June 30, 2014 - From the July, 2014 issue

Sam Hall Kaplan Opines on LA Public Dissatisfaction with Community Planning

In the following original piece for TPR, Sam Hall Kaplan questions the future of planning in Los Angeles in the context of the Hollywood Community Plan. He discusses the status of planning with those behind the scenes, giving voice to their frustrations and perspectives. Kaplan—a planner, writer, and academic—has worked as both a design critic for the Los Angeles Times and an urban affairs reporter for the New York Times, along with teaching at Art Center College of Design, Yale and Princeton. His critique for TPR reflects Kaplan’s own opinions and research.

“Community plans in the City of LA and their stepchildren, specific plans, are viewed in the municipal backrooms as a waste of time and resources.” -Sam Hall Kaplan

Whither planning in Los Angeles? Of all the services the City of LA  purports to deliver, however packaged and promoted by the self-serving private and public sectors and their apparatchik academics, planning has to be the most incongruous. 

Charged with providing a guide to a more livable, sustainable, and egalitarian city, planning—as practiced by a plump bureaucracy, pandering politicians, and a comfortable claque—has become an ambiguous paper-pushing, in-and-out basket exercise, confusing the public and consuming scarce municipal dollars. At least, according to a frustrated gaggle of practitioners trading candor for anonymity.

But then there are the other less shrill and more reasoned planning professionals who, while recognizing a fractured Southland and dearth of informed citizenry and leadership, argue that a sprawling Los Angeles pressured by inexorable growth desperately needs a planning vision to ensure its idiosyncratic character and tentative future—however imperfect the process.

What provoked this chorus of concern and complaints was my asking some select scattered sources of old the simple question of what, if any, is the future of planning in Los Angeles in the wake of the rejection by the courts of the Hollywood Community Plan, a bellwether of sorts of the 35 community plans that in accordance with state law constitute the city’s required General Plan. 

After several arduous years involving more than 120 community meetings and much acrimonious debate, the Hollywood Plan was considered a viable compromise by most involved. Blessed by the powers-that-be, it was approved by the LA Planning Commission and adopted by the LA City Council, only to be subsequently challenged by a consortium of local groups that, among many things, argued it the was an outdated, flawed document. The courts agreed, and last December the plan was buried.

Since then, there have been numerous conflicted explanations offered, among them at a recent Westside Urban Forum (printed in the June issue of TPR). The discussion was moderated by former Hollywood Councilmember Michael Woo, now of Cal Poly Pomona, and featured former Planning Commission president Jane Usher, present Commissioner Tom Donovan, and land use attorney Dale Goldsmith. Typical of such panels, there was no collective conclusion other than that the quest for community plans must continue, however flawed and questionably useful. Then there is Mayor Garcetti who not incidentally was the councilmember representing Hollywood when all this went down. His reaction has been a now redundant, studied smile, in keeping with the city’s timorous tradition that, despite words and studies to the contrary, considers planning something to be mollified with the minimum effort and cost.  

Missing in this and other airings has been the reaction of the rank-and-file. It was when seeking this perspective as someone who has been both a long-time witness and participant in the private and public sectors, and promising anonymity, that the frustrations of present day planning in Southern California were unveiled. A nerve was touched among those rarely asked their opinion.


Community plans in the City of LA and their stepchildren, specific plans, are viewed in the municipal backrooms as a waste of time and resources. “We give them lip service and then put them away on a dusty shelf. Planning is really done on a project-by-project basis,” said a Planning department veteran. Asked why he continues to do what he considers the unnecessary, he replied, “When you are at the end of a rope, you make a knot.” Another added that for her, planning was purely an academic exercise. She cited the department’s publication of the user oriented and neighborhood-sensitive “Do Real Planning” guidelines. Much ballyhooed when produced eight years ago, she felt they read well, but unfortunately translate badly into practical paradigms.

Asked for a more positive perspective, it was noted that the court decision has prompted a needed reconstituting of Community Plans to be more generic to avoid legal action, and with additional emphasis on preserving neighborhood character. Still, working on the plans was seen as being in a sort of purgatory. More appealing to those interviewed were the department’s more focused and local projects, such as streetscaping and small lot design guidelines. 

Most agreed with a touch of envy that “real planning” was not done at City Hall, but in the offices of deep -pocket developers—attended by land use attorneys and planning and public relations consultants. Bonded in a real-estate-driven LA, it is a consortium that constitutes what might be described as the city’s Mandarin class. They tend to thrive on the continued confused state of Community Plans, which necessitates their crafting of plan amendments, zoning changes, and costly other strategies to ease the approval of select big-buck projects.  

Their success, of course depends, on the support of local councilpersons, in keeping with the city’s twisted political tradition that considers each of the 15 councilmanic districts fiefdoms. Though each district has at least one planning potentate, “real” planning is frankly viewed as secondary to photo opportunities, press releases, political contributions, and what could be discreetly labeled personal considerations. However allegedly demeaning to the few who consider themselves professionals, the position has its perks in pay and praise among peers, however ingratiating. Pensions also are not bad, though few persevere to vest. 

Less affected but acutely aware of the confused state of Community Plans are the professional planners toiling—some would say perseverin—at Metro, the varied academic constructs, and in the nearly 100 small cities that compose Los Angeles County. Their perspectives offered off the record from the backbenches and veiled cubicles also revealed a conflicted profession questioning their relevancy and explaining, in part, why the Southland is a planning and development calamity.


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