Valley Commentary : Planning to Grow Up : Los Angeles' 'General Plan Framework' requires several factors to work. And, just as crucial, the city needs the maturity to stick to the plan.

William Fulton is author of "Guide to California Planning" (Solano Press) and editor of California Planning & Development Report, a newsletter based in Ventura

Almost half a century ago, at the beginning of the San Fernando Valley's postwar boom, the Los Angeles Department of City Planning drew up a series of "community plans" that called for the preservation of agricultural greenbelts by clustering new development in existing communities such as Reseda and Van Nuys. Needless to say, the plans went unheeded.

Thirty years later, in the 1970s, City Planning drew up another plan, this time with the help of homeowner groups. The citywide General Plan called for protecting residential neighborhoods by channeling new development into existing "centers." They would feature high-density housing, shopping, office buildings and transit stops. This plan, too, went largely unheeded. The density arrived, but it was scattered willy-nilly, wherever politically influential developers wanted to build. And the transit system is still on the way.

Now City Planning is in the midst of yet another major planning effort. The "General Plan Framework" currently being discussed at workshops in the Valley will likely renew the call for concentrated development around transit stops to protect single-family neighborhoods.

This plan grew out of the city's sewer moratorium of the 1980s. Before expanded sewage treatment facilities, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wanted proof that Los Angeles would manage the sewer system responsibly. The city has responded by revisiting growth issues in a comprehensive way for the first time since the 1970s.

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The new plan will take years to produce and cost the city several million dollars. The biggest issue surrounding it is whether the city and its residents have the gumption to make it stick once it's prepared. Given Los Angeles' planning history, it's understandable why many citizens might not place much faith in the new plan--even the citizens who participate in the process.

Especially in Los Angeles, the story of U.S. city planning has been that "plans are made to be broken." Both the postwar community plans and the 1974 L.A. General Plan were recognized among planners as outstanding documents--conceptually. But they conflicted with the city's zoning ordinance, which is the day-to-day workhorse of land-use decisions, and the city's politicians did not have the will to stick to them.

Indeed, the '74 General Plan was not implemented for more than a decade. It took a special law by the state Legislature and lengthy litigation by citizen activists to force the City Council to reconcile the plan and the zoning ordinances for some 800,000 parcels throughout the city. In the meantime, developers were able to "break" the plan by constructing large buildings outside designated centers, especially on the Westside and in the Valley.

Yet the plan's conceptual power remains compelling. Most planners continue to believe that the notion of a multi-centered city, with high-density centers separated by low-density residential areas and connected by transportation corridors, is right for Los Angeles. This idea will most likely form the core of the plan.

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But can the city turn the lofty concepts into a meaningful constitution for future development? Experience suggests that for a plan to be effective in the long run, four important factors must be present.

1. The plan must be realistic. It made sense on paper to cluster postwar development around existing Valley communities. But the barriers to suburban sprawl were falling rapidly. Land was cheap; mass-produced housing was becoming available; middle-class families could afford low-density houses and the cars that made a low-density life possible. Squared off against reality, the plans didn't stand a chance.

2. The plan must have the enduring commitment of local politicians. Planning isn't about maps. It's about getting eight votes at the City Council. Despite the involvement of politically influential homeowners groups, the '74 General Plan fell because politicians did not feel deeply committed to it when the real estate boom of the '80s arrived.

3. A plan needs powerful external forces arrayed behind it. Examples are the threat of litigation and penalties from the state or federal governments. The '74 plan was implemented, belatedly, only because a lawsuit was used to enforce a state law.

4. Maybe most important, a plan needs a city that has reached maturity. It must have left behind the go-go years of its youth and understand that its middle age must be carefully managed. New York and Chicago became committed to planning after chaotic periods of rapid growth that established them as great cities. San Francisco--the most heavily planned city on the West Coast--turned to planning only after it was created overnight by the Gold Rush.

Measured against these four yardsticks, the new plan has a chance to work. But success is by no means assured.

Although more realistic than past efforts, the plan is likely to emphasize development along transit corridors, and that remains a somewhat dreamy idea. Yes, the transit system will be built, and some people will be channeled into it. But most people will continue to drive most places--a fact the plan must confront.

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It remains to be seen whether members of the City Council will commit themselves to the plan. By all indications, many council members--especially the newer ones--have been closely involved in the planning process, and that's good. But 1970s politicians also spouted a lot of rhetoric about planning. To succeed, the plan must represent a set of agreements so deeply woven into the city's political fabric that the politicians cannot abandon it when circumstances change.

The plan's greatest potential for success may lie in the third yardstick--the external threat. Expanding on its original concern with sewage treatment, the EPA intends to scrutinize the plan for compliance with federal clean-water and clean-air laws. If the EPA holds Los Angeles' feet to the fire, the city will have to follow the plan or risk severe federal penalties.

But it's important to remember that the federal bureaucrats operate in a political environment too. In the past, when the Clean Air Act has threatened to impede Los Angeles' economy, Congress or the EPA or both have changed federal policies to lessen the blow. Given Southern California's fragile economy and political importance, the Clinton Administration may decide not to push too hard.

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Perhaps the most important question is whether Los Angeles is mature enough to stick to a plan. After a lengthy adolescence, Los Angeles is now large and unmanageable. Its problems and costs make it verge on economic uncompetitiveness with other cities, much as New York did 20 years ago. Sooner or later the city will begin taking its plans seriously, if only to remain a manageable place to live and work. But will it be now?

The new plan will give Los Angeles an opportunity to prove that it's time not to just do good planning but to stick to it. Whether the current planning effort succeeds will depend on whether the city's people and politicians are truly willing to leave acne scars and wild parties behind and face their city's adulthood.

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