March 27, 2019 - From the March, 2019 issue

Flashback: 1996 TPR Coverage of LA’s "Centers Concept"

In light of the LA Regional Planning History Group’s recent Colloquium on the Centers Concept: After 50 YearsTPR reached into its archives to contextualize that planning concept's impact on LA’s densification. The Centers Concept, which evolved out of a massive citizen involvement effort, clearly shaped, as the Colloquium confirmed,  LA’s urban geography, jobs centers, and cultural hubs. TPR is pleased to share (from its May 1996 issue) both former LA County Planning Director Norman Murdoch’s June 1996 remarks to the LA City Council Planning and Land Use (PLUM) Committee, and a 1974 Los Angeles Times editorial about the promise and effectiveness of the Centers Concept. 


LA Centers Concepts Map (courtesy of MTA)

“The best—the last best hope—of turning the city around is to set a dynamic new direction with an updated General Plan, an exciting new vision of LA, a call to arms... “The Centers Concept was explicitly designed to focus new development into centers and thus protect stable single-family neighborhoods from encroachment of other types of uses.” - Norman Murdoch, former Los Angeles County Planning Director

Norman Murdoch, June 1996: An update of the City’s General Plan is long overdue and urgently needed. The current mish-mash of obsolete Community Plans, obsolete and obscure zoning, IPRO’s, etc, creates confusion and chaos. It drives a loss in confidence in local government.

No residents or landowner in Los Angeles should be required to engage a consultant simply to find out what is allowable on any given parcel of land. Adoption of an updated General Plan is a key element in the City’s current effort to reform an entitlement process that is so complicated that it is driving badly needed investment out of the city.

The “Centers Concept,” which evolved out of a massive citizen involvement effort, was adopted by the City Council in 1974. It was explicitly designed to focus new development into centers and thus protect stable single-family neighborhoods from encroachment of other types of uses. The centers concept was a good idea in 1974 and it is a good idea in 1996.

The 1974 plan was difficult to implement because the centers concept requires viable transit, and there was no transit readily available in 1974. Now that the city is finally building a world-class transit system, the city has the opportunity to take full advantage of the taxpayers’ investment in transit, effectuate the centers concept, and revitalize LA. If you have any doubts, visit Toronto. Using their new rail transit service as a catalyst, they have built a great new city.

LA has been steadily deteriorating. The bestーthe last best hopeーof turning the city around is to set a dynamic new direction with an updated General Plan, an exciting new vision of LA, a call to arms.

The Framework, as originally proposed, constituted a brilliant reconstitution of the Centers Concept prepared by an outstanding team of staff and consultants ever assembled by a major American city.

So what has happened? The proposed changes, dated January 1996, destroy the plan. Take a table out here, take a paragraph out there, add an innocuous-sounding phrase here and there. Pretty soon the document has been watered down to little more than dishwater.

Allow me to cite just one example. The unfortunate January changes water-down community centers to an Floor-to-Air Ratio (FAR) of 3 to less or less depending upon the character of the surrounding area. This is NIMBYesque for two-story buildings!

Meanwhile, the corridors between Centers are densified up to a FAR of 6:1. Someone is recommending that we encourage two-story buildings on top of rail transit stations and six story buildings away from transit stations. This is insane! It not only destroys the City’s 23 year commitment to the Centers Concept, it also destroys the thoughtful land use and transportation policy adopted by the Los Angeles City Council in November 1993. There are many other examples of why it is essential that you return to the recommendations of the City Planning Commission.

My neighbors and I are mad as hell. In our neighborhood, the City’s building Department has approved another massive and inappropriate five story apartment in the middle of an attractive neighborhood of single-family detached homes. There is neither a major street nor transit stop nearby. There is a “for sale” sign on the adjacent home.

This kind of completely unwarranted intrusion is destroying the neighborhoods and will destroy the city. This is an abomination! There are those that suggest that we should stop all development. This is ridiculous and would also destroy the City. The population of Los Angeles is growing faster than jobs, and the City needs desperately to stabilize its economic base. Stopping all development would make a bad situation worse.

The answer is to channel the development into carefully designated targeted growth areas. This is exactly what the original General Plan Framework proposed! The way to protect our family neighborhoods ー the only way ー is to allow significant development in designated centers.

Take the pressure off us; reject the insidious watered-down January recommendations which have been placed before you. Adopt the framework with centers and targeted growth areas as originally proposed.

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A vote to water-down and destroy the centers concept wastes the $3 million invested in the General Plan Framework; worse than that, by not encouraging development of transit stations it wastes the over $15 billion that we are investing in a modern rail transit system. New development should be focused at rail transit stations.

I have confidence that PLUM will restore the framework to the form it was in when it was recommended to you last year by the City’s Planning Commission. Remember this: a vote against strong centers is a vote against the residential neighborhoods of Los Angeles!

1974 Los Angeles Times Editorial: A master plan for Los Angeles appears, at last, close to realization. It has been sought for decades as a barrier to the haphazard and often chaotic planning and zoning that have characterized development in the city.

A promising planning blueprint for the next half-century, “Concept Los Angeles,” and a short-form citywide plan that should serve as a zoning guideline for the next two decades have been tentatively approved by the City Council.

Concept Los Angeles is not the rigid planning directive that would mandate order and stability for the city’s neighborhoods and business centers. But it appears to be an excellent general policy statement. It offers the proper goals and directives needed for the completion of the 35 community plans that will provide the framework of the master plan that Los Angeles has talked about by done without since the city began its rapid growth after World War II.

The proposed concept, if it does spawn a plan that the city’s politicians will need, could offer the blueprints for future changes, development, and growth. It seeks to safeguard the single-family lifestyle of the suburbs. It would direct the new growth into major high-density centers linked by a mass rapid transit system. And it calls for the rejuvenation of rundown sections of the city.

Both documents have been altered by the council’s Planning Committee to reflect court decisions affecting municipal planning throughout the state. And they have been changed to meet the challenges of a continuing energy crisis and a vigorous environmental movement.

The revised plan states that “Population growth is not necessary for achievement of the Concept. The plan provides such growth that does occur can be accommodated through land-use control and other policy implementation techniques.”

The revised concept and plan, despite their limitations, offer an opportunity for the rechanneling of a planning apparatus that has lended to encourage urban sprawl and has tolerated the steady deterioration of some neighborhoods and the inner-city.

It is true, as Councilman Ernani Bernardi, a sharp planning critic insists, that we aren’t told how the plan will be implemented or what it will cost. And it is probably true as the Zero Population Growth organization contends, that much of the concept sounds like science fiction. Yet both documents offer the type of policy and guideline basic to the foundation of an effective master plan.

There is still no guarantee, once a master plan has been achieved that it will promote the stability control and guidance that residents of the city desire. No plan, no concept, no zoning code can assure that alone. Any Los Angeles plan must depend on the political integrity of the city’s elected officials and their determination to implement the plan. But this is a good beginning.

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