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Development on the fly

March 25, 2007|Cary Lowe and William Cipes | CARY LOWE, a land-use attorney and urban planning consultant, has advised state and local government. WILLIAM CIPES is director of operations of the Transportation and Land Use Collaborative of Southern California.

THE CONTROVERSY OVER selling "air rights" above the Convention Center as development credits that could be used to build high-rise housing downtown underscores Los Angeles' fragmented, often incoherent approach to land use,

planning and development. The air-rights proposal, which was vetoed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, isn't a bad idea in concept. Indeed, the mayor said as much in his veto explanation. But the City Council passed the ordinance without having first achieved a political consensus among city officials or private interests -- and without any thoughtful consideration of how the new construction would affect downtown, let alone the rest of the city. Regrettably, incidents like this make the city seem like a small town rather than the world-class metropolis it aspires to be.

But it's not too late to set a new course that will guide the city's development for the next generation. Villaraigosa supports what he calls "elegant density," and the city has a new planning director.

There have been many attempts at creating a long-range vision of how the city should develop. As far back as 1930, a group of architects led by Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of New York's Central Park, came up with a plan to make parks, plazas and transit routes accessible throughout the city. The ideas were largely ignored.

In the 1960s, as the postwar development boom was cresting, the city Planning Department rallied behind the idea of a series of urban centers across Los Angeles that would be connected by major streets and public transit lines. Some centers -- Century City, for one -- were developed, but the connections were never established.

In the mid-1980s, voters worried about uncontrolled growth and traffic congestion passed an initiative drastically reducing development opportunities in most of the city's commercial areas. But the law effectively pushed commercial development to the fringes of the city and further politicized the development approval process.

In the early 1990s, city officials promoted an early version of what is now called "new urbanism": higher-density, mixed-use (commercial and residential) and pedestrian-friendly development. The idea produced little enthusiasm. Five years ago, largely in response to the San Fernando Valley's secessionist movement, the city established a system of neighborhood councils to weigh in on land use in their respective areas. But these councils have little incentive to think or act on behalf of the city as a whole.

As a result, L.A. lurches from one land-use crisis to another. Despite the General Plan, which is supposed to guide development citywide, land-use issues are fought out one at a time. The Valley and downtown businesses argue over how much -- or even if -- city resources should be committed to the Grand Avenue project. Manufacturers clash with residential developers over the fate of the old industrial core downtown between Main Street and the Los Angeles River. Eastside and Westside battle over where scarce transit dollars should be spent. City officials bemoan soaring housing costs but cannot rally public support to fund affordable-housing programs. Public schools in parts of the city remain overcrowded, but many neighborhoods don't want a new campus in their backyard. Obtaining city approval for development projects has become so complex that an industry of lobbyists and facilitators has sprung up to navigate the bureaucracy.

The current system of land-use regulation influences growth only in small ways. The city's population continues to rise, but its infrastructure capacity -- streets, schools, parks, water systems -- grows only incrementally, if at all. No wonder that many residents, weary of traffic, noise, potholes, crime and smog, have become classic NIMBYs dedicated to getting as large a share of public resources for their neighborhoods as possible, while keeping out the effects of living in a big city.

This will not change until all of L.A.'s diverse communities believe their futures are inextricably linked. To that end, residents and their leaders must agree on what kind of city Los Angeles is. This consensus could be the foundation for developing a vision of what the city should be in 20, 30 or even 50 years. As important, it could be the basis of a guide on how L.A. should interact with the rest of the region on issues that transcend any one jurisdiction.

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