December 30, 1993 - From the December, 1993 issue

Laura Chick: Redefining the L.A. Planning and Land-Use Process

Development projects face a lot of red tape and public pushback in today's Los Angeles planning bussiness climate. LA City Councilmember Laura Chick declares that she will assist in streamlining LA planning and land-use policy. Chick proposes a "front end" approach where developers seek support from the community during the project planning period. 

"… streamlining must not come at the expense of our democratic process or the integrity of our residential neighborhoods."

I ran for the Los Angeles City Council, in part, because I saw that planning in Los Angeles was in crisis. I saw a development process that resulted in haphazard and low quality projects - when it sustained any development at all. I saw a City government where EIRs could take up to two years to process, where high development fees and red tape made Los Angeles unfriendly to business, and where citizens felt alienated and disconnected from land-use decision making. But worst of all, I saw that in planning and land-use policy, the City Council was as much a part of the problem as part of the solution. 

Now that I have become a City Council member, and serve as Vicechair of the Council's Planning and Land-Use Management Committee (PLUM), I am excited to have an opportunity to help change the planning process. True change, however, will require that we Council members adopt a new planning philosophy ­ a philosophy that emphasizes a commitment to true long-range planning, a willingness to promote early and substantive public involvement, and a new courage to be leaders rather than followers. 

A Better Way of Doing Business 

Much of the contentiousness of planning issues stems from the way we conduct the business of planning in Los Angeles. All too often, a development project gets thrust upon a community without any neighborhood input and without any notice, until an official public hearing. The residents near the project feel burned and, regardless of the proposal's merits, dig in their heels. The project applicant, baffled by the sudden community opposition, lashes out at the homeowner group. Everyone loses. 

Thankfully, there is a better way. When developers seek support and real input from their neighbors at the "front end," there is less conflict and suspicion at the "back end." If the City prepared real plans at the front end, we would avoid the back end battles on every project that can have devastating impacts on business. 

Los Angeles can no longer afford heated rhetoric and pitched battles on every development issue. With businesses leaving Southern California and the San Fernando Valley, we cannot continue to pit developers against residents, or businesses against homeowners. Los Angeles' neighbors, from Burbank to Pasadena to Culver City, are out-hustling us because they have reached social compacts on the way they will grow and develop. The City of Los Angeles, like these smaller cities, must begin to see land-use planning as a potentially powerful economic development tool.

This means that our top City priorities should include a compelling citywide vision for Los Angeles through the Planning Department's General Plan Framework project. It means we must move forward with a strong implementation policy for the Land-Use/Transportation Policy to give us up-front guidance on how we can capitalize on our massive transit investment. It also means that the City must immediately expedite an update of our community plans, which, embarrassingly, largely remain unchanged since the 1970s. In short, we must begin to fight our battles on plans rather than on projects. 

Neighborhood Planning Councils 

To facilitate such up-front planning in my own district, I have recently formed three Neighborhood Planning Advisory Councils (NPACs). Before a development project receives my support, I will ask that the developer seek early and substantive input from both the immediate neighborhood and the appropriate NPAC. Because an NPAC's input comes at an early stage of a project, prior to public hearings, it does not represent another layer of bureaucracy. Instead, it offers a way to smooth the future course of the project. 

I may not agree with the NPAC's recommendations in every case, but I will always give great weight to their advice. The give-and-take at the NPAC meetings will result in better projects and a higher quality of life. The NPACs will also create new leadership in the community and open new avenues for community involvement. 

While some have cautioned me that creating these NPACs could foster increased "NIMBY-ism," I believe they will have the opposite effect. Without Neighborhood Councils, a homeowners group or resident in the immediate neighborhood are often the only ones examining a project, typically only through the prism of how it affects their own "backyard." With the NPACs, these voices will continue to be heard, but will be supplemented by a diverse, committed, and balanced group of community residents viewing the project through the broader lens of the entire community. 

Today, projects are typically reviewed largely by a small group of homeowner organizations. While I will continue to listen carefully to these homeowner groups, they do not possess the only legitimate voices in the community. In selecting members of my Planning Councils, I also called on homeowner presidents to suggest some of their members who would make excellent appointees. 

The mixing of voices we are bringing about through these NPACs will raise discussions of development to a new level. I want to use the NPACs to encourage more people to get involved in their communities and in the planning process. As neighbor meets neighbor, these councils will also help forge new working partnerships that will carry over to other issues. 


Reforming the Appeals Process

My strong belief in community participation was why I became so outraged when I discovered that an ordinance passed unanimously by the City Council before my arrival, resulted in citizens being charged thousands of dollars to appeal planning decisions. My motion to re­study this ordinance led to the Council's repeal of these exorbitant charges. 

The City needs to streamline the planning process by putting its own house in order, not by placing unreasonable burdens on citizens. While I am working hard on several initiatives to streamline the city's permitting process and make Los Angeles much more business­friendly, streamlining must not come at the expense of our democratic process or the integrity of our residential neighborhoods. 

I am frequently amazed at how much time the PLUM Committee spends adjusting appeals rather than improving the City's overall planning process. For example, conditional use permits start with a decision by the City's Zoning Administrator, get appealed to the Board of Zoning Appeals and then get appealed again to PLUM and the City Council. Though I am deeply committed to public involvement, I was dismayed to find that a single CUP frequently requires four separate public hearings before the City comes to a final decision. 

That is why I support a recommendation by Robert Janovici, the City's Chief Zoning Administrator, that would end appeals of such cases at the BZA. Through the recently-enacted Proposition 5, Councilmembers could still bring before the Council any BZA decision on which they feel strongly. But this simple reform would do more than exorbitant appeal fees to streamline the process and free Councilmembers to focus on improving the system. 

Planning = Courage 

Apart from involving citizens more broadly in our planning, we can only plan our communities if we elected officials change our own ways. I often said during my campaign that I want to "take the politics out of planning." For years. Los Angeles' land-use planning has been in the hands of fifteen powerful City Council fiefdoms, where the sound principles of balanced growth frequently lose out to the prevailing political winds. 

But a Los Angeles in crisis needs leadership, not followership. I have found that in making sound planning decisions, much boils down to courage. I will not make land-use decisions simply by holding my finger to the wind or by counting heads. Of course, this does not mean that I will ignore public sentiment. Instead, I will listen hard to the meat of the arguments presented and make my decision, based not on numbers or potential votes but on the substance of all legitimate concerns. 

While I will always emphasize community involvement, I will also emphasize to community groups that their involvement must be leavened with a sense of balance and realistic expectations. At a time when jobs are fleeing the Valley and the City as a whole, the old NIMBY arguments and "no­growth" yearnings simply are untenable. Like it or not, the Valley can never again revert to the Valley of the 1950s. Some degree of change is always inevitable, and we can accommodate change while maintaining high standards. I will frequently press community activists to expand their world view - to assess issues not only from the viewpoint of their own neighborhood, but through the lens of the broader, diverse community to which they also belong. 

For example, some constituents recently protested and picketed against my support of a child care center and a supermarket in my district. When I decided to support these projects, I listened very carefully to the arguments of over 100 vehement opponents of each project, both individually and in public meetings that I organized. In the end, however, I decided that I simply could not agree with them. Obviously, I would prefer to be popular among all of my constituents. But I decided to support these proposals - despite the possible costs to my own popularity - because I felt that they provided important services to the broader community and that I had thoroughly addressed the impacts they would cause to the immediate neighborhood.

Land-use planning decisions are never easy, and they will never make everyone completely happy. All I can do is assure my constituents that I will always listen, respond to real concerns, and make decisions that allow businesses to create jobs while always protecting the quality of life in our residential neighborhoods. 

With a new generation of Valley leadership and a new spirit in City Hall, I look forward to starting anew in reforming the City's planning procedures - a fresh start that will allow us to inject into the process, early and substantive community involvement, mixed with a dose of realistic expectations and tough decision-making.


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