Is LA City Planning Becoming a Politburo?

WHOSE GOVERNMENT IS IT ANYWAY?One thing I’ll say about City Planning:  they sure know how to get things done. 

Even if it means completely thwarting the will of those who’ve spent years of their precious time (and even money) trying to improve the planning process, and even if means violating the intent, if not the word, of our City Charter, the Brown Act and CEQA law, CITY PLANNING GETS THINGS DONE.  Just the way the old Soviet-style Politburo used to get things done. 

I’m sure that to some the term “Politburo” will seem a bit unfair or harsh, and I admit that we’re not going to see opponents of the Planning-Developer-Lobbyist Troika suddenly disappear because of the doings of armed thugs…but there is a strong risk of opponents of this Troika will disappear as residents are forced to flee the City for either adjacent or distant municipalities that actually respect and support those taxpaying, voting residents called Citizens. 

Planning has, by several actions, clearly shifted from a “let’s hear and document and consider what you all have to say, and come up with a reasonable compromise based on pragmatic considerations, the City Charter and majority rule” to “let’s hear what you have to say, document that we did ‘outreach’, and then do whatever the hell we feel like, or whatever the hell the Mayor, major developer donors and self-proclaimed planning experts feel like.” 

Note bene to LA City Planning:  “Outreach” isn’t “Acquiescence” or “Consensus” or “Approval”…especially when the residents are all screaming, “NO!” 

Another note bene to LA City Planning:  The cities of Santa Monica, Culver City and other municipalities make compromises to support affordable housing, transit-oriented development, and Smart Growth/Urban Infill, but they don’t smash-mouth rezoning and variances down their taxpaying, voting base’s collective throat, and threaten those cities’ Economy, Environment and Quality of Life. 

Yet another note bene to L.A. City Planning:  When the grassroots who fought like hell for the Expo Line and Measure R are beginning to freak out at what’s being done at the Exposition/Sepulveda and Bundy/Olympic stations for the Expo Line, you can be damn sure that there will be strong opposition to future measures such as Measure J to encourage more mass transit—we fought for mass transit, not a WORSENING of traffic and our environment and mobility. 

The outreach of Metro, the LADOT and LA World Airports to date has been true outreach—if they come up with ideas that have blowback and lots of negative resistance, they’ll reconsider.  In other words, you or I can have serious concerns about anything that Metro, the LADOT or LA World Airports wants to do, but they’ll listen.  They may be fervent in their beliefs, but transportation engineers by and large tend to be left-brained and stick to both the laws of physics and public policy. 

Unfortunately, Planning—and specifically, LA City Planning—appears to operate by one or both of the following paradigms: 

They’re smarter than us, we’re all pretty stupid, and either we or our children will thank them for the harsh medicine they’re dealing us.  Maybe they even think they’re doing God’s work, and/or they truly represent what the people want. 

Developer/donors and chambers of commerce and self-proclaimed planning gurus, and probably the Mayor, are ramming through an agenda and changing the laws to create a centralized dictatorship/oligarchy (all under the glorious mantras of “jobs” and “affordable/transit-oriented housing”) that all revolve around the concept of Money Talks. 

It needs to be remembered and repeated that those of us who wanted an Exposition Light Rail Line, which is a great trolley that will—because it shares tracks Downtown with the Blue Line—have a limited passenger capacity and limited number of trains per day, fought for the Expo Line to improve mobility and the environment.  It will carry approximately 70-90,000 passengers/day, not the 200,000+ passengers the Wilshire Subway will transport. 

In other words, we wanted a tall glass of water with respect to transit-oriented development and densification…but did NOT ask to be firehosed out of the decision-making process, or out of the City altogether.  The debate and quarrels over the size of transit-adjacent developments (which, unfortunately, are too-often are NOT transit-oriented, and ANYTHING BUT transit-oriented) are one thing, but ramming through new Planning Policy without legally-required public influence is another. 

Two key examples show the sea change and power play that is going on with the Exposition Corridor: 

1) First Mayor Villaraigosa (back when he felt he needed the support of the Council and the citizenry of L.A.) supported a tech corridor, or a “Silicon Beach Corridor” along the new Expo Line commercial corridor (LINK)

Pretty good idea, right?  I’m sure most of us like jobs and a new economy for L.A., right?  And the perfect place for a tech startup would be the industrially-zoned Exposition/Sepulveda site next to the 405 freeway—and which Expo Authority Boardmembers Mike Bonin and Paul Koretz favor for just such a Silicon Beach startup. 

Then the property owners (Casden Associates) made it clear to Planning and the Mayor they wanted residential/commercial there (apparently, they paid a lot of money for that site, and they wanted a maximal return on their investment, regardless of the fallout to the general public).  

Among other favors, Casden donated $50,000 to the failed Proposition A sales tax hike that the Mayor supported, and so Planning slammed through a “Casden-stein Monstrosity” of 10-16 story towers that no one has seen, and is still being worked on by Planning and the developers.  No public review, and laws violated right and left. 

But whatever the hell this project will look like, it’s residential/commercial in a pretty unlivable site that industrially-zoned for a good reason…and IT’S APPROVED, WHATEVER IT WILL BE, BECAUSE OF “OVERRIDING CONSIDERATIONS”. 

Pretty cute, huh?  The old Soviet Central Planning folks would be proud. 

2) After years of working with Planning to come up with a decades-overdue update of the West L.A. and Mar Vista/Palms/Del Rey Community Plans, so that we actually have rules to work with when it comes to height, density, transportation, infrastructure, etc., LA City Planning will “go it alone” to come up with its own Expo Line Planning effort that apparently erases years of blood, sweat and tears by Neighborhood Councils and community groups (LINK)

Meanwhile, a transit-oriented development of over 500 units next to the future Bundy/Olympic Expo Line station has just been announced, and will require public comment by April 19th.  Variances aplenty, and probably lots of unmitigable traffic-related issues, but one can be sure that this project—which no one really knows what it will look like—has already been “approved” by Planning because of “OVERRIDING CONSIDERATIONS”. 

To be fair, I’ve met both groups of developers, and find the Martin Cadillac site developers (who will develop at the aforementioned Bundy/Olympic station-adjacent site) to be more appropriate and reasonable than the Casden developers. 

But I don’t fear any developer as much as I fear a LA City Planning that’s being directed by the Mayor and monied interests (it’s clear that Mayor Villaraigosa is “done with us” and is thinking about his next gig) to build whatever these monied interests want…even if it entirely negates the potential benefits of the Expo Line we’re all looking forward to access and ride. 

In other words, I fear a Planning Politburo that, in effect, makes its own damnable laws and on its own damnable terms. 

To conclude and contrast, let me remind everyone that LA World Airports, who I’ve often clashed with, had the smarts and sense to make sure that Century/Aviation, under the LAX flight path and in an unlivable location, will ONLY be zoned for industrial and commercial land use—LAWA owns that land, and I very much wish them immense profitability with their land. 

But when it comes to the industrially-zoned land next to the 405 freeway that should be a Silicon Beach industrial/commercial jobs center, and up for public review and input and influence for the best land use?  Well, the Planning Politburo will not hesitate to rezone that for a Westside “housing project” in a manner that places the City at enormous legal risk…to say nothing of the health of future residents. 

And the Planning Politburo will rezone and overdensify (not Smart Growth, not Urban Infill, but raw, unbridled overdevelopment) at the behest of the politically-run Planning-Developer-Lobbyist Troika that is making a major power play. 

After all, why follow the law when you can make up your own?  Isn’t that what a Politburo is SUPPOSED to do when it provides “vision” and “leadership” under the mandate of “OVERRIDING CONSIDERATIONS?”



(Ken Alpern is a Boardmember of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), co-chairs its Transportation/Infrastructure Committee, and previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees.  He is co-chair of the CD11 Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at [email protected]This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it     He also co-chairs the nonprofit Friends of the Green Line at  The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.)






Vol 11 Issue 24

Pub: Mar 22, 2013