July 30, 1995 - From the July, 1995 issue

LA’s General Plan Framework: Bells Toll For Centers Concept

The Los Angeles General Plan Framework has been in the works since December 1992. Allan Abshez, a partner with the real estate law firm Irell & Manella, writes how this Framework will bring an end to the Centers Concept first adopted by Los Angeles in 1974.  Mr. Abshez presents views from both the supporters and critics of the Framework to showcase potential issues of the Framework in adoption.

On July 27th, the City Planning Commission will convene to consider the first proposal for fundamental change to the City of Los Angeles' General Plan in over twenty years. Entitled the "Framework," the revision will take the form of a new element to the General Plan, which sets forth a "citywide comprehensive long range growth strategy." The last major revision of the City's general plan (if one does not count the AB 283 process) took place in 1974 when Los Angeles adopted the Centers Concept. Taking up the Framework, City decision makers will be presented with a professional, polished, grassroots policy document that will not be easy to set aside. 

While the Framework styles itself as an "evolution" of the Centers Concept, the policy issues, which the Commission will be asked to initially decide, will go well beyond whether adoption of the new element would result in upzoning or downzoning. 

The Framework, however, attempts to make a cogent market-based case that there will be plenty of commercial entitlements to go around within the Framework's fifteen year planning horizon. The Framework envisions approximately 53 million additional square feet by the year 2010, and a "theoretical" buildout of 266,145 additional housing units. Therefore, while there will be a healthy debate about the numbers and their distribution, the reality is that if there is sufficient market demand to sustain those remaining developers, builders, architects, engineers, and land planners left in Southern California through the horizon year, industry members will be thanking their lucky stars and probably offering to dedicate public statues of the Framework's framers (as long as the same are granted in-lieu art fee credit).

Clearly, it is time for Los Angeles to take stock of its general plan. The bells have long been tolling for Los Angeles' current Centers Concept. The combative AB 283 process of the mid-80's, the homeowner movement, Proposition U, the proliferation of Interim Control Ordinances and ever spiraling discretionary review requirements, all reflected a growing reluctance of Civic leadership to implement the Concept on the books. For all intents and purposes, Los Angeles' General Plan became a dead letter with almost no meaning in the eyes of the community, City Hall staff, and elected representatives.

Indeed, the situation became so bad, that the development community was eventually compelled to invest substantial amounts of its own resources to prepare state-of-the-art "specific plans" which were offered by the private sector as alternatives to outdated existing community plans and zoning standards. These "smart" plans provided incentives for communities to accept growth by delivering it as part of a package of greater levels of community amenities, elevated design standards, and enhanced environmental, economic and social mitigation. At their best, these plans showed what the Centers Concept could be with the imagination and resources of the private sector brought fully to bear.

Notwithstanding these efforts, and perhaps not surprisingly, the theme of the Framework is taken not from those who dreamed of what L.A. could be, but of what L.A. should not be. The Framework introduces for the first time into Los Angeles' official planning vocabulary the notion of "Conservation Areas," which is the Framework's first significant departure from the 1974 Centers Concept.

Within Conservation Areas, prevailing uses (whether single family, multi-family, or commercial) and densities would be maintained essentially "as-is." Judging from the land use maps incorporated into the Framework, most residential areas in Los Angeles are proposed as candidates for "Conservation Area" designation. Growth, and especially the significant amount of previously planned multifamily housing which will be displaced from Conservation Areas, is to be confined to "Targeted Growth Areas" in mixed use development projects to be developed within commercial districts and along commercial boulevards. The Framework strongly suggests that the broader based gradual intensification of multi-family and transitional neighborhoods near Centers and around the City, which was called for by the Centers Concept, will not occur.

Supporters will argue that the City should adopt the Framework now because focusing residential and commercial growth into narrow transit corridors and hubs will increase transit ridership, reduce congestion, reduce air impacts, and preserve "stable" neighborhoods. Critics will caution that it would be unwise to make a citywide commitment to entrust delivery of the vast majority of Los Angeles' future (and existing) housing need to mixed-use product until it can be demonstrated that the type proposed is viable and can achieve market acceptance in the broad spectrum of locations considered. In addition critics will argue that market rejection of the Framework's mixed-use component will simply reinforce suburbanization.

Indeed, many legitimate questions will be asked about the viability of mass marketed mixed-use housing in Los Angeles. Those of us who have lived in mixed-use districts in other cities where they are prevalent can attest to the fact that mixed-use creates its own type of congestion for both residents and visitors, its own character of localized air impacts and its own security problems. Housing adjacent to transit stations is convenient, but carries certain negatives with it. 

Mixed-use will certainly be considered attractive to would-be residents in some areas (ironically, the Framework does not propose mixed-use for Westwood Village or Brentwood; and very little mixed-use is envisioned for Ventura Boulevard); but it can be argued that mixed-use, with its unique project planning characteristics (high land cost; parking needs; security access, service problems, etc.) will not be sufficiently competitive in its typical Los Angeles setting to command sufficient rents to support quality development, and hence that mixed-use development will not occur at the rate upon which the Framework appears to rely in order to meet new housing need. 

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Another question is whether the City Council will support the Framework, if adopted. As mentioned earlier, the Framework does not call for mixed-use in many different locations that have attracted growth and would have seemed obvious candidates to pioneer the market. This decision appears to anticipate the controversy and discord which will occur when City Council members are asked to approve projects that will urbanize Los Angeles' traditional village scale commercial districts and boulevards. 

These approvals will change the direction of Los Angeles growth and the look and feel of Los Angeles living, and they will be anything but politically simple. Will Angelenos welcome the transformation of main streets throughout the City as they are lined with three to eight story mixed-use development along commercial boulevards and backed by centralized parking structures? In presenting the Framework, City planners have candidly stated that it would be unrealistic to expect that City Council members will relinquish any significant measure of the project-by-project discretionary authority which the Council amassed in the 1980's. 

The question of whether the Framework's Conservation/Targeted Growth Area should furnish the basis for a sea-change in City growth policy at this time also raises one of several troubling procedural questions. In response to concern expressed about the significance and degree of change envisioned, the Framework's drafters publicly disclaim that the Framework is intended to change actual land use entitlements, and that such decisions will be made as the City proceeds in updating the individual community plans over the next several years. However, California law requires vertical and horizontal consistency between the elements of a city's general plan, and since the Framework presents itself as a new clement that seeks to define "citywide comprehensive growth strategy," it is likely that the City will find itself in a legal mess if it continues to implement existing community plans that conflict with the Framework, or if the City fails to implement the very detailed goals, objectives, policies, maps and implementation programs laid out in the Framework community plans. The Framework team included lawyer Dan Curtin, who advised the City on this issue, but developers and their projects will not want to find themselves casualties of the cross-fire. Thus, there appears to be no escaping the need to confront the policy issues presented by the Framework before it is adopted. 

Another troubling issue is whether the Framework is a "growth control'' plan. When the proposal for the Framework was originally introduced there was wide-spread discussion about whether it was time for Los Angeles to move to a metered building permit approach, or to tie development permits more strongly to stipulated levels of improvement in infrastructure and services (for example, through the imposition of do-or-die mitigation requirements).

As the recession set in, however, concern grew that such approaches would place Los Angeles at a competitive disadvantage to cities with lower barriers to entry. As a result, the concept was reconsidered, and in its finished form, the Framework seems to have overtly avoided such an approach. In its place, the Framework offers the concept of "growth monitoring,'' and provides that the City will establish a program to report to the City Council annually on growth, the status of public infrastructure, public services, and the status of environmental mitigation requirements. The City Council will be expected to use this information to consider policy revisions if desired results are not being achieved. 

Although the Framework's growth monitoring approach is superior to a mechanical growth control system, monitoring (coupled with the need to update all of the City's community plans to implement the Framework) will nevertheless place the City Council squarely in the middle of growth control battles for years to come. The Framework EIR states that the City will be able to "largely" mitigate the impacts of growth in all environmental categories except land use and urban form through adherence to the policies of the Framework, reliance upon background assumptions (e.g., the construction of rail and other regional transportation facilities, and evolutionary changes in modal splits) and specific mitigation measures. 

The EIR sets up high performance expectations; the Council will be receiving annual reports on whether these performance assumptions, mitigation measures, and mitigation targets are being met. If they are not met, growth opponents will argue that general planning principles and CEQA mitigation monitoring laws compel the City to halt or alter further growth. Worse, if the Council does not engage in annual growth monitoring required by the Framework (preparation of citywide monitoring reports will be an expensive exercise), growth opponents may seek to block implementation of the Framework even before problems are identified.

A final word—the Framework is in draft form, and like most drafts it contains a fair measure of inconsistent statements and policy proposals. The authors will probably feel that much of the above misses or misinterprets important aspects of their intent. Because the draft will engender similar comment and speculation around the City and require time to work through, it is fortunate that the draft is being presented during a growth hiatus when decision-makers, interested members of the public, and members of the development industry have the time (if not the employment) to discuss and debate the merits of approaches which have been thoughtfully laid on the table. 

Civic leaders will find their political skills severely tested by the effort to bring this debate to successful closure before it is allowed to negatively impact Los Angeles' image in the eyes of would-be investors and employers. 

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