March 7, 2022 - From the March, 2022 issue

Former LA City Planning Director Con Howe Opines on Today’s Housing & Planning Successes

As the Los Angeles City Planning Department continues its process of updating and releasing community and citywide zoning codes, Con Howe, former Los Angeles Director of City Planning from 1992 to 2005, provides TPR with an optimistic and rather bullish take on the current state of land use and urban planning. In particular, while Howe admits there is a lack of commitment to affordable housing without Redevelopment Agencies, he endorses state power over local zoning; advocates for more housing production; dismisses the significance of large institutional money now flowing into residential neighborhood ownership; asserts that clear rules and good city planning will help cities avoid arbitrary actions or ethical violations; and offers his thoughts for how Los Angeles might look 25 years from now.


Con Howe

"I think the city's done probably as good a job as it could in promoting housing development. That's certainly not true with all jurisdictions.”—Con Howe

In 2005, on the occasion of your retirement as LA city planning director, you spoke at the Westside Urban Forum and said, “the most important ingredient for successful planning in this city and region is a sustained, informed, and active civic community that is organized… broad… inclusive… informed… and supported.” It's been almost 20 years since you spoke those words—does the city now have what it takes to have successful city planning accomplished?

Con Howe: First of all, I think there has been a remarkable evolution in the public discourse about planning, particularly about housing. When I first came to the city in 1992, the planning and civic community that was passionate was focused on “Well, we don't want to be like New York. We don't want to be overdeveloped”. There was also the slow growth movement and other things like that.

The remarkable shift over the last 30 years has been that housing is acknowledged as a real issue for not only the city, but the region and the state. You don't find the public discourse to be how to prevent housing, but how to make it happen in a cost-effective way and in a way that doesn't disrupt neighborhoods.

I'm not sure I could point to evidence that the structure for public discourse has evolved that much. I do think neighborhood councils, which came in under the new charter, were a step in the right direction. They at least established predictable forums in the city of Los Angeles for discussion of not only planning, but other city and civic issues. There are 130 or so neighborhood councils, I think some of them have really provided an intelligent and informed locus for that civic discourse.

 It has been more than 50 years since Time magazine had on its cover the portrait of a city planning director. Has the city planning profession today prospered or suffered from an absence of sustained and informed civic conversation? 

The idea of planners being some sort of white knight has certainly dissipated, and I think that's healthy. I wouldn't be able to argue that planners are more in control, and I'm not sure they should be. They're part of a broader democratic and political discussion, and I do think planners have probably become more professional in putting out the information and the options into the public.

All around, I think technology like Zoom has really improved the accessibility of information in planning and public decision making. I think back to when we were doing the General Plan Framework in the 1990s. We'd spend all this effort to have workshops and forums in person. Even then, we were just beginning to use the Internet and other ways of getting information out. That's definitely changed in the last 20-25 years. Technology has remarkably improved the access of people to both planning information and the ability to speak their mind or give their opinion. The pandemic has pushed that further. People who couldn't leave their jobs or their families and drive to City Hall to attend a meeting now have much broader access.

George Lefcoe once advised that the ideal role of city planners should be as a negotiator, rather than as some authority managing all the objectives of City Planning. Do you subscribe to that notion?

I think as long as the negotiations are backed up by certain principles and goals. If it's just split the baby, then you don't need planning training, you just need negotiating skill. Negotiations are part of the skill set of a planner, but that’s not all of it.

 I remember the whole push for advocacy planning. I remember a planner who worked for me who was a very bright, capable person. She felt that her role was to go to community meetings and simply be a vehicle for passing on what they wanted, and that that was advocacy. I said to her politely that we could just send a tape recorder, if that's all we're going to do. You ought to provide that forum and those people with information, the point of view of the planning department, and then have a dialogue. You're not there to just record what everyone said. In the same way, advocacy and negotiating skills might all be part of a planner’s responsibility, but that's not all that a planner is.

The attempt to get more by-right development in Los Angeles as opposed to prescriptive zoning and planning regulations started in your time. Now the State this past year has begun to usurp authority over local governments with respect to R1 zoning and planning. What are your thoughts on that and what it might lead to?

First of all, I wouldn't agree with the word usurp. I think you have to start from the basic principle that land use and zoning power is a state power that has been delegated, at least legally and constitutionally, to jurisdictions. Frankly, there's a long history of the state imposing land use regulations on local jurisdictions. I mean, that's what the CEQA, the Coastal Act, and more recently, the laws governing accessory dwelling units do. So, I don't agree that suddenly there's a new sheriff in town.

SB 9 and 10 are the most recent examples and are the ones that have caused the most furor locally. I would view these as efforts by the state to put guard rails around the actions of some jurisdictions, in order to promote housing development or production.

I don't think anyone denies that we have a housing crisis in the state. Part of the answer is more housing production. Frankly, some municipalities, either purposefully or inadvertently, have restrictions that are unnecessarily restrictive to housing development. The state is trying to put guardrails around that.

Now, having said that, let me point out that I don't think that's the problem in the city of Los Angeles. I don't think the city has been anti-housing or has inappropriate restrictions on housing. In fact, I think the city's done probably as good a job as it could in promoting housing development. That's certainly not true with all jurisdictions. Since housing is a region-wide, and indeed, a statewide issue, you can't have some jurisdictions on board with the problem, doing something about it, and others ignoring it. That's how I read the state's involvement.

I don't think, at least in the city of Los Angeles, you're going to see remarkable changes because of SB 9 and 10. One of the reasons is that there are plenty of sites for housing along the commercial corridors of the city. It's not like there aren't good housing sites in this city. Believe me, there are jurisdictions where they need a push from the state.

Considering the largest owner of residential real estate in the five largest markets in California is Blackstone, its subsidiaries, and other hedge funds, which have doubled down on buying residential housing to convert to rentals, comment on whether the marketplace is the appropriate arbitrator of what a city plans and builds.

First of all, I think you're lumping together new housing development and investment in existing housing. There's certainly been more institutional capital going towards purchase of existing housing. In some ways, it can be a really good thing if it adds new capital to a housing stock that needs reinvestment. The fact is, in order to stabilize neighborhoods and stabilize the housing stock, you do have to have investment. How that comes is going to end up being a market decision.

I'm not sure that new housing development is concentrated in any particular part of the industry. You have small developers building small projects and some medium sized developers, but actually, you don't have that many large developers building large projects because that's not the nature of development in Southern California.

Redevelopment authorities in California were eliminated by Governor Brown after your tenure in Los Angeles, despite its effectiveness in locally financing and successfully building affordable housing in local jurisdictions throughout the State. Is the loss of redevelopment authorities more significant than what's being done by the passage of SB 9 and 10 for purposes of building affordable housing?

Definitely. The loss of redevelopment and the funding that was earmarked from redevelopment for affordable housing was a huge loss. It's taken years to try to come back from that. I suspect you'd find that we still don't have a commitment to building affordable housing at the level that the redevelopment agencies were required to do. I don't disagree at all that the loss of redevelopment funding was a huge hit to housing.

You mentioned there's plenty of opportunity to build more and denser housing along transit corridors. However, the SB 9 & 10 have no requirement that the housing built along transit corridors be affordable. Housing mix and pricing per this state legislation, in the absence of any planning guidelines, appears to be entirely market driven. Would you agree?

You can change all the regulations in the world, if the market isn't going to build under that regimen of regulations, then it won’t happen. You’re always affected by the market. People think zoning magically does things; sometimes it doesn't. I know areas that have been zoned for high density for decades and have never seen any high-density development.

I think that the opportunity is there to build housing in the right places and that will relieve pressure to build it in the wrong places. I've always felt, and the General Plan Framework emphasized this, that stable, single-family neighborhoods should not be disrupted. If your argument is that SB 9 and 10 ends up doing that, then that's definitely a problem. But as I understand it, the regulations regarding side yards, rear yards, front yards, and other requirements don't disappear.

I don't think you will see massive disruption like some people fear. If we even have a little disruption, it ought to be monitored and changed. One thing I definitely feel as a planner is that you can't put zoning down and leave it. You've got to monitor what happens under it on the real landscape, and then you have to adjust. People will always find some loophole or do some sort of abuse that was not intended in either the planning policy or the actual zoning regulation. You've got to come back and you've got to fine tune it. If we do see the kinds of abuses people fear under some of these state mandates, then there's got to be changes.

During your tenure as City Planning Director and since, you have advocated for community plans and the upgrading of the planning and zoning of Los Angeles. What's your current take on that effort, at least in the city of LA, to adopt community plans that push us towards livability and housing affordability?

In trying to have community plans and the zoning be up to date, you have to have it comport with the broader planning policies of the city, like the General Plan Framework. I just think it's incredibly tough. Look at the Hollywood plan. When I left as planning director, we were working on the Hollywood plan, and it still hasn't been completed.

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That shows the difficulty under CEQA, where you can always find something to sue under and then the courts send it back, so there can be a lot of delay. It's incredibly difficult to get large longer-range plans done.

Instead, I think the city has probably made more progress with individual zoning programs that affect similar areas. For instance, the Transit Oriented Communities (TOC) program has produced more housing than probably redoing the community plans. Obviously, I still believe in the community plans, and they ought to be updated. I just think that you can't pin all your hopes on that. Sometimes there has to be citywide zoning changes too.

Con, how relevant to the planning profession are the 20th century revered views of William H. Whyte, Jane Jacobs, and NGO’s such as the Project for Public Spaces?  Has Planning in California essentially been reduced to a housing supply metric?  Ought the policy equation be broader for balancing competing land-use priorities with urban design and equitable infrastructure needs for neighborhoods and cities?

Absolutely. Anyone who knows any of the zoning regulations knows there are a lot of requirements that make housing better and compatible. There are urban design requirements, overlay districts, and site plan review, and this isn't just in the city of LA.

As you go around the region, the housing that's being built is of a high quality. It's attractive. In the ‘80s, you'd see these stucco boxes where the first floor was parking, and it always looked like the cars were in prison. You don't see that anymore. You see much better designed multifamily housing. I think that's because while there's definitely been a push to allow more housing development, it's also come with appropriate standards.

Let me give you another example. Before I left, we worked on the Small Lot Ordinance, which would allow townhouse type structures in certain multi-family zones. After a couple years, there were some abuses. The planning department went back, tightened it up, and adjusted it. I think if you did a survey of all the projects that have been built under the small lot ordinance, you'd find that 9 out of 10 of them are attractive and well-designed. I also think the multifamily housing that's being built on the commercial corridors, with few exceptions, is attractive and well designed. You can have housing production, and it can be attractive in its neighborhood and an asset to the whole community.

Prior to your coming from NYC to Los Angeles to be Planning Director, Prop 13 was passed by the voters of California, which essentially turned upside down state and local government finance by only giving local governments the power to collect property taxes, but not allocate them. The result was the fiscalization of land-use, which made housing a financial loser for local governments compared to big box retail. Do you see the ramifications of that 40 years later as significant?

Fortunately, with the city of LA being so large, it isn't the driving factor in the city. I can say this from 13 years in the planning department, the city never pursues projects exclusively because it's going to get sales tax. It especially didn't prioritize retail over residential, even though generally speaking, residential costs more than retail and office to service.

 So yes. I think in small jurisdictions, that has been a motivation. I would say that the larger the jurisdiction, the more multiple uses it has.

What is your view on how planning tools ought to be employed to foster the best mix of residential, commercial, industrial uses to encourage street and city life?

I'm sorry to sound like an optimist. One of the advantages of being old is that you have a lot of experiences. From my career, I've learned that any reasonably ambitious plan takes about 20 years to show meaningful results. Just as an example, the General Plan Framework was passed in 1999. That plan basically said that the city does need more housing and it should be accommodated along the commercial corridors that have transit and that will actually protect stable, single-family home neighborhoods. That kind of new, mixed-use development would typically replace mini-malls and billboards and parking lots.

After 20 years of incremental zoning changes, that's exactly what's happening. If you look around the city, whether it's Wilshire, Pico, Venice, or Ventura Boulevards, the new mixed-use development that is occurring on many corridors is really remarkable.

Just to give you a sense of how I see that planning really works, is it's step by step. There are a series of actions, they're continuing and that’s what made this possible.

The first step, and maybe the only one that showed immediate results, was the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance. That was then followed with creating the Residential Accessory Services (RAS) zones, the Density Bonus Ordinance, the Downtown Housing Incentive Ordinance, and then more recently the Transit-Oriented Communities ordinance. All of those are incremental steps that implemented an overall policy that we need more housing, and let's build it on the commercial corridors.

It's working. I'm not saying we're there yet, but to harken back to what I said before, it also comes with appropriate standards so that the vast majority of the new housing is well-designed and an asset to its community.

To drill down on your response, compare and contrast LA County’s 88 cities. What leads some cities to do a better job than others in terms of appropriately planning, siting, and green lighting the building of the right mix of housing, commercial, industrial, etc.? What are the ingredients that good city planning should foster?

Well, this is where I’ll put my planner hat on. You have to have standards. You have to have rules. You have to have plans that are behind all of those standards and rules. You don't just create standards and rules because you want them there. They're supposed to be implementing a broader plan. I think to the extent that those plans exist, -- and that includes community plans, etc.-- they add greater certainty and clarity for both neighbors and builders.

They also de-politicize decisions, so that in one city you don't have remarkably different results within that city. You don't have lousy standards in one place and overly stringent standards in another. I think that with the constant concerns about ethics in planning, to the extent that you have clear rules that aren't too rigid, that helps avoid arbitrary actions or ethical violations. 

Are you suggesting a linkage between unethical public official behavior and the existence of uncertainty in a jurisdiction’s planning rules and codes?

Yes. If, in effect, the situation is you can't build something without going a political route, then that's a recipe for disaster. I don't think that's the whole situation. I just think on the fringes it is. That’s why I think it's important to have strong Planning Commissions.

I'll give you a small example that actually is where the state is overly prescriptive or overly intrusive. For instance, state law requires certain things be appealable to a city council or can only be acted on by the city council. I think in their heads that made sense, maybe for small jurisdictions where everything ends up at the City Council anyway.

In large cities, the Planning Commission is the right entity for that. If you look at the City Council agenda--and they're still trying to adjust this—anything under CEQA can be appealed to the City Council. Their agendas just get loaded up. In other words, when the Planning Commission acts on an environmental document that's gone through all the legal processes, that's not the end of it. There's always one more appeal to the City Council. That isn't appropriate in a large jurisdiction, where you have a professional planning department and a Planning Commission that's long established. I mean, there are things that should be adjusted to put the decisions at the right place. Obviously, City Councils are in charge of the overall policies and laws of the city, but in terms of administering every little aspect, that's not appropriate.

Lastly, having been a steward of the built environment for both NYC and LA, our readers would welcome your view on what a metropolis like Los Angeles will look like 20 years from now. If not “Blade Runner,” what would be your movie version of LA in 2047?

Since I've now been in this city 30 years, I think there has been a remarkable, positive transformation. We still have strong neighborhoods. Downtown is amazingly different. Other parts of the city – Hollywood, Century City, Warner Center, and other parts of the “Centers Concept”--  are also far better designed and economically functioning.

I think that a successful city will have strong employment centers that are accessible. Think of the changes in the transit system in the last 25 years. Those are going to continue. Think of the remarkable improvements that are underway at LAX.

I am definitely an optimist. I think the city is headed in the right direction from a land use and economic development perspective. It has to keep going. In 25 years, I do see a city with a strong downtown and strong regional centers linked by transit with stable, low-rise neighborhoods at all economic levels, crisscrossed by commercial corridors that have mixed use development. I think that's going to be an attractive city that offers a lot of opportunity to a lot of people.

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