Friday, July 02, 2010

CityWatchLA - LA Gets Another Shot at Planning for Its Future

CityWatch, July 2, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 52

Gail Goldberg's resignation as the head of City Planning offers Mayor Villaraigosa another shot at positioning Los Angeles as a Great City, but only if he's willing to select a Planning Director who is a combination Visionary, Strategist, Administrator, and Diplomat.

Most importantly, he must be willing to give that person his complete support, knowing that in doing so, he may be positioning his replacement.

It's for this reason alone that the people of Los Angeles must step up and participate in defining the selection criteria for the new head of City Planning.

In addition this is the time to clarify the City of LA's commitment to positioning Planning as a city department empowered to steer Los Angeles into the future.

Four and half years ago, Gail Goldberg and Gloria Jeff addressed a small gathering in the Tom Bradley Room, high atop City Hall, and promised the Livable Places crowd that LA's Planning and Transportation departments "were now joined at the hip" and the people of LA could look forward to a new era of connectivity that started in City Hall.

Ah, those were heady times! But, they didn't last for long.

Grand visions gave way to debates over curbcuts, cutouts, and community plans. The 45 departments that make up the City of LA continued to operate as bureaucratic Fiefdoms, the dozen departments that regulate private projects continued to implement their unique mandates, and the half dozen departments that actually build in the public realm did so with complete contempt for any hope of connectivity.

Along the way the people of LA were given the "Do Real Planning" presentation, a vision for City Planning that laid down 14 commitments to principled land use. Unfortunately, they turned out to be negotiable, just like the General Plan, the Municipal Code, the Zoning Code, the Community Plans, the Master Plans, the Specific Plans and anything else that the community relied on as tools for guiding the growth and development of Los Angeles.

This soft landscape of commitment left community members at odds with developers, housing advocates at battle with the city council, the planning department at the mercy of the budget cuts, and the Mayor estranged from his vision for Los Angeles. Along the way, the Planning Department was eviscerated during the budget crisis and the City of Los Angeles gave proof to the "Failing to plan is planning to fail” axiom.

Much will be written of the circumstances that led to the departure of Goldberg from her post at City Planning and LA Observed, California Planning & Development Report, and the Architect's Newspaper have already begun the postmortem but suffice it to say, this is an opportunity for the people of Los Angeles to step up and to double down on the most important element of LA's journey, the PLAN.

This brings us to the opportunity and to the actions that the people of Los Angeles must take in the selection of the new head of City Planning.

• The people of Los Angeles must insist that the Mayor and the City Council put the full weight of their collective authority behind City Planning, complete with a budget worthy of a Great City commitment.

In addition, the Mayor and the City Council must end the provincial bickering that undermines the efficacy of City Planning and the many plans that enrich consultants only to collect dust. The commitment to connectivity starts in City Hall.

• The people of Los Angeles must insist that City Planning connect with the biggest developers in town, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the Metro, and the Community Development Agency (CRA).

As community members debate parking and height variances, the biggest developments in town and the ones with the most significant quality-of-life impact simply slide along a fast-track that is lubricated with public funds.

The LAUSD, the Metro, and the CRA operate with the diplomatic immunity that comes with funded projects, barreling through the process with an arrogance that wears out the community and destroys relationships, all wrapped up in a "We know what's best for you!" package of contempt. The commitment to connectivity continues with LA's public development partners.

• The people of Los Angeles must insist that City Planning connect with the many authorities and agencies that have a piece of our community. From the State of California to LA County, from the CHP to the Sheriff's Department, from the Army Corps of Engineers to the Metro, the people of Los Angeles can't discuss a trip to the park or a visit to a fruit stand without unleashing a balkanized fragmentation of authority capable of discouraging even the hardiest of pioneers.

The bureaucrats of LA have bemoaned this fact for too long, accepting it as their fate. That must change if LA is to move forward. The commitment to connectivity must include LA's funding, administrative, and enforcement partners.

• The people of Los Angeles must insist that City Planning connect the 45 City of LA departments, serving as the hub for the department who actually build, the departments who have a role in the regulation and oversight development, and of the other departments that contribute to the quality of life in their unique and vital capacity.

The commitment to connectivity must include the entire city family, from Planning to Police and from Communication to Cultural Affairs. The commitment to connectivity relies on a department that can serve as the head and as the tail, setting the vision and with authority to implement.

• The people of Los Angeles must insist that City Planning connect with the community, the developers, and the advocates. It's time to end the development based battles that result from a vacuum of vision and a soft plan that is vulnerable to attack from every direction.

The commitment to connectivity must be built on a foundation of community support balanced with the interests of developers and advocates but administered with the authority of a strong, standards-driven City Planning Department.

During the preparation of the Mayor's Budget, the Central Planning District's budget reps called on the Mayor and the City Council to make all budget decisions based on five guiding principles.

First on the list was "Honor the Charter - Protect Charter Departments over Ordinance Departments. Look for redundancies, look for opportunities to consolidate, pursue efficiencies by supporting Charter Departments and always pursuing the Great City commitment it represents."

Daniel Burnham, architect, urban planner, and author of the Plan of Chicago, is quoted as saying "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will not themselves be realized."

Now it the time for LA to go beyond the Big Plan and to commit to City Planning, starting now with the selection of a Planning Director possessing the Charter specified "adminstrative and technical qualifications, with special reference to actual experience in and knowledge of accepted practice in the field of city planning."

Most importantly, this person must have the skills and vision necessary to connect the City of Los Angeles with its destiny as a Great City.

(Stephen Box writes for CityWatch and can be reached at

No comments: