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Solimar Research

SoCal Planning Directors Tell It Like It Is

Josh Stephens on
Apr 17, 2012

Yesterday, at Day Three of the APA's National Planning Conference, a panel of planning directors and other city officials from Southern California cities offered their take on a range of issues – good and bad – that cities in the region are facing. The panel was designed for a non-California audience, and the panelists' take on statewide trends was telling.  

A few highlights: 

Nowhere is the housing crisis more acutely visible than in the Inland Empire, where M. Margot Wheeler presides over Community Development for the City of San Bernardino. She spoke about the paradox of needing to build more affordable housing at the same time that vacant, underwater tract homes are rotting on their foundations: 

"Was the housing meant to be affordable or did it just become that way? Affordable housing is the flip side of redevelopment. It's the 20% set-asides.  Redevelopment is about chasing the almighty dollar of sales tax and fiscalization of land use: car dealers and regional malls. Single-family housing never pays for itself."

"With the demise of set-asides, the likelihood of developing affordable housing is going to be a more onerous task than it ever was before."

Wheeler suggested the development of accessory units such as granny flats and garage units, even though they often run afoul of zoning codes and draw the ire of residents. But she said those voices must not be allowed to hold sway and insisted that the "retrofit of existing neighborhoods is going to be crucial." 

Kathleen Garcia, planning director in Del Mar, had some choice words for public participation and, implicitly, for NIMBYism. She began by describing a one-acre development that – in a city of just over 4,000 residents – was subject to 68 public meetings and then had to go to a popular vote. She noted that the residents who would stop a development like that do not necessarily represent the entire community. 

Fullerton planning director Al Zelinka offered some incisive commentary about the relationship between government and constituents. At first blush, he seems to be levying harsh criticism on residents for being ignorant. But that's only half the story. He's also implying that government needs to be more clear and, if it wants constituents who can offer useful input, it has to take initiative to educate them.  

"It's amazing to me how uninformed, uneducated, unaware the public is about where the money comes from, how it's supposed to be used, and how the budgeting process happens…. This moment of economic hardship is our time to have an informed, educated public and to lead the conversation about where our city is going to go."

Representing "America's Finest City"—which he said had been rechristened "Enron by the Sea," San Diego development services director Kelley Broughton, spoke about the challenge of measuring success. Performance metrics are always tough in the public sector, which does not follow the benchmarks of profit and loss. "In private sector, you're focused on getting things done.  In public sector, it's harder to tell." Broughton noted that the city has "put in tools 20 years ago that haven't been used yet," meaning that no matter how good the tools are, it's impossible to yet give them full credit. 

Alan Bell, deputy planning director in Los Angeles, was asked to speak about the California Environmental Quality Act, whch he described as "the law that we love to hate." 

"The whole environmental clearance process has been seized by those who want to stop projects.  CEQA is the weakest link and the most expeditious way to stop a project. It's not about good planning or about what is good for a particular community. It's about trying to meet one's own agenda."

"For big cities, that's ironic, because urban infill makes the most sense.  We want to preserve deserts and farmland. That means developing in areas that have the infrastructure to support that. Yet CEQA enables contestants to subvert that process."

To illustrate what he considered the absurdity of CEQA, Bell cited the recently released 10,000-page environmental report for Los Angeles' proposed Farmers Field football stadium. "Who is going to read?" he asked. "No one."

Bell noted that CEQA's scale contradicts the very mission of forward-thinking planning: "The whole law is oriented towards project planning, not community planning. So it's not serving the larger purpose that planners want."

Amy Bodek, director of development services and former redevelopment director in Long Beach, illustrated the bureaucratic impacts of the demise of redevelopment. She spoke of layoffs, reassignments, and other tumult associated with disbanding a department that had previously been humming along with a $120 million annual budget.  

Santa Monica planning director David Martin spoke about his city's process for creating development agreements for projects that are not being developed by-right. He described an idealized sequence by which an agreement is discussed at no fewer than seven meetings, before bodies including the planning commission and city council. He admitted that, in reality, the more controversial a project is, the more likely it is to require far more discussion. 

Carol Barrett, community development director in Berkeley, said that she once half-jokingly asked her city manager if she could "Ignore email sent between 1am and 5am." She said that, for the most part, "it was not persuasive, reasoned discourse" that, she felt, was not productive for the palnning process. But Barrett said she continues to heed all public input because "we persist with public engagement because it's the right thing to do.