April 27, 2017 - From the April, 2017 issue

Stewarding a Post-'Measure S' LA: Will City Leaders Truly Engage?

In April, USC Price School held a seminar on the “Aftermath of Measure S” in Los Angeles with an emphasis on two questions: How can the city best engage citizens in supporting new housing construction, and what should be the principles for treating neighborhoods fairly in addressing citywide housing needs? TPR presents excerpts of remarks from panelists Gail Goldberg (ULI-Los Angeles), Mott Smith (Civic Enterprise), Damien Goodmon (Crenshaw Subway Coalition) and Shane Phillips (LA Streetcar). The panel addresses potential housing pilot projects and methods of increasing community engagement. 


Gail Goldberg

“If communities have no idea where things are going, or what the ultimate result is supposed to be, it’s not an illogical response to oppose new projects.” —Gail Goldberg, Executive Director, ULI-Los Angeles

Gail Goldberg: I like to think about these topics in terms of what was, what is, and what could be. Let me start with what was when I arrived in Los Angeles from San Diego 13 years ago. I think I got the job of planning director because the mayor and other folks were fairly convinced that the problem they had with planning was the communities. I had a history of successful interaction with communities and building consensus around plans as planning director of San Diego, and that was probably the skill that they found most appealing.

In my naïveté, when I arrived, I put up on my whiteboard the same saying that I had had on my whiteboard in San Diego for 17 years: Gandhi’s “Be the change.” By the time I retired five years later, I had long since erased that quote and replaced it with a quote by Machiavelli:

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. 

For the reformer has enemies in all who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have actual experience of it.”

The “order of things” in Los Angeles was a project-by-project planning system. We had not adopted new plans or a General Plan in many years, so projects were approved one at a time by the city council—and very often, they were not consistent with the existing plan, which was 20 years old.

Over time, what happens with a process like that is exactly what happened in LA: Community members consistently oppose new projects. I would propose that if communities have no idea where things are going, or what the ultimate result is supposed to be, it’s not an illogical response to oppose new projects.

The system in place was supported by a lot of folks who, as Machiavelli said, benefitted from that order—not just City Council, but large-scale developers who had access to city council members and the entire infrastructure of consultants who supported this process.

In LA, entitling development is so complicated and so risky that, to do a big project, you need the best land-use attorneys that you can get. So, there are land-use attorneys who benefit from this system just the way it is. There are lots of facilitators and lobbyists who also benefit from it just the way it is.

I pretty quickly understood that it was going to be hard to get those people on my side. But I thought I could get communities on my side. Those are the people who really needed predictability.

Then came the “incredulity.” People didn’t honestly believe it could happen. If they worked and adopted a plan that they loved, would the council honor it, or would they just continue to make changes willy-nilly? 

So I struggled even to get communities on board. Moreover, I think it’s fair to say that there are some communities in Los Angeles whose power and relationships are such that the system works for them.

While there are a lot of people that the system works for, who it doesn’t work for is the city as a whole. It doesn’t create a fabulous city.

So where are we now?  We’ve been spending a lot of time lately talking about the updating of community plans, and I think we sometimes forget that it’s not just about planning communities—it’s about planning a whole city. 

Community planning needs to be balanced with, and in some ways consistent with, a vision for the entire city.

If you don’t have a vision for the entire city—if you don’t know what the city is supposed to look like 20 years from now—then you end up having a different vision discussion for every community plan. And that gets in the way of community planning in a big way. So I suggest that one of our problems is that we have no guiding vision. 

Great cities have great vision documents. And while they meet the legal requirements, they go further than that. They inspire you to the changes they talk about. A great city’s vision should be a document that, not only do we all want to read, but we all want to experience, and we all commonly understand.

Currently, there is a Framework Element of Los Angeles’s General Plan that is supposed to lay out the strategy and the vision for our city. Now, how many people are going to be motivated to read something called the Framework Element? 

The vision plan for New York is called Plan New York. It does not read like a typical “planner-ese” document. The vision plan for Vancouver is not in “planner-ese.” 

We are totally and completely lacking a great vision plan, and that’s a good place to start.

In the place we’ve found ourselves, with this broken planning system, ultimately there came a voter initiative, Measure S. 

I have to confess, it sort of excited me—the idea that somebody was going to say, “I’ve had enough.” Sometimes, a hammer is a great thing. What happened in the course of the public debate was that folks both for and against the initiative conceded that they had one major agreement: The existing system was broken. What they did not agree on was how to fix it.

This is a fascinating and interesting time, and I suggest that it is an opportunity that we may never get again. The council, in their concern that Measure S might be passed, dedicated a lot of money to planning, made a lot of promises about the EIR system, and talked a lot about priorities. After 13 years here, I can share with you this: You must hold them accountable.

We should not be sitting here thinking, “Great! They’re making all these changes.” It is likely that they will continue to fund and support planning for a year or two. But the first time the economy gets tough, they’re going to spend the money on police and parks, and not on planning.

We must insist upon long-term consistent funding. You can’t fund a plan this year and next year and then stop for five years. That has happened in this city many times. It’s a waste of money, and it raises people’s expectations.

What are the opportunities that come with this crisis?  What could be?  It’s critical that folks on either side of this issue form a coalition. Communities and developers must commonly understand that we all need predictability. It will take all of us coming together with the force of community to make sure that the city council continues to do what they have committed to do.

We also have to think of a new way of doing community plans—a way that balances the needs of the citywide vision with those of the community; that is respectful of community scale, culture, and character, but also abides by citywide goals.

Community plans have to be about more than just growth. They are not only about where development goes and where it doesn’t go. Community plans have to talk about the quality of life in that community, and how we make sure that, along with housing, come all of the other things that we all need—the jobs, the infrastructure, and the amenities that make neighborhoods great. 

We have to talk about how to make life better for Angelenos. My message today is about aspiration. This is a city that has not been aspirational. 

This is a city that worries that whatever we do will make things worse. We have to change that. We have to make plans that talk about how this can become a better and greater city—while continuing to be a mosaic of the individual, diverse communities that make it a very unique and exciting place to live. 

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Mott Smith: I like to think about housing as a game of musical chairs. The game is simple: There are always more people walking around than there are chairs. When the music stops, the people who don’t have a seat are out of the game.

We have tried, through all kinds of myths and magic and alchemy, to create housing affordability and inclusivity. None of that matters when there are more people in the game than there are chairs.

There’s another rule to the game when it comes to housing: People with money get to push out people with less money. We’ve tried to make it a fairer game with things like rent control, rental subsidies, inclusionary zoning, etc. But those are tiny adjustments to the power balance.

A lot of people are trying to stop development in Los Angeles in the name of equity. They’re saying, “We’re not going to let people with more money get seats just for themselves.” But when the music stops, people with money are still going to get a seat. 

That’s how it works. Now, they’re just going to take a seat from someone with less money. Ironically, by trying to stop luxury development, places like Silverlake and Venice ended up making the existing residents who had to move the losers in the game.

I’m concerned that the tools we’ve brought to bear on our housing crisis are basically tools of exclusion, like zoning and expensive challenging processes. 

Even if the people using these tools have good intentions, they result in a city that is not open to everybody, and is more expensive for those of us who stay here.

Shane Phillips: Folks who are focused on building more housing tend to take a market-oriented, supply-and-demand approach to affordability. They take the regional view: If vacancy rates are too low, housing prices will go up across the board, and hundreds of thousands of households will be negatively impacted.

Groups like the LA Tenants Union, on the other hand, are hyperlocal: They’re about specific projects or individual households being evicted. And if we don’t plan well, we will indeed see people removed from their homes, and they will not get as good a deal on their rent as they’re getting right now. 

That could mean that they have to leave the city, that they have to pay considerably more and become financially vulnerable, or even that they become homeless. 

I’ve been thinking about how we can bring these folks together and find a place where we agree.

In general, LA’s approach to affordability is based on San Francisco, New York, Boston, D.C., and other cities that have been very unsuccessful in remaining affordable. I would love to see Los Angeles try things that other cities have not tried. We’re not going to go down a different path than San Francisco by adopting exactly the same rules that they did.

Damien Goodmon: There is also a global context for our housing affordability crisis: a global process in which capital has been collected and subsumed by the uber-rich. And they have determined that the speculative real-estate environment is more beneficial to them even than investing in the stock market. 

As a result, we’re not building housing for people to live in; we’re building housing for investment. We live in an environment where the focus is on build, build, build. But it’s not in some new frontier that’s not currently occupied by anyone. It’s in places where people live, live, live. There’s no place in this environment for the existing fabric of our communities.

This is why many of us in underserved communities were supportive of Measure S. Before we discuss whether we need more housing and where to put it, let’s talk about protecting our existing communities. Ultimately, that forces us to talk about the challenge of gentrification—the spatial expression of economic inequality.

Gail Goldberg: Unfortunately, the Measure S campaign didn’t discuss these real issues. It pitted “wealthy, greedy, corrupt developers” against “NIMBY, no-growth neighbors”—and I don’t think either of those images is an accurate depiction of what Los Angeles is dealing with.

Community plan amendments are not the problem. They are the results of the problem. The problem is that we have a dysfunctional system. And developers have figured out how to live in this broken, dysfunctional system. 

Damien Goodmon: I don’t think developers have merely learned to get along in the dysfunctional system. 

I think the dysfunctional system creates barriers to entry that protects the developers from competition. The most powerful ones are most likely to succeed. 

Gail Goldberg: Yes. As I’ve often said: In most cities, the value of land is based on the land use designation and the zone. 

But in LA, the value of land is based on what you think you can get the zone changed to. This creates a very speculative environment.

It also means that the developer who buys the industrial land is not buying it at an industrial price. He’s buying it at a much greater price based on what he thinks he can do with it.

Mott Smith: I actually don’t think that’s a problem; I think it’s a symptom of the dysfunction. 

I work in Chicago, Atlanta, and Oakland, and in every city that I’ve ever been to, it’s exactly the same. I was recently at a ULI conference of planning directors, and they all said, “We don’t put in the plan what we want the zoning to be. 

We know developers are going to ask to have it changed, and in turn they’ll be asked to write checks to community groups, Public Works, etc. We want to preserve that ability to negotiate.” 

I don’t think LA is special in that regard. I think this is just the way we do planning now.

The problem is that we lie about it and pretend that we’re doing something else. That’s where the argument for Measure S comes into play: Our plans say one thing, and we do another.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.