December 30, 1992 - From the December, 1992 issue

The Citywide General Plan Framework: A New Vision for Los Angeles?

Coupled with the city's sewage crisis in the late 1980's and the failure of the "Centers Concept" proposed by former Planning Director Calvin Hamilton, the City of Los Angeles is developing the Citywide General Plan Framework. The Framework is the first of its kind in that Planning Department will plan for "balanced growth" through changes in wastewater system, transportation network, 'targeted growth' areas, and more. Kenneth Bernstein, Editor of TPR, writes on the potential for a new vision for Los Angeles in the following article.


"In developing a new long-range vision for the city, the Framework includes a comprehensive reexamination of the “Centers Concept”"

The City of Los Angeles — often derided for its lack of long-range planning — has begun its most comprehensive planning effort in years. The Citywide General Plan Framework (originally called the “Balanced Growth Element”) is now underway, taking a new long-range look at creating a vision for Los Angeles. When completed, it will serve as a guidepost for the revision of the rest of the City’s General Plan, including the 35 badly outdated community plans. 

With this two-year program still in its embryonic stage, much confusion exists about what the Framework is and is not. After a change in name, long delays in finalizing the consultants’ contracts, and several changes in emphasis, just what is the Citywide General Plan Framework, and will it succeed in providing Los Angeles with a comprehensive vision? 

Why the Framework? 

The Framework has its roots in the city’s sewage crisis in the late 1980’s, which shocked the city into realizing that future growth could bump up against infrastructure limitations. This crisis led to a web of new legal mandates on the City, and helped create some political urgency for a comprehensive growth management strategy. 

As an interim response, the City in 1990 passed a Sewer Permit Allocation Ordinance, tying building permits to sewage capacity and setting priorities for which projects would receive sewer hookups. The Framework is meant to become the permanent replacement for this ordinance.

The Framework also sits at the heart of the settlement agreement between the City and EPA on the expansion of the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant. Because EPA had claimed the Hyperion expansion would induce further regional growth and affect air quality, the city agreed to develop a growth management program through an update of its general plan (completing the Framework as well as new Air Quality and Transportation elements). 

When the program began, in the faster-growth late ‘80s, it was also sold politically as the city’s long-term approach to “growth management,” a more comprehensive and “balanced” response to the slow-growth pressures on the system. Councilman Hal Bernson guided the proposal through the city process and remains its strongest Council advocate. 

Given these tight fiscal times, the Framework is comparatively well buffered from the vicissitudes of the general fund. The “proprietary departments” — DWP, CRA, the Harbor Department and the Department of Airports — agreed to pick up the tab for the $3.5 million consultants contract, under the theory that their agencies will benefit from the final product. (However, the Airports Department, before contributing its money, has asked for a “nexus” study from the Planning Department to identify the products that directly affect airport services). More recently, the Planning Department has proposed transferring its thirteen staffers for the Framework to the payroll of the Public Works Department.

Reexamining Centers

In developing a new long-range vision for the city, the Framework includes a comprehensive reexamination of the “Centers Concept” developed by former Planning Director Calvin Hamilton in the 1960’s and early ‘70s. As adopted in Los Angeles’ 1974 Concept Plan, Hamilton envisioned a city of multiple commercial centers, all linked by transit. The Framework will build on earlier attempts to revisit that Concept (by the Planning Department’s 1983 “Centers Definition Project” and by a 1985-86 advisory committee on the Centers Concept). 

The focus of this reexamination will be to arrange the centers, which were previously undifferentiated, into hierarchies based on size and function. The project will also arrange centers into typologies, yielding a more nuanced look at the centers’ current realities and future development. Since the original Centers Concept failed in part because the planned transit connections never materialized, the Framework will reexamine the inter­relationship between centers now that a real transit network is about to be overlaid on the original concept. 

One product from this effort will be a new citywide land use plan map, which will not be parcel-specific, but will contain a greater level of detail than the city’s existing map. Different geographic areas will be organized by their common intentions for growth, functional role, and character of development. This map will help illustrate what the city is calling its “Directed Growth Strategy.” 

Directing New Growth 

This Directed Growth Strategy will include a statement of intentions regarding growth for different areas of the city. Some areas will be designated for growth, others for only certain types of “targeted growth,” and some designated as “conservation” areas where little growth will occur. “This will give neighborhoods and the development community greater clarity and certainty about the City’s intentions for growth,” said Woodie Tescher of Envicom, the lead consultants for the Framework.

One of the biggest misconceptions about the program is that it is a traditional growth control ordinance meant to cap development. “We’re all committed that this project be a growth-neutral plan,” said Emily Gabel, who is managing the Framework project for the Planning Department. “There are no growth caps like in San Francisco.”

Planning/Infrastructure Link 

In addition to clarifying the City’s growth intentions, the Framework seeks to tie these intentions to the city’s infrastructure investments and capital improvement program. In Los Angeles, unlike many other major cities, the City’s Planning Department has little say over capital improvements: the city’s capital improvement program is run out of the City Administrative Office (CAO).

“It’s not the Planning Department’s intent to dictate to every other department how things should be done,” said Gabel. “But we do think a case can be made that decisions about public investment can be more closely linked to the long­range general plan.”

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An important part of this new link will be information. The Framework project will develop a unified monitoring system to integrate key pieces of data, such as the output of the Hyperion plant, traffic Level of Service, and building permits. This data will allow the city to link development to changes in wastewater system and the transportation network. 

In light of April’s riots and the current recession, the program’s emphasis has shifted somewhat: the infrastructure component is being stressed less as a growth management tool, and more for its potential to promote inner-city investment. The Framework’s program now includes the creation of an economic model to examine the “multiplier” effects of different public investments, giving City officials guidance on how and where they should spend public dollars to stimulate the economy.

Public Participation

To provide citizen input to the project, the Framework will begin a public participation program in January with a series of interviews with key stakeholders, as well as with people not currently involved in the planning process. Tescher hopes that the interviewees “will become an unofficial advisory committee for the process.” Tescher also hopes to use cable television to educate the public about the process, and to launch a program in local schools where students would have a role in planning their future cit.

But although the Framework will emulate some public participation techniques employed by Pasadena in its much-praised General Plan revision process, the Framework will not match the widespread citizen participation that Calvin Hamilton achieved in his 1960’s planning efforts. The public portion of the project only amounts to about 5% of the budget. “The public participation aspect is very challenging,” said Gabel. “We’re a city of three and a half million people and the amount of money allocated for the public participation of this is far too small.”

“The key question,” said John Kaliski of the Community Redevelopment Agency, “is whether their public process is sufficient to build the social consensus necessary to get this implemented in a city with a difficult political climate.”

Can It Be Implemented?

Even if the Planning Department builds that social consensus and can tiptoe through the various political minefields to garner eight Council votes for the Framework in late 1994, it faces a major implementation challenge, especially given the legacy of the largely unrealized Centers plan. Gabel stresses that the implementation package will feature more carrots than sticks. For example, the Framework may provide a “tiering” of the environmental review process so that if a project is found to be consistent with the General Plan, it could be exempted from performing a full EIR.

Another implementation mechanism will be local development character guidelines, creating standards in conservation and targeted growth areas to address issues such as bulk, height, FAR, and lot coverage. The consultant team is also discussing an “adequate public facilities ordinance” which would ask that the City Council annually consider the prior year’s growth trends and then develop a strategic investment program for the next year. And building on Peter Uebberoth’s Council on Competitiveness, the Framework has in recent months injected a greater emphasis on regulatory streamlining as an implementation tool.

Since the Framework will be an umbrella document guiding the other general plan elements, much of the City’s implementation must come from revisions to the community plans to make them consistent with the new Framework. But because Los Angeles’ community plan revision is barely creeping along, either the City’s implementation of the Framework will be slow, or else the City will have to find a way to speed up or streamline its community plan revision process.

The Framework’s Prospects

The Framework program has its critics within the City family. Some fault the program for its fuzziness: “It’s still not very clear what the Framework is,” said one city official, “and it keeps changing. I don’t think they’ve got a clue what they’re doing.” To others, the Framework includes such a grab bag of topics that it defies a sense of mission or clear public understanding.

As a grab bag, the Framework at times has become the proposed repository for everyone’s pet planning projects. In response, the Planning Department now avoids overselling the program. “It’s not going to solve a zoning problem on someone’s street, or address a project permit problem in a neighborhood,” said Gabel. “It’s a long-range look at growth and development in this city and it can provide a foundation to get departments to share information and to direct public investment.”

San Diego consultant Paul Zucker was skeptical about the Framework during his audit of the Planning Department last year but refrained from harshly criticizing the program because “it was the only game in town” for long-range planning. After a recent presentation, however, Zucker said he “was more favorably impressed than I thought I’d be. They’re trying to get away from some of the super-esoteric stuff that plagued earlier versions of the program.” But Zucker continues to doubt that the program can be implemented: “The substantive sophistication of the study could outstrip the City’s level of political will to do something comprehensive.”

The Framework will not only face political obstacles, but also entrenched bureaucracies. “Their biggest challenge will be coordination among rival departments,” said David Stein of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG). “Los Angeles has an immense bureaucracy where you have turf wars and staffs invested in dealing with day to day problems rather than longer-range concerns.”

But the Framework could prove an important first step in bringing L.A.’s planning into the 1990s. “Nobody’s been taking a look at the city as a whole — the city’s been so Balkanized,” said Gabel. “We’re trying to lay the groundwork for subsequent structural changes. It’s like building a ladder, with the Framework serving as the first rung.” To many, it’s enough that Los Angeles if finally willing to climb the ladder.

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