February 23, 2017 - From the February, 2017 issue

Rick Cole on City Planning: A Call To Action For Civic Leaders

At the recent VerdeXchange 2017/ULI–LA FutureBuild, former Los Angeles Deputy Mayor and current Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole addressed the systemic, embedded problems in LA’s current politicized planning regime. With an out-of-date General Plan and little movement on updating integral Community Plans, the planning process in Los Angeles is broken. How do we fix the process and grow a great city? Cole charts a vision forward where common-sense rules guide a community of civically motivated builders. The future, however, depends either on the outcome on March 7, or the will of current political leaders to undertake necessary reforms. Watch his entire remarks at VX2017 here

Rick Cole

“The systems are all broken: …the perception of pay-to-play simply cannot be allowed to stand. We have to begin to build a transparent system where you understand what you can build and where you can build it—and it isn’t based upon anything other than good planning.” - Rick Cole, Santa Monica City Manager

Rick ColeChristopher Hawthorne, I think, is the most eloquent voice now writing about the place we share. He talks about the “Third Los Angeles.”

The first Los Angeles predated the automobile. It was a traditional town—a model that Americans brought from the Midwest and the East. They built a lot of brick buildings; those fell down in earthquakes. The second Los Angeles was the one that began with the Arroyo Seco Parkway.

The reality is that a third Los Angeles is emerging, and it will happen because of us. We will make the third Los Angeles.

CicLAvia is an example of the way in which the third Los Angeles is emerging organically—from the individual dreams of people saying, “We’re going to take this street; we’re going to close this street; we’re going to own this street; and we’re going to celebrate being together.” If we could take that spirit and apply it 365 days a year, every street in Los Angeles would be a great street.

They wouldn’t all be as crowded and bustling as the Third Street Promenade, but they would be greener. They would be more beautiful. They would be safer, and they would be more functional. People would take back the public realm that belongs to them.

Now, let’s confront the elephant in the room: We cannot do this with the tremendous cynicism about the way politics works in Los Angeles.  I spent two years at LA City Hall. I know that it is better than the reputation it has. I know the individuals who work there, and the place would not run for 15 minutes were it not for the heroic efforts of some enlightened elected officials and some tremendously dedicated civil servants.

The systems are all broken: the hiring system, the tech systems, and the procurement systems. The only way this city works is because people will it to work. They come to work every day and they call people in some other department and say, “Look, I need your help. Can you cut through the red tape? Can you get this thing done?” Unfortunately, that’s not the way to run a great city.

It’s doing the best we can. But the perception of pay-to-play simply cannot be allowed to stand. We have to begin to build a transparent system where you understand what you can build and where you can build it—and it isn’t based upon anything other than good planning.

Development has become almost like a lottery: You strike it rich. You come into a place that was zoned for 1950, and you know that that’s not what ought to be built there. You propose something that’s four times bigger than what you think you’re going to get, because you know it’s going to be cut down in the process. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. Sometimes you make a great deal of money.

I heard a talk one time from a guy who said, “I’ve slogged through 12 years of entitlements. Everything’s done except the litigation.” That’s not the way to build a great city! We all know that; we all understand it. Why do we put up with it? Why don’t we fix it?

Do we not have it in our power to create a transparent, coherent system for planning the future of Los Angeles? Are we that much less capable than past generations?


As Gail Goldberg reminds us, there are no shortcuts. You cannot do real planning by fiat, or top-down. You have to involve the people whose lives will be affected, and you have to take a look at all the things they care about.

Why do people not go to public hearings? Because public hearings are that place in American society where no one listens.

The way to plan Los Angeles is to think about the water, to think about the energy, to think about the schools, to think about the mobility, to come up with coherent answers for how we’re going to organize this city—so that people in real estate don’t have to do that on their own. You shouldn’t have to pay money or cut a deal to build a playground. You should be able to plug into a plan, and become builders instead of developers.

That’s the way great American cities were built: You knew the rules and you played by the rules. You didn’t make whopping amounts of money, but you built Baltimore, and Chicago, and New York, and St. Louis, and Portland. We need to go back to that.

We need to go back to codes that are very clear about what’s allowed, and those codes need to be calibrated to the kind of neighborhood it is. You ought to be able to build high-rises in Downtown, and you ought not to be able to build high-rises in Studio City—at least not in the wrong place. You ought to be able to calibrate things so that the plans make sense and are defensible, and not on a basis that allows people to criticize you over the political contributions that you made, or shut you out because of the political contributions that you didn’t make.

Real planning is done by real planners. There are 16 planning directors in Los Angeles; 15 of them don’t have that title. That has to end—and the people who can end it are those 15 people.

It may seem in their short-term interest to be in control of their districts. But it’s a long-term shortcoming to making a great city.

We need to depoliticize planning. We need to make planning predictable, transparent, inclusive, and effective. It’s not. Let’s admit it; let’s fix it.

We have to plan with people, and we have to plan for people. There’s no shortcut


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.