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Guest Opinion | Rick Cole: What Does the Community Gain When Developers Can Propose Their Own Rules?

Published on Monday, February 22, 2021 | 5:00 am
Rick Cole

Pasadena City Hall calls it “PD” for “Planned Development” – but it is actually the opposite. It’s a tool increasingly used – or misused — by developers to write their own rules for large housing developments in our city.  Pasadena’s citizen Planning Commissioners are unhappy with it – and at a public Zoom meeting this month, a clear majority called for the City to do real planning for housing instead of reacting to developer proposals.

Normally, proposed projects are required to comply with existing zoning.  Makes sense, right? But larger projects may ask for special consideration through the “PD” process – which boils down to the City Council ultimately crafting custom zoning for the developer’s project.  As Pasadena’s Planning Director David Reyes noted, “Because the process is discretionary, decision makers have broad authority to change and mold the project.  By design, it allows deviations from the existing underlying zoning to create specific development regulations for that parcel.”

Longtime Commissioner Tim Wendler objected that a PD “becomes a relatively subjective process as compared to the regular approval process.”  New Commissioner Juliana Delgado, who teaches urban planning, warned that overriding established rules negates public participation.  “We have too many PDs,” she told her colleagues.  Commissioner Mic Hansen, a former Commissioner who has just been reappointed by Mayor Victor Gordo, asked:  “Wouldn’t it be reasonable to abolish PDs altogether and simply adhere to the City’s zoning standards?”

Reyes explained that the City is currently processing four PD applications, the most ever.  One of them is for a five-story 227 unit luxury apartment complex at the corner of Los Robles and Villa in the Villa Parke neighborhood.   The site is currently occupied by a 99 Cent Store.  It has already generated considerable community concern, not least because the developer is proposing to meet the City’s affordable housing requirements offsite.  Neighbors in one of Pasadena’s few remaining neighborhoods with relatively low rents fear displacement spurred by costly new housing that existing residents can’t afford.

Reyes acknowledged the surge in PD applications results from “the disconnect that currently exists between the City’s zoning code and the General Plan.”  Every California city is required by State law to have a General Plan that is, by definition, “general.”  It covers the whole city and doesn’t have detailed regulations on design, height and bulk for new buildings. Those are contained in zoning rules.  Back in 2015, when Pasadena’s General Plan was revised, parts of the city were identified as areas for denser housing.  “The General Plan designation was in many cases was much higher than what the base zoning was,” Reyes explained.  But six years later, the mismatch is still there.  In the absence of the public having an opportunity to help shape specific rules (typically through an area Specific Plan), developers are asking for maximum densities allowed under the General Plan.  

That didn’t sit well with Commissioners.  Commissioner Mike Coppess talked about his long involvement in working on the careful balancing that goes into developing Specific Plans.  “That’s the point in time where people can really get engaged,” he emphasized.  “I view the PD as invading that territory.”

Commissioner Delgado was equally emphatic: “It’s very difficult to get people to participate — and every time we seem to go against what the outcome has been of those extensive public participation meetings, I think we lose more people who are interested in participating in the process.  I think we need to be very, very careful, it is the basis of our democracy, especially at the local level.  I think we need to be careful about not losing those committed citizens who want to participate going forward, especially when these big projects come forth and they tend to usurp all of that good work that they’ve done.”

The PD process is dramatically different from the open and participatory opportunities for shaping Pasadena’s Specific Plan zoning.  Once a developer submits their PD application, Reyes explained, “it goes to staff for review and analysis then it has to go through Design Commission, through the Planning Commission and then to City Council.” Other than public hearing comments (currently limited to 200 words), there’s no formal opportunity for the public to share their views and concerns.  Worse, they’re limited to reacting to the developer’s plans.  

While one Commissioner, attorney Jason Lyon, did call PD’s “a useful tool for developers and the City to make the right decision for the right location,” that notably leaves the public out of the equation.   We live in a time when Americans are increasingly aware of inequity in the outcome of public decisions based on race, income, gender and language.  Everyone in the public is disadvantaged by the lack of transparency in PDs, but neighborhoods like Villa Parke (made up primarily of Spanish-speaking immigrants and other low-income residents) are especially handicapped in having a say on PD developments.

Put yourself in the shoes of those residents, many working long hours to support their families and pay rising rents.  Who has the time to follow a lengthy, murky process that stretches on for months?  It is hard enough for residents who’ve learned the legalistic jargon and complex rules governing city planning to follow the normal process of project review.  With PDs, the rules and procedures are different and difficult even for Commissioners to understand — as they made clear in their meeting.  Who speaks for silent residents if they can’t speak for themselves?  

Wendler put his finger on another problem when he called the PD process “subjective.”  What that really means is “political.”  The zoning for a PD is ultimately whatever five votes on the City Council say it is.  Which means developers and neighbors must spend months trying to influence the final outcome. That is exactly the problem that in Los Angeles has led to appalling scandal.  One former Councilmember is headed to jail and another faces charges he accepted more than half a million dollars in cash, travel, gambling chips, booze and “escort services.”  

That’s not the Pasadena Way.  As Pasadena Heritage wrote to the Commission, “Given the added costs, delays and review time to approve these projects, would it not be simpler to just build to current zoning? What does the community gain from this special PD process?”

Good question.  One that Commissioner Coppess suggested needs to be answered “with some urgency.”  Will City Hall listen to the citizen volunteers who serve on our Planning Commission?  That depends on whether other voices speak up to support them.

Rick Cole is a former Mayor of Pasadena

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