The city of Los Angeles received a stunning rebuke, when California Superior Court Judge Alan J. Goodman invalidated the Hollywood Community Plan. The Hollywood district, well known for its entertainment focus, contains approximately 5% of the city of Los Angeles’ population. The Hollywood Plan was the basis of the city's vision for a far more dense Hollywood, with substantial high rise development in "transit oriented developments" adjacent to transit rail stations (Note 1).
The Hollywood Plan had been challenged by three community groups (Savehollywood.org, La Mirada Avenue Neighborhood Association of Hollywood, and Fix the City), which argued that the approval process had violated provisions of California law, and most particularly had relied on population projections that were both obsolete and inaccurate.
Judge Goodman called the Hollywood Plan "fatally flawed," and noted that it relied on errors of both "fact and law." He ordered the City to:
(1) Rescind, set aside and vacate all actions approving the Hollywood Plan and prepare a replacement that is lawful and consistent with the City's general plan.
(2) Grant no permits or entitlements from the Hollywood Plan until it has been replaced with a lawful substitute.
An "Entirely Discredited" Population Baseline
The principal issue in the case revolved around out-of-date and erroneous population estimates (Note 2). The city based its densification plan on an assumption that the population of Hollywood would rise from 200,000 in 2000 to 224,000 in
2005. This estimate was produced by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), which is the metropolitan planning organization for all of Southern California outside San Diego County. SCAG had further projected that Hollywood's population would rise to 250,000 by 2030.
To house these additional residents, the city reasoned that higher density development was necessary. In a related matter, the Los Angeles City Council approved Millennium Hollywood, a pair of 35 and 39 story mixed use towers. This was in spite of warnings from the State Geologist that the property was bisected by a dangerous earthquake "rupture" fault (Note 3). Litigation is pending.
But there’s a fly in this planning ointment, rather than gaining population, Hollywood is losing people. Before the Hollywood Plan was finally approved, 2010 United States Census data was released that indicated the population had dropped to 198,000. This revealed both the SCAG estimate of the actual population and its 2030 projection to be highly inaccurate. Judge Goodman referred to the SCAG 2005 estimate as "entirely discredited."
Elementary Questions Raised
Nonetheless, the city proceeded based upon the incorrect population data. This led the Judge to raise elementary questions about the process (paraphrased below).
(1) Why was the SCAG population estimate used as a baseline by the city of Los Angeles if the US Census count, readily available before the environmental process was completed, had shown a significantly smaller population?
(2) Why was the 2030 projection (from SCAG) not adjusted in the Plan based on the new, lower 2010 US Census population count?
The City defended using the stale and erroneous population data. Judge Goodman commented: "That clearly is a post-hoc rationalization of City's failure to recognize that the HCPU (Hollywood Plan) was unsupported by anything other than wishful thinking" (parentheses and emphasis by author). The Judge continued that this resulted in a "manifest failure to comply with statutory requirements."
The Judge set out the burden faced by the City to achieve a legal (and rational outcome):
...if the population estimate for 2030 were to be adjusted based on what the 2010 Census data had shown, then all of the several analyses which are based on population would need to be adjusted, such as housing, commercial building, traffic, water demand, waste produced -as well as all other factors analyzed in these key planning documents.
To its discredit, the city incredibly argued that "it was entitled by law to rely on the SCAG 2005 population estimate." The Judge disagreed. Any other conclusion would have proven "the law to be an ass" (Note 4).
Abuse of Discretion
The La Mirada Avenue Neighborhood Association argued that the city of Los Angeles had failed to exercise "good faith effort at full disclosure," contrary to the requirements of California environmental law. Judge Goodman appeared to agree, finding that the city of Los Angeles had abused its discretion, noting "A prejudicial abuse of discretion occurs if the failure to include relevant information precludes informed decision-making and informed public participation, thereby thwarting the goals of" the environmental process.
Inaccurate Population Estimates and Projections
This is not the first time that Southern California population projections have been so wrong. With more than a century of explosive population growth, more recent trends may have eluded some of the planning agencies. In 1993, SCAG projected that the city of Los Angeles would reach a population of 4.3 million by 2010. SCAG's predicted increase of more than 800,000 materialized into little more than 300,000. This is not to suggest that projecting population is an exact science, nor that SCAG has been alone in its inaccuracy.
In 2007, the state's official population projection agency, the Department of Finance projected that Los Angeles County would reach 10.5 million residents in just three years. But the 2010 US Census counted only 9.8 million residents (See 60 Million Californians? Don't Bet on It). In contrast with the previously accustomed growth from other parts of the country, Los Angeles County lost a net 1.2 million residents to other parts of the nation while the rate of immigration fell.
Not a Unique Problem
This instance of overinflated and inaccurate projections is not unique to Los Angeles. The use of out-of-date or erroneous information is increasingly being used in regional planning. Recently, the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission approved the San Francisco Plan Area Plan, which used population projections substantially higher even than those of the Department of Finance (despite that agency's previous over-optimism).
As in Los Angeles, Plan Bay Area also used outdated data for automobile greenhouse gas emission factors that have long since been rendered obsolete by technological advancements. Other planning agencies around the nation have engaged in similar practices.
Planners in the Bay Area, SCAG and elsewhere in California are using similarly flawed projections that presume a substantial change in housing preferences toward multifamily and smaller lots. Yet, years later, the projected trends have not emerged in any significant way (See: A Housing Preference Sea-Change: Not in California).
Wishful Thinking: No Basis for Action
Judge Goodman's decision could have relevance well beyond Los Angeles and the state of California. Regional plans must be based upon current and reliable data, no matter how late received. To proceed based on faulty data is no different than not changing course when an iceberg appears in the navigation path. Wishful thinking has no place in rational planning.
Note 1: The Hollywood rail stations are on the Red Line subway, which was projected to carry 300,000 daily riders by 2000. The Red Line is carrying approximately 170,000 daily riders and would need three-quarters more to reach the projection for more than a decade ago (see: Report on Funding Levels and Allocations of Funds, Urban Mass Transportation Administration, 1991, page B-49)
Note 2: The plaintiffs also argued that the Hollywood Plan's densification would result in additional traffic congestion. This is a serious concern, given Hollywood's central location in the second most congested metropolitan area in North America (following Vancouver, which recently ended the decades long reign of Los Angeles). Greater traffic congestion is associated with higher population densities.
Note 3: LA Weekly said that the fault might be capable "of opening the Earth, splitting buildings in half" (See: How the Hollywood Fault Made Millennium's Future Uncertain, and L.A. a Laughingstock).
Note 4: "The law is an ass" (as in a donkey) refers to cases in which the law is at odds with common sense. This phrase was used by Charles Dickens, but appears to have first been used in a play as early as 1620.
Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.
Photograph: Los Angeles City Hall (by author)