With a brusing battle over high-density developments on the horizon, the Los Angeles City Council is looking to take steps toward amending its convoluted and often controversial planning process.

This past May, the Department of City planning (LADCP) and the Offices of the Chief Legislative Analyst, City Administrative Officer and City Attorney submitted a report to the Los Angeles City Council which offers potential solutions for four issues that have come under harsh criticism:

  1. System for Updating Community Plans: The process for the systematic update of Community Plan and General Plan elements, including a criteria and methodology for determining a schedule for updates;
  2. Batching General Plan Amendments: Analysis of the feasibility of batching General Plan Amendments (GPAs) to allow for the Department of City Planning, City Planning Commission or City Council to consider GPAs as a group to assess to the total impacts to the City's built environment;
  3. EIR Consultants: Analysis of the resources and fiscal impacts of procedural options requiring that consultants that assist in the preparation of Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) be pre-qualified and/or selected by the City and/or be hired directly by the City at the expense of the applicant;
  4. Technology Plans: A status update of the ongoing technology plans, projects, timelines, and sources of funding with respect to rebuilding the technology infrastructure for the Department of City Planning in furthering the goal of an open and transparent government.

System for Updating Community Plans

Although an ambitious program to update the city's 35 community plans was launched 2006, efforts have been hamstrung by limited resources and the global recession.  Slow progress has since prompted the City Council and Mayor's office to significantly increase funding for the program with the goal of completing the entire process within 10 years.

LADCP intends to achieve this by dividing the city into three geographic regions (San Fernando Valley, Central/East, South/West/Harbor), then tackling the plans three-or-four at a time.  The Department justifies these groupings by noting that the sub-ares have similar land use patterns, and would allow staff to more effectively engage in community outreach and environmental analysis.

Each three-to-four-community cluster would be updated over the course of three years, after which point LADCP would move on to the next grouping within the region.  Each three-year update will start with community outreach events, followed by demographic and technical data, then the delivery of the a final draft plan for consideration by policy makers.

Staff would scheduled community plans for updates based on the following criteria:

  • Age of Community Plans
  • Overall volume of development, as depicted through building permitsOverall number of discretionary entitlements such as General Plan Amendments, Zone Changes, Variances, Specific Plan Exceptions, etc.
  • Demographic Projections: is population and/or job growth anticipated in an area that does not currently provide adequate capacity or is growth occurring outside of expected forecasts
  • Number of transit stations within a Community Plan for which there has been no transit-oriented planning initiative (i.e. an adopated TOD, Specific Plan, or other similar planning tool)
  • Number of current LADCP work programs within an area that could be augmented by a more comprehensive planning effort across the Community Plan geography (i.e. Westside Mobility Program, Metro TNP Program, Neighborhood Conservation efforts, etc.)
  • Emerging development challenges that may not be adequately addressed by current Community Plan
  • Areas where economic development/investment opportunities exist, or where such opportunities can be supported through a Community Plan

The program would be implemented by 39 LADCP staff members, split into three teams.  Costs for the first year of operation are estimated at $1.9 million, which would be partially funded by $1.5 million from the City's General Fund.  Going forward, annual costs are estimated at $4.2 million, which would be funded by $2.8 million from the General fund and money from the LADCP General Plan Maintenance Fee and Systems Development Fee.  An accelerated approach, which could complete the entire process within six years, is budgeted at $8.4 million per year.

At the same time, the City has initiated a comprehensive update to its General Plan, known as Our LA 2040.  In addition to guiding policy on public safety, open space, housing and mobility, the update will also affect the City's "CEQA Thresholds," which set the guidelines for what environmental analysis is conducted for policy and development projects.

Batching General Plan Amendments

Though controversial, the staff report casts general plan amendments as a necessary, given that community plans cannot anticipate all"approriate development scenarios across a plan area."

However, in response to criticism about the frequency of these amendments, the staff report recommends that the City return to its past practice of "Periodical Comprehensive General Plan Review," which was removed from the Los Angeles municipal code in December 2005.  Under this scenario, the city was parceled into four geographic areas based upon community plan boundaries.  Proposed general plan amendments for each region were "batched" together for consideration by the City Planning Commission (CPC) at least bi-anually.  Exceptions could be granted to these time frames in the event of financial hardship, for affordable housing projects or due to zoning compatability issues.

The underlying logic of this policy is that considering all of an general plan amendments together would allow the City to assess their cumulative affects across each region.  Staff have also suggested an alternate approach, in that Departmental decision making is better coordinated to allow the CPC to make more informed decisions on individual projects.

The report offers a potential schedule for these batched reviews, allowing for a two-month submission window followed by a two-month review window by the CPC.  It is also acknowledged that the proposed scenario is based on the continuing need to grant amendments based on the city's outdated community plans.  Requests for amendments could be considered differently, depending on how recently a new plan has been adopted.

EIR Consultants

The staff report presents four options with regard to the city's policy on the preparation of environmental impact reports (EIRs).

  1. Applicants hire consultants to prepare environmental reports which are later reviewed and approved by city staff.
  2. Applicant selects and hires from City list of prequalified CEQA consultants, who can be removed for failure to meet criteria or performance.
  3. The city selects a CEQA consultant for the applicant from a list of pre-qualified firms, then the applicant pays the consultant.
  4. City hires CEQA consultant directly and bills the applicant.  City charges a 15 percent administrative surcharge to cover  management expenses.

LADCP staff have recommended Option 2, which would prevent the use of inexperienced CEQA consultants and standardize the format of EIRs citywide.

Technology Plans

LADCP, along with other city development services departments, are currently involved in the BuildLA project, which will create a single web portal for processing entitlement applications, permits, inspection requests, code enforcement, project tracking and fee payment.  This endeavor is intended to streamline the development process, which is fragmented between different departments with a number of independently operating "niche" systems.

The new website will be implemented over the course of approximately 28 months, with funding from building permit and entitlement fees.

The City Council's Planning and Land Use Management Committee is scheduled to review the recommendations in a meeting today.