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Planners Unveil Vision for More Livable L.A.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a vast city divided by freeways and fault lines, mountain ranges and race, a common vision for the new millennium is emerging that seeks to create a more livable Los Angeles.

Three years in the making, the just-released General Plan envisions a city where pedestrians, not cars, rule the streets in some areas; where apartments and shops coexist in bustling new districts tied together by bus and rail; and where quiet neighborhoods are protected from the sort of intrusive development that sparked hundreds of community battles in the 1980s.

The new General Plan will be a long-term blueprint for growth and will act as the city’s land-use constitution. It strives for a future in which neighborhoods age and grow gracefully: For the first time in its history, Los Angeles has all but run out of space and must find ways to recycle already used-up land.

“I think it is a hopeful but realistic plan,” said Planning Director Con Howe. “It is hopeful in that there are solutions to our problems. We can make the city more livable. It is just going to take a consistent commitment.”

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But tough times lie ahead if the city is to accommodate its residents.

Over the next two decades, Los Angeles is projected to grow by about 820,000 people, about the same number for each 10-year period, on the average, as between 1980 and 1990. And that decade was one in which fights over growth defined local politics and turned many homeowners into feisty amateur city planners.

To do nothing could be disastrous.

Environmental studies that accompany the plan show that if the city follows its current development patterns, the rising population would cause traffic to slow to a standstill, housing to become ever more expensive and sewer and power systems to collapse. Jobs would spiral out to suburban cities as conditions worsened, bleeding Los Angeles of revenue necessary to keep pace with population growth.

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The plan’s most innovative components include flanking major thoroughfares with apartments and shops and creating dense communities around transit stops.

Yet for all that it tries to remedy, the plan is surprisingly conservative. About 95% of the city’s land will remain largely unchanged. Roughly 75% of new development will be channeled over many years onto 5% of land in the city, swaths of already dense commercial boulevards such as Wilshire and Ventura, Pico and Venice.

“The whole approach we are using here is incremental,” Howe said. “This is not a futuristic plan. It accepts and builds on the basic character of the city.”

The General Plan sets broad policies governing how neighborhoods should develop over the coming decades. Without an adequate plan, the city cannot accurately predict where and when improvements such as street widenings or upgrades of sewage treatment facilities will be needed.

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A carefully followed plan can prevent the city from needless spending and can provide the stability and predictability that businesses, builders and residents want.

The current General Plan was last brought up to date in 1974, when the City Council adopted the so-called “Centers Concept,” a planning notion that directed growth into a web of intensely developed neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles.

Areas such as Warner Center in Woodland Hills and Century City just west of Beverly Hills thrived under this idea, but the plan fell apart because proposed transit lines intended to link the centers never got built and the political will to enforce it buckled.

This time around, though, the transit network is under construction. And to ensure that the new plan has the support it needs when it reaches the City Council this summer, planners have spent much of the past two years shopping ideas around to council members and in neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles.

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Few have seen the plan, which was distributed late last week to the City Council and the Planning Commission. But council members and citizen watchdogs who have reviewed early drafts said they will especially scrutinize plans to make already dense areas even more crowded.

For the most part, though, longtime critics of the city’s planning process say the General Plan is a positive step, but they add that it must not go the way of countless other plans and sit ignored on a shelf in City Hall.

“I don’t think I am overly optimistic, but I think there is a new era coming to this city,” said City Councilwoman Laura Chick, who represents the west San Fernando Valley.

In general, the plan proposes to:

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* Create dense centers of activity. The idea refines the 1974 Centers Concept by establishing “targeted growth areas” where more intense building would be encouraged.

Most targeted areas are places such as Downtown or Sherman Oaks, where development already is concentrated and infrastructure--sewers, streets, freeways, utilities--is in place to accommodate more growth.

A major difference between the 1974 plan and the new one is that the centers would be distinguished from one another on a sliding scale of intensity--from low-rise neighborhood districts such as Encino in the Valley or Larchmont Village, which is south of Hollywood and north of Hancock Park in Los Angeles, to regional centers such as Hollywood or Mid City (an area in Los Angeles that roughly includes Country Club Park, Koreatown, Pico-Union, Westlake and Temple-Beaudry), where buildings would not rise higher than about 15 stories.

Smaller districts would be encouraged around transit stops such as those on the Red Line and Metrolink. Each area would have its own development standards to ensure that higher densities would not destroy the character of surrounding neighborhoods.

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* Encourage mixed-use development along major boulevards. An old idea that has gained new currency in planning circles, mixed-use development generally includes construction of a few floors of condominiums and apartments above ground-floor shops and offices.

Already popular in cities such as Seattle and San Francisco, this form of development has yet to catch on in Southern California, where suburban sprawl rules. In the few places mixed-use projects have been built--such as in Pasadena’s Old Town and along Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade--they have been wildly successful.

Because shops and offices are in close proximity to housing, it is easier for residents to walk or bicycle from place to place. Such development also encourages the use of mass transit.

This combination of housing and shops would be encouraged along busy boulevards, especially those that follow major bus lines. The plan suggests mixed-use developments along Ventura Boulevard in the Valley, along Pico Boulevard for much of its length between Downtown and Westwood, and along Vermont Avenue between Wilshire Boulevard and Manchester Avenue.

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* Protect existing neighborhoods. By channeling new development into only a few areas along major boulevards, planners hope to prevent the sort of intrusions into single-family neighborhoods that have led to communities where bungalows are sandwiched between boxy stucco apartments.

Because many of the boulevards where mixed-use districts are proposed abut neighborhoods of single-family homes, planners suggest building townhomes and duplexes in between.

* Provide clear and consistent rules. One of the biggest complaints among developers and businesses in Los Angeles is the often Byzantine approval process most projects go through.

To encourage growth in the targeted areas, planners suggest streamlining the City Hall bureaucracy for projects that meet the guidelines. But if a developer proposes a big project outside a growth area, the review process would be much more intense.

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* Maximize the investment in public transportation. Building around transit stops tends to promote ridership because residents can walk to and from the station. As density around transit increases, studies show the number of car trips drops, meaning freeways and surface streets will be less congested.

* Promote business development. In an unusual provision for a planning document, city officials are called upon to take a more aggressive role in attracting business to Los Angeles, and keeping it here, by pledging to improve roadways, utilities and even sewers.

It also supports expansion of the Port of Los Angeles and construction of an Alameda Rail Corridor to help move goods into and out of the city via the port.

Accomplishing the goals of the plan will be a daunting challenge, however. Once it is adopted, city officials will need to amend the city’s various community plans, which regulate day-to-day development in the neighborhoods. And when that sort of property-by-property analysis begins, opposition may spring up among community groups concerned about their own back yards.

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City officials say that time is when the true test of the plan will come. Individual members of the City Council now exert great control over development in their districts. The council as a whole generally defers to the wishes of individual members regarding projects in their areas, causing some to characterize the 15 councilmanic districts as “fiefdoms.”

But the plan presents a citywide vision that requires resolve on the part of City Council members to look beyond their own borders. “It’s time we realize that what happens in the 3rd District affects what happens in the 5th and in the 7th and so on,” Chick said.

The Planning Commission will hold a series of hearings on the plan beginning next month. At the same time, planners will take the document on the road to community meetings throughout the city. The commission is scheduled to send the plan to the City Council for review and approval in May.

“There is no single vision of Los Angeles,” said senior planner Emily Gabel, who is overseeing preparation of the plan. “We all have different ideas for the future, but we need to focus on those areas where we agree.”

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* VALLEY BRIEFING: Key points of the General Plan outlined. B2


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