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Planning Issues Offer Insight Into Secession

Breakup supporters say smaller cities would be more responsive on questions of growth and development.

October 15, 2002|Sue Fox | Times Staff Writer

Who killed Chuck E. Cheese? In Woodland Hills, look no further than the neighbors.

It might seem benign enough: a proposal to open a family restaurant filled with coin-operated children's games in a Ventura Boulevard mini-mall. Under the city's old planning rules, the restaurant might have sailed through.

But Chuck E. Cheese's case last year sparked a storm of opposition from residents living in a tidy neighborhood of single-family homes nearby. The complaints could have been lifted from the minutes of just about any San Fernando Valley homeowner group: inadequate parking, traffic, blight, noise and alcohol. Even the kiddie games became flash points.

The conflict--and how it was resolved--offers lessons as Los Angeles voters prepare to decide whether to break up their city. Of all the services that Valley and Hollywood secessionists vow to improve, the city planning process is already in the throes of a voter-approved overhaul aimed at making it more responsive to local concerns.

The secession measures on the Nov. 5 ballot come just three years after voters adopted a new City Charter that created advisory neighborhood councils and seven area planning commissions to make land-use decisions.

The threat of Valley secession helped drive charter reform, and the revamped Planning Department was a response to years of grumbling from people who felt they had little control over what was built in their neighborhoods. While secessionists applaud the new system, they say a smaller city would be even more responsive.

Appointed by the mayor, area planning commission members live in the area they serve. They are likely to know the places where projects are being proposed--and to understand the concerns of the residents and businesses there.

After the debate over Chuck E. Cheese erupted, it was the South Valley Area Planning Commission that settled it.

"The intent was to bring decision-making closer to the communities," said Con Howe, director of the Department of City Planning. Among major cities, he added, "there's no other system like this in the country."

So far, according to a Planning Department report, the new commissions are working well. They meet twice a month in the late afternoons in the regions they serve, boosting public participation. The system gives commissioners more time to focus on individual cases, Howe said.

The South Valley Area Planning Commission has handled more than a third of the cases citywide. Its meetings often last more than four hours, occasionally ending after midnight.

Consider the fate of Chuck E. Cheese's proposal.

The restaurant wanted a permit to serve beer and wine. But residents said their area was already saturated with liquor permits.

"Encouraging adults to become inebriated while children are playing in a restaurant invites irresponsible and reckless behavior," one resident, Raymond Asher, wrote in a letter to city planners.

A commercial property owner at the mini-mall joined the fight, hiring a lawyer to argue against sharing parking spaces with future Chuck E. Cheese customers. Neighbors, already miffed about trash and graffiti in the shopping center's alley, sent city planners photos of overflowing dumpsters and warned that a new restaurant would only make things messier.

And then there was the arcade--hardly a den of vice packed with violent video games, but nonetheless considered a special use under Los Angeles zoning rules. Opponents argued that an arcade could attract rowdy teenagers from nearby Taft High School.

The case went to a zoning administrator, who denied a conditional-use permit to serve alcohol and a zoning variance to allow the arcade in March 2001.

Under the old planning system, appeals of such decisions were heard by a citywide Board of Zoning Appeals. The new charter eliminated that board. Now, many appeals go to an area planning commission similar to the one that heard Chuck E. Cheese's case.

"It was a tough decision, let me tell you," said then-Commissioner Tony Lucente. "You want to support economic development, but on the other hand you want to protect people's neighborhoods."

Despite the restaurant's last-minute withdrawal of its request for an alcohol permit, the commission voted down the proposal in July 2001.

"You're answering to your peers," said Lucente, who is also a Studio City homeowner leader. "There's a greater level of accountability. You're answering to your neighborhood. You drive by [the project]; you've got to live with your decisions."

David Braun, one of the residents who fought Chuck E. Cheese's proposal, said the community felt that its voice was heard.

"Like any political process, it had its ups and downs," said Braun, a Pierce College professor. "We really put quite a bit of pressure on. It took a while, but we certainly felt we had a fair day in court."

Praise for the Process

Even the lawyer who handled Chuck E. Cheese's appeal had praise for the city's revamped planning process.

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