June 12, 2013 - From the July, 2013 issue

Rick Cole: City Planning in Los Angeles Surrenders in Merger to 'Create Efficiencies'

Rick Cole

"Simply speeding up the dysfunctional process is clearly not the solution. The primary problem isn’t that the production line is too slow. The primary problem is that it is producing crap." -Rick Cole

Ravaged by recession and savage cutbacks in personnel and funding, the planning profession is in retreat in countless municipalities across our state. In California’s largest city, the planning function faces outright surrender.

The looming test in Los Angeles comes with the “merger” of the Planning Department and the Department of Building and Safety. There is nothing inherently misguided about such a combination. In smaller cities, that is the general standard. Putting those who make plans in the same department as those who enforce them comes with certain potential advantages. There are always tensions between comprehensive planning policy goals and the messier real world of applying those to specific projects.  When there is one department over both functions, the inherent tensions can be balanced internally and intentionally. When the two functions are housed in two departments, those tensions often engender mixed messages and turf wars.

That principle is less clear-cut in a city at the scale of Los Angeles. It may be harder to maintain coherence and competent management in one large department than in two smaller ones. But that is not a fatal flaw—it is simply a more difficult challenge to manage.

What truly matters, of course, is the guiding vision of the combined department. In hard times, it is understandable that long-term vision would be less valued than immediate results. Great cities and great organizations, however, don’t abdicate their futures to the crassly transactional. Both ends of the planning and building continuum are important—making great places requires both effectively maintaining an overall vision and efficiently implementing it project by project. 

But what if there is no long-term vision, but simply a mandate to “streamline” short-sighted decision-making?

Of course, no one would ever admit to that. So the lame duck administration adopted simplistic sound bites to mask their void in vision. Hence laudable terms like “smart growth” or “transit-oriented development” were given lip service. For those terms to be valid, however, would require carefully calibrating them to the actual context of diverse conditions in a vast city of 3.6 million people. A high rise at an existing Red Line stop might be “smart growth.” The same development would be idiotic in less favorable conditions. The “planning” function is supposed to sort that out in advance.

Unfortunately, this fundamental ethos has been notably lacking in the City of Angels over the years.  That may explain why so few are concerned that planning, which has never worked out particularly well there, is about to be abandoned altogether. But if the goal was to arrest the city’s decline rather than accelerate it, the heedless short-term mentality driving the “merger” would receive more thoughtful evaluation, and even reconsideration.

Yes, the current “project by project” approval process in Los Angeles can be a subjective, miserable, and expensive nightmare for developers and an equally sickening, dispiriting, and exhausting war of attrition for citizens. But simply speeding up the dysfunctional process is clearly not the solution. The primary problem isn’t that the production line is too slow. The primary problem is that it is producing crap. 

It’s a new twist on the classic gag that Woody Allen used to open his classic movie, Annie Hall. “There's an old joke,” the comedian recalls. “Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort and one of 'em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know, and such small portions’." Los Angeles has the opposite predicament: most of what eventually gets built is really terrible, and boy, there is so much of it.


That’s why merely a restoration of “old school” planning is not the way forward if Los Angeles is to achieve a more livable and prosperous future. Although the long Con Howe era in the Planning Department (1992-2005) was marked by heroic aspirations, in actuality, planners exerted pitifully little influence on the political horse-trading of big time development or the rubber-stamping of thousands of soulless apartment/condo blocks and mini-malls. Too much energy was lavished on creating plans on paper that stopped short of prescribing specific and enforceable design and building standards for private development and public infrastructure. Where the rubber meets the street, the quality of what was built in Los Angeles over the past two decades is nearly indistinguishable from what was built in Houston—a city notorious in its disdain for “planning.”  

What Los Angeles needs is neither more planning nor less planning but more effective planning. LA desperately needs clearer codes, calibrated to real local conditions that are consistently applied to real projects in real places. Twenty years ago, such practical tools were just being tested in American cities and none at the scale of a city like Los Angeles. They exist now. All over the country and even in California, new form-based coding and street standards are attuned to actually producing streets and buildings that work for people. Fostering the kind of walkable urbanity celebrated by Jane Jacobs is not a utopian quest but a practical alternative.   

Those tools can be deployed in Los Angeles by a consolidated planning/building department to reliably mandate the outcomes we want, using predictable standards that remove the subjectivity that pits developers against citizens in wars that no one wins.

So if Los Angeles moves forward instead with the merger in order to “streamline” the entitlement of ugly and out-of-scale development, guided by out-dated mathematical formulas and political jockeying, that would be a conscious choice, even if it is made with little conscious debate.

Is there any cause for optimism for a positive outcome from the merger?  With any new administration, hope springs eternal. There has seldom been a mayor who embarked on his first days in office with more soaring promises of pursuing livable, sustainable development than … Antonio Villaraigosa. He said all the right things at the outset. In picking San Diego’s Gail Goldberg to replace Con Howe, Villaraigosa sent unmistakable signals that a new golden age was dawning. Yet within three years, he installed Austin Beutner over City Hall and Bud Ovrom at Building and Safety to dismantle anything blocking new development. That they didn’t entirely succeed had less to do with lack of effort on their part and more to do with Villaraigosa’s curiously short attention span. Michael LoGrande has been tasked with finishing the job through the merger. 

The next Mayor has yet to show his hand. Like Villaraigosa in the early days, Mayor-elect Eric Garcetti says all the right things. Whether Garcetti will act to chart a different course from his predecessor remains to be seen. Significantly, the new Mayor of the California’s second largest city has thrown down the gauntlet. By appointing Bill Fulton to reconstitute a Planning Department abolished by his predecessor, San Diego Mayor Bob Filner has clearly embarked on a different path than the current course in Los Angeles. Fulton is the state’s highest profile advocate for credible smart growth and visionary planning. If Filner backs him up, the contrast will be striking between California’s two largest cities—unless Garcetti also opts for a decisive break from the current direction.

The stakes are high. California is still fitfully emerging from the housing and economic meltdown. With the promising implementation of SB 375, our state has a new regional framework for city planning. We have the potential to finally turn the corner against suburban sprawl and urban blight.  The opportunity to realistically plan for—and actually achieve—better outcomes is within the grasp of the dominant metropolis in Southern California. What a pity if we fail to open our minds and reach for it.


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