When the San Fernando Valley portion of the City of Los Angeles attempted to form its own city in 2002, one of five names nominated for what would have been the nation's sixth-largest city was "Camelot." This for a region most famous for being the vapid home of Valley girls.
Although Measure F (CP&DR Insight Vol. 16 No. 10 Oct 2001) failed on both sides of the hills that separate the Valley from the rest of Los Angeles, nearly a decade later a far less grandiose, but perhaps more pragmatic, solution has emerged to give a unified voice to the Valley and some of its neighboring cities.
Representing the nearly 2 million residents of Burbank, Santa Clarita, Calabasas, Glendale, the City of San Fernando, as well as the City of L.A.'s portion of the San Fernando Valley, the San Fernando Valley Council of Governments was officially approved as a joint powers authority by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in May.
The approval follows nearly three years of preparations and negotiations, and supporters say that formal recognition of the Valley was long overdue.
"Many times I think people forget the Valley is here," said Robert Scott, project director of Valley think tank Mulholland Institute and longtime COG backer. "It's not their fault. The county of Los Angeles has a huge population, the city has a huge population, and the Valley isn't always at the top of the line. We feel we can perhaps do a better job."
Though the COG has no budgetary or regulatory power, its most tangible function will be to represent the Valley as a distinct subregion under the purview of the Southern California Association of Governments, the metropolitan planning organization that encompasses the five-county Los Angeles area.
SCAG designated the Valley as a sub-subregion -- within the still-larger subregion of Los Angeles County – several years ago, thus enabling the agency to better treat it as a distinct unit for the purposes of regional planning. The COG takes that designation a step further by becoming, essentially, a forum for regional planning and for the region to develop local strategies.
"Because a JPA is a public agency…it doesn't require another level of bureaucracy," said Scott. "It's just our same elected officials who are meeting in a different format, and that allows the folks from the San Fernando Valley...to get together and talk about Valley concerns."
COG participants have alluded to a range of issues related to planning and economic development that, they believe are crying out for coordinated regional strategies.
"The idea here would be to have cross-jurisdictional planning and then have…some agreement as to what the planning strategies might be so that we don't end up with incompatible uses right too close to one another, among other things," said Scott. "And maybe more continuity between jurisdictions in terms of even such things as themes and specific plans and the placement of certain types of uses."
Scott said that regional planning strategies to comply with climate change measures AB 32 and SB 375 will likely occupy some of the COG's agenda. SCAG Deputy Director Sylvia Patsaouras said that the new COG can elect to serve as a formal delegate to the agency's Sustainable Communities Strategies planning process. However, she said "there is not much time left" for the COG to make those intentions known and that there will still be informal ways to participate. Scott said that the COG does intend to serve as a formal delegate.
Otherwise, many COG supporters speak only in general terms about what initiatives a unified Valley might pursue.
"Planning and transportation are key issues that we need to address," said Los Angeles City Council Member Dennis Zine, whose 3rd District covers the Valley's southwest portion. "The COG can work with SCAG and other entities to help bring about the research projects, the EIRs, and bring together how we can connect."
What the COG does not intend to do, however, is to turn the Valley into a mirror of the Los Angeles Basin. Though the region is not as suburban as some stereotypes suggest, Valley leaders say it will continue to cultivate different centers – such as the edge city of Warner Center and the respective downtowns of the smaller cities – rather than strive for a second downtown or become radically more urbanized.
"I think by design it wouldn't have a center to it; it has a very egalitarian structure," said Scott. "The idea is for each of the cities of course to maintain their identities and at the same time work together."
The independence of the COG's member cities is evident in its governing structure. The COG's board will include 13 representatives: one from each member city, one from each Los Angeles council district in the Valley, and one from the two supervisorial districts that include the Valley. According to the COG's JPA agreement, each representative has veto power over all official actions.
While this may be a recipe for futility, supporters say that the cities' common interests make gridlock unlikely. Michael Murphy, intergovernmental relations officer for the City of Santa Clarita, said that the structure provides an "opportunity to concentrate on those areas where there's mutual interest and hopefully mutual agreement."
One ribbon in particular ties together these disparate cities, which range from industrial Burbank to the gleaming outer suburb of Santa Clarita: Interstate 5. Valley boosters say that the combination of industrially zoned land plus rail and highway connections could make the Valley one of the next great hubs industry in the region.
"We see a lot of economic development opportunities in the sense that in this particular region there's a lot of overall economic development activity, particularly in aerospace, biotech and entertainment," said Murphy.
"The Valley has a lot of underutilized land for manufacturing," said Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association. "To add distribution centers, to add manufacturers, large warehouses and other businesses will be beneficial to all of us."
Valley leaders also hope to use the COG as a forum to plan for circulation within the Valley region and to, for the first time, coordinate transportation and land use planning among the cities. L.A. Metro's Orange Line busway already runs east-west through the Los Angeles portion of the Valley; north-south lines have been proposed for several major corridors, as has an extension to Bob Hope Airport in Burbank.
COG supporters said that they were inspired to organize in part by the success of the powerful San Gabriel Valley COG, which has successfully lobbied for light rail and other transit projects.
"This is really an appropriate time for SFV to get involved in the discussion of the projects that are going to be included in that 2012 Regional Transportation Plan," said Patsaouras.
In these efforts, the COG will be looking to SCAG for research and technical assistance, and it will be looking to Sacramento for money. It will, in that sense, strengthen efforts that have long been underway by the region's powerful business groups, the Valley Economic Alliance and the Valley Industry and Commerce Association.
"The Valley has taken a different attitude when it comes to being recognized and getting our fair share of the resources we're all paying for," said Zine. "This will help in that arena."
Following the defeat of the secession movement, those two organizations launched aggressive campaigns to bolster the subregion's economic base and to see that, in the absence of secession, Los Angeles city government gave the Valley its fair share. Since then, tensions have eased, and COG backers say that its formation may be a final, and relatively harmonious, chapter in an often tense relationship.
"It's a positive outcome of a lengthy process that probably started as far back as 1920, where the Valley was seeking to have some sort of identity and not be lost in the shadow of a larger city," said Scott. "The relationship is ten times better than what it was twenty years ago."
Contacts & Resources:
San Fernando Valley COG Joint Powers Authority Agreement (pdf)
Michael Murphy, Intergovernmental Relations Officer, City of Santa Clarita, (661) 259-2489
Sylvia Patsaouras, Deputy Director, Southern California Association of Governments (213) 236-1806
Robert Scott, Project Director, Mulholland Institute, (818) 712-9500
Stuart Waldman, President, Valley Industry and Commerce Association, (818) 817-0545
Dennis Zine, Council Member, Los Angeles City Council 3rd District, (213) 473-7003