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How re:code LA Will Simplify L.A.'s Confusing Web of Plans and Overlays

on May 15, 2018

To participate in a substantive discussion about re:code LA—the comprehensive revision of the Zoning Code for the City of Los Angeles—it's important to have a fairly clear idea of all the layers of plans and zoning already in place of the City. Making a mental map of these layers will reveal some of the key benefits of the ongoing Zoning Code reform project.

Planning: Setting a Vision for the City of Los Angeles

The General Plan of the City of Los Angeles sets the goals for the development and growth of the City, and it's the best place to start when learning about the planning in layers in effect in the City. The State of California requires every city to make a General Plan that addresses nine "Elements": Land Use, Circulation, Housing, Conservation, Open Space, Noise, Safety, Environmental Justice, and Air Quality. Cities are allowed a fair amount of flexibility in how they address those Elements—as long as the General Plan of every city addresses the required issues, it doesn't matter what the elements are named, how the elements are ordered, or whether elements are combined or split into more specific units.

The General Plan for the City of Los Angeles reflects the flexibility allowed by the State, with 11 Elements that address a wide range of issues impacting the growth of the City and quality of life of Angelenos: Framework, Air Quality, Conservation, PLAN for Healthy Los Angeles, Housing, Mobility, Noise, Open Space, Service Systems/Public Recreation Plan, Safety, and Land Use.

The Framework Element of the Los Angeles General Plan provides the structure for all planning and land use regulation in the City. In other words, the Framework Element is where the City establishes its vision and goals in the broadest terms, setting a direction to be described in more detail by the other Elements and Community Plans.

Most significantly for the Zoning Code, the Framework Element establishes a number of land use categories that guide zoning designations applied during the Community Plan update process. The Framework establishes a range of zoning options for each land use category, referred to as "corresponding zones," but it doesn't actually apply the Zoning Code to specific properties or parcels. By creating these land use categories and corresponding zones, however, the Framework Element provides the foundational guide for planning in the City. The Los Angeles General Plan Framework creates five categories in all: 1) Neighborhood District, 2) Community Center, 3) Regional Center, 4) Downtown Center, and 5) Mixed-Use Boulevard.  

Those land use categories provide a guideline for more detail to be crafted by Community Plans, which is the next major layer of planning in the City and one of the most important for understanding how the new Zoning Code will change planning in the City. The City's 35 Community Plans together serve as the Land Use Element of the General Plan, creating specificity and details at the neighborhood and individual property level.

Community Plans map

[A map of the 35 Community Plans that make up the City of Los Angeles General Plan Element. Source: Department of City Planning website.]

Like the General Plan, Community Plans establish goals and provide the specific, neighborhood-level detail, relevant policies, and implementation strategies necessary to achieve the broad objectives laid out by the General Plan. 

Implementation: Overlays and Zoning Codes

The kind of planning discussed in this article so far focuses on the process of determining and describing the vision and goals for the City and its many neighboirhoods and communities. The next phase of planning activity, implementation, is necessary to achieve the vision and goals established in the city's General Plan and Community Plans. Implementation requires its own set of tools—that’s where the Zoning Code, with its customizable and tailored collection of zoning designations comes in handy.

There have been many ways to implement changes to the goals and policies identified in a Community Plan. Over the years, there have been many other tools, such as Specific Plans and a long list of overlays (examples of the latter include Residential Floor Area Districts, Historic Preservations Overlay Zones, Community Design Overlay Districts), and specialized zoning requirements (such as the "Q" Qualified Classification, "T" Classifications, and "D" Development Limitation designations). Each of the many more examples of overlays address a specific issue or problem in a specific part of the City. In recent years, Community Plan Implementation Overlays (CPIOs) have been the implementation tool of choice for planners in Los Angeles.

Over two-thirds of the City is covered by some kind of overlay, creating a patchwork of planning and regulatory layers that requires careful scrutiny whenever planners, property owners, business owners, and residents try to figure how a neighborhood or specific parcel fits into the city's land use regulation system.

Sunset Junction Zoning Map

[A map of zoning designations near Sunset Junction in Silver Lake reveals numerous "Q" Qualified Classifications. Source: ZIMAS.]

A New System

In the near future, Community Plans will establish a vision, like they have done in the past, and apply the zoning system enabled by the new Zoning Code. The flexibility of the new zoning system—and its ability to fill the role and function of many of the current zoning tools now included in the patchwork of overlays—is expected to more effectively aid the Community Plan update process. There will be overlays in the future, but they'll be used sparingly, and only to address very specific issues, like context-specific design or construction techniques necessary in a specific kind of geography. The goal is to make a Zoning Code flexible and tailored enough that CPIOs, Specific Plans, and many of the current overlays are no longer necessary.

Just because future Community Plans will apply the new zoning system of the new Zoning Code to all properties in the City of Los Angeles doesn't mean that development or uses allowed will change on every parcel. Many Community Plans will include lots of neighborhoods where no change is necessary, and will adopt new zoning designations that implement zero substantive changes—call it a "change in name only." Where change is possible and desired, the new Zoning Code will offer the tools needed for a customized result.

Get to know these planning layers now, because that knowledge can help inform an understanding of the full capability and flexibility of the new Zoning Code. If you’d like to know more, check out the Zoning 101 series or visit the Planning Department website and browse Policy Planning sections.