February 28, 1995 - From the February, 1995 issue

TPR Roundtable: A Preview of the LA General Plan Framework Debate

Considered by many as the last, best hope for revision of Los Angeles' land-use development policies, the General Plan Framework is entering a critical phase of review by the City of Los Angeles and the many diverse interests of Los Angeles. The Planning Report presents a roundtable discussion with Los Angeles Planning Commissioners Marna Schnabel and Tony Zamora, President of PLAN/LA, Bill Christopher, and Emily Gabel, Senior Planner for the General Plan Framework.. The roundtable is an attempt to illustrate the various prisms through which the Framework will be examined in the coming months. 

Could you elaborate on the current mission driving the General Plan Framework effort? It was originally envisioned as a growth management tool; should it still be viewed in that light? 

Tony Zamora: I think the obvious usefulness of the document, and that's presuming it will be successful, is as a planning tool and guide for future growth in Los Angeles. It's a very important

Objective that was originally conceived in response to a crisis – the City’s sewage capacity and our ability to accommodate growth. If we fail to meet that important objective, we have failed and the Framework will become another document that sits on the shelf.

Marna Schnabel: I have concerns about the usefulness of have this document for two reasons. First, we can spend all the time preparing the plan, but unless it is communicated in a useful way to all of the people of the city, it just becomes another plan on the shelf, and things in this city happen on a per case basis.  People have arguments over specific projects, and in twenty years we’ll look back and wonder what the General Plan Framework was all about. I’m also concerned the plan is a retrospective look at how things were done twenty years ago. We should be asking ourselves, what if we didn’t do these things twenty years ago, what would be the alternatives?

The growth vs. no-growth debate is an illusion. Growth happens. The question is: “How do you make it work best for the City?” If you have growth, how can you best plan for it, predict it, and understand the alternatives? 

Bill Christopher, as an advocate for the current residential stakeholders, you were on the Planning Commission during the inception of this plan. Is the General Framework still perceived as a relevant growth strategy tool for the City?

Bill Christopher: I think the document is still needed. Part of the problem goes back to the fact that in 1974, we really didn’t do it. We wrote a plan that was put on the shelf and never enacted. It wasn’t until some members of my constituency forced the issues in court that we decided to play catch-up. 

Thus, in 1985, we began to play catch-up to where we saw the City in 1974. We’ve almost completed the process in 1995 to plan for the City to look like something that was envisioned in 1974 were drafted in the late 1960’s with a 20 year horizon, so we have almost caught up with where we were 10 or 15 years ago.

The General Plan Framework needs to address where we are going in the future. Some of the concerns that Commissioner Schnabel has raised regarding the relevance of the plan are addressed by the plan’s legal merits. Consistency must be found in all planning documents. Up until the late 1980’s that was not the case.

The document will have a much greater force of law than previous documents, which makes it much more important to all the participants in the process.

Emily, in your role as a technical resource, is there a new vision for the City emerging in this document? How is the Centers Concept holding up upon review?

Emily Gabel: From the perspective of a planner, the Centers Concept was conceived as a long-range 50-year plan. After 20 years, the City is reevaluating the Centers Concept in light of current realities. And following this re-evaluation, including what we know about the future, the Framework Elements confirms the validity of the Centers Concept, but it also recognizes that it was too gross, too unrefined, and did not provide sufficient guidance which may have led to the problems of the 1970’s and ‘80s. 

Also, the Centers Concept never considered the City’s boulevards as an integral part of the City’s fabric. There was no rail system to support the Centers Concept, for instance. By and large, the Centers Concept has been reevaluated in respect to transportation infrastructure, land-use and community character, and has also expanded the Centers Concept.

Downtown is not like the Van Nuys center which is different from Larchmont; each area has different characteristics and growth patterns. Therefore, the Framework attempts to provide a higher level of refinement. We are also introducing the idea of including the City’s major boulevards as new growth areas. Targeted Growth Areas are differentiated by population, service area and need - is it the neighborhood (Neighborhood District), the community (Community Center), the region (Regional Center) or international and national markets (Downtown Center, WorldPort, LAX)?

Marna, what is your reaction to this vision?

Marna Schnabel: I'm concerned that within the Framework there are inconsistencies when you look at the Centers Concept as the concept we are refining. It seems to me that in terms of transportation planning, we are very centralized. And yet we are looking at the Centers Concept as a distributive concept. There are many centers, but in the transit plans, you have to go through Downtown to get there. 

As the rail system is currently planned, you can't get to many of the major centers. And there are some real blockages in the system along key North/South and East/West corridors. We are spending a lot of money on transit, and it is not distributive, and that bothers me. I'm not sure that the Centers Concept and the Framework are consistent in this regard. Also, pedestrian orientation, which is important in the Framework, is distributive because you have to be where the retail is located; you can't just walk to a center, if you live in most single-family residential neighborhoods. If you want to be pedestrian oriented, you have to start being distributive with regard to commercial access. 

Another important clement that is mentioned in the Framework is information technology - telecommunications and increased home businesses. All of this means that single-family residence neighborhoods are going to be effected in regards to home businesses and child care services. The Framework, by saying we are going to concentrate growth in certain centers, without addressing single-family residential neighborhoods, is not being realistic that change in those areas might occur. 

Tony, what is your reaction to this emerging vision for Los Angeles? 

Tony Zamora: There is probably much to debate when it comes to the individual components of the Framework. I think to a certain extent that the Framework plan is as much of a refinement of the Centers Concept as it is an abdication to reality. 

Los Angeles developed in a certain way, and I think the brilliance of the Centers Concept was to anticipate emerging development patterns as much as anything else. It would be too much to say that the Centers Concept was the template that drove all this development, that City Hall decision makers were consulting the Centers Concept plan and somehow decisions were made consistent with the plan. I don't think that happened for the very reasons Bill Christopher has mentioned - essentially these mandates and laws on the books governing general plans and what they mean in local land-use planning weren't paid that much attention. That is why you could have the transportation entities planning whatever they wanted as Marna has pointed out. 

Of course, what changed all this was the lawsuit brought by the various homeowner groups. As a result, we now have a General Plan Framework that will be an enforceable document like it was intended to be, but never really was.

Presently, we have to look at where the city is, and figure out how to harness this monster. Of course, the monster is in the eye of the beholder. For some, the monster is unchecked growth without sufficient infrastructure; for others the monster is lagging infrastructure that doesn't accommodate the potential for growth - the result being undirected growth. Personally, I view the monster as the latter. 

For the Framework to be successful, it should steer us in a way which accommodates growth and allows for flexibility. While we all like the Centers Concept, and it makes rational sense, we really can't mandate growth of the city by a particular concept in contravention of the marketplace, but it is a good place to start. Again, I do sec the plan coming together in a way which accurately describes what is happening and what we believe should be happening in light of current conditions. The Land Use and Transportation policy is an excellent example. We've taken the transportation element and the MTA plan, and we have blended them into the Centers Concept. Basically, the Centers Concept presumes that we are going to have these centers which will also have residential components.

Marna touched on the notion of Los Angeles as a suburban area and how that is going to mesh with the Centers Concept. This is an important question to focus on when evaluating the Framework. Ultimately, we need to plan for a more urban model similar to other American cities. 

When it comes to vision, and I think Bill will agree, we have to protect what we have in the single-family area, understanding that growth is dynamic and even those areas will accommodate some change. But for the most part I think the Framework is trying to direct growth to the transportation corridors and centers, and that makes a lot of sense. 

In the September edition of TPR, Dean Edward Blakely from the USC School of Urban and Regional Planning, commented, "People are not working towards a common vision, the General Plan Framework is probably just a general statement of a general set of rules… For a General Plan to be useful, it has to be an exciting document which tells the story of what a place is going to be like and how it’s going to get there. I have no sense that the General Plan is going to reposition Los Angeles for the next century.” Emily, how would you respond?

Emily Gabel: I’m going to take the position that while there is a vision in the plan, many people see it from as many points of view. Over the last two years we have heard concerns from many people — homeowners, business people, developers, working people, those involved with transportation, sustainability, etc.

What are the key principes which have emerged? Despite the numerous visions, I think virtually everyone can agree on five or six: economic opportunity, environmental quality, clear and consistent rules, infrastructure, equity and community services. I offer this not as my own vision, not a top-down idea of what a city should look like, but what I’ve heard.

What Dean Blakely doesn’t know is that the Framework is not just a land-use plan. Because of the change in the economy, a lot of effort has been put forward to make this plan more pro-active for economic reasons. Secondly, it’s a comprehensive plan, meaning that we have looked at other factors which affect the whole city – issues such as open space and people’s ability to access open space. I would argue that it’s not the typical restatement of land-use designations, it really has become a city-wide long-range comprehensive strategy. 

Marna Schnabel: A vision for the entire City of Los Angeles is difficult to get your arms around. The city of Los Angeles is the size of most countries in population and GNP. It’s not like having a vision for a smaller city such as Santa Monica or Santa Barbara, which are more confined areas. Certain things work in smaller, confined settings…

Dean Blakely comes to Los Angeles from Oakland, which is a very confined area with less of cultural mix and a range of incomes. It’s very hard to dismiss Los Angeles’ planning effort. Our planning has been distributive and community oriented, and the community plans are the documents which really contain the vision for an area. 

There are certain overall considerations that are covered in the General Plan, but we also rely on the vision in each of our Community Plans. It’s just the reality of Los Angeles.

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Bill, your constituency drove the City to update its General Plan and its focus upon Consistency; is consistency the be-all and end-all of the process?

Bill Christopher: I don’t think it is nearly enough. There has to be some vision, and how you define that vision changes from place to place. At the same time, in order to get the public at-large to buy into the document, there has to be something in their which brings the City together. There has to be a way to make Los Angeles an identifiable entity, where different constituencies can see and understand their own roles, and at the same time understand the totality of the city.

One of the things that has always amazed me about this city is its ability to be parochial. This allows the City Council and the leadership of the city to do any number of things without having to worry about any type of city-wide framework. You wind up with people going in 15 different directions without coherent leadership. I don’t think you can build a consistent image or message about the economic future of Los Angeles if you have 15 different people directing traffic.

The Framework is a starting point to design one traffic cop or on set of rules for all the areas of the city. I’m looking for something that will help unify the city and provide the dialogue to make the people in the Valley understand that they are part of the rest of the city, and make the people in the Central City understand that they have to deal with people in the Valley over the division of resources.

The last time I saw the Framework, in June of this year, the vision put forward by Pat Smith, as part of the urban design aspect, was that the entire city ought to look like Santa Monica’s Third Street promenade, and this city is far too culturally diverse for any singular view to pervade the entire city. Presenting such a singular and particularly White view turns off large numbers of people to the project.

Tony, how do the economic revitalization themes being raised fit into the Framework? And how does the Framework fit into the Mayor’s economic vision for the City?

Tony Zamora: In my view, that is the $64,000 question. To tell you the truth, it will be the prism through which at least I will review the Framework. The bottom line is that the Framework

must facilitate economic activity. The Framework must promote economic revitalization or it will be considered a failure. To a certain extent, we have allowed the development process to choke economic development in the city. 

There is another aspect to this, and that is once you free up the process, to what end? I think that is where many of the policy debates and trade-offs will occur. As soon as you decide to provide economic development incentives, then you have to decide where. And once you decide where, then you have to decide what. 

The reason why Dean Blakely is probably right, is that he probably knows how planning does or doesn't get done and how it blends with politics. One of my biggest fears is resorting back to a regurgitation of mere rules and guidelines, because it's safe. Now I don't think we have done that because our Planning Department has taken great pains to avoid that, but it does mean that ultimately we are going to have to make tough choices for the Framework to be successful. It's the difference between supporting a balanced budget amendment and deciding how you are going to get there. 

Bill Christopher: The General Plan is not, nor should be about the administrative process. The regulations which control how we get there are a separate discussion. The Framework is about the basic underlying entitlements that we are going to provide in this city that will either form the basis for economic development or restrict it. 

Part of the issue that I bring to the table is the fact that we are about to set out an entitlement for housing of about 2.6 million housing units. Yet we only intend to build 1.5 million units over the course of the plan. Thus, that creates a policy playground of about one million units. This allows the City Council and others to undermine the intent of the plan, and undermine the benefits of economic development that we would like to program into the plan. 

Marna Schnabel: Can I jump in here? 

There are two figures that are always bantered about, one is possibility and the other is probability. In a plan, you have to look at possibility. When you are talking about the actual number of housing units, you look at probability. The two aren't necessarily consistent, and the reason is that possibility looks at how far we could go. 

If you don't look at possibility, then we could be up a creek without a paddle. In reality, what we deal with is probability, and you can't put probability into a plan, you have to include possibility. 

Bill Christopher: I go back to what former Los Angeles City Planning Director Cal Hamilton used to say, "Plan for the worst-case scenario." The question I ask the policy makers is, "Isn't about time we plan for the best-case scenario?" Are we directing the traffic or are we throwing open the possibilities to let the market determine where we ought to be planning? 

Marna Schnabel: I think the reality is; when you get down to the Community Plan level, that it does take the best-case probability scenario. It's similar to earthquake planning; in the General Plan Framework, we have to plan for the big one. 

Bill Christopher: For example, we plan for R4 densities across a large swath of the city, and we tell property owners that we have a planning document which says some day you may have the opportunity to build at an R4 density. As a result, every property owner in that area is going to hold out for the R4 value, driving the market well beyond its limit, and creating spot zoning without any consistent development. 

Are the City's planned infrastructure investments consistent with the Framework's objectives and are they spurring economic development? 

Tony Zamora: Although I haven't seen all the data. I do know that there has been a tremendous amount of cooperation among the various departments that plan the City's infrastructure. The Planning Department does not make the decisions to expend dollars.

Nevertheless, I think we need to be setting priorities for infrastructure investment with this document because our investments create jobs, and we have to examine where we need jobs and where we are putting our infrastructure to accommodate future growth. The General Plan Framework must do this.

Marna Schnabel: My concern is not only whether that type of information is in the plan, but whether or not, and how it is used.

Are there inherent shortcomings in LA’s City Framework effort given that LA is in a county of 87 cities, many of which abut the City and have policies which undermine many of the elements of your plan and programs?

Bill Christopher: I don’t know if any city government can account for what is going to happen with 47 neighboring cities bordering the City of Los Angeles. You are always going to have border wars, and it is a problem which always brings us back to the question of regional governance, which may be necessary in a region like Southern California in order to coordinate infrastructure development as well as the revenue streams that are shared between the individual jurisdictions. There will always be small jurisdictions that will attempt to stay separate and distinct from the City of Los Angeles or other larger jurisdictions in order to protect their parochial interests. We haven’t yet defined what that regional governance should or shouldn’t be in order to level the playing field.

What are the likely political forces that will come into play as the Framework moves forward? 

Tony Zamora: I anticipate that the homeowner associations, as they have in the past, will be very involved. They must be given their due consideration because they are a powerful constituency, especially PLAN/LA, for whom I have a lot of respect, because they get into the mechanics and guts of the policies. They are a great benefit to the city, and also pose a great challenge. 

It will be the homeowners who have particular concerns about proposed growth in certain areas. I’m not here to say that whatever we come up with in the first round is the final answer, but the final product will require the input of the homeowner associations to make it work. 

I think the other group that will participate heavily is the housing community, particularly, affordable housing providers. Housing is one of the most difficult problems this city faces and it’s not a problem which is unique to a lower income constituency; it is the children of the homeowner community who are having as difficult a time buying homes as anyone else.

Marna Schnabel: It used to be, when you needed more housing you expanded the city. But now there is nothing to add to the edges, it’s all in-fill. So it’s a density question, which is going to be a big issue.

Bill Christopher: I think it is difficult to characterize all of the community groups as “homeowner” groups. The spectrum of interest goes well beyond the traditional definition of a homeowner association. Most parties are interested in preserving or enhancing the quality of life in and around their neighborhoods. 

What they are looking for in the Framework is some mechanism for trading-off that preservation for increased density or build-out in certain other areas of the city. It’s that trade-off mechanism that needs to be debated and defined.

There are many communities in Los Angeles that are currently stable and well-maintained but still at-risk of being turned for redevelopment purposes. Trading off protection for those communities versus growth in other communities is what I think the Framework is all about… It’s in everybody’s interest to protect the livability of all parts of the city, so that the city can grow uniformly and in a way that is livable for all of its citizens.

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