Coalition to Preserve LA Los Angeles

Special Report: Los Angeles Worst Planned U.S. Western City

In Investigations by Preserve LA

Among major U.S. Western cities, Los Angeles stands alone in abandoning the use of a modern General Plan to guide the city’s livability, sustainability and growth, a Coalition to Preserve L.A. special report reveals. To better serve the needs of all residents, City Council members and Mayor Eric Garcetti must change their antiquated approach to planning and land-use management.

Read the special report: “Los Angeles Worst Planned U.S. Western City.”

As our investigation shows, the Los Angeles City Council has updated some Elements of the General Plan since 2001, but most of its General Plan Elements date from the 1990s. Key General Plan Elements — for example, Public Parks — have not been updated since the 1970s. Today, L.A. is the most park-poor of America’s 65 biggest cities.

The Framework Element, a strategy for long-term growth, dates from 2001. The Infrastructure Element was last updated in 1968. Today, L.A.’s roads, sewers and water infrastructure are in decay.

Although the state requires updates to the Air Quality Element, Public Safety Element and Conservation Element, L.A. operates without the required updates to these crucial Elements.

Only fragmented efforts were made to update L.A.’s General Plan in the past decade: The Mobility Plan 2035, the Plan for a Healthy L.A., and the Housing Element.

California law requires that cities continually update the General Plan — San Jose updates its General Plan every four years. But in October 2005, the L.A. City Council voted to repeal the Municipal Code that required itself to update the General Plan.

The City Council’s unusual vote — possibly unique among major U.S. City Councils — went unnoticed. It was described on the Sept. 12, 2005, Council agenda as repairing “typographical errors,” and making “clarifying and technical changes” to the Municipal Code. It was later described as “11.5.8 of the Los Angeles Municipal Code is repealed.”

Community Plans are detailed, important blueprints born of extensive public involvement in spelling out the broader vision, dreams and policies of each General Plan Element. In 2007, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Director of Planning Gail Goldberg made updating the Community Plans a cornerstone of L.A.’s future: 35 Community Plans would be updated within eight years.

But just three were updated — Hollywood, Sylmar and Granada Hills — before the Hollywood Community Plan badly backfired. Raucous hearings over that Plan focused on efforts led by Mayor Villaraigosa and Councilman Eric Garcetti to bring skyscrapers to Hollywood. CityWatch reported that “extensive data showing that city officials were exaggerating the population growth” was ignored.

In 2013, Superior Court Judge Alan Goodman ruled that City officials had exaggerated the growth data. Goodman chastised L.A. officials, and ruled the Hollywood Community Plan Update, its dramatic “up-zoning” and its Environmental Impact Report were illegal.

The surviving Hollywood Community Plan is instructive. It dates from 1988 and was created during a more give-and-take planning era in L.A. — historic preservation of hundreds of Golden Era and Old World buildings and bungalow blocks, and the nuanced scaling of height, were key principles. (The planner who oversaw the 1980s Plan later helped craft Pasadena’s admired, cooperative General Plan.)

Now, in response to mounting criticism that L.A. has no plan, city leaders have pledged to finally update the L.A. General Plan and numerous Community Plans in a trust-building, transparent manner.

However, city leaders must substantively include residents in the updating process; residents’ visions for a livable, equitable L.A. must be included in the General Plan and Community Plans; and the planning department must become far more transparent.

Today, closed-door City Hall meetings have taken place to determine key Elements and visions for the General Plan and key concepts for the Community Plans. That’s unacceptable, and is simply bad planning — residents have a keen understanding of what works and doesn’t work in their neighborhoods, and they know what improvements they need. City Hall must conduct a bottom-up, completely public process in which residents play a decision-making role.

As of now, key Western cities far outpace L.A. in vision and planning.

Consider the situation in 14 other key Western cities, including San Francisco, San Diego, San Jose, Seattle, Portland, Phoenix, Denver, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Irvine, Riverside and Las Vegas and others. Each of them completed full updates of their General Plans in the past decade.

California law requires that a city’s General Plan address seven crucial issues: Land Use, Circulation, Housing, Conservation, Open Space, Noise and Safety. The cities in our special report all explored their particular needs and created their own visions and major policies around them.

Cities often adopted Elements beyond those required by the state (Sacramento devised a Flood Plain Element to guide its planning; San Diego created a Historic Preservation Element), and each city took steps to make resident input a major component of planning.

Again, among major cities in the West, the Los Angeles City Council, which includes Council President Herb Wesson and Planning and Land Use Management Committee Chairman Jose Huizar, stands alone in abandoning the use of a modern General Plan and updated Community Plans. It is not good for the future of Los Angeles; it is not good for the residents that they serve.

Read the special report: “Los Angeles Worst Planned U.S. Western City.”