As Pasadena’s new planning commissioner, I spent my first two meetings listening to seven hours of fierce community debate over proposed projects from developers: a proposed 340,000 square feet and a new 60,000 square foot auto. concession. The next scheduled meeting will consider a 206 unit housing project. Like most California cities, our planning commission does more to react than plan.
This is not the fault of our city council, our staff or the planning commissioners. It’s the result of a pervasive culture that’s grown across Southern California: We’re developers by default. It’s not even the fault of the developers. In other words, we have all lost sight of the purpose of urban 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 each city to have “a comprehensive, long-range general plan for physical development.” Each city’s master plan is supposed to be the basis for all other zoning codes and rules.
Unfortunately, these plans, codes and rules are often vague, outdated and contradictory. They contain complicated formulas that are difficult for the public to decipher – and have little to do with crafting good development. So instead of relying on existing plans, codes, and rules, communities are fighting uphill and often ugly battles over everything from a small building to a massive mixed-use project.
The Pasadena Planning Commission was created exactly 100 years ago – and immediately set to work on the beautiful civic center plan that defined the design of our city hall (so iconic it was used as City Hall in the TV series “Parks and Recreation”), Central Library and Civic Auditorium.
At that time, town planning was simpler and more efficient. San Diego’s Master Plan of 1924 set out three sensible definitions of city planning: “a practical and sensible way of giving everything a place and everything in its place; an instrument to unite citizens to work on the future of the city; and an effective means of avoiding duplication and waste in public improvements.
These plans set out simple and clear rules that the builders had to follow. We cherish places built under these rules – but historic places like Old Pasadena or San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter would be illegal under today’s codes.
At worst, the current approach to planning leads directly to corruption. Los Angeles had to reform its 600-page code written in 1946. The rewrite, launched in 2013, was supposed to take five years. It took twice as long and didn’t pass. Meanwhile, a former Los Angeles council member is in jail for accepting $15,000 in bribes (plus a lavish Las Vegas getaway) from a favor-seeking businessman for his ambitions. development and a second will go on trial next year, accused of soliciting $1.5 million. cash and “perks” from a skyscraper developer (including at least a dozen Vegas gaming weekends).
At best, failing to do what former Los Angeles planning director Gail Goldberg called “real planning” isn’t just bad for communities, it’s bad for developers. Communities must be constantly vigilant against intrusive development plans that circumvent existing rules. The pitched battles that erupt over even benign projects demonize developers, drive up the cost of needed housing, and undermine California’s business climate.
Planning commissions should “unite citizens to work for the future of the city” by reforming outdated plans and codes that currently divide communities time and time again. It’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 comments at [email protected]