Specifically Speaking

Specifically Speaking

One of dozens of highly perscriptive models from Sacramento’s General Plan, this one showing a
Courtesy City of Sacramento

In California, general plans define where growth should happen and what types of land use should be permitted in cities. But despite the “general” in their name, the plans are assuming an increasing amount of prescriptive detail, especially in terms of urban design. Cities like Los Angeles, Long Beach, Santa Monica, and Sacramento are taking their general plans along a design-heavy path, well beyond the traditional zoning and land use–based requirements.

Santa Monica, for instance, is now updating its Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) with a major focus on urban form, zeroing in on place-making, boulevards, and specific districts. It also aims to ensure that new and remodeled buildings are compatible in scale with their surroundings, and contribute to neighborhood pedestrian character.

Some think increased focus on design will pay dividends for planners and architects, while others find the more visual guidelines too constrictive, even unrealistic.

Sacramento passed its 2030 General Plan on March 3, mapping out its physical design goals for the next 20 years. The image-heavy document makes it easier to see the types of neighborhoods and places the city wants to create. It’s written in terms that are easy to understand, not “plannish,” said Woodie Tescher, a principal at PBS&J, an engineering, architecture, and planning firm that consulted on the update. The plan won the Comprehensive Planning Award of Excellence from the California chapter of the American Planning Association in 2009.

Not all are enamored. Kris Barkley, a principal at Sacramento-based Dreyfuss and Blackford Architects who has watched Sacramento planners take more control over the design process, said, “It’s like an idealized, theme park attitude rather than coming up with interesting pieces that come together into a whole that’s interesting in itself. It can be very difficult from a design perspective.”

PBS&J’s Tescher noted that the city’s attention to design is part of a growing trend. “Most municipalities are conscious of the need to think seriously about infill and intensified development,” he said. “There is a tendency to ask, how do we make projects acceptable to our community groups? How do we design projects to make more livable places, rather than just the traditional zoning we used to rely on to implement our general plans?”

But simply throwing more prescriptive guidelines at designers and architects could be disastrous, according to Tescher. He suggests inviting architects into the guideline-writing process as early as possible. “Bring in architects who are really doing exciting projects and get them to do prototypes for you,” Tescher said. “And then bring in a developer economist and run a pro forma. See if it really works.”

Another way to maximize impact is to focus on subsections of the city through specific area plans. A good example is the Downtown Design Guide adopted by LA in April 2009. Simon Pastucha of the city’s Urban Design Studio said creating a similar plan for the whole city wouldn’t be appropriate in all parts of town. “It’s really hard to come up with these city-wide guidelines that allow for flexibility or really apply in every different context, because you don’t really know until you start looking at specific sites,” said Pastucha.

Indeed, the most effective plans appear to balance prescriptiveness and flexibility. “What I want is an urban plan that’s clear about what planners want,” said architect Wade Killefer, founder and partner at Killefer Flammang Architects in Santa Monica. “The key is to find out the limitations, and then do what you want to do within those limitations.”