On Tuesday, March 7, Los Angeles residents will have the chance to vote on Measure S, aka the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative: a controversial proposal aimed at reforming the planning system by ceasing certain developments until particular changes to the code are made. The Los Angeles Times has a concise explainer for the initiative here. Measure S stands to make a significant impact not only on immediate planning and development issues, but will also affect the implementation of other far-reaching ballot measures voters approved back in November — specifically, for public transit (Measure M) and housing the homeless (Measure HHH).
In the interest of conveying the complexity of Measure S, and exploring its potential implications for a future Los Angeles urbanism, The Forum interviewed two planning professionals on either side. On the “No” side, we spoke with Alan Loomis, Deputy Director for Urban Design & Mobility at City of Glendale, and on the “Yes” side we spoke with Richard Platkin, a former LA City Planner now teaching at USC with a focus on sustainable city planning.
What is your stance on Measure S?
RP: I am strongly in favor of Measure S. I have written columns on planning issues for several years through Ron Kaye’s LA and now for CityWatchLA and Progressive Planning. Measure S fit right into my existing pro-planning position
AL: It is an exceptionally blunt and poor way to conduct public policy and planning. If I were a resident of Los Angeles (I live in Pasadena), I would vote against it.
What do you think of the public debate around Measure S?
AL: It’s been healthy and productive. On the one hand, there has been an educational discussion about arcane topics like variances, general plans and community plans — subjects that are part of the day-to-day mechanics of planning. As a planner, I believe any public conversation about our profession is good. But more importantly, the Measure S debate has also provoked a public reflection on the kind of city we are building, the kind of city we aspire to build, and who will benefit in this city. It’s clear from the press reports that the Measure S supporters stand for the status quo, if not a regressive and suburban vision of the city where the current “haves” continue to benefit. Whereas the “No on S” coalition believe in a more inclusive city, with a range of housing opportunities, transit options — a city that is somewhat different and more utopian than the one we live in today. We have been slowly moving towards the “No on S” or “Yes to LA” city, but I think it’s been good to have this vision stated out in public for discussion and debate.
RP: I think it is at a very low level, especially the choice of the No on S consultant, SG&A, to erroneously claim this voter initiative is anti-development, anti-housing, and blocks affordable housing. The debate should be on planning versus real estate speculation determining land use and infrastructure in Los Angeles. I also find the faux liberal critique of planning and zoning, that it is a scheme of well-off homeowners to stick it to renters, to be extremely unpersuasive. This is because the class basis of land use decisions in LA is big real estate firms paying off elected officials to get beneficial spot-zoning and spot-general plan amendments to maximize their profits. The victims are both homeowners and apartment renters.
How would Measure S alter the Los Angeles landscape?
RP: Measure S has the potential for the City of Los Angeles to finally use a rational planning process, rather than the ups and downs of real estate speculation, to make decisions about land use and supportive public infrastructure and public services.
AL: In the long run, probably not much at all, Measure M will be far more consequential. As you will recall, Measure M was voted in November 2016, and is a County-wide 1/2 cent sales tax, which will funnel billions of dollars into transportation and transit infrastructure for decades to come. So the 20 or 40-year trajectory of Los Angeles development will focus on key centers and corridors served by transit, which will inevitably densify and continue to see renewed investment, jobs, amenities and housing. In the short-term, if Measure S passes, it will create a five-year bureaucratic mess in LA City Hall.
What are you thoughts on the 5-year review plan for the General Plan, on both an ideological and logistical level?
AL: Ideologically, there should be a regular review and update of the General Plan, but logistically I would program it on eight or 10-year increments. Five years is really too frequent. First, if you consider that the average building of any decent size takes almost five years to design, engineer and build, there would be relatively little factual, on-the-ground change for an updated plan to respond to. Secondly, a major planning effort involving public participation can take upwards of five years, so such a cycle would commit planning staff and the public to perpetual outreach and “visioning”. Third, the scale of the General Plan in Los Angeles is vast, and the City simply doesn’t have enough planners to update the plan every five years.
In Glendale, where I oversee our Community Plan program, we’ve had two, sometimes three, planners working for the past four years on our latest Community Plan — and mind you, Glendale is divided into four Community Plan areas, whereas one Los Angeles Community Plan areas is the size of Glendale as a whole. So there is a serious staffing issue (which is ultimately a budget and priorities issue) that makes the five-year schedule absolutely unrealistic for LA. Finally, Community Plans should be updated on a schedule that interlocks with other planning programs mandated by the State, such as the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, the Regional Transportation Plan, the Census and American Community Surveys — data and requirements coming from these plans should inform the Community Plans. And regional planning cycle operates on a eight and/or 10 year schedule.
RP: This is the professional standard for local community plans, while the standard for mandatory citywide elements, like housing, transportation, conservation, safety, and the optional elements, such as air quality, infrastructure, service systems, and health should be every 10 years. From an ideological level, I think this is essential for a city as large and complex as Los Angeles to be properly governed, although without the monitoring unit and monitoring program mandated by the General Plan Framework, the regular plan updates will be much less useful. Furthermore, even with Measure S’s much tougher charter findings for general plan amendments, it will take enormous vigilance to make sure these new Charter sections are adhered to. At present, findings for all discretionary actions are so loose that over 90 percent of requests are approved with conditions that are seldom enforced.
From a logistical point of view, as a 20 year veteran of LA city planning, I have no doubt that this is doable, but it will require the transfer of planners from assignments focused on various zoning entitlements to positions focused on planning.
From a planning / urban design point of view, do you believe that LA should have a two-year building moratorium?
RP: If the City Council, City Planning Commission, and City Planning Department had not deliberately ignored the planning process, the two-year moratorium would not be necessary. But, this has been their practice since the early 1990s, so I think the moratorium is necessary to make sure the necessary staff are available and that city planning managers will keep their eye on planning issues, not drift back to zoning cases because of pressure from elected officials and real estate developers.
In terms of urban design, The Framework has an excellent chapter on urban design that has been totally ignored at City Hall. It also has appended new chapters on residential, commercial, and industrial design that have been totally ignored in zoning decisions and general plan amendments. Hopefully an update of the general plan can finally make these design standards, and many more, front and center in the planning process.
AL: A two-year moratorium is insane. Arguably the reason for a building moratorium, if voted by City Council, is to halt development of a specific type while new regulations related to that type are updated, and there should be some kind of urgency or public health purpose behind the need to curb development while new regulations are drafted. As I mentioned above, there is no way the 35 Community Plans of LA can be updated in two years, so the Measure S moratorium seems to be simply a bold-faced attempt to halt development, period, without any sincere desire for corrective action to allow well conceived development to move forward in the future.
If Measure S does pass, and LA does face a two-year building moratorium, there will be the loss of construction jobs, housing opportunities, inflation of rents, and all the other consequences already written about by other commentators. However, one consequence I haven’t heard anyone discuss is the impact on neighboring cities like Glendale, Burbank, Pasadena, Culver City, Santa Monica, and so on. The Measure S moratorium will not eliminate the demand and pressure for housing and development — like Play-Doh being pushed, it will simply be squeezed into other areas. As a planning practitioner in two of those cities (Glendale and Pasadena) I fear we could face enormous development pressures if Measure S passes, which might have huge political ramifications for us.
What are your thoughts on the city’s quantity of development vs. its quality of development?
AL: Neither is good enough. We should produce more, and it should be of better quality. There are moments of individual brilliance, but on the average, new development in Los Angeles seems fairly mundane. Of course, your basic housing type and building block of the city doesn’t demand or warrant architectural genius every time — but I am dismayed that our housing choices seem to fall into three categories: single family home, dingbat apartment, and the five story stacked flat. In LA of all places, I’d hope and expect to see innovative forms of higher density housing that incorporate the outdoor amenities of the single family house. I think this is one reason Small Lot development is so popular — it provides something resembling a single-family house lifestyle in a multi-family form. But there really needs to be many more models of this type.
On the other hand, there is also something depressing that people will rally and fight to protect the banal ugly one story strip mall environment that is most of LA’s boulevards rather than see a new building. Apparently they believe that new building will degrade their environment more than what exists today — it isn’t a ringing endorsement for the public faith in architecture and development. We really need to do better.
RP: I think that development should be understood as the entire built environment, not just real estate construction and sales. From this point of view, investment in public infrastructure — such as transit, bike lanes, sidewalks, street lighting, urban forests, parks and recreation, libraries, and all related categories — is far too small. As for private investment, the business model of developers ensures that their projects are for the well-off since that is where the profits are. They do not, therefore, simply ignore the middle class and low-income people; their dedication to real estate speculation leads to the loss of affordable housing through mansionization, small lot subdivisions, the demolition of small apartment houses, and the construction of luxury housing.
What do you believe the future of LA should be?
RP: I think LA needs to make a dramatic transition to sustainable infrastructure and design, a course I taught at USC. This can only take place through comprehensive planning, including a new climate change general plan element. The State of California already has detailed resources for this new element, and more progressive California cities have already prepared and adopted such an element. It also means that City Hall must follow CEQA by only approving the environmentally superior alternatives, not the worst environmental alternative through unverifiable statements of overriding consideration.
AL: LA is immensely fascinating when you realize it is basically a suburban, auto/freeway-oriented urban form developed for Anglo-American prejudices that is now being retrofitted with transit lines, density nodes, and cultures from around the world that have very different expectations about what it means to live in a city. I think we are seeing hybrid forms of urbanity never witnessed before, whether it’s the Latino urbanism grafted onto craftsman homes in Boyle Heights, or suburban Chinatowns in Alhambra and Arcadia, or the remaking of places like Wilshire Boulevard, LACMA and Exposition Park. So I think LA is an incredibly dynamic place that frequently escapes the ability of us poor planners to anticipate what it “should” be — LA mutates faster and in ways that we often can’t anticipate, and that’s what makes it exciting.
That being said, I believe we should commit ourselves to a city that is egalitarian and equitable in terms of access to jobs, housing, mobility, and amenities. We should plan for a city that is sustainable, ecological and economically, socially and spiritually. I believe LA is poised to do this as well as, if not better, than any other major city in the world — if we remember that LA is ultimately one of the most intentional places on the planet as the result of planning (for example, we have the largest port complex on the West Coast, yet no natural harbor). In the small corner of LA for which I am the steward, I believe creating that kind of city means strategically planning new transportation infrastructure, focusing new investment around that infrastructure, creating housing opportunities and choices near that transportation, while ensuring places for recreation, culture and jobs — in short, doubling down on our existing walkable, transit-oriented districts and downtowns.