June 1, 2001 - From the June, 2001 issue

Counter-Point: Planning Commissioner Chet Widom

As a counterpoint to Councilwoman Galanter's vote on the Avalon Bay project, TPR is pleased to bring you LA Planning Commissioner Chet Widom's comments. He notes that both the Los Angeles Planning Commission and the City Council's own Planning and Land Use Management Committee (PLUM) voted to deny this project before the City Council approved it 11 to 1. While the project is within Los Angeles, the issues arise statewide.


Chester "Chet" Widom

As I reflect upon the issues that came before the City Planning Commission during the past year, as well as my prior experience on both the Building and Safety Commission and as the Vice Chair of the Elected Charter Reform Commission, a number of disturbing questions come to the forefront:

• Is the political climate in Los Angeles so volatile and convoluted that the elected leadership cannot maintain and foster sound planning principles?

• Has the cost of political campaigns in both human and financial capital become so expensive that support from the various critical constituencies is more important than civic leadership?

• Is the concept that Council members do not vote against the person who represents the District where a project is located, even when the project violates every accepted planning principle, become more important than the needs of the city as a whole?

My general attitude of optimism, founded probably on my training as an Architect and a Planner, wants desperately to answer each of these questions with a resounding NO. My experience is much more pessimistic. One could look at a number of current issues, such as the debate over the Big Box Ordinance or the Billboard proposal, as examples of politically charged planning concerns. However a recent example, which relates to a proposal for inserting housing in the Sixth Council District, best illustrates my concerns.

A developer, whose quality of design and presentation can serve as a model of excellence for all to emulate, requested the approval of a 309-unit apartment project. The developer, known as Avalon Bay Communities, requested both a change in the community plan and a change from light industrial zoning (M-2) to one that would allow multiple family housing.

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We are all aware of the critical need for additional housing. In fact, the City Planning Commission recently developed a broad series of recommendations to the City Council that address solutions to this very serious issue. We are also all aware of the critical need to maintain viable space for light industrial and office needs. The question was never about which need was greater. The question was never about the quality of the project's design. The question is about sound planning, about the conflicts created by spot zoning and about creating a long-term livable environment.

As much as each and every member of the commission was positively pre-disposed to this project, the unanimous conclusion of the seven members attending the hearing was that this project was wrong and we denied approval of the development. We could not justify placing a new housing development in the center of a thriving light industrial area. We could not justify how it would be compatible with the existing operations of a large motion picture/television sound stage which operates 24 hours a day, with extensive exterior activities, immediately to the south of the project. We could not justify how it would be compatible with either the existing company that renovates military tanks (yes- military tanks), which occurs across the street to the north, or with existing large-scale microwave/ cellular towers to the east. If the process had been reversed, that is to say- if the request was to insert any single one of these industrial uses adjacent to housing, - is there any question what the reaction would be? A big concern in the future is what the city's response will be in five years when the residents of the completed project come to the planning department with complaints about the noise, traffic and pollution adjacent to their homes?

The applicant appealed our decision to the City Council. Our commission was so concerned about this project and its potential for precedent setting relating to spot zoning, that three of us attended the PLUM Committee hearing at which time the committee upheld our decision by a two to one vote. When the issue went in front of the Council, the commission's ruling and the PLUM committee's recommendation was over-turned by an 11-1 vote. Ruth Galanter, in whose district the project is located, commented to the City Council that "what was one person's spot zoning was another person's mixed-use". The concept of mixed-use is based upon the idea of compatible uses working together to create a more vibrant community. It is difficult enough to conceive of 24/7 motion picture production and day-to-day apartment dwelling working well together, but military tanks and large-scale antennas? I don't think so.

By no means am I proposing that the work of the City Planning Commission is sacrosanct or that there are not social or civic concerns that must be balanced with, or sometimes over-ride, sound planning principles. By no means am I suggesting that the Council Member in whose district a project is located should not have a great deal of influence on its ultimate disposition. What is clear to me, however, is that if we are to reach our potential as a great city it will require leaders that are willing to say yes to our long-term needs- even at the expense of today's political pressures.

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