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General Plan Land Use Designations

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Compact Design Complete Neighborhoods Street and Network Connectivity Site Layout, Parking Layout, and Building Design


A General Plan is a local government’s long-term blueprint for the community’s vision of growth. 1 The California Supreme Court has eloquently described it as a “constitution for future development.” Each city and county in California is legally required to prepare a comprehensive, long-term General Plan to guide its future (SGC §65300). Most importantly, many or all other potential city planning actions (including subdivisions, capital improvements, development agreements, zoning and specific plans, and many other land use actions) must be consistent with the adopted General Plan. This legal requirement for consistency results in added importance in developing the land use designations in order to set the right tone for all future related planning efforts.

City of Burbank; Joe Wolf

The land use designations in a General Plan describe how future land use and public/private investment should be shaped over the next 20 to 30 years. Where should it be focused? What are the community’s goals? The designations in a city’s General Plan also establish the character and scale of development that is allowed in key areas. For many cities, new housing and jobs must come from redevelopment, infill, densification, or adaptive building reuse. The designations in a General Plan have a vital role to play in governing how these growing populations are housed, employed, and serviced.

To promote transit-supportive places, cities can tailor their designations around transit stations to allow, encourage, or require the appropriate, transit-supportive types of uses and range of densities. Typically, land use designations near transit should allow compact densities, a mix of uses, reduced parking standards, and urban design that supports walkability and transit use. The scale of allowed development will vary within the region, with higher intensities located in downtowns and urbanized areas, and lower intensities in suburban or industrial contexts.

The designations set the tone for subsequent General Plan policies and actions, which provide guidance on capital investments, infrastructure improvements, and other physical and programmatic changes (see the General Plan Policies tool for more detail). At a minimum, to support transit-oriented development, a General Plan should:

  • Establish the concept of greater density or floor area ratio (FAR) generally within one-quarter or one-half mile of transit stations. Research has shown that the minimum intensity needed to support transit is approximately 12 dwelling units per acre and/or a floor area ratio of 0.75.
  • Provide basic goals and policies related to focusing mixed uses around urban transit stations
  • Designate key opportunity sites for transit supportive uses, densities, and designs
  • Encourage new development to provide pedestrian access and ground-floor activity
  • Articulate an approach to mobility that addresses multi modes of travel and the core concepts of complete streets

Land use designations specifically related to integrating transit and land use, such as Transit Villages, also serve to demonstrate a City’s commitment to development that is designed and oriented towards transit. Additionally, developing a General Plan can generate community support for a vision of transit-supportive places. Going through the public process to settle on new designations (with the proper allowable densities) can help address neighborhood concerns around new, higher scale development. Creating community consensus is a valuable outcome of any General Plan visioning process.


  • Increased development near transit stations.
  • Increased transit ridership.
  • Active, walkable mixed-use station area.
  • Greater diversity of housing types, including affordable and mixed-income.


Santa Monica General Plan.

The City’s General Plan has a special designation for the neighborhood surrounding a future light rail station: Bergamot Transit Village . With the goal of transforming the industrial area into a thriving transit-supportive district, the land use designation establishes a clear vision for the station area – in this case, a new mixed-use “village” that will attract creative arts uses along with a variety of housing types, entertainment and office uses and local-serving retail to establish a vital, new complete neighborhood. Within that vision statement, the City defines the types of allowed uses and preferred ground floor character that they expect from new development around the station.

The General Plan also has specific regulations that aim to maximize the likelihood of a successful transit-oriented neighborhood, including building height guidelines (along with accompanying graphical illustrations) and various FAR bonus tiers that are tied to the provision of community benefits. The base height in the Bergamot Transit Village District is 32 feet/2 stories with a 1.75 FAR, but this can be increased significantly with bonuses (up to 75 feet and 3.5 FAR). Statements in the designation description such as “new development incorporates human-scale elements, enhances the pedestrian environment, and is built to the sidewalk with minimal setback” translate to clear requirements that create a walkable and transit-oriented district.

Building Height Guidelines

See more Pages 2.1-45 to 2.1-47

South Gate General Plan.

The Community Design chapter of the South Gate General Plan begins with a series of vision statements to communicate the desired design strategies for key areas. Specifically, several of them are highly transit-supportive:

  • Focus New Development on Transit Corridors. Adding development near existing and expanded future transit service will help to reduce the overall number of driving trips as public transit becomes a more viable transportation option.
  • Create a Transit Village . New transit uses should be explored for the area and a mixed use district with high density housing, retail, and office use should be created
  • Create the Firestone Retail and Entertainment Corridor . To complement nearby transit nodes, the City must support and require new streetscape improvements, gateway treatments and other beautification activities along Firestone Boulevard.

The City’s General Plan also contains two land use categories intended to promote development around transit and mixed-use buildings. The first, “Urban Village,” provides for vertical and horizontal mixed-use developments that increase residential and employment opportunities in existing and future transit-rich areas of the City. The density is higher than is allowed in other corridor designations; 41-100 units/acre, 0.5 to 2.5 FAR, and up to 8 stories. Other key characteristics of the designation include:

  • Circulation will emphasize pedestrian pathways
  • Sidewalks will be designed to comfortably handle the anticipated pedestrian volumes.
  • Surface parking is strongly discouraged.
  • Buildings will be placed to support walkability.
  • Mixed use buildings shall be designed to create attractive and vibrant districts.

On top of base designations, the City layers on districts, such as the “Gateway District,” where the Urban Village place type is highly desired. No specific densities are prescribed; instead, the allowed place types are listed, which gives some flexibility. This additional regulatory layer provides specific policy guidance for geographically distinct areas, such as existing or planned stations. The vision for the Gateway District is that the potential station area becomes a dense “transit village” that includes new residential and/or office uses. Supporting language includes:

  • This area should be designed to support a high-level of pedestrian activity.
  • The uses, designs and densities will support transit use.
  • Requiring new development to create pedestrian connections to surrounding areas.

See more Pages 73 and 107-108.

Burbank General Plan.

Burbank General Plan; City of Burbank

The City of Burbank’s General Plan identifies special areas that are designated as “transit centers” and “transit corridors,” where multiple bus routes intersect. Policies in these areas encourage density, provide reduced parking incentives, encourage better land use connections to walking and biking networks, and offer transit as potential mitigation for traffic impacts from new development. By promoting transit‐oriented design standards, the City wants new development to locate within walking distance of transit.

There are multiple land use designations that support transit-supportive districts and places. In particular, the Downtown Commercial designation is correlated with a major transit center. Since Downtown is a community center with high levels of transit access, it is appropriate for Downtown to have a higher allowable intensity of development than other areas of the community – a maximum of 2.5 FAR, and 87 units per acre with discretionary approval. Supplemental goals and policies for this area are found in the Burbank Center Plan, a detailed plan that regulates new development in the urban center.

See more Pages 3-15 to 3-16, 4-17 to 4-18

Palmdale General Plan.

Transit in Palmdale; SpokkerJones

Palmdale’s General Plan includes a land use designation for Transit Village, an area of about 100 acres in the Downtown adjacent to the Metrolink Station. The Transit Village allows much denser residential development than is permitted in the rest of Palmdale. Adopting this designation was an important step for the Palmdale community as there is a need for more dense multifamily housing in a pedestrian environment that cannot be built under current standards. In 2007, the City adopted a Specific Plan for the area, which refined the allowable densities and other development standards (the Plan is currently being updated in 2016 to reflect the impact of the future high-speed rail station on the Downtown area). The Transit Village designation is divided into neighborhoods and use types are allocated by neighborhood rather than zoning. The three types of permitted residential development are single-family, multifamily, and mixed use.

The table on page H-121, Transit Village Development Standards, illustrates how density should be scaled around a transit station, and suggests the appropriate density range and character for the existing urban context in Palmdale.

Neighborhood A & B C D E F G H I
Density per acre 25-40 du ≥ 58 du 8-12 du 18-30 du 12-16 du 12-16 du 8-12 du
Mixed Use Density .80 & .60 .60 .40
Building type Mixed Use Residential Residential Residential Public School Mixed Use Residential Residential
Building Height 60 ft. 45 ft. 60 ft. 36 ft. 45 ft. 45 ft. 45 ft. 36 ft.
Lot Width
Setbacks N/A 0-8 ft. 0-12 ft. 8-18 ft. 0-8 ft. N/A 8 to 18 ft. 8 to 18 ft.
Setback amenities Porches, pergolas arcades and other amenities may be built within the front setback.
Max Lot Cover 70% 50% 50% 50% 50% 50% 50% 50%
Min. Lot Area Single-family 5,000 sf; multifamily 20,0000 sf.
Min. Open Space All multifamily w/ 4 or more units must have a landscaped area of 600 sf with 2 benches
# of Amenities for Multifamily 4-25 units = 1; 26-50 units = 2; 51-100 units = 3; 101-150 = 4 (open space, pool, tot lot, etc.)
Size standards for multifamily Studio: 500sf; 1 bdrm: 600 sf; 2bdrm: 800sf; 3bdrm: 1,000 sf; >3 bdrm: 1,200 sf
Parking Multifamily: 1 bdrm = 1.25 spaces; 2 bdrms = 1.5 spaces; 3 bdrms = 1.75 spaces
Single-family = 2 spaces; townhomes = 2.25 spaces; boarding houses = 1 space/bdrm

These development standards were adopted into the General Plan. The area surrounding the future transit village was physically divided into nine Neighborhood Zones (A through I), as shown in the figure. Different standards for allowed use, residential density, setbacks, and other criteria apply within each respective zone.

See more Pages H-119 to H-121

Los Angeles General Plan Framework.

Chapter 5, Urban Form and Neighborhood Design. The City’s framework plan includes ‘model’ density guidelines for development around transit, intended as a model for community plans. These suggested height tiers demonstrate how the appropriate scale of development should vary according to the type of transit service and other characteristics of the surrounding neighborhood. They also distinguish between rail and bus transit, and assume a larger catchment area for more frequent service. While densities and distances will vary based on local conditions, the following residential density standards, which are based on the City's adopted Land Use/Transportation Policy, are used as a general guide when updating community plans through a public participation process:

  • Four-stories over parking (R4) within 1,500 feet of grade-separated (subway or arterial) fixed rail transit stations;
  • Three-stories over parking (R3) within 1,500 feet of at-grade fixed rail transit stations;
  • Two-stories over parking (RD1.5) within 750 feet of major bus corridor intersections;
  • Where appropriate, two units per lot (R2) maybe considered within 750 feet of major bus corridors.

See more

1 Office of Planning and Research (OPR). (2016). “General Plan Guidelines.” Retrieved from