“Looking to the West to See How It Should Be Done”: The “Proceedings of the Sixteenth National Conference on City Planning,” Los Angeles, 7-10 April 1924, Part Three

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As we conclude this post on the very interesting and informative Proceedings of the Sixteenth National Conference on City Planning, held at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in April 1924, we’ll look at a few of the papers presented that deal with Los Angeles along with some discussion from local attendees.

David Faries, special counsel for the very influential Automobile Club of Southern California, spoke on “Grade Crossing Elimination” at rail lines, noting that seven years prior there were not quite 2 million registered auotmobiles in the nation, with nearly 1,100 persons killed and about three times that many injured in accidents with trains at grade crossings. In 1923, there were over 14 million cars, with 1,500 persons killed and about 5,000 injured in such incidents. Fortunately, the increase was not proportional and Faries added that there were also more trains and crossings and incidents, aside from human casualties, had “the element of economic loss caused by transit delays.”

As to what to do, the attorney admitted that “it is easy to make the case; the solution is more difficult,” while observing that the problem needed local mitigation with some help from national organizations, when applicable. For example, Faries stated “you cannot standardize grade crossing elimination,” meaning, apparently, not on a national level. As for Los Angeles the issue “has been aggravated by the tremendous number of automobiles and by the fact that many are in the hands of new drivers, many of whim are children who must be protected from their own carelessness.”

The_Los_Angeles_Times_Thu__Apr_10__1924_ (2)
Los Angeles Times, 10 April 1924.

With respect to the cost of eliminating grade crossings, the minmum was $50,000, while some work could be in the millions. Faries noted that a committee of railway officials stated that “a grade separation on each of the most important existing grade crossings in the country would cost $7,000,000, and the question of who shall pay the bill is perplexing.” Some crossings were on boundary lines from city to city and others from city to county or a community may not get the most benefit from a grade crossing removal “because the highway affected is its chief means of communication.” Also of significance are the railroad’s needs with respect to spur lines and loading facilities.

Negotiation between interested parties was vital, even as, in California, decisions were handled through the California Railroad Commission, now the California Public Utilities Commission. Faries stated that “if the parties concerned can sit in conference I believe we will get ahead much faster.” The City of Los Angeles convened a meeting in 1923 to address grade crossing concerns and a permanent committee was created with representatives from the state high commission, county and city officials, railway officials and the Auto Club. After meeting every two weeks, the body came up with a plan.

Each railroad was requested to send ideas about five grade crossings to prioritize in remedying and these twenty-five were reviewed by the committee, with the list whittled down to ten, agreed to by the rail companies. At the time of the conference, plans and specifications, as well as cost estimates, were completed and an engineering committee of members of the larger body unanimously agreed with the findings. The lawyer noted that railroad companies were very cooperative and that there were ten recommendations that came from a national railroad convention in 1923.

Times, 11 April 1924.

These involved cost-sharing by railroad companies and taxpayers; moving highways to reduce grade crossings; planning new highways to avoid these; having better warning signs at crossings; reducing obstructions at these locations; having a “Stop, Look and Listen” program for the public; and educating drivers on how to cross rail lines safely. Faries added, though, that there was a new permit application for crossings every day and “it won’t do us any good to eliminate old ones if we allow new ones to be established” without careful reviews.

Working with property owners was also key, as Faries noted an example of a crossing where fifteen people or more were killed in crashes in the last five years, yet owners resisted changed because, it was claimed, “the people had been killed through their own fault.” In some cases, cities where concerned about effects on entrances into their municipality by trains with the elimination of crossings, though he said a thorough review noted that most protests were by local property owners. A careful plan, like that worked out in Los Angeles, though, was recommended as the best way to address this thorny issue.

Hugh Pomeroy of the county planning commission noted, during comment, that handling the expense of crossings locally was through “a local improvement district” from which an assesment was made with respect to the land and highway, while the railroad company paid for the superstructure. G. Gordon Whitnall, Los Angeles City Planning Commission director, talked about an issue relating to a street railway extension into Griffith Park and state requirements on a return on investment of 8% of the coast for a project, but it would be prohibitive for that to be achieved in the that case. When it came to a municipal bus system using the same route, however, it was found that it would be much more cost effective.


Whitnall’s “City and Regional Planning in Los Angeles” followed Faries’ talk and he began by nothing the massive size of the city at 410 square miles, while what was termed “greater Los Angeles, was about double that amount. Additional “municipal units” being added were, he added, “very much like the sections of an orange inside the skin,” while growth was such that “it is not difficult to prophesy the day when the whole 800 square miles will become largely urbanized.” He then made hte interesting comment that:

The great distinction between the Los Angeles metropolitan district and any other such areas is that our metropolis in embryo has recognized its future even before that future has been reached.

This was because planning allowed for “no undue expense” so that “we may try over again” if the situation needs amending. Whitnall went on to suggest that “with out unprecedented increase in population and territorial expansion, we have seen transpire within the period of a few years what usually requires generations to accomplish.”


As for the city planning commissions, it was, after seven years of work, established four years before the conference. Whitnall noted that “weary with educating successive political administrations,” the commission went to schools, clubs, and civic organizations to spread the gospel of planning. The result he said was that there was no official who “will oppose the work of the city plan[ning] commission, because its work in this territory is one of the [g]reatest reliefs to elected officials that has ever been devised.”

Yet, he continued, merely planning for the city was no enough as it “was but a small part of the metropolis of the future.” Knowing that “we had to develop plans that would over the territory which ultimately would make up the entire metropolitan district,” the commission worked with the county for a “Declaration of Inter-dependence” that would cover all the cities within the country and this led to the regional planning commission.

What helped get entities to work together which “heretofore had been at each other’s throats” was finding common ground. Whitnall cited the example of Glendale, then with 35,000 people, but without any sewers, just cesspools. This system would mean that, during floods, the water supply for Los Angeles, of which a third came from the Los Angeles River at the southern and western edge of Glendale, would potentially be polluted. This brought the two cities together to work on the issue.


Another problem was a decade before when heavy rains in the winter of 1913-14 led to floods and erosion of the Arroyo Seco through Pasadena and into northeast Los Angeles. From there debis, including portions of houses, moved through the region and “the real estate was finally deposited in the channels of the harbors of Los Angeles and Long Beach, twenty miles away.” With this debacle, Whitnall observed, “then people woke up.” While the problem came through Pasadena and South Pasadena, the damage was done in Los Angeles and points south, so the former two cities did not seem disposed to do much about the issue.

Then came subsequent floods (when was not stated, but perhaps in 1915-16) that came through Altadena and into Pasadena and “in the aggregate considerable damage was done to” the Crown City. With that later disaster, “these conditions forced the citizens of the County to the realization that there was a flood hazard, and that there must be adequate flood control.”

A common enterprise to deal with this threat was the creation of a regional flood control district, with which “all the special means of financing which heretofore had been deemed prohibitive were taken advantage of, and today we have sufficiently advanced, so that the flood hazard is no longer a matter of major concern.” This was actually not true as flood control continued to be a major issue after such disasters as in 1938.


Whitnall briefly referred next to another kind of drainage, this being traffic “and this onrushing flood of humanity is a problem which is no more possible of a solution by the city planning commission than was the flood situation, or the lack of a sewer system.” Without further explanation, however, he moved to a discussion of his understanding just how big greater Los Angeles was when he was able to work on an aerial photography program, something that would not have been possible or financially feasible not that long ago, as he saw the region from 12,000 feet up.

What Whitnall saw, he colorfully described as:

a whole section of rusty fly screen that somebody, in a fit of temper, had thrown to the ground, causing it to break into portions, the central portion remaining relatively intact and relatively large, with one portion of it on the corner almost detached and connected with a few strands of wire. That was the metropolitan street system . . . [but at 6,000 feet] there entered into the picture elements of depth and color, and—you will think I am fanciful—an element of motion. I mean a motion of cities, the growing, flowing advancing motion of the physical conditions of communities that in the expansion proces are encroaching on each other . . . I could understand that in the ordinary process of development this motion would continue and communities would continue to merge, so that finally they would be one.

Knowing “where the reservoirs of population are” and the limitations of topography were, Whitnall could foresee where development had to take place and so “we find outselves in the peculiar position of being a community in its inception, and yet with a fair realization of what the future holds in store.” This mean a duty to prevent past mistakes with eastern cities due to a lack of planning.


Whitnall concluded by observing “we still have our chance, if we live up to our opportunities of showing the right way of doing things.” Doing this meant that the east would not be the model of future urban development, but, rather, “the east is looking to the west to see how it should be done. This is our regional ambition for Southern California.”

Pomeroy’s “Regional Planning in Practice” is a lengthy one, so we’ll do more summarizing here, but he began by reinforcing the region’s size and its “closely adjacent communities which are expanding in many cases to the point of physical coalescence.” There were then just over forty cities and fifty unincoporated towns and his commission’s remit was “to weld this into a unity of metropolitan consciousness and action.” It directly worked with unincorporated territory, such as Walter P. Temple’s newly established Town of Temple, launched the previous spring, while working cooperatively with incorporated cities.

The creation of the commission followed a year-and-a-half of meetings for the Regional Planning Conference and, in January 1923, the Board of Supervisors established the body, the first of its kind in the nation. Knowing that “the ultimate secure foundation for the work is an enlightened and forward-looking public consciousness,” officials gave some 200 talks to chambers of commerce, realty associations, clubs, churches, colleges and others. The creation of the City and County Engineers’ Association also furthered the objectives of the commission as technical advisers.


As noted in other parts of this post, there were 50% more subdivisions recorded in 1923, more than 1,400, than in the prior year and which much more than doubled the number for 1921. Just cine June 1923, there wee 800 subdivision applications, with up to 60 in just one week. Most were in unincorporated areas and subject to recommendations made by the comsission to the Board of Supervisors, especially in establishing the idea of tentative maps before final approval to forestall sales of property before a proper review and the opportunity for recommended changes by highway officials, flood control personnel, surveyors and others.

Pomeroy reported that subdividers were generally very cooperative with the process, understanding that better planning translated into higher property values, while government worked hard to recognize property rights, while developers did so with the rights of neighbors and the broader community. Of those 800 applications in recent months, only a few engendered serious problems, usually by the “bootleggers” mentioned before in this post with respect to poorly laid-out streets that were not dedicated and for which utilities might be refused, while titles became clouded.

If a subdivider presented problems with adequate street width, the road department could set the curb line to the property line and force a final tract map to account for that so streets were as desired. Another way to deal with recalcitrant developers were to apply pressure on them through loans from banks and title insurance from title companies. The supervisors in two cases filed condemnation suits and this halted title delivery and the culmination of sale of property—suddenly, one developer became a lot more interested in collaboration, though the other continued to resist and faced eminent domain proceedings.


Another important development was the planning of an arterial highway system with a gridiron or checker board system utilized when feasible. The idea was to have a major highway at each section line that was at least 90′ wide, while a secondary road of up to 80 feet on half-section lines, and bypass roads of at least sixty feet on quarter section lines or about halfway between the other types of thoroughfares. Obviously, such aspects as drainage, industrial areas, rapid transit and rail lines and others were affective to this plan, but Pomeroy observed that “general respect in years past for the necessity of highways on the section and half section lines has protected much of what might otherwise have been lost.”

A core element of the plan was to limit jogs, right-angle turns (rounded ones were preferred for more space and easier vision), roundabouts and other conditions that would impede traffic flow and it was also critical that “traffic may come into the metropolitan area and distribute iself to various sections and also find its way to other parts of the state without passing through the congestion” of downtown Los Angeles. Industrial, general utility and scenic were the three types of roadways in the process. A circulating system with “high-line drives,” boulevards in the foothills of the mountains, canoyn roads, parkways along rivers and others were also included.

With respect to financing, it was noted that how assessments were handled was important, as a rise in property values was not enough of a benchmark on its own, as “with or without rise in value, a legitimate charge against any property” is acceptable as it would “contribute to the maximum enjoyment of its logical use.” Asessments for improvements that would increase population would “create additional assessable values and consequent distribution and absorption of cost.” The problem of assessments, however, were epitomized with the unintended consequences of the Mattoon Act of 1925, which had deleterious effects on unincorporated areas under the regional planning commission’s dominion like Temple City.


Zoning was also addressed in Pomeroy’s paper and it was noted that this element “has heretofore been possible only with the voluntary co-operation of a few subdividers.” He noted the unusual case (also mentioned in the previous parts of this post) of Palos Verdes Estates, where “there is being established by deed restrictions a partial non-political community government.” As controlling as this might seem, though, he added that there was the “other extreme in the all-too-large number of subdivisions in the County, wherein no use restrictions are established.” Good zoning was an educational issue for the subdivider and buyer of property.

The idea was well-balanced applications of zoning, so that arbitrary restrictions were limited and court tussles avoided. As the county was seeing more development on hillsides; with commercial and industrial districts; and with a “retreating frontier of agriculture,” despite “the County still first in the nation in the value of agricultural products,” regional zoning was even more important as it needed to allow for adequate transportation corridors and open spaces. A new concept was the idea of an Industrial Committee to develop a plan for where future industrial areas would be in the county. More than thirty years before the City of Industry was created, the area was highlighted as a future industrial corridor because of its location along two major rail lines for inland transport from the harbor area and downtown Los Angeles.

Concerning parks, Pomeroy noted that planning was “entire preliminary” and nothing established for financing for buying, building and maintenance. By 1924, the situation was of information gathering, though there were five types of facilities envisioned, including beaches, mountains sites, parkways, neighborhood parks and regional parks. An idea adopted by the supervisors was that developers for tracts over fifty acres should devote 5% of park and playground space. Regional parks were particularly in need, along the lines of Griffith Park and the newly established Recreation Park in east Long Beach, and should be numerous enough to serve a four-mile radius, while speed was required so that available land could be purchases for these purposes using a metropolitan park district concept.


With flood control, a $35 million bond issue was passed in May 1923 and the Flood Control District was working to deal control at the mountain sources of water flow, having reservoirs to store some of this water, and “in particular making possible the percolation of the water into the underground gravels to add to the groundwaters of the County.” The los of artesian supply and general “falling water level” meant that new means of replenishment were necessary.

Finally, sanitation was discussed as a regional program was being developed, especially the development of sanitation districts. Pomeroy explained how these could be formed, including by election, while muncipalities kept their sovreignty intact and the supervisors oversaw districts that were in unincorporated areas. The district could call for bond issue elections, pass taxes, appoint engineers and otherwise engage in administrative activities for the benefit of those within its purview. It was hoped that existing districts could be consolidated into three: for Los Angeles and adjacent cities; the southwest part of the county; and areas to the east, though two others might be possible, including the west side of Los Angeles.


Pomeroy ended by noting that regional planning was not about theory, but of “a practical program of accomplishment in the midst of mighty development. There was roughly a 400% growth in population and assessed valuation since 1910, but “this growth [w]as but a beginning.” Plannning was foundational, not about reconstruction and involved was

not alone the physical evidences of civilization but also the cultural and spiritual elements for which, in the long run, the others serve but as a setting. In the growth is a mighty challenge for a great work—a work that shall lie at the very foundation of this metropolis building on the shores of the Western Ocean and that shall insure its economic soundness and its social stability.

With this lofty expression befitting an era of supreme confidence in the future of greater Los Angeles, we can look back and compare and contrast our situation to what was in evidence in 1924. What planners recommend and policymakers institute, however, can often be wildly varied and dependent on many political, social and economic factors. This important document, however, provides us an excellent look at the state of the field in greater Los Angeles nearly a century ago.

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