My Love for Los Angeles:
The Reason Why I am Voting "No on Measure S" and Voting "Yes on Measure H"
“Planning is thinking beforehand how something is to be made or done, and mixing imagination with the product - which in a broad sense makes all of us planners. The only difference is that some people get a license to get paid for thinking and the rest of us just contribute our good thoughts to our fellow man.” - Paul Revere William, FAIA
Los Angeles is either a city you love or a place you hate. If you love it, you recognize Los Angeles as a beautiful, evocative paradox and as a highly performative metropolis that is constantly evolving. Some people, granted, are set in their ways; change to them is a rusty blade that they’re too afraid to touch. But most of us, like pollinators buzzing around mountain sage, thrive on the beautiful complexity that is constantly in bloom.
No matter your attitude toward Los Angeles, one thing unites us: We are all in this together. We are all in this small town called Los Angeles as one. Yeah, we’re diverse. Incredibly diverse. But we’re together. As one, we exist.
And as Father John Misty says in Pure Comedy, "Each Other’s All We Got.”
If you didn’t really love, truly love, Los Angeles you’d be long gone by now. It’s an incredibly challenging place and that is the thread that unites our fate: an attraction to and a passion for a lifelong entanglement with that challenge. It is a puzzle. It is a love affair. It is a relationship that pulls us in deep, holds us together tight and rewards our lives with a lifelong journey of yearning and delight.
As to the future of Los Angeles, our upcoming election on March 7th is a giant, sky-high silver fork in the road that is about to get struck by lightning. We are at a genuine cross roads and we get to choose which direction to go.
I am voting Yes on Measure H because we have a genuine and profound housing crisis on our hands. We need to build more housing for all and we need to fund more resources to provide, with dignity and grace, the services for those of us in the region that need additional emotional, mental, and physical support. Due to a general lack of funding in urban design, our built environment is stressful and we need to recognize its burden and ameliorate our suffering to find ways to sustain a human empowered network of resources to elevate the human spirit.
To vote Yes on Measure H is an affirmation that you believe in Los Angeles and will do all that you can to help your fellow neighbor.
Now, Measure S on the other hand is much less of an affirmation of kindness. Some may even argue that it is retaliation against our current political elite, as well as, an attempt to further isolate those of us who were not fortunate enough to live in or move to California before the primal inequities of Prop U (1986) and Prop 13 (1978) were put in place.
Measure S is a complicated beast.
Most will say to vote No on Measure S, it goes too far. Some will say to vote yes on Measure S because our traffic is terrible, our politicians our corrupt and our backyards are too small already.
Well, whichever direction you select to vote, it’s my job to share with you that a Yes on S vote is a sledgehammer that cracks the noses of us pollinators. It kills the mountain sage dead and exterminates our ability to thrive. However, though, the No on S vote is a catalytic declaration to recommit ourselves to planning ahead and to build the city that will embrace us all and allow a few million more people to call Los Angeles their home. Yes, I said a few million more! In my opinion, due to climatic, geo-political and cultural shifts, millions more will want to call LA home over the course of the next hundred years.
To Vote No on Measure S is to vote Yes on LA and its future. It is a vote about tomorrow and our compassion for our fellow humans roaming this planet in search of a home to call their own.
There is a line in the song “Me and Bobby McGee” by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster that reminds me of how proponents of Measure S must feel:
One day up near Salinas, Lord, I let her slip away
Lookin' for the home I hope she'll find
But I'd trade all of my tomorrows for one single yesterday
Holdin' Bobby's body next to mine
But I’d trade all of my tomorrows for one single yesterday.
Those few and yet boisterous in their support for Measure S are rife with nostalgia for a Los Angeles that no longer exists and they seem dead-set on protecting that semblance of the past no matter how many future iterations they’re willing to exterminate.
If traffic is what you’re mad at, then stop being traffic. If corruption is the problem, then let’s work together to reform the city charter and re-calibrate the role of City Council so that it is no longer empowered to make decisions about land-use, but instead prioritizes its time focusing on improving municipal services. If you’re worried about displacement, then invest in inclusive community planning (not lawsuits and ballot measures) and then grab your tool belt and let’s build more housing and let’s build housing for all.
The rhetoric around Measure S and its prospective impacts has become divisive and demoralizing to many of us that live here. Like mud slung from a frayed mitt, there is not much good that comes from divisive language. Instead, I’d like to offer a bridge to connect the common core of our shared values and, rather than point out the fallacies of each other’s logic, knit together a fabric of understanding that celebrates the urban graces of Los Angeles. We are a great city and if you recognize the resiliency of its beauty, then your heart is not harmed by its constant evolution; it is joyful to see Los Angeles molt into a new creature over and over again like a mountain in time.
As an optimist, there is great beauty in our imperfections and I have faith that Los Angeles is impaired with exactly the right amount of constraint; gravity can be a bird’s best friend.
After all, as the late Leonard Cohen once said, "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."
Both the proponents and opponents of Measure S each have something in common: both camps fiercely love Los Angeles and, with passion and commitment, want to ensure that their version of Los Angeles prevails. Ha! There is the rub. Two camps, two perspectives, two unique realities of what Los Angeles is as a place, and therefore two distinct reactions to how Measure S may or may not impact the future of our city.
Yes, let’s plan for our future and let’s prioritize more money from our general fund to invest in a sustained process to update our community plans in a more inclusive and equitable manner. The fact that this hasn’t already happened is telling: it’s that we have a generation before us that dropped the ball -- perhaps on purpose, perhaps because that generation of leadership was too distracted with other concerns. Therefore, now is the time for today’s emerging leaders to seize the reigns and rally forth.
Nelson Rising says, “Listen.” Rick Cole says, “Let’s de-politicize planning.” The late, beloved Kevin Starr once said, “It’s time to re-negotiate the public realm.” And by that he meant it’s time to re-negotiate the system itself. Measure S is not a negotiation. It’s a door slam with your thumb caught in the jamb. But it is a catalyst. I will grant it that - Measure S, like having your dog skunked, is a catalyst to be more alert and conversant - to engage more often with your neighbor and get to know each other better so you can learn from each other’s experiences.
Yes, let’s listen to each other. Let’s learn and plan accordingly. Let’s get City Council out of the land-use decision-making business and let’s re-structure our city charter so that we the people take on more responsibility for our future. Let’s recalibrate our expectations for what government does and empower ourselves to lead forward a path of mutual respect for our neighbors. As a community, let’s pick up our own trash and repair our own broken sidewalks and, most importantly, let’s quit suing ourselves. When you sue the government, you’re suing yourself because it is your tax money you are spending to paying to settle those lawsuits. That is, there is no us v. them; there is only we and we are all in this together as one.
As Rick Cole shared with VerdeXChange, “The way to plan Los Angeles is to think about the water, to think about the energy, to think about the schools, to think about the mobility.” With a good plan created for the people and with the people, Cole advises, investors will be able to plug into a plan and become builders instead of developers.
I agree. Yes, let’s plan for the future. Let’s make our plans inclusive, equitable and communal. Let’s make our plans economically and culturally prosperous with optimal environmental performance in mind for the region. Let’s build high near transit and where the bedrock is strong and let’s preserve the authenticity of our heritage and the splendor of our single-family neighborhoods.
After all, as of 2010 the City of LA has fewer than 560,000 single-family homes. That isn’t all that many, especially for a city of slightly more than four million people and growing. Therefore, let’s take a pledge - let’s preserve those 560,000 existing single-family homes and therefore build our new housing on parcels currently underutilized. Let’s focus that growth in neighborhoods that want the density and let’s let be those few areas that wish to remain left alone. We have bigger fish to fry and the urgency is now.
Vote No on Measure S and Vote Yes on LA
Let’s invest in a smarter process and re-structure the system (organizational chart) for how decisions get made and for how action is implemented. In my opinion, The Los Angeles City Council should make few, if any, land-use decisions. If this takes a will of the people to update the City Charter, then I’m here to help carry that mantle. City Council needs to get out of the city planning business altogether and, instead, empower The Department of City Planning with more resources. Sure, Council can remain in an advisory role. However, each land-use decision they make is a counter-productive distraction to their responsibility to better manage city services. Council needs to focus on services and let the Department of City Planning, as professionals trained in community engagement, environmental analysis and future scenarios work with neighborhood stakeholders to plan together a future iteration for how we will constantly evolve as a place.
Let’s clarify the role of City Council as advisers to the process, but let’s get them out of the land-use decision-making business entirely. Let’s restore the role of the professional planner and urban designer to collaborate with community stakeholders and negotiate a future scenario plan that embraces a balance between local authentic and the needs of the greater region.
Listen. Listen to each other. Ask questions. Debate. Engage. Share your passions and your concerns with each other.
Tell a good story. The narrative must be compelling, enriching. Hire storytellers and design-thinkers to synthesize all of the concerns into a fabric that enlightens the human spirit.
Design better places. Let’s place a stronger emphasis on environmental and economic performance. Let’s curate a more inclusive outreach process and elevate the human spirit with more beautify and delight.
Remain open. Remain flexible. Let innovators innovate! Let rules bend in the wind like healthy tree branches. Watch mistakes get made and learn to fail with compassion. Without a little bit of failure from time to time, there is no charm and there is no character. Authenticity prevails, so let there be danger. Let there be beauty. Let’s us allow more ecosystems and habitats and natural systems to thrive.
Embrace the paradox. Promulgate a multitude of visions. This city is creative. The vastness of Los Angeles will inherently manifest itself into a multitude of concurrent forms. Think of our great city as a giant sand dune constantly shifting and evolving. Our strength is in our adaptability and our irrefutable mutability. We can’t be just one place. We have to be a thousand different places all co-existing together. We need a strong vision for our future and this vision requires the widest spectrum of elements to gain greater clarity.
Invest in planning and achieve an awesome ROI. Reform the procurement and project delivery methods for how we engage the services of ‘planning’ and outreach. Modernize the tools. Utilize blockchain distributed ledger technology to clarify and certify the value of transactions. Utilize smart contracts to optimize the process and lower administrative overhead.
Live on your feet. Move. Dance. Be delightful. Walk more, drive less. Engage with your neighbors more often on the sidewalks of life.
Exercise Empathy. Exercise the muscle of empathy. Flex this muscle. Learn to have greater compassion for all.
HOW DO WE PAY FOR OUR PLANS?
How to fund a perennial community planning update process, a list of ideas:
According to the February 21, 2017 memo from the Department of City Planning to Los Angeles City Council, they anticipate needing about $7.91 million a year to update all 35 community plans on a six-year cycle. So, the math on that translates as such: 7.91 x 6 = 47.46 mil / 35 plans = 1.356 million per community plan. Ok, so if a community plan costs about $1.5 million, then what is the return on the investment to the city of that effort?
Now DCP’s proposal is to impose a 7% surcharge fee on building entitlements and permits. If growth sustains itself at today’s intensity, then that surcharge would generate about 5.19 million per year. The remaining 2.72 commitment is expected to be provided by an annual contribution from the city’s general fund. However, there is an extreme risk associated with this manner of financing a perennial community planning update process.
The first risk is that it requires a committed source of revenue from our general fund to cover 34.4% of the costs involved and the remaining 65.6% would require the sustained conditions and intensity of today’s development market. Community planning therefore becomes financed only at the mercy of growth. What happens during a recessed market? What happens once we initiate the first round of planning updates and the need to solicit expanded entitlements is lessened because the plans have already been right-sized?
I have a lot of concern about funding our community planning process this way - so therefore, I’d like to share some other possibilities for how the City of Los Angeles can generate a more sustainable source of revenue.
Imposing a general plan maintenance fee on new development is painful, quarrelsome and counter-productive to incentivizing the growth you’d like to see and makes housing even less affordable by increasing the cost of new development. This funding scheme should be seen as a function of last resort.
From the coffers of the City’s General Fund. Prioritize planning as ‘preventative care’ that will save money otherwise spent on police and fire. Right now, the Department of City Planning only receives about 20% of their operational overhead from the City’s general fund. This is an embarrassment. At the very least, the amount of the general fund that pays for planning staff at each of the 15 council districts should be re-integrated into DCP. Transfer all of those council planning deputies into DCP to operate neighborhood focused planning efforts that are complemented by a holistic citywide community planning process.
Value-capture. When you optimize the capacity and intensity of use of a parcel of land, it becomes worth more and that added value of worth becomes a stronger tax contributor. Capture some of that value-add and return it to planning. Calculate the prospective value-add, securitize it and bond against its future earnings to invest in planning that will pay for itself in the long run.
EIFD and other tax-capture and diversion tools. Partner with the County and other government agencies and collaborate on joint-use planning efforts.
Cost Savings achieved from optimal staff management. Less time spent walking each project through the variance process and money-saved from a more efficient plug-in plan. Bond against that cost savings!
City as Developer. Buy underutilized property, entitle if for something more and flip it back to the marketplace for a net profit. Risky, sure. But so is blight!
City owned parcels. Entitle them for something more valuable and provide a 99-year ground lease to private sector. Take the revenue from the lease and invest that into planning.
Public right-of-way. Do we really need all 6.500 centerline miles of streets and 800 centerline miles of alleys? How much land is that? Can we be strategic and re-purpose/ re-progam some of that land? Remember Ogden? LACMA did a pretty good job turning that into something more interesting than just another cut-through street. We have acres and acres of unneeded streets - those chubby nodes cut-off by the 101, for instance all along the way from Downtown to Hollywood!
Carbon tax on greenfield development. Tax the type of development we want to see less of!
LADWP has a lot of land in Owens Valley and other places. This land is good retirement land. Build some cabins. Lease those cabins out and use that revenue to pay for planning.
Parking revenue for all of those autonomous vehicles that are going to need to sleep at times when all of us are busy reading books in bed.
Plan, Design, Build and operate facilities that generate revenue and make sure that revenue is directed back to the planning process that empowered its existence in the first place.
Repeat for emphasis idea #2 - from the General Fund. At present, DCP only receives about 20% of its operational costs from the general fund. That means 80% of its operation requires development to happen. That is a huge burden on development.
DCP staff pension contribution. Goes into a fund that pays for planning and the ROI of that planning effort in turn covers the pension liabilities upon maturation.
How to Pay for a Community Plans Part Two
For the pure sake of argument, let’s say it costs us $2million to invest in a robust, inclusive and equitable community plan update. Also, let’s say that inherent in the community plan is a built-in system of checks and balances (little valves and turbo-chargers) that allow for a well-tuned array of variables, flexibilities and innovations to always occur.
Okay, $2 million per community plan update - and a community plan might have relevancy to a quickly changing earth for let’s say five years. Maybe Six. But definitely not ten years. Entire technologies ebb and flow within seasons, so if we are going to plan for a future we need to map those plans in a way that optimizing the iterative process of our civilizations evolve and crumble.
$2 million x 35 community plans + $70 million every five years isn’t all that much in the grand scheme of things, especially when a $2 million dollar community plan update probably has a return on investment (ROI) of several factors. The amount saved on DCP staff time alone is one factor. We also save money otherwise spent on litigating/ defending the current process - that’s a few million dollars right there. The net delta in the increased property tax revenue for strategically re-zoned parcels is another. Or that increase in property tax received for when a property is improved from a parking lot to a 100 apartments, for instance.
As far as I can tell, it is undocumented what the exact ROI is on each community plan - but I think this ROI can be measured, predicted, securitized and, therefore, bonded against.
I also think that the City of Los Angeles can strategically select within each community plan one or two parcels of publicly owned land that via the CPU process they can improve the value of and generate revenue enough to pay for the process itself. That’s what a smart, responsible landowner would do – and I have the confidence to say that we the people (who happen to be Los Angeles) are pretty smart landowners.
And if there isn’t an appropriate publicly owned parcel to gain that added value with, guess what - we’ve got 6,500 miles of streets and other public right-of-ways. The value of that land is tremendously under utilized. In fact it’s actually a cost-burden and a liability when if strategically re-programmed could become a value-additive asset. And I’m not talking about streets becoming shopping malls or walking paths or soccer fields. I’m talking about redundant streets becoming a multitude of considerations - heavily dependent on the authentic needs of the community and the regional
How do we fund Community Plans? I think in the future one possible technique to ensure greater transparency and clarity is with blockchain distributed ledger technology. Where as the Republic of Georgia is one of the first countries to fully commit to blockchain technology to validate property-related government transactions, other public agencies are moving forward in this direction, as well - including Sweden, Honduras and even Cook County here in the U.S.A. If adequately programmed, then all parcels in Los Angeles County could be ascribed a valuation on a public blockchain, and as the zoning capacity ebbs and flows to best suit the needs of the community-at-large, then the funding instruments needed to perform that planning outreach and analysis could be tied to the valuation ascribed and ‘realized’ in the blockchain.
Pie in the sky ideas, I realize. But that is why I am a storyteller, not a city planner.
#FutureLA is alive and strong.
Will Wright, Hon. AIA|LA
Director, Government & Public Affairs
AIA Los Angeles
February 27, 2017