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Q&A: LA’s planning director on community plans, scooters, and the future of the city

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“LA is a very different place now than it was in the 1970s”

Aerial view of Venice Beach at sunrise.
The planning department is launching updates to a cluster of community plans on LA’s Westside, including Venice.
Getty Images

Big things are happening at Los Angeles’s planning department. As the city grapples with an affordable housing crisis and the nation’s worst traffic, planners are trying to update each of the city’s 35 community plans by 2024.

These plans broadly direct the evolution and future development of the hundreds of unique neighborhoods that make up the city. But right now, many are decades out of date.

In 2017, shortly before the defeat of Measure S, a ballot measure that would have frozen many of the city’s major development projects, the Los Angeles City Council agreed to speed up the process by which the plans are updated.

At the time, Councilmember Mike Bonin said that failure to update the plans had contributed to LA’s “broken planning system.”

Since then, planners have completed new community plans for San Pedro, West Adams, South LA, and Southeast LA. Plans for Downtown and Boyle Heights are in progress.

Now, the planning department is set to begin work on nine new plans that will affect neighborhoods across the city: Venice, Westchester-Playa del Rey, Palms-Mar Vista-Del Rey, West LA, Sherman Oaks-Studio City-Toluca Lake-Cahuenga Pass, North Hollywood-Valley Village, Van Nuys-North Sherman Oaks, Harbor Gateway, and Wilmington-Harbor City.

To get a better understanding of how the community planning process works, Curbed interviewed LA’s planning director, Vince Bertoni. Here’s what we talked about.

Why were these nine community plans chosen for the next batch of updates?

We obviously can’t update all 35 at once, so we have to do them in phases.

We also wanted to balance competing interests. Quite frankly, some of these areas have plans that are very out of date. So we wanted to make sure we looked at those plans that are also the oldest plans that we have. We also wanted to look at plan areas where we were having the most interest in changes, because the plans are so out of date they don’t reflect the existing way that people are looking at their communities.

We wanted to provide an opportunity for more housing. One of the most critical things that the city is facing right now is the housing crisis. So we wanted to look at places where we could start to address the housing crisis in the most effective way.

How would you describe the community plans to someone who doesn’t know anything about them?

What the community plan does is it basically looks at the longterm vision of a community in Los Angeles in terms of how it should be built and what uses it should have. Because LA is so large, we can’t have that conversation at the neighborhood level all at once. So we have to divide it up into 35 communities. And that’s really where we decide where those areas are that we want to preserve as they are, and where we might wanting to be looking for change—and what the change should look like.

All parts of the city are facing challenges when it comes to housing, and all parts of the city are facing challenges when it comes to mobility. What the community plan does is provide a framework for how we should be addressing those issues over the longterm.

Aerial view of freeways in Downtown LA.
LA’s old community plans were oriented around freeways. The update plans will make a “much stronger connection” to public transit.
By TierneyMJ /
In the 1970s, when many of the earliest community plans were adopted, city planners were very consciously trying to limit the speed of the city’s growth. What approach is the planning department taking to growth today?

LA is a very different place now than it was in the 1970s. When we were approaching those plans in the ’70s, we had just come off several decades of growth, and there was a reaction to the growth that was occurring in those decades. But we also had plans that were trying to deal with the outcome of that growth. Those plans were also oriented around a freeway system. It was very much a car-centric way of planning the city.

The general plan at that time was called Concept Los Angeles, and it looked at having Los Angeles become a place that focused growth in these centers that were going to be connected by mass transit and by a freeway system. Now that mass transit system never developed in the way it was laid out. And Concept LA was assuming a great expansion of the freeway system. Neither of those things really came about.

We’re not looking at expanding our freeway system now. That’s not something that’s on the table. But we have an existing rail network that we’ve committed to expanding.

We’re at a different place in how we get around the city and how we envision ourselves getting around the city in the future. So these new plans are going to be focused in a way that acknowledges that change in the city and really looks forward into the future to see how that change is going to keep going into the future.

How is that change going to keep going into the future?

I think we’ll see a continued expansion of our rail network and we’re also going to see people provided with a lot more options on how to get around the city. So we’re going to see our growth focused more around the transit options that people are provided.

We’re also seeing a city that’s changing rapidly. If we were to have had this conversation six months ago I don’t know that we’d be talking about scooters as a way of getting around.

That’s not going to get you from Pacoima to Downtown Los Angeles—but it may be something to get you around individual neighborhoods. And when you combine that with transit, we may be seeing a different city from a transportation standpoint. So as we go forward, there’s going to be a much stronger connection between land use and transit.

Since these plans take years to update, how do you take into account the possibility for unexpected developments—like scooters—that can come up even while they’re being made?

We don’t know what the next big thing after scooters will be. But it’s a pretty good guesstimate that there will be something that people will be using—a shared type of mobility that’s going to get people to places more quickly.

Both our community plans and our zoning also need to be more nimble in the future. We’re not going to necessarily be able to predict the future, so we’re going to have to add more flexibility into the plans and into the zoning that will allow them to accommodate changes.

Another important thing to do is to not wait 20 or 30 years to update plans.

I went to a community meeting about the South LA and Southeast LA community plans a couple years ago and people there seemed very frustrated because they didn’t understand some of the planning jargon. How do you present community plans to people without getting too wonky?

We have multiple meetings with neighborhoods when we come up with community plans, so the idea of developing plans is a process. You have some meetings where you come in, people don’t understand the concept, they may leave the meeting. But what we’ll do is we’ll go back out so that we can understand the issues.

One of the things we’re doing is really spending some time talking about our community outreach and how we do that. We’ve gone out and done what we call Planning 101 sessions, and we’ve done that all over the city. We’ve done a whole series of them on development projects.

We’re trying to engage communities in terms of what they’d like to see happen in the plans and the zoning so we can build broader consensus but also bring that consensus together in a more efficient and effective way—because we have this goal of updating all 35 community plans in the next six years. And we’ve never done that. Last time we updated all 35 community plans, it took over 15 years.

Will these updates satisfy concerns Measure S supporters had about “spot zoning,” [that’s the term for when city officials make exceptions to community plan guidelines to allow specific projects to move forward]?

What you have a lot of the time is people coming in asking to change either the community plan or the zoning designation because they’re in a plan that may be 20 or 30 years old, and it doesn’t really reflect what’s happening in the neighborhood.

People may call it different things—spot zoning is kind of in the eye of the beholder. But with updated community plans and a new type of zoning, which is going to be much more nuanced and adjustable and responsive to neighborhoods, that should hopefully address a lot of the concerns around that.

I can’t say you’ll never have to come in and adjust a community plan as it’s being implemented. But I think what you’ll see as we update our community plans over time is that’s going to be a much more rare occurrence.


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