May 21, 2007 - From the May, 2007 issue

A Response To Sprawl: L.A. Planning Commission Releases 14 Smart Planning Principles

In a critical time for land-use practices in the city of Los Angeles, the city's Planning Commission has made the bold move of articulating the need for guidelines for smart growth and has released 14 principles for "real planning." TPR was pleased to speak with Father Spencer Kezios of the L.A. Planning Commission in order to discuss the 14 principles as well as the Planning Commission's efforts to expedite the development process in L.A.

Spencer Kezios

How did Mayor Villaraigosa entice you into serving on the City Planning Commission? How do you hope to realize his vision and influence the city's built environment?

Los Angeles has a great climate, and we should have a beautiful city to go along with it. I was enticed by the opportunity to help make that a reality. I feel that walkability in Los Angeles is a serious issue because walkability brings communities together; it allows us to interact with each other socially.

I also felt that landscaping and the design and placement of housing, especially multi-family housing, could be enhanced, thus making a more attractive city. It bothers me to see the crowded back of townhouses on many of our thoroughfares, which is done to gain as much space as possible but at the cost of the quality of life for the people who live in them.

I am also concerned with affordable housing, because I think it is an important aspect of our life. Unless we begin to provide more affordable housing we may well find ourselves with a sharp loss in our work force.

The Planning Commission recently issued a statement saying that "The time for inspired, principled land use planning in Los Angeles is now," and it endorsed 14 principles for good planning. Elaborate on the commission's decision to adopt these principles.

Our president, Jane Usher, called a retreat for all the commission members, and as we began our conversation, we saw the need to address certain issues and situations, establish policies, and give guidelines and direction. We wanted to offer some direction about the commissions thoughts on what proper planning should be. This would also give insight to developers, as well as staff, awareness of the direction and policies thus benefiting projects as they are brought before the commission.

We need to develop a community; we need the Planning Department, the developers, and the citizens at large. All of us need to get on the same page regarding good planning for a better community and a better city.

Some of the principles include, "produce green building," "arrest visual blight," neutralize mansionization," "identify smart parking requirements," and "narrow road widenings." And lastly principles include: "give project input early." What inspired the commission to promote these principles for Los Angeles?

Well let's start with the last one. When good policy guidelines have been established and the Planning Department knows exactly what the commission is looking for, then we avoid the problem of having a deficient project come before the commission. Whoever is developing the project should be aware of the commission policies and guidelines as put forth through the Planning Department, prior to final submission. This obviously avoids delays, changes and even misunderstandings. That occurred quite frequently.

In the beginning of our tenure, we noticed for example, that we did not have the proper elevations; landscape plans were a sheet of paper with rubber-stamped trees. So the commission has asked for landscape plans to become more detailed so we can have an idea of the placement and variety of plants and how they will affect not only that particular project but the surrounding area as well.

Some would say that the Planning Department staff is responsible for early interaction with developers and that for the commissioners absolutely should not micromanage projects. How do you respond?

The Planning Commission is not looking to micromanage. The Planning Commission is looking to set policy guidelines that will allow the Planning Department, when they confer with the applicants, to come up with the best possible plan so that an intelligent decision can be made by the commission. This is the responsibility of the commission.

There is always some tweaking done for the benefit of a project. For example, if there is a retaining wall separating one project from the other, and the landscape design that has come before the commission does not, in the opinion of the commission, properly permit for the appropriate variety of trees to screen the project from the adjoining project or vice versa, adjustments are made. The suggestion of the commission at that point is, "If you consider doing this, we'd like to see this done."

Is that policy development, or is that the commission going beyond what the staff has negotiated with applicants? Does implementing these principles interfere with the staff's role?

This is not a question of interfering with the staff. The commission received a mandate from the mayor when our appointments were made. When our tenure began, the plans coming before the commission lacked in detail. We had something that said, "This is going to be landscape. These are going to be trees, and this is going to be grass, and then the Planning Department will eventually see the plans."


What we look toward now is to have input, so that we review a basic plan for which the developer has made a defined commitment. As more of these cases come before the commission, then the Planning Department and the Planning Commission will come to be on the same page. There is a certain amount of understanding that the commission has to have with the work of the Planning Department.

I think the Planning Department is doing very good work now. By the same token, the Planning Department is coming to know the commission. As we are more and more on the same page, this will produce better planning.

TPR interviewed Emily Gabel Luddy last month about the Planning Department's Urban Design Studio and their plans to compose urban design guidelines for the city, and she made the following statement: "For the first time in a long time, there are a number of people within the city family who feel that our streets can be great, our neighborhoods can be so much better, our corridors can be beautiful." How much support does the Urban Design Studio have from the Planning Commission?

One-hundred percent. President Usher has appointed a committee that will be working with Emily on the Urban Design Studio and will present its report to the commission. We are trying to make what Emily is talking about a reality. Here we go again: let's all get on the same page.

Last month, Holly Schroeder of the Building Industry Association confirmed that the region's unmet need exceeds 300,000 units. What role can Planning Commission play to find a way to include this housing in a built out city while making this city a better place to live?

It would take a Solomon to answer that question, and I don't pretend to be a Solomon. My personal opinion: we have to encourage higher density along the transit routes.

My regret is that we don't have a public transportation better than the one that we have at present. Hopefully we will remedy some of that in the next few years. Then if we increase the density along the transit corridors, it's going to alleviate the traffic; it's going to make the workplace more accessible to people; and hopefully it will also bring housing prices within range.

The commission's principles did not mention schools. The LAUSD is involved in building out the largest public works project in the nation, with $19 billion for new schools and retrofits. How can community plans and city planning process respond to the school district's immense building program?

A little known fact is that the Planning Commission has absolutely no say whatsoever into what LAUSD does. My understanding is that when the new charter was established, the Planning Commission was taken out of that loop. We are now trying, through the efforts of Gail Goldberg, to engage in a more cooperative effort, on a volunteer basis, with L.A.U.S.D. to see how we can work on the impact these schools will have on the neighborhoods where they plan to develop.

You bring a different background to the commission than the normal land-use lawyer, developer, or neighborhood representative. What perspective do you bring to the commission?

I'd like to believe that I am contributing a practical approach to some of these problems. Maybe that's why the mayor asked me to be on the commission. I think he wanted somebody who would be an advocate from the community, precisely for the reasons that you said-because I am not involved in the development community, was not in land use, and was not an urban planner. But I represent the ordinary citizen and I have a background in community involvement. That's what I hope to contribute.

Have you enjoyed being on the commission?

I am enjoying the commission immensely. Number one, I cannot say enough words to praise my fellow commissioners, and I am not patronizing them; I don't have to. Each one of these people is an outstanding individual in their own right. What I am most impressed with is their integrity and their love for the city and dedication to making it a better place. All these different cases and all the little details that go into a project are also fascinating to me. I enjoy seeing beautiful projects evolve. When you see them start to go up you feel a certain amount of justifiable pride.

It's a lot of work-a lot more than I realized. It's a tremendous amount of reading. And it's a tremendous responsibility when you realize that an applicant is bringing before you a project that, in many cases, represents many millions of dollars. It's the type of responsibility for which one must properly prepare. I would also like to believe that the spiritual side of me could be helpful, especially as it applies to social problems.


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