Land-Use Authority in L.A. Shifts Up and Down--At Expense of Council
Los Angeles is the second-biggest city in the United States, but nobody who lives there has ever seemed especially proud of this fact. For many community activists the city's size has always seemed like an annoyance.
L.A.'s neighborhood groups — especially homeowner associations in the San Fernando Valley — have complained for decades that the downtown City Hall bureaucracy is too remote and unresponsive to meet the needs of the city's varied neighborhoods, especially when it comes to planning issues. While threatening secession, the homeowner associations alternatively have agitated for a shifting of planning power out of City Hall. In particular, these groups have repeatedly called for a decentralized system of elected planning commissions with real decision-making power.
Under the provisions of the new city charter — which go into effect July 1 — planning power is moving downward, but not as neighborhood associations wanted. The new charter does create decentralized planning commissions with real power, but they're not elected. The new charter also creates a system of Neighborhood Councils, but the existing homeowner associations won't automatically fill those slots. And even as power is decentralized, it's also being centralized, because the mayor will have ultimate control over both of these community-level systems.
Los Angeles's 75-year-old charter created a weak mayor and 15 strong city council members with large districts (nearly 250,000 people in each) who can effectively serve as "mayors" of their districts. The impetus to revise the charter came from the homeowner associations and Mayor Richard Riordan, a take-charge business executive frustrated by his office's lack of authority. The charter revision — shaped jointly by two charter reform commissions and approved by voters last year —sought to create a subtle balance between centralizing power in the mayor's office and decentralizing it in the neighborhoods. On the one hand, a stronger mayor was clearly needed, but L.A.'s traditional aversion to machine politics meant that the new charter would be doomed if the mayor got too strong. On the other hand, wholesale decentralization might please neighborhood activists, but it could diffuse power too much to get anything done.
"The idea," says political scientist Raphael Sonenshein, who was executive director of one charter commission, "was to increase public input and still have a government."
The downshifting of power takes two forms. It's a variation of sorts on neighborhoods activists' longstanding desire to have more direct control over city decisions generally and land-use matters in particular.
First, garden-variety land-use decisions — traditionally handled by the city Planning Commission, with an easy appeal to the City Council — will be transferred to seven newly formed "area" planning commissions representing different parts of the city. It's important to note, however, that the "APCs," as they will be known, do not really represent a wholesale decentralization of planning authority. The seven areas are quite large, averaging 66 square miles apiece. The commissions do not have any policy-making power; instead, they simply assume the current Board of Zoning Appeals' role. And to the disappointment of the homeowner associations, these commissions won't be elected; they'll be appointed by the mayor with council confirmation.
Indeed, in certain ways the APCs centralize mayoral authority at the City Council's expense. The new system eliminates the council from routine decisions, such as conditional-use permits. The APC boundaries are not co-terminus with council district line. In most cases, APCs will cover portions of several council districts. That alone will dilute a counilmember's ability to dictate these decisions.
Beyond that, most APC decisions will not be appealable to the City Council. Rather, Area Planning Commission decisions will be appealable only to the city Planning Commission — a body also under the mayor's control. The goal is to de-politicize routine decisions, which in the past have gotten caught up in the City Council's parochial politics.
In addition to creating APCs, the new charter increases neighborhood-level power in one other way — by requiring the city to designate and empower dozens of Neighborhood Councils.
Neighborhood Councils will not be decision-making bodies. Rather, they'll serve as advisory panels and lobbying groups on behalf of individual neighborhoods. Exactly how many Neighborhood Councils will exist, and what their roles will be, remains undecided. But these questions, too, are the mayor's to answer. The charter creates a Department of Neighborhood Empowerment and a Board of Neighborhood Commissioners to set up and operate this Neighborhood Council system and places both the department and the board under the mayor's control.
Much more than the Area Planning Commissions, the Neighborhood Council system holds the potential to be the decentralized source of power that the homeowner associations seek. Yet the L.A. system is likely to be different from the most prominent neighborhood council system in the nation — New York City's system of community planning boards. Los Angeles considered a similar community board proposal during the late '80s but instead created citizen advisory committees appointed by city councilmembers, thus strengthening City Council power rather than diluting it.
New York has 59 community planning boards — one for each community plan area in the city. Each board has dozens of member, all appointed by the Borough president with considerable input from city councilmembers. As the "first stop" for developers, the community boards must conduct hearings on all land-use applications and forward a recommendation to the city Planning Commission.
In New York, the community board process typically slows the approval process at the beginning because the board might haggle with a developer for several months at the hearing stage. Also, many projects must be reviewed by two or three boards. But community board support can benefit a developer at the city Planning Commission.
L.A.'s Neighborhood Councils may or may not have similar influence, depending on how the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners sets up the system. Under the charter, the City Council may delegate public hearing authority to these councils but is not required to. The councils are supposed to deal with all issues, not just planning. And they are supposed to get city funding for operations. Beyond that, the number, composition, selection, and operation of the Neighborhood Councils is up to the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners.
Although there are 35 community plan areas in L.A. (compared to 59 in New York), the city may designate 100 or more Neighborhood Councils. And, much to the disappointment of long-standing homeowner associations, the charter makes it difficult for existing groups to simply appropriate Neighborhood Council status because it requires each council to represent all stakeholders.
Many unknowns about how charter reform will affect land-use planning remain. The APCs are supposed to stick to quasi-judicial actions, but surely they'll be chomping at the bit to deal with policy issues too. The Neighborhood Councils are supposed to be broad-based and deal with a range of issues, but some homeowner associations will surely push them into the land-use planning arena. More than ever before, the City Council is supposed to butt out of routine planning decisions, but they're not likely to give up power readily.
About the only thing we know for sure is that, somehow or other, planning power will be decentralized in Los Angeles under the new charter. And how this works out will probably serve as the litmus test on the question of whether L.A.'s residents will be better served by a single, decentralized system controlled by the mayor, or a wholesale breakup of the biggest city in the West.