends on a convoluted process vaguely resembling medieval negotiations among royal entourages.

Unfortunately, the quaint ways of the Duchy won’t satisfy the new demands of the Post-Insurrection 90’s. With so much “deferred maintenance” in the L.A. planning process (particularly in South Central) and so little public trust of the planning process, any agenda for reform, including that of Rebuild LA, may be delayed for years while basic planning occurs.

Enter Rebuild LA

With great fanfare, Mayor Bradley anointed the Rebuild L.A. (RLA) Committee to go out and fix everything. RLA had no idea what it was going to do, but assumed that a plan existed somewhere. It would then mobilize the private resources of powerful business and community leaders and would go out and “implement the plan.” Its good intentions are now foundering on the long­standing “planning gap,” and will continue to founder until the gap is fixed.

To its amazement, the RLA committee learned that there was absolutely no “plan” for South Central. There was nothing to “implement.'” This means that any significant development will be so politically controversial that any success is unlikely.

Most tragic of all, RLA learned that an important ally, the L.A. CRA, had already fallen victim to the “planning gap,” and couldn’t help.

The CRA attempted to create “fast track” procedures for a huge redevelopment project covering 150 square miles from Hollywood to South Central to South Gate. The Duchy even provided an open door to participation by surrounding cities. Everyone sat back confidently awaiting applause from the happy subjects.


The response surprised everyone. Far from being thrilled, every element of the community pounded the CRA until the bill died. Residents joined with community-based non­profit developers to voice their fears that the Agency would tum the entire region over to “fat cat developers.” Environmentalists claimed that no effort would be devoted to the myriad of environmental problems the region faces. Adjacent cities said that L.A. was trying to extend the Duchy into their domain, and fiscal watchdogs complained about the diversion of tax increment funds.

Throughout the entire debate, no one had any idea what the CRA actually intended to do because the proposal had no plan attached to it, and the absence of any clear plan or planning objectives elevated everyone’s paranoia about the CRA. In the end, the CRA was so exhausted from criticism of its planning in other places, that it withdrew from the fight, and L.A. lost a real opportunity to set a planning process in motion.

CRA and the Planning Gap

The paranoia and anger were directed at the wrong entity. In the vacuum created by the City’s non­planning, the CRA has become the only forum for meaningful planning discussions.

To answer its own needs, the CRA went out and hired its own planning staff and retained outside planning consultants to do studies, focused plans, streetscapes, and the like. In Hollywood, Adams-Normandie and Wilmington, virtually all planning debates occur in the context of administration of a redevelopment project simply because this is the only context in which any planning occurs.

This places the debates in the wrong forum. The CRA is not supposed to be a planning agency. State law actually requires that the CRA implement the City’s general plan, not create plans of its own. Since acceptance of such rules would force L.A. to function like a real city, the requirements are simply ignored.

After all, Duchies are above such petty regulation.

In this strange allocation of non­responsibility, the CRA tries to generate plans for its project areas and, in return, absorbs all of the public outrage for each step. This leaves the rulers of the Duchy free to watch the peasants fight, while reserving the right to intervene on those rare occasions when someone important needs to be rescued.

The Peasants Take Over

The peasants appear to have grown tired of waiting and have taken matters into their own hands. Under the auspices of the Coalition of Neighborhood Developers, a large portion of South Central and South East L.A. has been divided into ten local planning areas. Different organizations have been assigned to each area and are actually trying to generate a grass­roots constituency for planning.

Everyone agrees that both RLA and the Duchy have a far better chance of success if they work from the community upward, rather than going from the corporate elite, downward. The question is whether or not the Duchy will actually tolerate it long enough for it to succeed.

While the plans are underway, the Duchy needs to cooperate in creating a sub-regional body which would include the other riot-affected cities and the County. This body would unify all the local plans into one subregional strategy for the 150 square mile area. Any successful effort must include a wider area than L.A. and control over the plan must be representative of the entire area being served.

Plan, Then Implement

Only after all of the organization and planning efforts are done can step three — implementation of the rebuilding strategy — take place. Fortunately, many tools already exist to help the implementation process, such as joint powers redevelopment projects which cross jurisdictional boundaries and include several cities, allowing for regional administration of Block Grant funds and programs.

None of these solutions is new or novel, but, if we did all this, it wouldn’t be a Duchy any more.  


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