April 30, 1994 - From the April, 1994 issue

Anthony Zamora: LA’s Planning Agenda Candidly Assessed

As the Riordan Administration prepares to release the results of task force studies affecting planning and development in Los Angeles, The Planning Report presents an interview with Los Angeles Planning Commissioner, Anthony Zamora, on the current state of planning in Los Angeles, and what changes are likely to be revealed this spring. 

Mr. Zamora, as a new Planning Commissioner who formerly served as a member of the Affordable Housing Commission under Mayor Bradley, share with us the goals and direction of the City's Planning Department. 

It's an exciting time to serve on the Planning Commission. Ironically enough, this is due, at least in part, to the fact that development activity is down in the city. As a result, fewer cases are coming before the commission on a weekly basis. What this means is that the commission has an opportunity to stand back and reflect on where it has been and where it should be going. 

For too long, in my opinion, the commission has been preoccupied with parcel-by-parcel decision making to the near complete exclusion of long range planning. This has to change, and if you ask me, it has to change now before activity picks up and we're forced back to incremental planning for the city with little if any appreciation for the big picture. In my view, the best time to plan for the future is when the exigencies of the day are less pressing. 

As a newly appointed commissioner, it is extremely difficult to speak for the department. It clearly has a life of its own. In contract to staff and the city council, which have been and will be around forever, it's easy to get the feeling that commissioners are but a passing phenomenon, a mere blip of the screen. Of course, I'm exaggerating, but I must confess that I have struggled with defining my individual role on the commission in the face of business as usual at the department. 

As a mentioned earlier, the one thing I'd like to see happen while I'm on the commission is a reorientation of the commission’s focus to real planning. Even with development activity down, the commission is almost entirely consumed with case-by-case decision-making. And there is tremendous pressure to do this. When it does this, the commission is viewed. I believe, as fulfilling its traditional, statutory, charter-driven role. And, it's exciting. Meeting rooms are filled with people. The atmosphere is charged. Passionate testimony is offered on all sides. Many times, big dollars are at stake. The adrenaline definitely flows. There is much to tempt the commission away from a broader focus. 

Policymaking, on the other hand, is a pretty dry science. But, it's where the commission must refocus its energy. The commission and the department are uniquely situated and empowered to look at the big picture for the entire city. There is no issue that should be beyond the purview of the commission - economic development, the environment, infrastructure, open space, transportation, you name it. Plain and simple, the commission and the department should be setting priorities for our city in each of these areas. That is the essence of true planning. 

I'm making an argument to enhance the stature of the commission and the department, not to minimize their importance. I'm sure some will ask whether we're up to the task. I think we are. 

The Mayor has appointed a number of advisory panels to recommend reforms in planning, land-use and economic development in this city, the results or which should be coming forward this spring. How are those proposals going to be received and implemented, in your estimation, by the Planning Department? 

Clearly, any bureaucracy is going to resist change. It's human nature. I resist change. We need to recognize this as a fact of life. I don't think it will be any different for the department or the commission. 

As I mentioned earlier, in contrast to the departments and the city council, this administration is a new kid on the block. Needless to say, there is no abundance of twenty-year pins on the Mayor's staff. One consequence of this is a willingness to challenge convention with the idea of building a better mousetrap. This is, after all, what the Mayor was elected to do. Remember, turn L.A. around? I think if you ask around, there is a lot of hope and expectation in the air. Both inside City Hall and beyond its walls, people are looking to the Mayor to fulfill his campaign pledge. In this sense, he has a powerful mandate.

This doesn't mean it will be easy. I know that the Mayor recognizes this. In his State of the City speech the other day, he talked about the tough choices ahead and about the searing debate that will accompany the making of those choices. So, maybe there's a little apprehension mixed in with the hope and anticipation, and, perhaps, this apprehension will lead to some resistance. Again, I think this is natural. 

The question will be whether the Mayor can make the case for change in a persuasive way. Can we persuade people to make a tough choice that may even require some short term pain in return for a longer term good? I think the Mayor will be very successful in this regard. 

What are your priorities for changing the Planning Department and the Commission? 

I've already talked about my hope of reorienting the focus of the department from incremental decision-making to long range planning. Perhaps I can explain what this could yield in more specific terms. Planning should be about setting and realizing expectations, this is what citizens can expect, what developers can expect. You can do this. You can't do that. You can do this here. You can't do that there. 

Unfortunately, development in this town has all the certainty of a crap shoot. This drives everybody crazy. Neighborhood groups hate it because the development process is like running through a gauntlet with a blindfold. The system is so fraught with discretion that it is nothing short of a Hobbesian state of nature. Each decision boils down to game day, whether it's a common hearing, a PLUM committee meeting or the full city council. Of course, it makes the commission tremendously important, and the city council almost god-like. Is that enough metaphors for you? 

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Development must be done in a way that is acceptable to the community. But we must put an end to this ad-hoc method for deciding what is good and desirable, and what is undesirable. I would like to see a system that emphasizes community input at the front end, at the community plan level, before a discrete neighborhood is confronted with this or that development. It is essential that communities have the opportunity to plan their neighborhoods in an environment that fosters the balancing of interests, the examination of trade-offs and the prioritization of objectives. 

The commission would ensure that community plans balance city-wide concerns with local priorities. This could be a full-time job for the commission. Done correctly, the product would be a blueprint for development in communities that would provide certainty to the community and the developer. I'm going to reveal some naiveté here, but, this process will also insulate the council from pressure to deviate from these plans. 

But in fairness to the Planning Department, isn't the current focus a reflection of the wishes of a City Council which wants to have more discretion and thus council oversight of the planning process? Isn't the Council, responding to constituent pressure, the problem for this new agenda rather than the bureaucracy?

Absolutely. That is the reality of today's system. The goals I've just outlined are mindful of this reality. Any debate about the future of planning in this city will necessarily focus on the role of the City Council. Will it be possible to ever reconcile the views of fifteen individuals, each beholden to local constituencies, into one city-wide vision? Good question. I’m going to stay tuned for the answer to that one. 

During the campaign, Mayor Riordan embraced Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs' notion of moving greater control to neighborhood councils. Doesn't decentralization support the notion that the council or the council person ought to have greater discretion, and be less subject to pro-forma city-wide rules? 

No system will ever work without substantial community involvement. The legitimacy of any planning process requires a good housekeeping seal of approval from the community. The question I'm seeking to put front and center is, when? When should this involvement take place? Should it take place at the last minute at a commission meeting? Or should it take place early on in a way that allows for the exchange of ideas and weighing of important issues? Councilman Wachs' ideas are not incompatible with the latter approach. 

Let me ask you then, does the General Plan Framework process incorporate enough community involvement to satisfy neighborhood concerns over any proposal to abandon the current case-by-case approach of the Planning Department? 

I think the department has bent over backwards to encourage community involvement in the General Plan Framework. A multiplicity of community workshops have been conducted and remain scheduled. 

In my humble view, that is not the problem. The problem is defining an objective for that community input. Will the Framework amount to an amalgamation of platitudes pleasing to everybody's senses? Or will it forge a consensus for development in the future? My experience has been that planning documents resort to the most common denominator as a way to avoid tough choices. Consequently, these documents are next to useless from the time of publication. The commission spends so little time getting into the guts of these issues that it's hard to convince me that these documents have any importance at all beyond some boilerplate references in the case files that are distributed to the commissioners. We have got to do better than: Housing is good; pollution is bad; our infrastructure stinks; the environment is important, and the like. 

Are you suggesting that if the planning documents do not adequately address the specific concerns of neighborhoods and areas, then the General Framework will not have enough support to be a substitute for City Council discretion? 

Absolutely, that's exactly what I'm saying. My concern is that the commission is not focusing on these issues. Relatively speaking, the commission has spent precious little time attempting to shape the Framework. To be sure, we have received briefings and presentations, but we have not focused on what the Framework is really intended to accomplish. We have not talked about the tough decisions and trade-offs that will have to be made to ensure that the Framework is a viable document. 

What do you think explains the absence of this dialogue about planning in our City? 

Well, first of all, planning and land use are very complex issues. It's not easy to follow and the media has difficulty grappling with this complexity. As a result, the public doesn't have the benefit of reliable filters that can break the issues and information down to make it more digestible. Secondly, people are more likely to get involved when they are affected directly. We have reinforced human nature with a message sent out over the years That the time to get involved is when something is going on in your backyard. That’s a bad message and it will change only if our city's leadership decides to stand up and lake these issues head-on.

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