Planning for Equity: Putting the Community in the Downtown Community Plan

Community meeting that Central City United collectively held to engage with our community members about the plan - photo via Central City United
Community meeting that Central City United collectively held to engage with our community members about the plan - photo via Central City United

As Los Angeles’ Department of City Planning (DCP) updates the city’s Downtown Community Plan, there is an understandable hope for haste – who wants delays when we need to spur the recovery of a business district hard-hit by the shutdowns of the past year? But as with California’s recent vaccine roll-out – in which a focus on speed led to reliance on a web-based appointment system that left so many behind – a lot can go wrong when we don’t take time to bake equity in right from the beginning.

So what would it mean to center equity in land use planning in general and the downtown plan in particular? A first step is admitting that we’ve got a problem – and the DCP’s solidarity statement in response to the Black Lives Matter protests last year does acknowledge the planning profession’s role in perpetuating “racial segregation, poverty, environmental injustice, disinvestment, and poor health outcomes.”

But words are not enough: With the city currently updating its 35 Community Plans, which guide the rules for development across Los Angeles, there is an opportunity to affirmatively address the priorities and needs of the communities who have been, and continue to be, directly harmed by past land use practices, including redlining, land covenants and other racist policies.

Moreover, it is these communities that remain at most risk today. Between the release of the draft plan in 2019 and the most recent update in June 2021, a lot has changed: unemployment has soared, over 1.2 million Angelenos – disproportionately people of color – have contracted COVID-19, and we are now staring down a looming eviction crisis and an exponential increase in homelessness due to the economic impacts from COVID-19.

Equity demands that those most impacted by the past and the present should have a strong role in planning our future. Fortunately, a coalition of stakeholders from Little Tokyo, Chinatown, and Skid Row, have come together to form the Central City United Coalition (CCU), a group working to lift up the voices of low-income, immigrant, and unhoused residents in the Downtown Community Plan area. Members of CCU have spent countless hours connecting community input with the technical knowledge of some of the city’s preeminent land use experts to form their vision – known as the CCU People’s Plan – for Downtown Los Angeles’ future.

Principles statement - from xxxx
People’s Plan Principles – from Central City United People’s Plan

Those three neighborhoods may be distinct, but they share a history of racial exclusion and a contemporary fear of gentrification and displacement.

Skid Row—expressly targeted by a zoning plan in 1976 to preserve the biggest collection of low-income housing in Los Angeles—is home to over 4,700 unhoused, predominantly Black, residents. They live in shelters, permanent supportive housing, residential hotels, Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels, and sidewalk encampments. But what many outsiders miss: Skid Row residents constitute a community and want the right to stay and thrive in the neighborhood they call home.

Little Tokyo, a proud 130+ year-old community, has been facing displacement pressures for some time. COVID-19 has only made it more challenging for longstanding community-serving small businesses to stay afloat, with many struggling to apply for government loan programs geared towards a tech and English-proficient demographic.

Chinatown, originally established in the 1800’s to segregate Asian residents from the rest of the city, is also feeling the housing cost heat. Just recently, rent for a studio apartment in Chinatown was listed at over $1,700, in the same census tract where over 46 percent of the households were reporting income under $25,000, many of whom organizers say are low-income limited English proficient seniors living in SRO housing.

xxx
Zoning and Community Benefits recommendations – from Central City United People’s Plan

So how do we bake equity into the Downtown Community Plan? When California realized that the vaccine rollout was creating disparities, it slowed down and incorporated new safeguards, including listening to local concerns, working through trusted community-based organizations, and creating requirements that prioritized life-saving shots for those who needed them most.

The parallels are clear. These are communities that have been subject to over a century of planning and development experiments that led to disproportionately harmful impacts, so they know what works and what doesn’t in order to create safe, affordable, and sustainable communities. DCP needs to listen to the residents of Downtown’s communities and adopt the recommendations in the CCU People’s Plan. This includes engaging in an explicit racial equity analysis that identifies, fixes, and ultimately prevents racialized impacts and outcomes, and prioritizes affordable housing preservation and new production for those at highest risk of displacement and houselessness. Finally, increases in development capacity should be linked to meaningful community benefits for low-income residents and communities of color.

In this moment of a national reckoning with our racist past, DCP has the chance to live up to its statements on equity by prioritizing meaningful engagement in planning with communities, and creating programs and policies that will ensure outcomes that are fair, sustainable, and community-supported.

Manuel Pastor is Director of the USC Equity Research Institute. Sissy Trinh is Executive Director of the Southeast Asian Community Alliance (SEACA).

 

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

City Council Seeks to Protect Little Tokyo

|
Seeking to preserve the historic and cultural feel of Little Tokyo, the city council has proposed changing the downtown zoning requirements to the point of removing Little Tokyo from the Downtown zoning area.  The Planning Department didn’t like the idea of removing Little Tokyo as a whole, it would make tracking data for the downtown […]

UCLA Luskin: Complete Streets for California

|
Registration for Complete Streets for California is now open. This conference will take place Friday, March 2, 2012 at the Kyoto Hotel, in downtown Los Angeles. Confirmed speakers include:     Tilly Chang, Deputy Director for Planning, SFCTA Reid Ewing, National Center for Smart Growth, University of Maryland Andrew Oelz, Akin Gump, LLP Tom Sanchez, Virginia Tech/Brookings Institute Valerie Watson, Downtown LA Neighborhood Council […]

Planning Comission Approves New Pedestrian Plan for Downtown

|
The Planned New Genesis Apartments Will Comply with New Proposed Pedestrian Standards The LA Downtown News reports that Downtown Los Angeles will be getting a major pedestrian makeover.  Last week, the Planning Commission approved changes to developers requirements that will bring wide, tree-lined sidewalks, landscaped courtyards, more streetlights and other pedestrian amenities to Downtown Los […]

Editorial: Five Changes To Make A Better Los Angeles Mobility Plan

|
It’s time to roll up your sleeves and finalize your comment submissions for Los Angeles City’s draft Mobility Plan. To learn about the plan, read through plenty of SBLA coverage and review source documents at the project website. Perhaps also read Flying Pigeon’s scathing critique of the plan as a “morally bankrupt symbol of a crumbling society.” […]

Debate Over Parking in Missoula, Montana

|
Today from the Streetsblog Network, a report from Imagine No Cars in Missoula, Montana, a city that is at a planning crossroads. Missoulians can continue with the familiar strategy of more roads, more parking, more space for cars — or they can try to envision a different future. The issue heated up recently when an […]