LA’s Updated Plans Require Integration, Consistency, Consensus

The Planning Department has recently been the beneficiary of a great deal of attention from City Hall. Just days after the defeat of Measure S, Mayor Garcetti issued an executive order creating a task force on city planning, and an ordinance pending in City Council would mandate and fund the updating of community plans on a six-year recurring cycle. There’s also now a ban on ex-parte communications between planning commissioners and developers, new guidelines on transit-oriented development, revised oversight on environmental reports, and a reformed General Plan amendment process. Speak to how all this attention will impact your department going forward.

Vince Bertoni: The City of LA, as an organization, currently has a real focus on the community plan program—a level at which I don’t know we’ve seen in a long time, if ever.

The Planning Department was asked by Mayor Garcetti and the city council to come up with a plan to update the community plans as quickly as possible. At first, we came up with a scenario to complete all 35 plans within 10 years. The mayor and city council came back to us and said, “Can you shrink that to six years?” And we have now done just that.

We’ll have to spend some time staffing up and getting other consulting resources onboard. We believe that we will be fully ramped up in 2018, and have the plans updated by 2024.

The Planning Department will also be taking a leading role with the Mayoral Task Force on planning, the Transit-Oriented Communities Incentives, the revised environmental impact reports, and the General Plan amendment process.

Altogether, there’s a real emphasis on looking at our plans from a long-range standpoint and providing the right incentives to encourage housing in close proximity to transit—while making sure that the process is fair and systematic, that people can have more faith in environmental impact reports, and that general plan amendments are viewed more holistically moving forward.

In a TPR interview two years ago, when you were Planning & Community Development Director of Pasadena, you noted, “Pasadena brings together, more than any place I can think of, a long-range planning vision that guides economic vitality.” Does LA have a generally accepted vision for itself that’s been articulated and shared widely?

A big difference between LA and Pasadena is that Pasadena has been much more consistent in updating their plans, and very careful and methodical about public outreach and community engagement. Broad consensus is a very important part of how they update their plans.

Pasadena had a groundbreaking plan in the early 1990s, when Rick Cole was mayor, that really changed the way they looked at their city. That’s when they started to target development in the central core of the city, near what was then future transit (now the Metro Gold Line), while preserving and protecting much of the residential neighborhoods.

They carefully and consistently updated that plan. 10 years later they did a limited update, bringing certain things up to speed, and more recently—when I was there—we did a very comprehensive update, with a new vision that built upon the previous one.

Pasadena’s long-range planning vision was built upon very careful public outreach and community consensus, and was kept up to date over time. Those are things that we can learn from in Los Angeles. Having thoughtful interaction and consensus before adopting our General Plan and community plan updates, and then really keeping them up-to-date, will create faith in the plans, encourage people to follow them, and give them lasting meaning. 

In recent TPR interviews with LA City Councilmembers José Huizar and David Ryu, both noted the substantive impact the Measure S campaign had on motivating the city to prioritize real city planning. But there was very little focus in that campaign on vision, or the need for a holistic engagement process to ensure that planning reform would be a positive. How do you explain that? 

When you have an initiative on an issue as complex as city planning can be, you need to discuss it in very broad terms.

One thing we can take away from what happened with Measure S is that there is concern about our civic engagement process and how we’re moving forward as a City. And the way we can move forward is to bring people together and build a consensus.

It may not have been an explicit topic in the discussion around Measure S, but it is an important part of how we address some of the concerns we heard.

The opposition to Measure S appeared to successfully hijack what was expected to be a conversation about the need for reform in the city’s planning process by instead focusing exclusively on the need for greater density to improve housing affordability and homelessness. Did it surprise you that the value of integrating mobility, economic development, public health, and density in planning was neglected? 

The No on S campaign focused primarily on two issues: housing, including housing affordability and homelessness; and jobs and the economy. A related third issue was that we’re going to need to have change in the city in order to address these issues.

The response from voters shows that they understand that there will be change—and that change may be necessary. It’s interesting that about the same percentage of people voted against Measure S as voted for Measure M, the initiative to increase our mobility options. The same is true when it comes to housing, with both the county’s Measure HHH and the city’s Measure H.

Now, it’s my job to figure out how to achieve housing affordability and economic vitality through long-range planning efforts. People in LA are willing to fund these things, and we have to integrate them in a more thoughtful and comprehensive way. 

What, if any, planning conversations have you had with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation and the entrepreneurs involved in the shared economy?

The connection between mobility and land use is very strong. In updating the General Plan, we’re going to have an opportunity to make those more comprehensive links.

Since I’ve been here, we’ve forged a close relationship between Planning and Transportation. DOT General Manager Seleta Reynolds and I work together very closely on issues related to growth and mobility.

Change is happening. People are coming to Los Angeles regardless of what we do. People are moving here; people are having children; people are living longer. We’re in an era of growth, and the only thing we can do is respond to that by being forward-looking or not.

When you talk to neighborhoods and communities about accepting change, of all the things that people talk about, toward the top of the list is usually traffic. Traffic—how to get around in gridlock—is one of people’s biggest concerns. If we’re going to accommodate change and growth, we’re going to have to get around the city in a different way.

When we updated our General Plan in Pasadena, we did the Land Use and Mobility Elements at the same time, and I worked very closely with Transportation Director Fred Dock. We realized that while we were developing a forward-looking plan that integrated land use and mobility, we wouldn’t be able to implement these great policies because the antiquated way that we were measuring mobility impacts would work against the plan.

So, as we updated the General Plan, we also changed the way we evaluated traffic. We went from Level of Service to Vehicle Miles Traveled. That shift allowed Pasadena to align its development projects with its policies.

We’ve started making that shift here in LA. It’s a component of the plan that will help us bring the big-picture vision of where we want to go down to the local level—neighborhood, block, and street. 

Chris Alexakis