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L.A's Changing Reality May Undercut Its New Growth Plan

August 04, 1996|William Fulton | William Fulton is editor of California Planning and Development Report, a monthly newsletter. His book on the politics of urban planning in Southern California will be published by Solano Press Books

VENTURA — Los Angeles is often reputed to be one of the worst-planned cities, but for much of the 20th century, it has been one of the best. Its rail, boulevard and freeway systems have given the city an ability to expand outward, methodically. As historian Greg Hise contends, many parts of Los Angeles were deliberately designed as decentralized communities, with residential neighborhoods adjoining factories. Los Angeles could hardly have become the successful prototype for a sprawling 20th-century city without such planning.

Today, however, Los Angeles is a different kind of city. It is still growing, but its population growth mostly results from the influx of immigrants and their children into central-city neighborhoods. Its political and economic life is chiefly defined by ethnic enclaves that are difficult to link together in any meaningful way. While it remains the dominant city in Southern California, Los Angeles is increasingly hemmed in by its own past expansion, no longer able to solve problems simply by bursting farther outward into the fields and chaparral. In short, after a century of spectacular growth, Los Angeles has become a mature city.

A different kind of city requires a different kind of plan. Toward that end, the City Council has adopted the General Plan Framework, essentially a blueprint to replace the 1974 plan. Several years and several million dollars in the making, the new plan retains the central concept of its predecessor: protect single-family neighborhoods and channel growth into dense, public-transit-oriented centers.

There are two basic, related dilemmas embedded in the new general framework. One, how do you plan for the varied needs of small neighborhoods while constructing a big picture to attract the greatest support? Two, how do you reconcile a planning vision driven by a desire to protect middle-class suburbia with the reality of a city that is increasingly urban, crowded and working class?

The first problem springs from Los Angeles' sheer size: It's so big that it must serve as its residents' regional and local government. Citywide decisions must be tied together with a common-sense understanding that "we're all in this together." What makes this broad perspective difficult to operate under is the parochial approach most groups active in land-use planning take.

Over the past generation, the city's planning orientation has flowed from the slow-growth demands of homeowner associations, the most vocal of which are on the Westside and in the Valley. As such, the goal of the planning exercise is to accommodate whatever growth is expected, while reassuring homeowners that no bulldozers are headed toward them. The genius of the '74 plan was to show that, by channeling new growth into centers, the single-family neighborhoods could remain intact.

The homeowner-protection theme remains a strong undercurrent in the new plan. Among the many balms directed at homeowners, the plan states that its forecasts of population increases are merely estimates and, accordingly, do not serve as a basis for land-use strategies. But there is more to Los Angeles today than upper-middle-class homeowners in Encino and Brentwood. Indeed, the issue of growth is far more subtle than the typical political discourse usually reveals.

Though the city's population is temporarily at a standstill, it grew by a half million during the 1980s; the new plan estimates that 800,000 more people will live here by 2010. But this figure doesn't readily translate into a predictable number of cubic yards of dirt moved for new building in the Santa Monica Mountains. As demographer Dowell Myers of USC has pointed out, virtually all the population growth in the 1980s was due to immigration. It's fair to assume that most future growth will come from immigrants and their families, people who will move steadily, though slowly, into the working and middle classes.

Myers contends these immigrants "use the city" differently than do native-born residents. They live in more crowded quarters, for example, and use public transit more heavily. Although such behavior patterns become more conventional as residents become more established, Myers' findings suggest a much different picture of the city's growth than homeowner advocates often believe.

Neighborhoods will become more dense, and traffic will increase, but such changes will probably occur more gradually than most longtime activists expect. As the dispersion patterns of ethnic neighborhoods have shown, it's hard to predict which parts of the city will change most quickly or dramatically.

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