The life of a city planning commissioner provides one of the oddest metrics for the slow recovery of the local economy. It also yields some insight about the power of the public to change our city.
Earlier this month, staff for Los Angeles’ East Area Planning Commission emailed me to cancel the upcoming meeting. As a member of this commission, I’ve received more than twice as many cancellation notices as meeting agendas over the past year. This is a far cry from 2007.
At the height of the housing market six years ago, I joined a commission that met every two weeks to hear three or more cases at each meeting. Disputes over conditional use permits, zoning variances and easements would regularly push our 4:30 p.m. meetings past 10 p.m. The cases involved everything from new multifamily and commercial properties to single family add-ons and small-business expansions.
Then the housing market crashed, and the Great Recession followed. Financing dried up, nervous investors held back and projects stalled. The steady stream of cases that came before my commission slowed to a trickle.
Today, with consumer confidence rebounding, housing markets in recovery and a local economy improving, look for more development projects in the pipeline and more activity before the city’s planning commissions.
The next wave of building activity will reshape our communities and our city. It will bring the opportunity--and responsibility--for communities, planners, developers, commissioners and elected officials to approve developments that are thoughtfully planned, well designed, sustainable and mindful of our environment. As my five-year term on the commission draws to an end, and as we consider candidates for city council and mayor, residents should urge would-be leaders to take a comprehensive, long-term and localized approach to development and its impact on quality of life in our neighborhoods.
We should, for instance, continue to support L.A.’s track record of “smart-growth” policies and in-fill development, where housing is built on developed areas rather than on open land at the outskirts. L.A. tops New York and San Francisco with more than 67% of new housing development categorized as in-fill, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The cultural amenities of the urban core, rising gas prices and the desire to spend less time in traffic all support greater in-fill development. We can further encourage in-fill by focusing on investments that improve our light rail and regional transportation system. We’ve made great progress but must still insist on optimal routes and stops, without abandoning investments in bus service critically important to lower-income commuters.
The sheer number of developments and units cannot be our sole focus. Transformations now taking place along our transportation corridors should prioritize accessibility for people who have grown up in these communities and now face displacement. We must preserve and expand the city’s stock of affordable units. And high-quality design should be a standard for all urban neighborhoods, not just a tony few.
Our growth should also take into account the uniqueness of every neighborhood. New developments should reflect awareness of a neighborhood’s unique assets, challenges, character and history. Doing so protects the integrity of neighborhoods and garners local support for projects that helps them through the development process.
Consider my former neighborhood in Silver Lake’s Sunset Junction, where Sunset and Santa Monica Boulevards meet. This area is home to a landmark gay bar, site of the city’s first gay and lesbian demonstrations against police abuse in 1967, two years before the historic Stonewall riots in New York. When operators of a new upscale gastropub converted the long-standing gay bar, they adopted its original name, the Black Cat, and feature historic photos and displays. Nearby multifamily developments now under way also seek to incorporate the area’s appreciation for public art, local architectural diversity and recognition of gay and lesbian history.
Finally, communities must be informed and engaged. Since my very first meetings, a recurring gripe by homeowner groups and stakeholders is lack of notice of development projects until it’s too late. In an era of social media and real-time interaction, public servants and their agencies need to honor residents' standing and voice with timely alerts via several media of upcoming hearings.
More important even than notice, communities need to have meaningful tools to ensure new projects fundamentally do no harm. For more than forty years, this tool has been the landmark California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). In the interest of increasing economic activity and adding much needed jobs, Governor Brown and the legislature seem poised this year to overhaul this key environmental law. While some improvements may be needed, lawmakers should preserve communities’ ability to protect themselves by requiring public disclosure of development projects, identification of potential environmental impacts, the mandate to mitigate these impacts, and the right to sue to enforce the law’s protections.
We know that growth and change will be part of our future. Too much is at stake in our communities for neighbors to be quiet or worse, heard and patted on the head but not heeded. Well-organized stakeholders can avoid that fate. Now is the time for our communities to plan ahead.