Pro-Democracy Move in L.A. Planning

Perhaps it is the spirit of Independence Day, but it appears that the repeated pleas for a more democratic planning process in Los Angeles is at long last being heard, at least in some quarters.

Especially welcome are the recent publicly sponsored design workshops in Watts, East Hollywood and Van Nuys, encouraging citizen participation, and the open discussions concerning the proposed major development of Playa Vista.

In addition, the workshops, by focusing on select neighborhoods and specific solutions, hold out the promise that some of the recommendations might be implemented within a reasonable time, that the residents involved will be able to see the fruits of their labor beyond the publication of a report.

Among the recommendations is the diversion of traffic away from residential neighborhoods, widening of sidewalks to encourage pedestrian use, tree-planting programs, the call for mixed uses, such as apartments above stores, and the construction of some sort of focal point to lend the respective communities an identity.

As important as the recommendations is the fact that as the workshops have progressed, the latest held a few weeks ago in Watts, the attending design professionals and civil servants are listening more to each other and, in particular, to the citizens. The result has been a healthy dialogue among those involved, instead of the usual attempts by a few in power to manipulate, dictate and ultimately alienate.

The workshops have been orchestrated by a handful of dedicated city planning department employees and volunteers from the local Urban Design Advisory Coalition, guided by Charles Zucker of the national American Institute of Architects' community assistance program.

Helping has been a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. And then there are the neighborhood residents and merchants, donating their time in a gesture of hope over experience.

The Playa Vista planning effort is somewhat different. While there are still a number of environmental, architectural and economic items and issues yet to be clarified, the fact that the developer, Maguire Thomas Partners, has opened the process for all to see and comment on is a refreshing change.

No doubt, the approach was prompted in part by the vociferous opposition to previous proposals there by adjacent communities and a vigilant Councilwoman Ruth Galanter.

Time will tell whether the workshops and the open discussions are just window dressing for the usual special interests, a public relations and psycho-social gimmick to further sap the energies and good will of concerned residents. Or whether they are the progenitors of a new and enlightened local planning process.

For too long the process in most cities generally has been an academic gesture weighted down with thick studies and multicolored maps full of sound and fluff. They have tended to affect little, except usually to pad bureaucratic fiefdoms and consultant fees, while frustrating community groups and confusing the media.

Meanwhile, the actual planning often has been a closed-door, over-an-expense-account-lunch or out-on-the-golf-course exercise, involving private interests, select politicians and compliant officials.

Prompting such meetings is the fact that an estimated 80% of campaign contributions in local elections come from individuals and corporations involved in one form or other in real estate. The aerospace, financial and entertainment fields notwithstanding, real estate development is the prime honey pot of Southern California.

Within this reality, community groups tend to be viewed as an annoyance, and an open planning process downright subversive. Patted on the head and ignored, it is no wonder that many groups have become so strident, giving rise to what has been called "vigilante planning," where rhetoric on all sides tends to drown out a rational approach to growth management.

Not helping has been the failure of the city to date to establish the promised community plan advisory committees, proposed nearly three years ago in the wake of the overwhelming passage of the Proposition U slow-growth initiative.

The committees are seen as a way citizen participation might be better structured and channeled, giving communities a more coherent, recognized voice. At present, it is hard to tell who speaks for whom and what, whether it is just a few demagogues, political cronies or straw men for developers, or responsible representatives of a concerned neighborhood.

When asked recently what happened to the proposal for the committees, city Planning Director Ken Topping declared: "It is happening."

Topping seems to prefer active verbs to answer such questions. When asked a year ago about the committees and other programs to promote an open planning process, Topping replied in a letter that the varied efforts "are getting under way," or "will be formed," and that generally the city was "aggressively" pursuing the goal of a more livable city.

Eight months later, in a letter to the editor published in this newspaper commenting on an editorial calling for planning reforms, Mayor Tom Bradley repeated many of the same items and the same phrasing Topping had used.

"We are turning the corner on city planning," declared the mayor.

Sometimes that corner seems like a circle, raising the issue whether the city as presently constituted and managed has the ability to manage growth and protect a dwindling quality of life.

Yet the workshops promised in the letters were launched, albeit thanks in part to a cadre of volunteer design professionals, and the local residents and merchants themselves. And if some politicos haven't seen the writing on the wall by communities calling for an open planning process, at least the development firm of Maguire Thomas has.

While not exactly a revolution of, by and for the people in the planning process, they are gestures that no doubt the Founding Fathers would appreciate.

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