City Planning’s Balancing Act

Urban Planning

A city makes many investments, such as infrastructure improvements, life and safety services, and in their employees. To fund such, cities rely upon new development and construction to fuel its economic generation engine with new jobs, housing, shops, parks, fees, and tax revenues. We all know too well the difficulties to build new development in Southern California, as cities usually have to overcome a history of segregated land uses and allowing deplorable new development in our older neighborhoods that challenged its valued character.

All new public and private development is guided by city policies, rules, and standards. New development is valued by cities as financial investments and economic generators to pay for city services, such as streetlights, fire trucks, and retirement pensions. Cities basically have two development-as-investment tools.

The most common tools are found in citywide rules that allow for new development to happen on private property without city review beyond building safety inspections (by-right). These rules are outlined in the General and Community Plan policies and within Zoning and Subdivision regulations. It must be noted that cities allow any property owner to request changes to any of the above rules through a risky and expensive decision-making process (discretionary review). Because of this expense, it is usually well-financed developers with large-scale projects who apply to amend these rules, which make these proposals politically volatile, polarizing, and well documented in the local press and local blogs.

The other investment path is found in city-targeted areas for new types of developments, such as new transit station areas, convention centers, or sports stadiums. These tools are found in Master Plans, Corridor Plans, and Specific Plans, which are vetted through an onerous environmental impact review, multiple city decision-making boards and commissions, and finally with a City Council vote. While the by-right development tool is an easier path, these city-targeted projects usually have local political backing to be built.

In addition, the State instructs California cities to continually update their General and Community Plan policies and requires that these be both internally consistent with each other as well as in alignment with more detailed Zoning and Subdivision regulations. All of these updates must be “disclosed” through the California Environmental Quality Act review process, which we all know and love to manipulate. For example, unions challenge projects to ensure labor contracts; environmental lawyers threaten lawsuits to enrich their cause; and, neighbors will argue “water supply” as proxy to not allowing any changes to happen in their community. Because of this reality, these city-initiated policy and regulation updates are politically volatile, are rarely updated, and rarely in conformance.

Unfortunately, when these convoluted by-right rules end up staying on the books for generations, such as segregating land use born from historic insurance redlining practices, they make present-day development models illegal and very difficult to build. Because this circle of planning life is admittedly broken and difficult, developers and cities prefer to negotiate directly with city leadership.

Honestly, new development changes a neighborhood, either gradually or radically. Californians are fortunate to have a high quality of life, and change can be a very real threat to such. Because change is fearful, local citizens are seemingly against all new development, which as noted above is allowed by right, by amendment, or by city initiative. And while change is constant in our cities, we all want to manage that change in order to limit its risk, leverage its value, and fulfill its expectations. I know this because I am raising teenagers.

An important question to be answered is, “does the fear of change outweigh the pain that new development intends to fix?” For example, while there is consensus on the need for attainable housing in southern California, is it worth an oversized, out-of-character apartment block to achieve it? In answering this question, a city’s planning staff is often seen as the agent of change to be vehemently opposed, rather than as a mediator for vetting proposals.

I believe this is because the general public has a hard time understanding the nuanced difference between a privately initiated development proposal and a city-initiated development proposal. Most folks do not understand that private landowners have the right to make a proposal and that city planning staff must respond and process it. Add in the city’s convoluted planning processes, and too many folks end up not trusting any planning efforts, projects, and proposals. Opposing new projects is now sport, with cheerleaders, players, and scorecards.

The lost art of the planning profession is in aligning short-term private development proposals with long-term public investments to realize a city’s vision, goals, policies, and rules. The great recession revealed how many cities dismissed the value and role of planning in generating economic development. They formed blue ribbon committees to cut red tape and scale back policies, regulations, and staff, deemed to be in the way of new investment. While these cities held private investment in a higher regard than public investment, good city planning practices teaches that both are necessary for a city to thrive.

I suggest the planning profession track the quick transition of Redevelopment Agencies from 1950’s urban renewal practices towards 2015’s infrastructure financing mechanisms. A standard practice for 50-years, redevelopment is now being realigned with the cultural shift of people today wanting to live, work, play and shop in older, urban neighborhoods. Urban blight has been replaced by finding money to fix our crumbling streets, sewers and transit systems. If planning continues to use its same long-standing planning practices it will continue to marginalize its value and be misunderstood and mistrusted by residents and politicians.

Former City of San Diego Planning Director, Bill Fulton, and current City of Los Angeles Deputy Mayor, Rick Cole reinforce these points here and here.

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