“A Mighty Challenge for a Great Work”: The “Proceedings of the Sixteenth National Conference on City Planning,” Los Angeles, 7-10 April 1924, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

With the second part of this post on the four-day National Conference on City Planning, held at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in April 1924, we focus on papers that pertain directly to greater Los Angeles as well as look at general issues and, in some cases, look at other parts of the country when it came to responsible and reasonable planning. These include presentations concerning terminals at the harbor or Port of Los Angeles; the use of buses in transportation; the use of art juries for building design; and the forced filing of plats for developments. All of these reflect the rapid growth of city planning policies and procedures since about the first years of the 20th century and are important for understanding the tremendous development of greater Los Angeles during that period.

The vital nature of the Port of Los Angeles to the growth of the region cannot be overstated and C.J. Colden’s “Harbor Terminals and Their Approaches” makes the clear point that “the greatest transportation system in the world is the open sea” as “an extension of the rail and the road.” Improving terminals and access to them as reflected through the example of Los Angeles involved understand that “from the industrial center of Los Angeles to the harbor is a distance of approximately twenty miles” but there were smaller industrial areas (such as Vernon) in between and there were more of these.

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 8 April 1924.

The idea was that “to expedite through traffic, local points of congestion should be avoided wherever possible.” Yet, “it obviously adds to expense and to inconvenience to route the motor truck from Los Angeles Harbor to Glendale and Pasadena through the congestion of Los Angeles,” so “a plan routing through traffic away from congested points of traffic is of mutual benefit.” Having highways parallel to rail lines was to be avoided in outlying areas because of grade crossing issues.

In addition, Colden noted that “Southern California is faced with a serious problem of highway congestion” as “the automobile and the motor truck are not good traveling companions.” Developing highways for each was preferable and he stated that “already plans are considerably advanced to build a speedway from Los Angeles to Wilmington to take care of the speedier auto traffic between the city and the harbor.” When it came to rail traffic, there were issues when the Santa Fe sought to build a road on its own right-of-way and some opponents asked that the company use the Southern Pacific’s line or build parallel to that, though he noted that “either plan is objectionable.”

Colden added that the Santa Fe had considerable reach to the interior of the country, so to force it to do what was suggested “not only serves to congest railway traffic, but seriously retards industrial expansion.” One remedy was for the company to build its line further removed in “a new industrial area where values are more reasonable, where there is a much greater variety of selection and where the population accompanying industrial development is spread out insrtead of congesting the comfortable industrial population already established along the older railway lines.”

Illustrated Daily News, 9 April 1924.

So, it was important to have terminal approaches that “not only distribute traffic but relieve congestion of population” which, in turn, “affords more open spaces, more air and sunshine, more homes of comfort, more efficiency in life, greater prosperity, better citizenship and a more vigorous civic and political life. It gives a vitality extending from the fireside to our national activities.” The task of developing these elements fell on the city planner and it was their “obligation to direct that the door opening his products to the markets of the world and opening to all the argosies bringing in the riches from every shore and every sea, shoould swing on secure and responsive hinges.”

In the discussion that followed Pomeroy observed that the county planning commission was very attentive to “the segregtion of function of the various traffic ways” and noted that it saw three types of highways: scenic routes, general mobility roads “and a special system of industrial highways serving the entire county.” The main industrial traffic routes were north and south, while passenger traffic was mainly west and east, so one major effort was the building of a half-dozen viaducts and roadways over the Los Angeles River “that shall carry east and west traffic over the north and south traffic.” These would include such examples as 1st, 4th and 7th streets crossing over rail lines paralleling the river as well as that watercourse.


In his discussion of buses compared to other transportation vehicles, George A. Damon, the vice-chair of the county planning commission, observed that “decentralization is one of the next big adventures in regional planning” because of that problem of centralized congestion. Yet, solutions like wider streets, tunnels and subways seemed to only worsen the problem. Damon noted that “the real answer to the problem, however, is not to build big cities, but to plan and create great living districts, made up of comparatively smaller centers of population and industry.”

To help make decentralization more effective, he continued, “the automobile bus is the most effective” transportation method, because “it can be put to work without a long period of planning and without an excessive overhead charge for investment.” Additionally, “it can be installed and extended on the unit principle” with a 25-seat vehicle operating for about $10,000 per bus of initial cost. Buses, however, could vary by use, so that some focused on tourist transport and other for getting students to schools.

If this bus ran 40,000 miles per year with gross income of 25 cents per mile and allowing that the mild climate meant an operation cost of some 18 cents per mile, that left “a net earning margin sufficient to pay a fair return on the investment plus an adequate replacement fund.” Damon acknowledged that the cost of operation per mile was higher than with trolleys, but stated that trolleys were planned to be in denser housing areas, where buses were better for sections with single family residences.


In concluding, Damon suggested seven areas of improvement for bus service, including the further limiting of downtown street parking; having through routes as much as possible; using buses beyond where the five-cent trolley fare was no longer financially feasible; improving electric car service to limit stops to no closer than a mile apart and “using local busses for collecting and distributing the suburban passengers; locating communities and planning highways and streets to promote decentralization; planning for transit between those suburban communities and the city center “with convenient access to the proposed union transcontinental passenger depot;” and having a comprehensive plan with all agencies working together for the best transit system.

Damon noted that “right here in Los Angeles we are ‘building a city every year’ and one of a hundred thousand population, which is the present measure of our census increase each year.” Providing good transportation was, of course essential, but “fortunately the development of the auto bus within the last few years furnishes us with a transit device which is comparatively cheap and efficient and adapted to our needs.” He ended with “Watch the use of it grow!” but the desire of people to drive themselves to work in their own car, of course, became a major problem for bus systems.


Charles H. Cheney, a Los Angeles city planner, discussed using art juries to decide on the design of private buildings within the planning process and he began with the observation that “city planning is a failure that does not insure an attractive, as well as a good economical and social result.” Attractiveness of architecture and improvements was crucial to keeping property values up and on the success of a development project. After all, “the buying public welcomes protection in these matters” and “the home owner likes to be sure his neighbors will also be required to put up an attractive house.”

To ensure that attractiveness was built into the planning process, having an “art jury, permanently established, with power to segregate and hold up indefinitely all designs for buildings and structures that are not up to a reasonable standard of attractiveness” was recommended. Cheney noted that “to date it seems to have been most completely perfected in the Palos Verdes project near Los Angeles, California, where an art jury with veto power has been given permanent legal jurisdiction on all buildings built upon the whole 3200 acres no under development.” It was expected that this control was to “be extended over the whole 16,000 acres of the Palos Verdes Ranch as it is put on the market.”


There was also “a permanent maintenance association, in which every lot has one vote, with an annual tax in order to provide an upkeep fund.” Additionally, permits had to be secured from the association for the safety of buildings as would be done through a city’s building department. Approval from the art jury was in writing “as to the attractiveness and artistic merit of every building or structure on any part of the property.”

Membership was comprised of three architects recommended by the regional chapter of the American Institute of Architects, a nominee of the American City Planning Institute and three others, including one property owner and, therefore, a member of the maintenance association, and another recommended by the University of California (the Los Angeles campus of which at Westwood was completed later in the Twenties.) Moreover, the art jury had an endowment of $300,000 for their work, including compensation to the members. With Palos Verdes touted as a model, Cheney concluded with “certainly we cannot too soon increase the number and power of art juries, either in real estate restrictions or with proper municipal status.”


John R. Prince, Los Angeles city planning engineer, wrote about required plat filings and the legal issues with them, noting that city and county planning commissions led the way in having governments force property owners to subdivide according to standards that were “suitable for the future needs and development of our cities and communities.” He gave a dozen reasons why these requirements were necessary, including conformance to general plans, proper street orientation, correct layout of blocks, necessary drainage, enough room for schools, parks and playgrounds, and others.

How to do this and conform to law was the issue and Prince cited court precedents, including on in Los Angeles in which the City denied a tract map because of concerns with the orientation of streets, including for safe access to a school, so public safety was a core determinant in the court’s decision. Decrying “purely mercenary motives on the part of subdividers,” Prince declared that “we all know full well the evils resulting to our cities in the failure of subdividers to lay out adequate street systems of proper widths and to extend existing streets.”


The City had about 200 court actions concerning street improvements, “which could have been avoided if proper regulations had been insisted upon when the subdivisions were offered for approval.” Moreover, the municipality would not “furnish water or to lay water mains in undedicated streets” and this usually forced subdividers to submit their plats. The City did have a problem in not being able to have surveys covering all of its massive 407 square miles, including large areas of agricultural property.”

In 1923, Prince continued, there were 1,434 new subdivisions in the county (just one of these was Walter P. Temple’s Town of Temple, renamed Temple City five years later), with 70% of these located outside the City of Los Angeles, and for the first two months of the current year, 380 were established and just under 30% were in the municipality. He noted

this gives some idea of the remarkable development that is going on in this part of the State, and proves how vitally necessary it is in this city that the utmost control is exercised over them, that every care is taken to see there are no misfits, that our major highway system is carefully planned and guarded and that above all we have the fullest cooperation with our neighboring cities and country territory.

He added that cooperation was “in the highest degree, due mainly to activities of our Regional Planning Conference in conjunction with our city and county Planning Commissions.” While the 1907 subdivision law in the state needed to be repealed and replaced, the provision overseeing tract maps for incorporated cities to its planning commission and for unincorporated communities to the county, which then sent them to the nearest city and its commission was considered important, especially with regard to major highway system planning.


Of course, the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution safeguarded personal property and the taking for public domain with due process and just compensation, but Prince asked “is it not proper and in line with the public and interest” to interpret the amendment in such a way “that no man shall use his property in a manner that will infringe upon or violate the rights of others?” He ended by asserting that “our endeavors should be directed towards the securing of new legislation which will be fair and just in its requirements and applicable to the living conditions of this present day and age.”

In discussion, the county regional planning commission chair, Robert A. Allan, noted that development was such that officials were dealing with “sub-divisions which were coming like a sea rolling over us” and that it was realized that “it would be absolutely necessary to go out into the country, and try and beat the sub-divider to it by laying out adequate systems of major and secondary highways.” It was also important to get from larger developers “the necessary area for highways and boulevard, and, where possible, for parks.”

Allan added that the 1923 number of subdivisions was a 50% increase over the prior year and, because most, like the Town of Temple, were in unincorporated areas, the county regional planning body was involved in a great deal of work, handing some 800 subdivisions since June of that year, up to about thirty weekly on average. For the most part, developers worked well with the county, but “there are, however, occasional sub-dividers who desire to squeeze all possible present value from a piece of property without regard to adjacent properties, or the county as a whole.”


This “bootlegging” will employe the old laying out by metes and bounds to avoid having recording a map and, with narrow or dead streets that were not public and lot sizes that were problematic, it created real problems for the highway system. Not only that, the utilities needed for these commuities could be denied “and the title may easily become clouded, because of the involved description of property.” To fight “bootleggers,” the commission found it necessary to work with a major bank to refuse loans in such projects, while continuing to seek assistance from utility companies to refuse services unless streets were dedicated. Finally, there was the filing of condemnation suits against “outlaw” developers “in order to secure the [desired] easement or the fee in streets” and withheld title delivery and impeded sales.

Such battles were rare and “the great mass of sub-divsions are being laid out in conformity with a far-reaching plan, this fitting each tract into the great Mosaic which is to be the metropolitan Los Angeles of tomorrow.” Hugh Pomeroy chimed in by observing that in the City of Los Angeles “a sub-divider must provide profiles for the grade of the streets and must do all work under city specifications” so that “the result is that we get first-class improvements.” At the county level, developers had to post a bond so that streets are graded and have at least a light surface of gravel or oil and screenings, though “a great many of sub-dividers go so far as to put in excellent systems of curbs and sidewalks.” Utility service requirements, though, were just being established.

We’ll wrap up this post with a third part on Monday, so come on back and check that out.

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