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Planning Southern California cities for a better future

As a new Pasadena planning commissioner, I’ve spent my first two meetings listening to seven hours of fierce community debates over projects proposed by developers: a 340,000-square-foot medical office and senior living project and a new 60,000-square-foot auto dealership.  The next scheduled meeting will consider a 206-unit housing project.  As in most California cities, our Planning Commission does more reacting than planning.

That’s not the fault of our City Council, staff or planning commissioners. It’s the result of a pervasive culture that’s developed throughout Southern California: we default to developers. That’s not even the fault of developers. Simply put, we’ve all lost sight of the purpose of city planning.

Every city in California is required to have a Planning Commission. California law is vague on duties except to say that all members “shall act in the public interest.” State law also requires every city to have “a comprehensive, long-term General Plan for the physical development.” Each city’s General Plan is supposed to be the basis for all other zoning codes and rules.

Unfortunately, those plans, codes and rules are often vague, out of date and contradictory. They contain complicated formulas that are hard for the public to decipher — and bear little relationship to shaping good development. So instead of relying on existing plans, codes and rules, communities fight sharp and often ugly battles over everything from a small apartment building to a massive mixed use project.

Pasadena’s Planning Commission was created exactly 100 years ago — and immediately set to work on the magnificent Civic Center plan that laid the design for our City Hall (so iconic it was used as the City Hall in the television series “Parks and Recreation”), Central Library and Civic Auditorium.

In those days, city planning was simpler and more effective. San Diego’s 1924 Comprehensive Plan outlined three common sense definitions for city planning: “a practical, sensible way of providing a place for everything and everything in its place; an instrument for uniting the citizens to work for the city’s future; and an efficient means of avoiding duplication and waste in public improvements.”

Those plans spelled out simple, clear rules that builders were expected to follow.  We cherish the places built under those rules — but historic places like Old Pasadena or San Diego’s Gaslamp District would be illegal under today’s codes.

At worst, the current approach to planning leads directly to corruption. Los Angeles was supposed to reform its 600-page code written in 1946. The rewrite, launched in 2013, was supposed to take five years. It’s taken twice as long, and remains unadopted. In the meantime, one former L.A. council member is in jail for taking $15,000 in bribes (plus a lavish jaunt to Las Vegas) from a businessman seeking favor for his development ambitions and a second one goes to trial next year, charged with soliciting $1.5 million in cash and “benefits” from a high-rise developer (including at least a dozen gambling weekends in Vegas).

At best, the failure to do what former L.A. Planning Director Gail Goldberg called “real planning” is not only bad for communities — it’s bad for developers. Communities must be constantly vigilant against intrusive development schemes that bend existing rules. The pitched battles that erupt over even benign projects demonize developers and drive up the cost of needed housing and undermine California’s business climate.

Planning commissions should be “uniting the citizens to work for the city’s future” by reforming obsolete plans and codes that currently divide communities time after time. That’s the hard and necessary work that makes great places.

Rick Cole is a former mayor of Pasadena and city manager of Santa Monica, Ventura and Azusa. He welcomes feedback at [email protected]




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