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Vigilante Planning

There are two implications to be gleaned from a recent Times story on relations between developers and Los Angeles’ increasingly assertive neighborhood associations. One is merely unlovely; the other is instructive.

Nowadays, when developers confront local opponents to one of their projects, they can expect to be asked for more than modifications to the building itself. According to staff writer Dean Murphy’s report, neighborhood organizations routinely demand that developers provide parks and other amenities, pay the groups’ legal and consulting costs and, often, make outright cash payments to their treasuries. Builders are willing to accede to such conditions, because they know that if their aroused opponents decide to wage guerrilla war through the thickets of the planning and permit process, the result usually is extended--and expensive--delay.

As might be expected, developers are not particularly cheerful about all this. Though others might put it more delicately, it’s probably fair to say that one builder spoke aloud the thoughts of others when he bluntly called the process “blackmail.”

That’s one way of looking at it. Another would be to say that if the potential profits didn’t justify the expense, the developer wouldn’t pay it. And since the residents will be left to live with the project’s consequences, why shouldn’t they share in some small way in the benefits? There’s a rough, if rather Darwinian, justice in such calculations.

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But rather than being content with making such calculations, Angelenos ought to ask why they are being forced on the community in the first place.

The answer to that question is to be found in what one neighborhood activist told The Times: “The city isn’t doing a whole lot to protect us, so we have to protect ourselves,” he said.

Land-use attorney Mike Remy put a finer point on it: “What the citizens realize is that in the relationship between developers and elected decision-makers, there aren’t really any good safe-guards that assure the citizens have, in fact, gotten their due. This gives citizens an incentive to take things into their own hands.”

When people take matters into their own hands, it’s called vigilantism. And that’s what Los Angeles has at the moment, vigilante planning. It has it because city officials have failed to agree on a rational, coherent vision of how Los Angeles ought to manage its explosive growth with all its attendant problems. People have scant faith in the ability of the political process to sort these questions out because they know what part developers’ contributions play in the campaign finances of nearly every elected official in the city.

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People who feel abandoned by government cannot be blamed for protecting themselves, but they seldom stop to worry about the impact their self-defense has on others: When one neighborhood bands together and solves its on-street parking problems with a special permit district, cars simply are pushed onto neighboring blocks. Gates or street barriers may solve one neighborhood’s crime and traffic problems, but it becomes harder for emergency vehicles to reach their neighbors in need.

In end, vigilante planning isn’t planning at all. It’s survival of the fittest, or the cleverest, or the meanest, or the luckiest or, most often, the richest.


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