February 27, 2009 - From the February, 2009 issue

L.A.'s Newest City Planning Commissioner Sean Burton: Progressive But Pragmatic Priorities

Having served as the president of the West Los Angeles Area Planning Commission and as president of CityView, a national investor in workforce housing, Sean Burton brings an experienced and informed professionalism to his new seat on the L.A. City Planning Commission (CPC). In the following TPR interview, Burton talks about the agenda he brings to the planning process as well his opinion on some of the larger issues currently confronting the CPC.


Sean Burton

Mayor Villaraigosa recently appointed you to the L.A. City Planning Commission (CPC). Share what enticed you to take on this responsibility and what you hope to accomplish on this important commission.

I'm very appreciative that the mayor asked me to serve on the CPC. I spent the last four-and-a-half years serving on the West Los Angeles Area Planning Commission (APC), most recently as president. I've very passionate about planning issues. My father came to Los Angeles just after World War II on the G.I. Bill to go to college. I was born here, my children were born here, and I hope that their children are born here one day. I am an Angeleno, through and through, and want to be a part of the planning process because it has such an important impact on Los Angeles.

As far as what I'm hoping to accomplish: I asked the mayor what his priorities were when I met with him about this appointment. He stated that he wanted the commission to remain progressive but to also be pragmatic. He was hopeful that some of my experiences on both the APC, as well as here at CityView, can help bring insight and a different perspective to the commission.

The other thing that I hope to do is help create predictability at the commission level. Sometimes the CPC has been accused of tinkering with projects. The intent has always been good, but if there is a way to get involved in the process earlier and instill the "Do Real Planning" principles at the beginning, then developers and community members can have a greater sense of what to expect and can design projects appropriately.

That's a good segue to ask what you have learned both in your last five years with CityView and from your service on the city's Area Planning Commission that now informs your service on city's planning commission.

The APC gave me a useful perspective. While the cases at the APC don't necessarily make it into the newspaper and we don't have hundreds of people turn out, the community members and the applicants are very passionate about their projects. I was able to see how ordinances and policies are implemented at the local level as well as at the case level. That is a valuable perspective that I hope to bring to the CPC and to be able to say, "This may be our intent, but there may be some unintended consequences in this policy that we haven't thought about in the actual application."

My CityView experience has been invaluable as well. We invest in projects all over the country. We have more than 40 projects in 13 different states and have done for-sale housing projects, apartment projects, and mixed-use projects, entitled and unentitled. So I've been able to see how entitlements work in different cities around the country and hope to bring some of their best practice ideas to the CPC.

What best city planning practices have you identified?

One is predictability—understanding that when you go into a city, you want to be able to design a project that is consistent with the vision of the mayor and the applicable planning body. You want to design something that will work for the community. Most developers or builders try hard to do this, but sometimes the rules and/or the process are unclear. There are a lot of steps that can make it easy to challenge a project but that also make it difficult to get a good project approved. Cities that work well have clear guidelines and work with applicants and communities early on in the process to make sure projects are designed appropriately.

Another principle that's important and works well in a challenging economy is some flexibility in the entitlements so that when a project is entitled, the planning commission or the city gives some options as to what the project can ultimately be. Then, as an applicant tries to get financing or circumstances change, they can design something that will actually work and be successful. L.A. has been a leader on planning strategy. I am a big fan of the "Do Real Planning" principles because there is a clear vision for how planning should be done here in Los Angeles. A lot of cities could benefit by learning from us on this score.

When she resigned, the former president of the Planning Commission, Jane Usher, sent a note to the mayor saying, "Please reject any proposed update that relies on the careless, sprawl-inducing approach of adding density at every rapid bus stop," among other challenges. Can you comment on the challenges that Jane Usher raised in her letter and what the response of the commission, mayor, and the council is to the challenges she identified?

I don't know Jane Usher personally, but based on her reputation I hold her in high regard. She left a tremendous legacy to the commission by creating the "Do Real Planning" principles, as well as some of the other successes the commission has had over the last four years.

That being said, I have a slightly different take on the concept of "sprawl." To me, sprawl connotes the outward extension of the city—usually caused by haphazard or poor planning. This can have many ramifications, such as gridlock and pollution. In Los Angeles, people spend much too much time in their cars instead of at work or at home with their families. Appropriate density around mass transit makes a lot of sense to me, and it's one of the planning principles. It encourages walkability. It's better for the environment. And, quite importantly, it also locates jobs near housing. In all of my experience with the Planning Department, both at the APC level and through my short term with the CPC, I have seen a real attention to detail by the Planning Department to make sure that we're not creating haphazard sprawl.

One of the priority responsibilities of the Planning Department is updating community plans, with 13 updates now ongoing. What's your assessment of both the need for these plans and the outreach and professionalism that must go into each?

The process has been going on for a while now, and the department will report to the Planning Commission in March on their progress. We're going to try to tackle five plans this year, which has never been done before: Hollywood, Sylmar, San Pedro, Granada Hills, and West Adams. The department has been spending a lot of time reaching out to those communities to get input from stakeholders—residents, the council office, and businesses—to see what they want their communities to look like. I've asked the Planning Department to think about incorporating a real analysis of jobs within the community plans; let's look at where the jobs are so that we can "make good" on the planning principle that strives to place our housing near our jobs.

There was a fight last year squaring Cecilia Estolano of CRA/LA and Gail Goldberg of the Planning Department against the housing industry regarding the city's industrial land policy. If jobs are a high priority, how can community plans preserve the space for incubating new industry, new manufacturing, and new jobs?

The city has to have a good handle on the best way to create jobs and economic development. This concept needs to be fully integrated within the community plans. It's also very important that we focus on creating the right kinds of jobs. That is really a policy matter for the mayor and the council. Saying we want to create industrial jobs and preserve industrial land may be the right answer in certain communities and it may not be in others. There are cases where industrial land is occupied by empty buildings and factories. That's clearly not achieving the intended purpose and it needs to be examined more closely.

The space for industrial land in L.A. is down to eight percent, with a one percent vacancy rate. Is it really wise, if one wants to create $20- to $40-an-hour jobs in Los Angeles, to rezone more of that industrial land for housing?

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Let me be clear: I don't think that the city should take more of it for housing. Instead, we need to better understand where those industrial jobs will actually be so we don't have land with empty factories sitting unused. I'm not suggesting at all that we further reduce the amount of industrial land in Los Angeles. The city has spent a lot of time looking at this issue. But the city has also changed quite a bit since the 1920s and 1930s, and we need to make sure that we zone for our industrial jobs in the right places and change with the city's needs.

One of the controversial issues, which you perhaps unknowingly assumed a role in when you took the appointment with the Planning Commission, is the city signage ordinance. Can you address the signage issue as it has been raised before the CPC?

At my first meeting, I arrived to see 300 people, including community members and business members, all there to talk about the signage ordinance. It was quite an introduction to the City Planning Commission. There is clearly a tremendous interest in this ordinance. The last time that it was fundamentally rewritten was 1986, so a lot of the players have changed since that time. After the first hearing, there was so much interest that we postponed a decision and set a special hearing, which we had February 19.

The Planning Department did a terrific job of writing this ordinance, particularly Alan Bell and Daisy Mo. That doesn't mean that everybody agrees with every provision, but it was both very thoughtful and very thorough. A lot of research went into it, both legal research by the city attorney and a real look at how other cities, similar and dissimilar to Los Angeles, deal with the signage issue. It was, on a whole, a very balanced approach.

That being said, we have been under tremendous pressure because of the tight time frame of the Interim Control Ordinance. That, frankly, has been frustrating to the business community, neighborhood councils, muralists, and the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight. They all testified and strongly requested that we continue the matter. Because the matter is so complicated and we heard on several occasions that they haven't had enough time to see how the new ordinance would work, we made a decision at the hearing on February 19 to postpone the final decision on the ordinance and to appoint a four-person subcommittee, of which I will be a member. This subcommittee will lay out the next steps and the timing in a concentrated effort to narrow down the core issues. I expect that we will render a final recommendation to the City Council by our first meeting in April.

A few months ago, TPR featured an interview with Kevin Fry of Scenic America, who suggested that L.A. had the worst billboard problem in the country. What outcomes would you like to see out of the ordinance to correct that perception?

First of all, I generally agree with that perception. We have a very difficult billboard and signage problem here in Los Angeles. Because of the square mileage of our city and the fact that we are a vehicle-oriented city, this has become the test case for billboards throughout the country. What we do here will impact not just in Los Angeles but many other cities as well.

From my perspective, just speaking personally, one major victory for the city of Los Angeles would be to significantly improve the enforcement mechanism for billboards and the sign ordinance. We've received testimony that illegal billboards can garner anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 a month in revenue, but the violation for putting up an illegal billboard is $100. On top of that, the Department of Building and Safety has only three inspectors to handle billboard enforcement for all of the city, which is obviously a nearly impossible task. A real enforcement mechanism that could be implemented immediately would be a huge benefit to the city of Los Angeles.

Also, there has been a lot of visual blight created by digital billboards and the large supergraphics that are hung from buildings. My guess is that you'll see a significant curb, if not outright ban, on those outside of any sign districts. That would be a significant change.

We need continued clarity within the signage ordinance. There is a lot of confusion about the code. It's been changed a lot over the years in a piecemeal fashion. It's really a patchwork of different policies, which has created loopholes that some would say are being exploited. To close those loopholes and have a more consistent signage policy would be a big victory for the city and for our communities.

Let's turn to your background and roll with CityView. Last April, you were promoted to be president and chief operating officer of CityView. What are your responsibilities and duties and what are the prospects for workforce housing in 2009 and 2010?

CityView is an investor in workforce housing around the country. We don't develop on our own account; we joint venture with builders and developers to build workforce housing in cities. We don't do suburban housing. We don't buy lots on the edge of cities. We're focused on creating housing near job centers that is affordable and accessible to America's working families.

I spend a lot of time managing our staff and a lot of time traveling around the country with our builders, investors, and lenders. I discuss CityView's business plan and how we're dealing with this difficult market. We're very fortunate because we have stuck to our model of infill housing development focused on working families, and there has continued to be a market in this area. Of course, we've taken our hits like everybody else has...you can't be in this business and not have taken a significant hit. But we sold over 350 homes in 2008. To sell a home a day, in very difficult economic times, is really a feat and something that has made me very proud of our staff, our builders, and our company as a whole. There is still a market for housing that is in cities, near jobs, not luxury, but targeted at first-time home buyers and working families.

The federal stimulus package and the housing proposals on the table in Washington include incentives for first-time buyers. What is your view the efficacy of these incentives, and, in your opinion, how do you think they will be received in the marketplace?

The biggest and most important part of the stimulus package for what we do is the fact that it will create three million to four million jobs. One of the most important factors in the home building business, or investing in the home building business, is the creation of jobs.

There was a $15,000 federal tax credit in the Senate bill that was dramatically reduced in the final hours of negotiation, which is unfortunate because I think it really would have helped the housing market. That's been replaced here in California by the budget bill that recently passed, which has a $10,000 new-home-buyer tax credit that could really make a difference here in California.

While the president's foreclosure plan won't help a company like CityView directly, I am hopeful that it will have a big impact on the housing market generally. You really can't stop the downward spiral of the existing housing market until you stop or slow foreclosures and find ways to keep people in their homes. Both the Stimulus Plan and the Foreclosure Relief Plan are very positive measures for the housing market. That being said, we're prepared for 2009 to be a difficult year since it's going to take awhile before some of these provisions take hold and the U.S. consumer starts gaining confidence again.

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