Corruption has again been exposed at Los Angeles City Hall, with one council member under indictment in a development scandal and another having pleaded guilty to his part in it. The transgressions highlight the real-world consequences of failing to modernize outdated planning codes and leaving decision-making power over development projects in the hands of City Council members. To try to prevent future corruption, the city needs to fix what’s broken about L.A. planning — by fully updating planning and zoning laws according to the recommendations of an outside commission, not the council.
Some City Council members have proposed incremental reforms in reaction to the indictment of council member Jose Huizar, who has been charged with a running a “pay-to-play” scheme to shake down real estate developers for cash bribes and campaign donations in exchange for his help getting high-rise development projects approved. Former council member Mitch Englander pleaded guilty to falsifying material facts related to the scheme.
As former city officials who have devoted our careers to sound planning, we know that confronting corruption requires replacing political muscle with modern rules that are consistently enforced. We believe that as long as land-use approvals are influenced by politicians, some developers will find ways to sway lawmakers, legally or not.
The city’s zoning laws and development approval processes are shockingly outdated. L.A. planning director Vince Bertoni and his predecessors have labored for years to modernize the city’s 1946 zoning code and update the woefully outdated community plans (which establish goals, policies and programs for land use). Currently 24 of the 35 plans have not been updated in 20 years or more. The oldest is more than 30 years out of date.
The old codes were devised for a vast suburban sprawl anchored to the automobile and shaped by overt racist impulses to keep people of color out of white neighborhoods. Failure to revise them for a changing world has consequences beyond corruption — it contributes to the lack of affordable housing, reinforcing tensions between young people and longtime residents as they compete for decent places to live. New residential and commercial building remains subject to cumbersome processes that make our region less competitive by driving up costs.
In a joint motion calling for consideration of an undefined future planning reform ballot measure, council President Nury Martinez and council member Marqueece Harris-Dawson acknowledged that “the city’s outdated zoning makes it necessary for many projects to seek entitlements diverging from established zoning. City Councilmembers, and not the Planning Department or the community, become the primary arbiters of land use decisions.” That’s the real problem. Currently the 15 council members each have the power to greenlight projects in their districts — or halt them altogether.
This approach, if enacted, could make it less likely that council members will be tempted to accept rides on a private jet to Las Vegas to enjoy the lavish hospitality of a private developer, as Huizar is accused of doing. But effective reform can’t be left to City Council members because their power is at the heart of the problem.
A comprehensive blueprint to ensure Los Angeles enacts up-to-date plans — and then enforces them — can draw on examples from other cities. For instance, Miami has adopted a revised planning code carefully calibrated to ensure each new building is scaled to its context across the city. If an applicant complies with the strict rules, the project is approved without layers of lengthy and unpredictable discretionary reviews. Minneapolis, Austin, Texas, and most recently Portland, Ore., have revamped zoning to promote more affordable infill housing, which reduces sprawl and encourages investment in older neighborhoods.
The ideas being proposed by council members in response to the current scandal fall short of what the city needs. To hammer out a comprehensive approach to planning reform, we urge the establishment of a commission, like the Christopher Commission that was formed in 1991 to examine and make reform recommendations to the structure and operations of the LAPD after the Rodney King beating. The planning reform commission should be made up of a diverse group of respected civic leaders from community, neighborhood, business, and labor organizations, including acknowledged planning experts, such as those at the schools of planning at UCLA and USC. To ensure equity, the appointments could not be tilted toward real estate interests or affluent homeowners.
To avoid their recommendations being shunted off to die in committee, the commission’s entire proposal would have to be decided on a “yes” or “no” vote by the City Council. This approach is inspired by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, first established in 1998, which successfully broke the congressional political deadlock around eliminating unneeded military installations — with a simple up or down vote from Congress.
The reform commission’s job would be to propose planning reform that tackles corruption at its source — political control of project approvals. Requiring developers to abide by modernized codes and transparent approval processes will enhance the quality of life and standard of living of the city’s 4 million people.
Rick Cole was a deputy mayor of Los Angeles from 2013 to 2015. Gail Goldberg served as Los Angeles city planning director from 2006 to 2010. Bud Ovrom was a deputy mayor and general manager of the city of Los Angeles from 2003 to 2017.