October 30, 1994 - From the October, 1994 issue

Hal Bernson: LA City’s Planning Agenda Reviewed & Assessed

With so many important planning and land-use decisions pending before the Los Angeles City Council, The Planning Report turned to Councilman Hal Bernson, chair of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee and knowledgeable source for an in-depth interview concerning earthquake recovery, the various CRA initiatives before the City Council, his hopes for the Development Reform Committee and other related planning issues. 


“We’re moving forward with code changes, but we are trying to be as careful as possible to make sure we don’t create undo hardship.”

As a result of the damage inflicted by the January 17th Northridge earthquake, what Building & Safety Code changes, if any, is the City Council reviewing?

First of all, we have already initiated several code changes as far as what is necessary for safety purposes. We have codes on chimneys, lot walls and we have already initiated code changes for tilt-up concrete construction. We are looking at non-ductable concrete construction as well as steel frame buildings which is particularly tough because in the past we've never had damage to steel-frame buildings with any seismic event in the history of the world. This is the first time. 

Obviously, there has been a great deal of concern, but there is also a reluctance to rush into anything before we know what we are doing, and which direction we should be going. 

As the foremost City Council authority on building and safety issues, are you comfortable that the City engineer, the Mayor's Office and City Council are appropriately addressing the subject?

Well, I’m never satisfied. I’m the guy who is always pushing the City Council, the State Seismic Safety Commission, which I serve on, and the State Legislature to write tougher safety laws, because I feel that is our primary responsibility as government. But I also recognize that there is a cost factor and we have to work within those guidelines. It's great to have safety, but if safety creates a situation where there is no development taking place because it's unaffordable, then we have to take a second look and decide what is an acceptable risk. 

Other types of construction such as tilt-up construction are very dangerous, as well as non-ductable concrete construction which is the kind we saw in Mexico City that collapsed like pancakes. We have to do something about those types of buildings now. We can't wait for the State to act because they are very slow and they still haven't done anything about unreinforced masonry buildings. If it wasn’t for the ordinance I authored in 1982, we could have lost about 6,000 buildings that survived the Northridge quake. Had we waited for the State, we would have been in serious trouble. Los Angeles is probably the earthquake capital of the United States and we have to prepare ourselves, just as the people in Japan do.

We're moving forward with code changes, but we are trying to be as careful as possible to make sure we don't create undue hardship. Obviously we are going to look for new ways for people to finance these repairs. And even when repairs do take place, we don't want to force businesses and residents out of their buildings because they can’t pay the rent. 

When will the report of the Development Reform Committee (DRC) chaired by Dan Garcia be released, and what are your expectations for its adoption? 

The report should be out this October. I believe there will be someone who will actually be the "expert" to go into the departments to implement the DRC's recommendations. We are either going to hire someone, or the last I heard is that we have a pro bono efficiency expert to implement the recommendations. By the way, these recommendations have filtered down from the Zucker Report to citizen committees, to code studies committees, to developers and homeowners. It has gotten to the point that we have prioritized every aspect of the planning process. 

The entire permit process in the City of Los Angeles will change dramatically. We will be in the position to compete with other cities. No longer will people have uncertainty about whether they have a project or not; they will know up front, which is what the development community wants. Developers are not as upset with someone saying "no", rather they are upset with someone saying "maybe you can", and then getting three years down the road and someone saying, "maybe you can't", after spending thousands of dollars, acquiring the land, etc. That is why people have chosen to locate in other areas, and why Los Angeles has lost jobs. 

The economic objectives of the DRC may have widespread support, but what will appeal to LA's homeowner groups who have not participated in DRC? 

First of all, we had a large number of homeowners participate in the code studies portion of the report, which is what they should be concerned about because those are the things that deal with notices, changes that make it easier to get zoning and community plan amendments, etc. We have had ample participation with homeowner associations in that area. Second of all, this is not going to be a process that says we open up the city and we grant permits and approvals to bad plans and bad projects. What it does is just shorten the time frame. If a bad project is a bad project, it should be denied quickly and good projects should be approved. 

We all know that one year's delay causes an increase of approximately 10 percent in the cost of any project and our delays have added perhaps 50 percent to the cost of certain projects. We are not going to do that anymore. We are going to approve projects in a timely fashion so major companies can locate in Los Angeles, and their executives and workers can afford to buy homes and housing in decent neighborhoods. We need to be competitive against other states that are advertising everyday in California; certain states actually assign people to companies to take them out of California. One of the ways we can compete is to not be promiscuous with our planning, but efficient. 

Is efficiency the major thrust for planning, in your opinion? 

It's been at the top of my agenda for several years. I initially originated the Zucker report, and it's been the DRC and the General Plan Framework at the top of my agenda. 

Give us an update on the Zucker Report and what is happening regarding its implementation. 

Well, it has come down to this final report that the Garcia committee will be coming forward with. Then it will go to City Council and the Mayor, and we will start initiating the recommended changes. This will require going into virtually every department and basically creating a different organization chart - engineering, transportation, building and safety, planning, police and fire, basically anyone who touches a permit.

By the way, we've already adopted a number of changes, including one of which wasn't in the Zucker report which was my idea. That is having the major players for development permits from each department meet periodically, sometimes every day, to discuss what each department must do for the permits. Everyone knows what needs to be done, and the work goes out simultaneously to all the departments, instead of going from one department to another, wasting time at each step. Presently, Frank Eberhard is chairing that effort for the Planning Department. 

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Councilman, some of the skeptics of this planning reform effort look at the discretion the City Council will have to give up and wonder if such reform is politically achievable. What is the likelihood of a Councilmember ceding discretion over a project to this process? 

Well, as you know it's a difficult issue. One of the things we hope to do in the updating of the planning process is to get our community plans up to date. The General Plan Framework is outdated. General Plans should really be updated every five years to be accurate conceptual frameworks. We have 35 community plans and 25 of them are seriously outdated. I’ve been pushing very hard to address these in an appropriate manner, which doesn't mean it takes 10 years to update a plan. We are going to update all of our community plans within the next few years, and we will do environmental studies on a broader basis. 

For example, the General Plan will also be an environmental document that we can refer to in each of the other plans. In each of the updated plans, we will also have environmental clearance where necessary, and hopefully much of it can be done with a Negative Declaration. Essentially, we will take a plan and say, “What doesn't fit anymore?" We won't be starting off as things have been done in the past as if we were working from a blank sheet. We will be updating the plans through the batching process - a plan amendment and a zone change together. 

What we don't do (and this gets councilmembers in trouble), is put all the conditions that apply to a plan. Anyone that comes to City Hall with a proposal and meets those conditions on a regular use in the plan will get a by-right permit. If the plans are up-to-date and the conditions are in the plans, then the council member doesn't have to say anything. The worst that will happen is that the councilmember will have to deal with conditional use permits with which they have the ability to apply conditions on or say “no". If the plans are up-to-date with all the necessary specifications and environmental work, we don't have to go through all this political stuff. Presently, the problem is that community plans can't be relied upon - not by homeowners and not by potential developers. 

One of the recommendations of the Zucker Report was the application of resources to staff training. Has the City put those dollars into the Planning Department? 

I think we will. First of all, the most expensive recommendation in the Zucker report was the computer main framing equipment which was approved in the last bond issue. All that is required is the training, which we should be doing continually as part of our work. That’s the responsibility of the head of each department to make sure there is sufficient training. Certainly, if we reduce the "waste-in-motion" in handling cases, there ought to be some money for other things. 

What are your views on the City Council becoming the board of the CRA, and on Mayor Riordan's proposal to consolidate the City's housing and economic development functions?

I don't have a problem with the consolidation of housing and economic development. I could even see those being coordinated with the CRA. But I'm not ready to have the Council become the CRA board, I'm just ready to exercise some control over it and I think we have that now. I have not been a great friend of the CRA, but I haven't been a great critic either. In the past, some of the actions of the CRA were inappropriate. I was a critic of their plans when they didn't really ad­dress issues of blight. 

I sat on the blue-ribbon committee with Harold Katz and Ed Dills that wrote the CRA reform law that was carried by Senator Joe Montoya. I don't have a problem with continuing to have a CRA board. We now have the ability to control the CRA, to make CRA responsible. It can no longer exist just to prolong its own existence. 

For example, we are doing some earthquake recovery with the CRA, the difference is we don't have blight, we have rubble. We have the ability to issue tax exempt bonds and we will use that money to structure loan guarantees and things of that nature. Essentially, it will be for a short period of time, no 30 year deals. Revenues from the assisted buildings, as well as tax increment money, will go towards paying off the bonds. 

Also, the CRA administrative overhead will be severely restricted so that it is in line with the private sector. Finally, the local businesses and residents will be making the decision about who wants and gets help. The program will be very flexible - loans, loan guarantees, interest-write downs, whatever it takes to get the community rebuilt. 

I've also proposed legislation that is being carried by Sen. Feinstein that will provide for tax incentives for investment in disaster areas. The legislation as currently proposed includes an up-front 20 percent tax credit for investment in property damaged in a disaster, 100 percent write-off for all improvements to the property and lastly, a 7-year depreciation schedule instead of a 30-year depreciation schedule. 

Thus, with the $200 million from the federal government for local housing, earthquake recovery measures with the CRA and the legislation I've proposed, we should be in a position to rebuild the city. 

Critics contend that the Los Angeles City Planning Department hasn’t had the resources to participate in the MTA county-wide transportation planning process. As someone on both sides of that table, what should be the relationship between City Planning and the MTA planning and rail construction projects?

I think that if we haven't had a relationship it's because we haven't pursued it. Certainly, we are not going to dictate a regional transportation plan, although we should have a say. The Planning Department and the city hasn't really addressed MTA plans, but we are beginning to deal with it. 

The General Plan Framework deals with it, our community plans, the Porter Ranch Plan dealt with the transportation process. Essentially, the Centers Concept is still part of the city, so we are looking at certain types of density, mixed-use and additional development opportunities along transit corridors and centers. 

If you look at what we did in Chatsworth with the Metrolink station, we have plan approval and the station is going to be restored with all kinds of services attached - daycare, a pharmacy, a market. These are the types of things we need to do and I think we are on the right track. It's very hard to undo years of planning, but things are changing very rapidly today.

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