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Sam Hall Kaplan

Hope for Local Planning Boards

November 23, 1986|Sam Hall Kaplan

The battle to save Los Angeles from itself continues.

In reaction to a planning process that over the last few decades has misshaped the city, a citizens' committee has called for some fundamental changes, principally the establishment of community planning boards.

If not corrupted or manipulated by development interests, pandering politicians or civil serpents , the boards hold the promise of a planning process more sensitive to the needs and desires of the city's diverse neighborhoods.

The committee's report should at least receive a respectful, if cautious hearing by the city's planning establishment, coming as it does on the heels of the overwhelming passage of the slow-growth initiative, Proposition U.

The establishment, headed by Mayor Tom Bradley, the City Council and the Planning Commission, had in various ways attempted to defeat or subvert the proposition. What they did accomplish was to expose their insensitivity to the dissatisfaction welling up in the city's changing neighborhoods.

More than specifically reducing the size of new buildings in select commercial zones in a "meat ax" approach, the proposition was an expression by voters of frustration with the city's present planning practices, anger at insensitive development and the desire simply to be heard.

And, of course, if the citizens' committee report is pigeonholed or watered down, like so many other well-meaning volunteer efforts in the city's checkered past, it could always form the basis of yet another proposition. Indeed, it just might take a proposition to properly implement the boards.

In these days of besieged neighborhoods, one does not need a weatherman to point out which way the winds of change have been blowing. Certainly, Councilmen Zev Yaroslavsky and Marvin Braude and city Planning Commission President Dan Garcia did not need one before they chose to sponsor Proposition U last spring.

And it was no coincidence that soon after that the commission president prompted the formation of the citizens' advisory committee, charging it to evaluate the city's so-called centers concept, developed in the 1960s, and aimed at concentrating development in select prime pockets across the region.

While the concept was reasonable, the reality was that the city experienced rapid development, not only in the centers, but haphazardly elsewhere. And more often than not the fragmented development was badly planned and designed, creating chaotic traffic situations, overwhelming adjoining residential neighborhoods and infuriating homeowners.

The citizens' committee quickly realized that the problem went far beyond the centers concept and involved the entire planning process. (The move reportedly put off Garcia, who was then having second thoughts about Proposition U and the waning prestige and power of his commission.)

The committee nonetheless pushed forward. As co-chaired by Dan Shapiro and Allan Lowy and including among its members architects, planners, developer types and community representatives, the committee's efforts were commendable and impressive.

Quite specific, and sensible, is the recommendation that the Planning Department assume the function of transportation planning, which is now gridlocked in an archaic Transportation Department.

It has been long apparent that the Transportation Department lacks the leadership, imagination and will to do much more to solve the city's traffic problems than cut down trees, widen streets and paint yellow lines.

Declaring that the centers concept was "no longer the single valid planning tool for the 1980s and beyond," the committee recommended a new, comprehensive planning concept called "Targeted Growth Areas."

It is an interesting concept that deserves further exploration, particularly the call for a more active role by the city to encourage good urban design.

But by far the most interesting, potentially exciting and delicate concept proposed by the committee is the recommendation to establish community planning boards in 35 districts.

As proposed by the committee, the boards would revise community plans, review proposed projects, hold public hearings and make recommendations, specifically regarding projects requiring so-called discretionary approval. Their role would be purely advisory.

However, given their format, and with the proper fashioning, the boards could be an extremely effective force. Such boards in other cities and over time have grown in prestige to a point where their recommendations have taken on the power of ultimate approval and disapproval.

To help them get established, the committee has recommended that before the city plunges ahead, a pilot program be launched in three diverse planning districts for a trial period of not longer than two years.

Key to the credibility and effectiveness of the boards will be their membership.

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