He Questions City Stance on High-Rises, Signs : Planner Finds Favor With Homeowners

Times Staff Writer

In the first of a planned series of visits with community groups, Kenneth C. Topping, Los Angeles’ new planning director, gave San Fernando Valley homeowner leaders a peek at his hitherto undisclosed agenda.

Most of the 15 leaders, who are slow-growth advocates, said they liked what they saw.

Since taking over the city’s top planning post two months ago, Topping has said he needs more time for study before taking positions on the major planning issues that have divided the city.

But, at a get-acquainted session in Sherman Oaks Wednesday night, Topping questioned two key Los Angeles City Council practices--permitting high-rises in designated centers scattered throughout the city and refusing to allow communities to have their own anti-sign and anti-billboard ordinances.


Wins Favorable Response

Both positions drew favorable responses from his listeners, who represent single-family home dwellers upset at the city’s pace of growth.

Topping, who was appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley and confirmed by the council, said sign-control ordinances “need to be tailored to the needs of individual communities” and that citywide ordinances are “not the appropriate way to go.”

In July, the council approved a citywide ordinance to control billboards and on-site signs, but homeowner leaders denounced the measure as too permissive for the problems in their communities.

At the same time, council members voted down a homeowner-backed sign-control ordinance for Encino, saying that imposing different rules throughout the city would lead to chaos.

Anti-sign forces had hoped that the proposed Encino ordinance would set a precedent that could be applied to other communities.

Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn., said Topping’s response was “exactly what we wanted to hear, although it is not what the council has been saying.”


Prefers Citywide Law

He said that, whereas homeowner leaders and others fighting to reduce the number of billboards would prefer a tough citywide law, “such an ordinance is not politically possible with this council, so we want to at least see ordinances with teeth on a community-by-community basis.”

Homeowner activists have long opposed the creation of high-rise centers such as Warner Center in Woodland Hills and Westwood, saying such high-density areas congest streets and destroy the atmosphere in adjacent residential neighborhoods.

The “centers” concept was championed by Calvin S. Hamilton, city planning chief for 20 years before Topping took over in July, and formed the foundation of the city’s planning during Hamilton’s tenure.

“Clearly, the centers concept is an idea that emerged from the 1960s, when a great deal of rapid transit was envisioned,” Topping said. “But I don’t think the concept fits too well with the present-day reality.”

He suggested that the centers could be modified on an individual basis by reviewing the city’s 35 community plans, each of which is approved by the council and sets development goals for individual communities.

The local plans were drafted over the last two decades by committees with representatives from various segments of a community, including business leaders and homeowners.


Various Factors Weighed

As prescribed by state law, the plans take into account such factors as parking, traffic flow and availability of sewers and other utilities.

Homeowner leaders feel that most plans, including the 14 that apply to Valley communities, allow too much residential and commercial density and should be revised downward.

Topping said that, whereas there is no chance now of freeing staff members to begin a large-scale review of plans, he hopes to form a review group within the staff in about 18 months.

He added that the 260-employee Planning Department is so overworked there is “almost a siege mentality among employees, with people coming at them from all directions.”