Discretionary snake oil

Ron Kaye's admirably muckraking website has taken another look at the evolution of zoning in Los Angeles (an issue that Brian Doherty and I commented on). Kaye's guide to what may be happening is Dick Platkin (who blogs here on planning issues). Like Kaye, Platkin is critical of the city's curious way with plans.

Perhaps the oddest aspect is the seemingly permanent disconnect between plans (generally good) and practice (often very bad indeed). It's been the city's practice, for example, to be willfully ignorant of the frameworks that should guide good development in Los Angeles.

According to Platkin, "The Department of City Planning never monitored the implementation of the (1996) General Plan Framework, and it stopped any monitoring of the Framework's underlying growth and infrastructure data over 10 years ago. In other words, the City of Los Angeles has been flying blind since the year 2000 because its General Plan has not been monitored. There is no way to know if the city's underlying growth and infrastructure data are accurate or if the city's policies and programs are effective. For that matter, we don't even know which implementation programs were rolled out, and if any of them functioned as intended."

And now a superstructure of discretionary planning guidelines - a new framework on top of the old, unmanaged one - has quietly been adopted. The arguments made for these new guidelines - efficiency, transparency, and relief from excessive bureaucracy - sound as good as the arguments made in the mid-1990s for adoption of the original planning framework . . . the one that has been left to drift.

So, concludes Platkin, "Considering that the (city's) General Plan's existing design principles and guidelines have been shelved since they were formally adopted by the City Council 14 years ago, it is certainly likely that non-binding design guidelines only approved by the City Planning Commission, not the City Council, and which will become appendices instead of adopted policies, will have little impact. Does this, therefore, mean that such potentially innocuous documents lay below the threshold of being either good or bad?"

And that's the underlying dispute in the "war of the press releases" - are the new guidelines more of the same stuff, with little real impact, or are they something else?

Platkin sees two alternatives: "On the good side there always is the possibility that the current public outreach campaign . . . will be a catalyst for City Planning and/or City Hall decision makers to utilize the new design guidelines for future discretionary actions. If this happens and the design guidelines are actually used, they could improve the appearance of some projects. This would be a positive outcome.

"But, the guidelines might also add a design patina to real estate projects which could not otherwise be built according to the Los Angeles Municipal Code (LAMC). This means that projects requiring zone changes, plan amendments, variances, or other special approvals to side-step the LAMC's zoning restrictions could be made more palatable through design enhancements. Based on current practices, it is also likely that contentious projects will make amends (with) critics by changing their external appearance and citing the guidelines - while holding fast to the zone changes or related discretionary actions they are requesting.

"This means that, in effect, the design guidelines would function quite differently than those now attached to Specific Plans or Historical Preservation Overlay Districts. In those cases the overlay ordinances ensure that projects are not only built below existing zoning limitations, but that the same projects are also given an additional review regarding their design. In effect, under Specific Plans, a good (i.e., undersized) project becomes better, while, in contrast, a bad (over-sized) project approved through a discretionary action becomes more acceptable through a design "make-over" intended win over some of the project's critics.

"If this happens, then the extensive efforts by the City of Los Angeles to reduce barriers to real estate speculation now underway will have been augmented through the use of non-binding urban design guidelines for a wide range of discretionary actions."

With nowhere else to go in built-out Los Angeles, the only place to make a speculative buck in real estate is in someone's neighborhood - maybe yours. And it has been the practice of city government to get out of the way of the speculators when the latest formulation of development snake oil is ready for sale.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user James Halliday. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

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