March 30, 1996 - From the March, 1996 issue

San Fernando Valley Planning Update: It Isn’t Just Suburbia Anymore

The San Fernando Valley is maturing past its "bedroom community" days. Kenneth Bernstein, Planning/Transportation Deputy to Los Angeles City Councilmember Laura Chick and former editor of 


Ken Bernstein

“City leaders confronting the Valley’s new urban realities are employing the full array of planning tools long utilized in the rest of Los Angeles…”

When Southern Californians think of interesting urban planning laboratories, the San Fernando Valley is not the first area that comes to mind. 

Most outsiders have a picture of the Valley as the land of endless strip malls and 1950s ranch 

Homes, devoid of coherent urban form. Yet the Valley has become far more urban and far more like the rest of Los Angeles than either secession-minded Valley residents or Valley-scorning city resident would care to admit. North Hills has the same problems with over-crowded housing and gang activity as Pico-Union. 

The theater and arts district in North Hollywood's "NoHo" is rivaling Venice as a cutting-edge home for artists. Panorama City's mall and business district now caters to Latino shoppers as a somewhat more up­scale version of downtown's Broadway district.

But amidst these growing similarities, the Valley has taken an even more brutal beating throughout the 90s than has the rest of Los Angeles. The Valley's comparatively heavier  dependence on defense and aerospace jobs generated tremendous economic dislocation and a collapse in real estate values. Then, to top it all off, came the January 1994 earthquake that leveled neighborhoods throughout the Valley. 

As a result of these changes, the term "Valley Urban Planning" is no longer an oxymoron. Indeed, for the first time, City leaders confronting the Valley's new urban realities are employing the full array of planning tools long utilized in the rest of Los Angele—from redevelopment to community development corporations, from rail transit to economic development strategies. What follows is a survey of some of the key urban planning trends and issues facing the San Fernando Valley—a Valley that is seeking to retain its semi-suburban flavor and quality of life while it grapples with its new maturity.

Ventura Blvd. Specific Plan

Many of the changes occurring in Valley urban planning policy can be found along the Valley's "Main Street", Ventura Blvd. During the go-go 80s, Ventura Blvd. aus on the front-lines of the Valley's growth wars: developers eager to build ever-larger retail and office projects to serve the booming Valley economy were pitted against homeowners who loathed the endless mini-malls and sore-thumb towers that resulted. An uneasy truce was reached in the Ventura/Cahuenga Blvd. Corridor Specific Plan, passed in 1991, which put in place strict height limits (two- and three-stories) as well as large transportation fees ("trip fees") to pay for traffic improvements along the boulevard. 

The high trip fees (together with the lackluster overall economy in the Valley) slowed down development activity along the boulevard and proved extremely complex to administer. But paradoxically, the slow development activity also meant that insufficient funds were being collected to pay for the tangible improvements promised to communities along the boulevard. Now, a significant amendment package coming to City Council soon, will scale back the high trip fees by nearly 80% by correcting calculation errors and making policy changes to create a more realistic package of' improvements. The new trip fees will now be calculated on a square footage basis rather than on trips to give developers a better sense of their true costs. Average fees will fall from about $12 per square foot to a much more reasonable $3 per sq. ft. 

While these Plan amendments have been working their way through the City process, all five Valley communities along the Ventura Blvd. corridor have been undertaking extensive streetscape planning efforts to upgrade the visual character of the boulevard. Ventura Blvd.—which today serves simultaneously as a traffic-choked alternate route to the Ventura Freeway, an archetype of strip commercial development, and a village-like community center—would under the plans be transformed in key district into a more pedestrian-friendly, tree-lined Main Street. As part of the Specific Plan amendments, $50,000 of the fees already collected in each community will be utilized as seed money to jump-start these streetscape plans and to lay the groundwork necessary to pass assessment districts or Business Improvement Districts to implement them fully. 

These changes have occurred in a new spirit of relative cooperation, in marked contrast to the 80s-style adversarial relations between business and residents. While one can never expect complete agreement on planning issues, business interests and residents alike have realized the Specific Plan's flaws and have sought to correct them. Town Councils and boulevard improvement associations, proudly composed of both business and residential representatives, are springing up along the boulevard. The boulevard communities have also forged such a surprisingly strong consensus behind a pedestrian-oriented Ventura Blvd. (taming the original Plan’s auto-oriented, traffic engineer driven emphasis) that it would warm a "neo-traditional" planner's heart. 

Earthquake Recovery

Though many Valley residents believe (sometimes with justification) that government can't get anything right, the City of Los Angeles, quietly and without much public acclaim, has successfully served as the catalyst in restoring the San Fernando Valley's earthquake-damaged "ghost towns." These 17 ghost towns (areas with more than 100 vacated units) seemed intractable after the earthquake, with most observers predicting it would be several years before full recovery and that hundreds of owners would likely walk away from their properties in the meantime. 

Using the federal emergency appropriation, Gary Squier' s L.A. Housing Department (LAHD) has aggressively offered attractive financing terms that made rebuilding possible. In the 17 ghost town areas, LAHD, SBA, and private sources were able to finance 99% of the 7,500 vacated units and over 85% of these units either have been completed or have construction work in progress. By the close of 1995, an impressive 11,000 earthquake-damaged units had been funded by LAHD. 

Today, while the Valley landscape is still pock-marked with earthquake damaged buildings, only the handful of most difficult cases remain. With LAHD's earthquake repair funding now essentially dried up, 1996 will likely bring a battle among various City departments for the remaining earthquake recovery resources, a battle that could force City leaders to choose between housing, business assistance and the City's infrastructure needs. 

CRA Comes to the Valley

As LAHD wraps up its most intensive period of work in the San Fernando Valley, the City's Community Redevelopment Agency is beginning to make its presence fully felt in the San Fernando Valley for the first time. Although a North Hollywood CRA project area has existed since the 1970s, most Valley residents have viewed the CRA as a distant downtown bureaucracy whose mission is to eradicate blight in the inner-city. Now, with the City Council's passage of several Disaster Assistance Recovery Redevelopment Plans, including three in the Valley, the CRA has become a more important Valley player. 

For the disaster recovery plans targeted at more affluent portions of the Valley, the CRA's lack of credibility proved a major factor in throwing the redevelopment proposals into controversy. Twelfth District Councilman Hal Bernson abandoned his proposal for a plan area before passage and even a limited redevelopment plan targeting condominium repair in Sherman Oaks was scrapped by new Councilman Mike Feuer after significant community opposition arose. 

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But other portions of the Valley, slower to bounce back fully from the earthquake and desperate for any available means to finance revitalization strategies, have embraced the CRA's arrival. The Valley, much like other parts of the City, now has pockets of older commercial districts and deteriorating housing stock. In the Disaster Assistance Project areas of Pacoima, the North Hollywood district around Valley Plaza and Laurel Plaza, and in the West Valley communities of Canoga Park, Winnetka, and Reseda, the CRA is being viewed as one of the few viable tools for filling the gaps in residential recovery and for bringing about the economic recovery of neighborhood commercial districts. 

The earthquake recovery plans will be a key test of the "new" CRA. In these recovery plans, the CRA’s eminent domain powers are sharply limited to acquiring only vacant, nuisance properties: the clear message is that it's not just redevelopment as usual. But the CRA's largest hurdle lies in its current lack of resources. Tax increment financing doesn't generate the levels of funding that it used to and the CRA’s dwindling staff now is spread more thinly, over 30 plan areas instead of 18. 

To get anything done in the new fiscal environment, new CRA Administrator John Molloy recognizes that the CRA will have to leverage outside resources and forge strategic alliances. In the Valley, the Agency will likely work closely with the San Fernando Valley Alliance—a consortium of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, the Valley Economic Development Center, and the United Chambers of Commerce of the San Fernando Valley. The Alliance has undertaken the first-ever Valley-wide economic development strategy, another planning tool never deemed necessary in the Valley's earlier days as a bedroom community. In the coming months, the Alliance will be hiring an executive director and implementing its recommendations, which include the creation of a small business assistance center and revolving loan funds, a new media technology center, public-private business retention teams, and new partnerships to foster workforce preparedness. 

A New Ballgame for Affordable Housing

The earthquake, while devastating to the Valley's housing stock, did create an opportunity to rebuild some of the older, damaged multi-family housing as higher-quality affordable housing. While the rest of the city was developing an impressive infrastructure of community-based non­profit housing and community development organizations during the 1980s, the Valley was still largely pretending that it didn't have housing problems. In the meantime, "affordable" housing (such as it was) had become "affordable" largely through the degeneration of 1950s and 60s apartment buildings on the Valley's major corridors. 

As an example of how needs and perceptions are changing, even the West San Fernando Valley has recognized that it has a need for higher quality affordable housing. The West Valley Community Development Corporation (WVCDC), launched in the past year, will focus on the Canoga Park area and aims to bring badly needed affordable housing and community-based revival to this largely Latino neighborhood. WVCDC will draw on a talented and broad-based board of West Valley planners, real estate professionals, major for-profit developers, social service providers. and low-income residents as it pursues its goals of providing decent housing for families and promoting home-ownership. 

Valley Rail Outlook

While much has changed over the last decade in the Valley's approach to land use, housing, and redevelopment, the Valley has made little progress in resolving its contentious rail transit debate. With traffic on the Ventura Freeway at a crawl much of the time, viable rail transit across the Valley is crucial to the Valley's future mobility and economic viability. Supervisor Mike Antonovich's long crusade to promote a monorail on the Ventura Freeway bitterly divided the Valley for several years, but ultimately failed when the cost and feasibility of the monorail system failed to live up to the Disneyland fantasy. In October 1994, the MTA Board chose the Burbank-Chandler railroad right-of-way as the preferred alignment for a cross-Valley rail system. 

But the years of division have come back to haunt the Valley. Just when the route decision was finalized, the financial bottom fell out of the MTA, pushing the construction start of the East-West line back to 2003 and postponing the completion date to Warner Center until 2018. The East-West Rail issue today has an air of unreality about it, particularly when many residents are skeptical that the will exists to complete the tunneling from Hollywood to North Hollywood. 

Nevertheless, Valley leaders continue working to secure the financing necessary to build the East-West line. During 1996, the MTA, Mayor Riordan and Valley leaders will be exploring cost-saving options for the line, including bringing it above ground (or, at least not retaining a full deep-bore subway) through the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of North Hollywood and through residential areas to the west—a debate that will likely re-open old wounds from a decade ago. 

Creative Transit Alternatives

Valley residents can't be blamed for tiring by now of the whole rail planning exercise. Most are looking for feasible transportation options today, not 20 years from now. One promising development for the shorter term is the San Fernando Valley Bus Restructuring, coordinated between the MTA and the City’s Department of Transportation (LADOT). This restructuring will re-orient the Valley's bus lines away from the current grid system. Taking its place will be a "hub and spoke" system, with the hubs located at new transit centers at key activity centers and Metrolink stations, thus allowing for timed transfers and new community-serving shuttle bus service.

The implementation of these recommendations has been slower than expected and could still founder against resistance from MTA unions, but it does offer new possibilities for getting Valley residents out of their cars. Other areas of the City are carefully watching the Valley's efforts as they move forward with their own bus restructuring efforts. 

An even more creative project to watch is the proposed "Smart Shuttle" demonstration project, an idea developed by SCAG, MTA, and LADOT. These shuttles will be a transit mode falling somewhere between a bus and a taxi and will provide a market-oriented, flexible transit option for West Valley areas such as Woodland Hills, West Hills, Canoga Park, and Chatsworth (as well as South Central L.A.). LADOT is issuing a fairly open-ended Request for Proposals to test the interest among transportation providers in launching such a service. The success or failure of this pilot project will be a fascinating real-life test of more market-driven, entrepreneurial transit ideas.

A Mid-'90s Assessment

While outside perceptions haven’t yet caught up to reality, the Valley is emerging from its most difficult period in recent memory with a new maturity—replete with both the growing pains and excitement that maturity brings. The Valley that developed in an auto-oriented, haphazard manner in its early years has begun to embrace land-use planning tools aimed at giving greater shape to its urban form and restoring primacy to the pedestrian. It is confronting new urban realities such as decaying neighborhoods and aging retail districts. And finally, the Valley has largely moved past the pitched battles between homeowners and developers that marked land-use politics in the 1980s, replaced by a somewhat more consensus-oriented, collaborative process. 

To be sure, Valley residents still want the San Fernando Valley to retain its distinctive feel, rightly insisting that change must not deteriorate the quality of life that brought them to the Valley in the first place. But with the Valley now accounting for nearly 40% of the City of Los Angeles’ population, the Valley's success or failure in adapting to its more urban future will reveal a great deal about Los Angeles' ability to cope with the 21st Century.

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