As the city begins to move forward with figuring out where we want downtown to be in the future and how everyone will fit into it, there appears to be uncertainty with what each possibility really means. There has been talk of a specific plan, a strategic plan, and a general plan. To someone without a masters in urban planning, one would wonder what do each of these mean and how do they really vary. Listening to council meetings it would be easy to assume the only real difference is the amount of time and money spent on them. Not because council has made it seem that way, it is just so nuanced and no one has yet taken the time to explain to the public what the difference is. Let’s take a look at each and then it will allow you to draw your own conclusions and get involved in the process with a working knowledge of what everyone is talking about.
No matter what you are doing when it comes to urban planning there needs to be a general plan and then revisions of that plan will come in various forms. A general plan serves as the mandated framework from which all policies and planning comes from. Manhattan Beach has been through the general planning process and in the plan it states what is supposed to be a regional draw (Sepulveda and Rosecrans Corridors) and how downtown is to maintain the coastal small town charm. The general plan goes into all of the detail about parks, services, and use of property, but does not get into the weeds with specific zoning measures and the like. The best way to look at the general plan is an overarching set of principles laid out to provide guidance in the decision making process.
A specific plan is a legislative document assisting in the implementation of the policies and principles of the general plan. When putting together a specific plan, cities must meet certain criteria set forth by the state, which can be time consuming and costly. Some of these steps include an environmental impact report, gathering volumes of data, and public hearings to name a few. In order to have a specific plan approved by the state, all steps in the process must be performed and fall within state guidelines such as CEQA. The advantage to a specific plan is that it puts in place a legally binding plan with all of the vetting done upfront to ensure its compliance with the state. Disadvantages include the increased cost in time and resources to prepare the plan.
A strategic plan is a tool many cities have also used when looking to implement change. In a strategic plan there aren’t legal requirements to complete an environmental impact report, gather any information not deemed necessary, or meet any state regulations. Clearly the ability to skip many of these steps makes the process both shorter and cheaper in the long run, so that would be a huge advantage. Disadvantages would include later having to ensure measures taken in the planning process meet state requirements, not having all the information needed to make the best decision possible, and the plan not being legally binding.
While these are quick layman’s explanations of each of the three plans you most frequently hear thrown around at council, hopefully they will serve as basic knowledge for each of you. In the end it is important to take the time to familiarize yourself with decisions being made today and how they will affect the future of the city. It is possible we could choose to take a quick approach with a smaller price tag or a broader more encompassing one with more upfront output. There is no one size fits all answer to the question of which is better so it is important to consider what the pitfalls of each could be. I encourage everyone to view resources such as: http://ceres.ca.gov/planning/specific/ (to better understand the specific planning process) and http://www.ci.pasadena.ca.us/Strategic_Plan/ (for a neighboring community’s strategic plan).
Join us at City Council on October 21st at 6:00pm in City Hall as they discuss the Downtown Manhattan Beach Business Plan.