August 30, 1995 - From the August, 1995 issue

LA’s General Plan Framework: An Open Letter To G. Lefcoe

Former Planning Commissioner Bill Christopher's Open Letter To LA City's Current Planning Commission Chair, George Lefcoe, regarding LA's proposed General Plan Framework. Christopher is currently the coordinator for PLAN/LA. 

As a student of urban growth patterns the world over, I'm sure you appreciate the paradox that is planning in late 20th Century Los Angeles. It's summed up on the very first line of the staff report. "The Framework accommodates the inevitable growth of Los Angeles through policies that contribute toward the economic well-being and quality of life of the City's residents." Economic well-being is translated as jobs providing revenue to the City and quality of life is translated as the willingness of the middle class to remain in the City. Can we have both in LA or are we dealing with mutually exclusive goals and objectives? 

The Jobs Concept 

In searching through the tons of documents (well at least 20 pounds worth), the only unifying theme that emerges consistently (selling aside the land use/transportation motif and the mixed-use boulevards) is JOBS, JOBS and more JOBS—400,000 in all. Where the term "Centers Concept" clearly defined an idea, the General Plan Framework lacks a similar concise thread that makes it marketable and relevant. 

Instead, the Framework plans establishes a huge "Theoretical Buildout" which, we are told, will never happen because the ensuing Community Plan Revisions will be "constrained by Policy", thus creating a policy playground for the City Council. For example, today 1.3 million housing units are in place in the City. Current plans provide for a maximum of 2.1 million. The Framework "allows" for a total capacity of 2.6 million, or twice what we now have. The plan anticipates actually needing only 1.5 million units, yet adds half a million new potential units to plans which already accommodate the anticipated need. Staff argues that the available density is in places that can't be used for one reason or another, but no attempt is being made to remove that existing capacity. 

The Framework fares a little better in dealing with commercial space. Today we have a planned capacity that will last us until the year 2250. Under the new Framework Policies we will run out of space in 2175. One of the more interesting paradoxes is that while the Framework promotes jobs, it recognizes the fact that even if we add 400,000 jobs, we will largely house the needed/desired manufacturing jobs in existing facilities. Hence, the industrial density is actually slashed by a third. 

Land Use and Transportation 

Somewhere, buried in the background report is the Traffic Improvement and Mitigation Plan that is supposed to make all of the conjectures come together. The lynch-pin in these discussions is the Land/Use Transportation Policy, which targets increased density toward fixed rail transit stops. 

That presents a distinct problem for readers looking at the work with any degree of skepticism. It abdicates planning to the MTA, an agency with serious problems, both fiscal and political. It is appropriate to question a plan which is so heavily weighted toward the rail system when the real debate should focus on how to fix the bus system that has lost more than 300,000 boardings a day over the last ten years. That number of riders is equal to or more than will ride the entire rail transit network over the life of the Framework. Once the focus is on busses or other transit means, a different, more linear, development pattern emerges, challenging the premise that only 5% of the city's land will be used to accommodate the growth envisioned. 

Still, the Framework does not want to address what happens to the poor unfortunate souls who happen to fall outside the Centers, districts and mixed-use boulevards that are now the supposed targets for development. Downzoning trade-offs which would restrict what could be built outside the TGA's are not to be found in the document. In other words, while some incentives have been created to encourage building in TGA's, property owners are still free to build to 1.5 to 1 and 3 to 1 in areas not designated as centers. 

With that in mind, it is no wonder the DEIR deems attempts to actually predict growth patterns as "speculative". While growth will be attracted to centers by transit, the Plan is unwilling to trade-off protections in areas outside the target zones. As case in point is the decision to forego the initial recommendations to downzone local commercial districts to 1.0 to 1 or less. Check out the maps, the recommendations for lower than currently permitted densities are still printed on them. The errata sheets make it clear that somebody had a change of heart. Is it any wonder that some in the community are calling this the Constitution for Development?

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The Paradox 

Clearly, we need new jobs (and high wage jobs at that), but will they materialize, given the tradeoffs made by the Framework? The plan shows both a real and a paper reduction in the amount of open space in the City, as we see privately owned open space developed lacking a program to acquire new public open space. Since we have a tremendous shortage of open space already, what impact will the further diminution have on the quality of life? 

The Shadow Housing debate further defines the fears that community after community has about creeping density increases without the service capacity to handle it. The reality is that we are not going to have significantly more police, fire, school and traffic facilities; yet according to the Framework we will have increased densities. The paradox lies in believing that the planning process can put it together in a manner that makes it attractive to the middle class.  

The reality is that the City is growing, but not in a manner that is consistent with future prosperity. The social burdens are being borne by a growing immigrant and minority population representing a diminishing tax base, overlain with increased service costs. 

We quickly get down to the question of 'Who Pays?' The Framework is about addressing the underlying issues, but to the extent that it abdicates the question of who pays, it fails to address the basic needs of the City. It attempts, on its own terms, to improve the outlook through concentrated job growth related to transit, but that may not be enough. 

A City of Neighborhoods 

The strength of the City lies in its many, varied, and richly cultured neighborhoods. Some cluster around the proposed transit stops, some lie between the stations, and some are completely remote from the system. Nurturing, protecting and enhancing the neighborhood fabric of the city is critical to the quality of life for everyone. 

In the end, it is going to be the ones who live in those neighborhoods who pay for City services. If they don't think the services are commensurate with the costs to be borne, the system will come crumbling down. 

If LA is anything it is not homogenous. Yet in many ways the Framework attempts to spread the same solutions over all sectors of the City. The plan must be a Neighborhood Framework for Los Angeles, dealing with linkages between neighbors and not just jobs. Only then will the people who are going to have to foot the bill, sign on with the program. 

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