Friday, July 30, 2010

CityWatchLA - Keep on Truckin’

Nothing stirs controversy like success and the recent popularity of LA's specialty Food Trucks has City Hall scratching their collective heads as they grapple with the social phenomenon that has Angelenos tracking the likes of Fishlips, Frysmith, Dogzilla, King Kone and other expressions of LA's Food Truck Culture.

LA County has more than 4000 Food Trucks on the streets but it is the 200 specialty trucks that trigger the latest version of the traditional LA celebrity sighting. Foodies regularly Tweet the locations of their favorites and follow the rock star Trucks such as Don Chow, India Jones, Coolhaus, Dosa, Nom Nom, Buttermilk and the wildly popular Grilled Cheesed Truck.

The success of the Food Truck phenomenon is so great that some locals, from residents to brick-and-mortar restaurant operators, have cried "Foul!" and turf wars have erupted over parking spaces, traffic congestion, impact to the community and simple competition.

This prompted the City of LA to jump in feet first and the City Council introduced motions that sought to restrict Food Trucks. Meanwhile, local leaders from the community and the Food Truck industry have demonstrated the type of leadership that belongs in City Hall, embracing the confusion, conflict, controversy, and looking for the common ground.

The Downtown Art Walk regularly draws 24 thousand people to its 2nd Thursday event, challenging the organizational and diplomatic skills of the community leaders who started the event years ago in an effort to enhance the sense of community in their neighborhood. It worked. It also demanded that they respond to the needs of brick-and-mortar restaurants, the street vendors, the food trucks and the many patrons who simply wanted to spend money. With success came challenges but the Art Walk leadership looked for common ground and created a win-win-win situation.

It's reported that some operators of traditional restaurants such as the Black Dog seized on the presence of the Food Trucks, not as the enemy out to cannibalize, but as a draw. The Black Dog now features longer hours, an enhanced menu, and a unique niche that offers choices to the increased customer traffic in the community and has demonstrated the benefit of competition.

Food Truck operators have long been a staple on the streets of LA and the availability of late night tacos is part of the unique character of LA's food scene. The recent boom in Food Truck variety has led to "Restaurant Row" style events that offer a rotating selection of cuisine and enhancements that turn simple street food into a "happening!"

Last weekend, the RoseBowl hosted the LA Street Food Fest featuring over 60 trucks, a $45 cover charge and unlimited dining. Celebrity chefs, including Sue Feniger and Walter Manske, judged the participants, awarding street cred to vendors in categories that included Best Old School Street Food, Best Nouveau Street Food, The Sweet Tooth and Best in Show.

This ain't construction site food, folks.

LA's Food Truck phenomenon is part of our unique street culture and it is an expression of mobility that brings our streets to life. It is an economic boom that City Hall should embrace and support looking for win-win opportunities that connect us, not divide us.

Imagine how community events can benefit from the participation of the Food Trucks.  East Hollywood ArtCycle took place on Santa Monica Boulevard between Vermont and Virgil, featuring bands, artists, crafters, bike tours and a major street was brought to life with the presence of thousands of people. 18 Food Trucks were a vital part of the celebration and partners in a successful event.

The LA Chapter of the American Planning Association recently hosted their awards event, looking for a transit accessible, historic venue with a connection to a vibrant street life. They chose the El Portal Theatre in NoHo for its cultural legacy and for its close proximity to the Red and Orange Lines, and then they brought the street to life by stationing Food Trucks on the street and hosting the reception on the sidewalk, opening up the street and connecting.

This weekend, Food Trucks will be at the Music Center in support of Saturday's National Dance Day and they'll be at Venice High School in support of the Achievable Foundation. They'll also be at the Grand Hope Park where Outdoor Cinema Fest will be screening Moulon Rouge on a huge outdoor screen, supported by a dozen Food Trucks offering what they refer to as "the ultimate picnic!"

Through it all, there exists controversy, most often when City Hall intervenes and clouds the water.

The most recent brouhaha broke out on Wilshire Boulevard when the Museum Square restaurants encountered competition from Food Trucks and which resulted in a turf war that resulted in small platoons of motorists trolling Wilshire in the morning, seizing parking spaces and holding them for the duration of the day to deny parking for the Food Trucks.

All of which creates a scenario that begs for leadership, not simply in negotiating parking spaces, trash pickup and cooperative business practices, but in addressing the need to support small businesses and look for opportunities to support an economic boom that should be encouraged, not restricted.

The City of LA goes to great lengths to support and enhance valet parking, taxi cab parking, tour bus parking, FedEx & UPS parking, and general delivery parking, all in an effort to improve the viability of the individual operators and the customers they serve.

This isn't a restriction but an enhancement, meant to offer specific support. If anything, this is an opportunity to embrace a challenge and to support the success of the small businesses on wheels.

LA has ample regulations on the books that apply to Food Trucks, from health standards to parking to operations, and the notion that the conflict caused by the recent success warrants more regulation is folly. If anything, this is an opportunity to refine the code to support a vibrant industry and an economic opportunity.

One of the simplest barometers of social justice and economic parity is the availability of quality food.

From grocery stores to farmers markets to restaurants, neighborhoods have long gauged their "completeness" on quality options for shopping, for entertaining, and for casual dining.

The Food Truck industry offers brick-and-mortar businesses an opportunity to expand their customer base while offering start-ups an opportunity to refine their menu and connect with the community, leading some to establish fixed locations for their restaurants. In other words, it creates a symbiotic relationship that resonates through a community.

It also offers LA an opportunity to be creative, addressing situations that have been taken for granted. In the Entertainment Industry, location shoots succeed and fail based on the Producer's ability to feed the tired and hungry crew.

Many long location shoots have been saved by an industrious Production Manager who can drum up a BBQ in the middle of the night or get the Cuban Coffee served fresh to a tired crew. Would supporting the Food Trucks be an opportunity to support the Entertainment Industry?

Recent emergency events in our community have dramatized the simple need to be ready to mobilize food and the Griffith Park fire, the Station fire, and the Metrolink crash all included challenges that a Food Truck fleet can address.

In the Metrolink tragedy, local neighborhood council members simply bought all the food they could carry from local restaurants and hopped a fence in order to feed the emergency workers who went around the clock and were fading from hunger.

In both the Griffith Park and Station fires, the evacuation centers were isolated and feeding the people turned out to be a challenge that a booming Food Truck industry can address. Would connecting with our Food Truck neighbors be an investment in Emergency Preparedness?

The times are changing and the Farmers Markets that were once a novelty are now the norm. City Hall even hosts a weekly Farmers Market and on Thursdays there is a sense of place on the south lawn. There were challenges, there were adjustments but that was then and this is now. The same is true for the Food Truck boom.

The flexibility and mobility of the Food Trucks allows a partnership with underserved communities and neighborhoods that can revitalize and pollinate, providing a service that will actually reduce car trips  by servicing dense business parks with limited choice. It also allows a community to demonstrate a need, attracting traditional food service operators to partner with a community.

LA is the Capital of Diversity and the Food Truck Industry is an expression of all that is great about Los Angeles. There's the Gastrobus that partners with Farmers Markets and only serves locally sourced food and there's the GreenTruck that features a solar powered commissary, veggie fueled truck, organic food and sustainable packaging.

Ultimately, there's something for everybody and the mobile platform allows for the trial-and-error innovation that is such a part of the Los Angeles legacy.

The City of LA is faced with a rare challenge, managing and encouraging success, and it is imperative that we work together to support the dialogue and look for common ground that is good for the community, good for the small business operators and good for the customer.

Metro - System Capacity Improvements

One of the most efficient, effective and immediate things the Metro can do to improve capacity is to address Human Infrastructure, the attitudes and behavior of the Metro staff and passengers. For your consideration I offer these four opportunities.

1) Communication - If the public asks enough Metro employees, the variety of answers will be sure to include a yes, a no, a maybe, and a go away. But it will often result in the run-around. This wastes time and speaks to a systemic flaw that should trigger an examination of the larger issue and the opportunity for clarification.

Example: Recent discussions of the 761 which frequently heads over the hill well under capacity but with a full bike rack has generated complaints as cyclists wait multiple rounds in order to ride over the hill. Metro staff, from Jody Litvak to Lynne Goldsmith to the Bus Operators, are unable to agree on the Metro's policy for bikes on-board policy, offering up "No" and "Only on the last run" and "At the Operator's discretion" and "Only with Operator liability" and "It's not my department." Somehow an opportunity to address systemic confusion was missed and the question lingers. Why does the 761 head over the hill, under capacity but without allowing the cyclists who are left behind the opportunity to put their bikes inside at the back? Also, why does the 761 pass up folding bikes when its rack are full? Best of all, why hasn't this series of questions to staff and complaints to customer service triggered an examination of the triple rack opportunity to increase capacity by 50% for cyclists? They work in Long Beach. Any objections have been dismissed by the Long Beach experience and data. Is anyone paying attention to this opportunity to improve capacity?

2) Training - The public can hardly be expected to understand the Metro policies and then behave accordingly if they are so confusing and exist with so many interpretations. The Metro staff implement and enforce different versions of old and new policies with such creative enthusiasm that it simply drives contempt for the system and an "everyone for themselves" behavioral pattern among the passengers.

The Transit Court will be addressing "Bikes on Escalators," a prohibition that defies comprehension in light of the baby carriage and luggage accommodation, yet it seems to be getting revived. Bike on Trains are prohibited during certain hours but Metro staff explain "That prohibition isn't enforced, it's just there in case we need it." Bus Operators tie off their bike racks and call them "broken" so they can ride bike-free on the freeway. Bus Operators enforce prohibitions against bikes-on-board unless the passenger is able to speak clearly and articulate "Metro policy is to allow bikes-on-board at the Operator's discretion and this empty bus has room in the back for my bike so there is no reason to exclude me from this bus." Rail Operators produce old bike policy pamphlets from the early Red Line days, Bus Operators produce new bike policy pamphlets and find restrictions that don't exist, through it all the thing that is most unclear is "What are we going to do with all of these cyclists?"

3) Logic - Bus Operators frequently inform the public that bikes on-board are allowed at a Bus Operator's discretion but that the Bus Operator is responsible for any damages so they will not allow it. This type of information is simply an insult to the public's intelligence. Kerr's Catering Service v. Department of Industrial Relations (1962) established that an employee can not be held liable for damages that are part of the cost of doing business. Wear and tear, broken dishes in the cafeteria, etc. are not the responsibility of the employee and the Metro should be clear on California Labor Law. Most importantly, the Metro should nip this "liability mythology" because it simply frames the passenger as a liability, not as an integral element of a Comprehensive Transportation System.

A well designed environment will yield good behavior. People sit on the stairs because there is no place to sit. This interferes with the movement of passengers and cyclists are less likely to use the stairs but now the escalators are off limits? People congregate in the middle section of the platform because the Purple Line trains them to count on that section, but this behavior means the head and tail are less populated. Every exiting passenger heads to the center of the platform to exit. Design and communicate to spread passengers out. I always wait for the front car because I have a bike and it is the least populated car, but at Union Station, at NoHo and on the Purple Line, it's not clear where to wait for the front of the train.

Benches that draw passengers to the ends of the platform, clear messaging so passengers can behave accordingly, traffic flow so that boarding is more efficient, simple communication and guidance such as "stand to the right, walk to the left" would all go a long way to increasing capacity and enhancing the passenger experience.

4) Oversight - Equipment malfunctions and breakdowns are to be expected but the most recent Union Station escalator incident bears witness to the systemic lack of oversight. When the escalator closest to HQ went out of service last week, the failure of an out-of-service sign with directions to the elevator in the parking lot to appear should be an indicator that Metro staff who use the escalator take a great deal for granted. The fact that the repairs took days to commence, all for a burned out wire, should have generated a sign indicating that repairs were on the way. This simple incident, so close to Metro HQ, should serve as a trigger that would cause Operations to examine the Metro's response to "out-of-service" incidents and generate a policy for communicating, or responding and for analyzing the data. It is my experience that the escalators at some stations are frequently out-of-service but the staff tell me that no data is collected nor reported. How does the Metro improve?

Complaints from the public are often about staff but the larger opportunity is to look for issues that indicate an opportunity to address communication, training, logic, and the larger Metro environment that allows ongoing conflict between passenger expectation and reality. The 761 issues with under capacity buses that could transport cyclists with their bikes on board is an example of complaints that should have generated an examination of the specific line and the more general policy.

5) Collaboration - I have participated in Cyclist/Metro brainstorm sessions, task forces, and roundtables over the last several years and each time I am hopeful that I am investing my time and energy in a process that will yield a meaningful progress in establishing cyclists as an integral element in LA County's Comprehensive Transportation System. In each case, I spend too much time listening to how hard is is for Metro employees to do their job. I've listened to Metro Bus Operators who need me to know how hard it is to control an articulated bus, Metro Trainers who need me to know how many people they are responsible for training and how difficult it is, HQ staff who need me to understand how difficult it is to work in a political environment, Communications staff who need me to understand how difficult it is to simply get color schemes approved, Operations staff who need me to listen to an explanation of their budget constraints, and enough internal drama to turn even the hardiest bicycle advocate away and yet I persist. Metro morale issues are not the cycling communities responsibility and they must be dealt with before we can move forward and collaborate. We understand the realities of the world we live in, no need to impress us with complexities and budgets, we get it.

Let's collaborate. Let's focus on active solutions to real opportunities that will enhance Metro capacity and the passenger's experience.

Real opportunities for real active solutions:

761 - this line often runs under capacity on a vital route for cyclists yet full racks and a "no-bikes-on-board" policy from the operators prevents cyclists from getting home. Communicate the "Bus Operator's discretion" policy, dispel the liability mythology and let's enhance capacity. Bikes on Board! (Locals have racks for two bikes. Larger buses have higher capacity but still only hold two bikes. Double capacity buses should hold four bikes. Why does the arbitrary limit of two cyclists keep coming up?)

Triple Racks - Long Beach uses them, examine the liability data, dispel the mythology and increase capacity for cyclists on buses by 50% in one swift move.

Bikes on Escalators - Remove the restriction or restrict all carriages, carts, luggage and "stuff" but be consistent and communicate clearly. To allow this to slide into Transit Court oversight is absolutely unacceptable.

Bikes on Rail - Remove the time-of-day restrictions from Metro materials and communicate clearly the policy. With 100 languages spoken in our community, many people simply follow the crowd. Communicate clearly and the crowd will move in the right direction.

Bikes on Buses - Communicate clearly, starting with Metro staff, and demonstrate that cyclists are gap connectors, transportation solutions, not simply a burden and a liability.

Collect the Data - Efforts to restrict cyclists (two per rail car, two per bus...) defy the reality of our world. The Red Line on a Saturday morning is full of workforce cyclists headed to their jobs in the Valley. The Orange Line at night is full of workforce cyclists headed home from their jobs in the West Valley. Metro staff must base their decisions on real data and real need, not on "Monday to Friday, 9 to 5" observations.

Integrate Cyclists as Partners - Cyclists are gap connectors and enhance systemic capacity. To simply look at the space a cyclist and a bike take up is a disservice to the impact that cyclists have on the capacity of the system. Many of my Metro trips would not work if I was unable to combine transit with the bike. Cyclists are Transportation Solutions and must be integrated as vital partners, not as an afterthought.

LA’s Backbone in 10 Steps

Stephen Box calls on Mayor Villaraigosa 
to support cyclists by implementing 
"LA’s Backbone in 10 Steps"

Hollywood, CA - Stephen Box, candidate for City Council District 4, calls on Mayor Villaraigosa to act decisively in implementing "LA’s Backbone in 10 Steps," active solutions that will yield immediate results in his campaign to make the streets of LA safer for everybody.

>The New York Times recounts the details of the Mayor's recent bike ride that ended quickly when a taxi operator pulled out in front of him and caused him to fall, resulting in a broken elbow that required surgery. It also references the Mayor's Copenhagen revelation of last year when he declared LA "In the area of bicycling I’ve got to do a better job and the city’s got to do a better job" and his new Huffington Post declaration “It’s time to recognize that bicycles also belong on L.A.’s streets.”

Grist refers to the incident as "a prime teachable moment to deflate the myth that collisions between military-sized vehicles and cyclists are no big deal. Instead, he reinforced the notion that public streets are for autos -- and anyone else enters at their own risk.

The Mayor has an opportunity to build on his "Biking in Los Angeles should be a natural" declaration, but it requires action, not just talk and a YouTube video thanking the public for their concern. Attached is a list of 10 things the Mayor can do immediately to support cyclists and improve the quality of life for Angelinos on the streets of LA:

LA’s Backbone in 10 Steps

1 - Collect the Data
Immediately following an incident on the streets of LA go to and enter the data. (collision, near-miss, road conditions, harassment, etc.)

2 - Cyclists’ Bill of Rights
Take a stand - endorse the Cyclists’ Bill of Rights as a document that articulates the law of the land, the rights of cyclists, and our relationship on the road.

3 - Commit to Connectivity by implementing the Backbone Bikeway Network (30-10)
Endorse the Backbone Bikeway Network as a citywide physical commitment to destinations. The Los Angeles Bicycle Advisory Committee has endorsed the Backbone Bikeway Network as a Measure R 30-10 project.

4 - Commit to Connectivity by implementing the Backbone Bikeway Network (City Family)
Synchronize the city family so that all departments work together to support cyclists on the street (LAPD, BOSS, Public Works, Planning, DWP...)

5 - Commit to Connectivity by implementing the Backbone Bikeway Network (Inter-Agency)
Synchronize agencies and authorities so that all powers work together to support cyclists on the street (Caltrans, CHP, Metro, LASD, LAUSD, CRA, SCAG...)

6 - Educate the City Family
Implement bicycle awareness education for the entire city family on the rights of cyclists on the streets of Los Angeles. (Employees, operators of city vehicles, and contractors. See Sgt. Krumer for LAPD education program)

7 - Educate the Cyclists
Support bicycle education for the entire spectrum of the cycling community focusing on adults and workforce cyclists. (Sign the mayor up to Confident City Cycling Course.)

8 - Educate the Community
Position cyclists as a constituent group with all community development and planning processes from the beginning not as an afterthought.

9 - Parking, Parking, Parking!
Welcome cyclists to the community with bike racks, bike corrals and the effective enforcement of the LAMC bike parking policy. (Professional bike parking standards must be included for contractors with installation and operation instructions)

10 - Communicate Clearly
From traffic signals that recognize cyclists to wayfinding that directs cyclists, all roads lead to LA.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

CityWatchLA - Rubber Meets the Road for City Planning

CityWatch, July 27, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 59

The Department of City Planning is a lightning rod in the City of LA, drawing controversy and conflict its way no matter which direction it moves. At the same time, no city department has a greater responsibility for the quality of life in Los Angeles.

Land use issues are volatile, often leading to adversarial positioning that results in fractured communities. For too long, the LA has squandered incredible amounts of human infrastructure in project-by-project battles while the "Do Real Planning" banner wafts gently in the breeze. Some would suggest that planning became something that is done to the community not with the community.

All that may change if the Mayor and the City Council embrace the challenge of selecting a new City Planning Director and use it as an opportunity to reaffirm and revitalize City Planning. Now is the time to position a Director who will protect the future of Angelenos by developing a shared vision, by updating the General Plan and the Community Plans, and by partnering with the community to protect the quality of life in the neighborhood.

The actions of the Mayor and the City Council over the next few days will have a significant impact on the future of Los Angeles.

1) If the process of selecting and confirming the new Director of City Planning is open, engaged and transparent, the people of Los Angeles can expect the future of City Planning to be open, engaged and transparent. If the public isn't involved in the process, it sets the tone for the future of City Planning. Now is the time for the Mayor's office to embark on a tour of the city, engaging the public and providing Mr. LoGrande … the Mayor’s choice nominee for new City Planning Director … with an opportunity to connect.

When Chief Charlie Beck was nominated by the Mayor to lead the LAPD, Beck visited neighborhood councils, community groups and town halls throughout the city, establishing a standard and forging relationships that gave him a strong foundation upon which to build. The people of LA deserve no less as a Director is selected for City Planning.

2) If the mandate for the new Planning Director is to move all elements of City Planning "further, faster and more aggressively" then the people of Los Angeles can expect the future to include greater efficiencies in the movement of the good, the bad and the ugly.

Now is the time to position and support someone who can use LA's General Plan, Community Plans, Specific Plans, Master Plans and Vision Plans to make the projects that benefit our communities easier while making the projects that are at odds with our neighborhoods harder.

Speed, in and of itself, is not a community benefit but effective planning that improves the quality of life is. Most importantly, any movement must leave in its wake a significant commitment to infrastructure improvement, traffic mitigation, community space, connectivity and parkland that actually exists.

3) If the future of the Department of City Planning is one of greater efficiency and organizational effectiveness, but the current General Plan and Community Plans are out of date and lacking in common vision, then the City will just continue off-course with greater speed and impact. If the ongoing refinements (ex: 12-2 program) in process continue but are not partnered with sufficient enforcement authority, City Planning will simply become a higher volume "Department of Yes!"

The ability to say "No!" is as important as the ability to say "Yes!" and the community must fight for a City Planning Director who gets the title and the authority that must come with it or we are simply engaged in the process of selecting a spokesmodel for City Planning.

4) If the success of the City Planning Director requires a combination of diplomatic, political, and administrative skills and the ability to get the Planning Commission, the Area Commissions, the City Council's PLUM Committee and City Planning in sync, it is imperative that the community take a leadership role in communicating clearly that vision, priorities, standards and community benefits are the foundation, not the payoff, for real planning.

Now more than ever, the people of Los Angeles must stand up and take a leadership role in positioning City Planning and its new Director firmly on course, communicating clearly to the Mayor and the City Council that we're in this for the long haul.

In the spirit of implementing a long term vision for City Planning, the people of Los Angeles must step up and insist that the new Director of City Planning connects to the community he serves, that he engage the neighborhood councils in establishing standards, that he implement a foundation of community benefits, and that he commit to increasing the quality of life as a condition of development.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Friday, July 23, 2010

LA Must Commit to Becoming a City that Works

CityWatch, July 23, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 58

Los Angeles will take its place as a Great City when it shifts from a complaint-driven system to a standards-driven structure, putting the people of LA first and positioning respect as the foundation for developing powerful relationships between the public and those in public service.

This simplistic statement amounts to a proverbial fork in the pothole-laden road for Los Angeles, one where the city can continue to instruct the public to call 311 to report potholes or one where the city develops a standard for its streets and then sets out to bring the streets up to standard.

In more general terms, it would free the public from being responsible for spending inordinate amounts of time requesting the most basic of city services and allow the public to actually partner with City Hall, working together to improve the quality of life in the community.

1) Open the front doors of City Hall to the public. Reward those who take the Metro to the Civic Center station and then walk to City Hall, put out the welcome mat, turn the courtyard into great public space, and send a message to the public that City Hall is their home. City Hall is a beautiful building but asking the public to use the back door is simply unacceptable.

2) Position a concierge at each entrance and greet the public, offering real information and real answers. Tone down the oppressive security gauntlet, get rid of the stickers, lose the irrelevant sign-in sheet and dispense with all of the unnecessary labor. It's City Hall.

The most significant violence in recent history to occur on city property was committed by city employees so the inconsistent security standard simply positions the public as 2nd class while the staff are 1st class. Open the doors, treat the public with respect, put customer service first and hire those concierges!

3) Listen to the public, not simply as a demonstration of endurance, but as an opportunity to take notes, to engage, to incorporate public comment into the active-solution process. Public comment is not simply a Brown Act obligation, it is the essence of the relationship, it is the minimum standard and any real leader will transcend minimum and look for optimum.

Engage the public, ask for input, make feedback an integral element of moving forward. Anybody who takes a half day of their time to travel to City Hall should be thanked for caring enough to participate, rewarded for the investment of time and enlisted as a partner in making LA a Great City, not simply dismissed as 2 minutes of noise.

4) Instill an "Every door is the right door" policy so that the public never ever has to navigate the Department of "No" journey that fatigues the hardiest and consumes inordinate amounts of energy and time.

From the Mayor to the intern, treat every request as an opportunity to be of service. Find the answer, find the department, find the solution but never, ever send the public away with an admonition that they asked the wrong person or the wrong question or the wrong department. City Hall exists to remove obstacles.

I'm often convinced that there are those in power who think that it would be a lot easier to run the City of Los Angeles if it wasn't for all of the people.

This attitude seems to originate in City Hall and then waft through some of the departments and offices, resulting in staff who seem to think that transportation would be a lot easier to manage if it wasn't for all of the traffic, that social services would be easier to handle if it wasn't for all of the needy, that emergencies would be easier to address if they would just take place between Monday and Friday.

It's simple to suggest that the City of Los Angeles could take a lesson from Disneyland or Nordstroms or Trader Joe's or Southwest Airlines or Rackspace, companies that put a focus on customer service in good times and then double down when things get rough. But the immediate response tends to be "That's different, we're in the public service sector!"

Fair enough, let's look down the street to the Metro and CEO Art Leahy's plan for moving the LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority forward in spite of obstacles that include budgetary constraints, union agreements, performance issues and a systemic culture that is resistant to change.

Leahy is responsible for a transportation system that spans the entire LA County and serves 10 million people in 88 cities. Metro's responsibilities include the bus system, rail system, freeways and local infrastructure. As an agent of change, Leahy chose to start by focusing on the customer's experience and putting service as his priority.

He took the pictures of One Gateway off the HQ walls and replaced them with pictures of bus stops and rail stations to remind management that they are overhead and the customer is the priority. He asked why they spent so much time cleaning the wheels of the buses and so little time cleaning the inside where the passengers sit. Most of all, he listened. To the customer.

More recently, the Metrolink's new CEO, John Fenton took over a system that spans 500 miles and services 6 counties, all while hobbled with budget constraints and the systemic aftermath of the deadly 2008 train crash in Chatsworth that took the lives of 25 passengers.

Fenton jumped in feet first and demonstrated that he can handle safety concerns, power issues, schedules, funding, staff morale, training, capital improvements, track maintenance, operational accountability, and systemic performance.

Through it all, he staked his reputation on a simple commitment, "We move people!" Everything he does is focused on the passenger and the travel experience. "Everything we do, we do for people. If we forget the human element, we will fail!"

The City of Los Angeles is surrounded by challenges and it is also surrounded by examples of strong leadership. City Hall exists to serve the people of LA and if Los Angeles is to become a City that Works, it will be because the people of Los Angeles come first.

High atop City Hall in the Tom Bradley room, the words of Thomas Jefferson are inscribed on the wall. "That government is the strongest of which every man feels a part.” I propose that the Mayor and the City Council have a basic mandate and that is to make sure that every man and woman feels a part of the City of Los Angeles.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

LA Needs a Budget that Sustains

CityWatch, July 20, 2010
Vol 8 Issus 57


Festivals offer an insightful glimpse into the traditions of a culture, revealing much about the people and their character. In Spain, the brave gather in Pamplona for the Running of the Bulls while in Japan the Cherry Blossom Festival brings families together. Munich's Oktoberfest offers celebrants massive amounts of beer, food, and song while the Pushkar Festival in India provides participants the opportunity to wash their sins away in the holy lake. Festivals vary in length, ranging from single day events such as the Waikiki Spam Jam to week long events such as the Snake River Stampede  to the Taste of Chicago which spans two weeks and includes the Independence Day Celebration. There are some sporting events such as the World Cup, the Tour de France and the Olympics  that last for weeks but they all pale in comparison to Los Angeles and its Budget Crisis, a festival that is celebrated year after year with the same faithful crowd filling City Council Chambers for the ceremonial evisceration of the future of Los Angeles.

LA's annual Budget Crisis Festival begins with the release of the Mayor's proposed budget. Neighborhood Council representatives are invited to City Hall for a ceremonial selection of Budget Advocates and then the Mayor convenes a meeting of Department Heads, Commissioners, Diplomats, and Donors, where City Officials explain the City Budget in ancient languages that may include Bureaucrat, Politico, Non Sequitur, Fortran, and Sanskrit.

The supplicants murmur amongst themselves at the somber moments and applaud vigorously at the moments of optimism and confidence. Then everybody congratulates anyone within backslapping reach before heading back to the office where resumes are updated, bad news is Tweeted, and Facebook profiles are updated.

The City's Budget Crisis Festival of 2010 was the biggest in the Villaraigosa's era. City Council Budget Committee members donned the official Budget Crisis "casual wear" to signify their willingness to grapple with the big numbers, meetings went long and for a couple of months, there was nothing else to talk about.

The Budget Crisis affected everybody, from the city staff who trim the trees to the senior citizens who gather for lunch at the rec centers. Members of the public turned out day after day to defend City Departments ranging from Cultural Affairs to Disability.

Through it all, the Mayor and the CAO kept reminding the public that the choice was between  "Public Safety and Public Service" and the public accepted the false dichotomy.

City Staff were sacrificed on the ERIP altar, City Departments were offered up as offerings to the Budget Gods, City Services were jettisoned, all in a last-ditch attempt to keep the largest city in the most populated state in the most powerful country in the world afloat for another year. All this excitement plus the public enjoyed increases in fees, fines, and penalties!

Unlike the Mud Festival, LA Tomatina, Burning Man, and other Festivals that feature climactic endings, LA's Budget Crisis Festival is best known for ending with a whimper. By the end of the City Council Budget Committee hearings, only the intrepid continued to participate, most people having given up on the charade of public participation and having long ago set off for the fire sale.

Somehow the dire predictions of bankruptcy and the debates over the layoffs of thousands have fallen by the wayside and those in charge of the coffers have cobbled together a budget that enabled the City Council and the Mayor to abide by the Charter. This may satisfy the letter of the law but it falls short of their mandate to improve the quality of life for the people of LA and to lead the City of LA into the future as a Great City.

This must change.

LA needs a Budget that Sustains, one that is based on a long-term commitment to a vision of connectivity and a plan that endures. LA must break the reactive Budget Crisis cycle by embarking on the budget journey and it must start now.

1) Connectivity - The City of LA has many departments that play a powerful role in the development and implementation of an effective city budget yet they work independently. The current budget strategy encourages silo behavior and has allowed the Proprietaries (DWP-Port-LAX) to develop their own gravitational pull while the Charter Departments struggle to maintain their autonomy and Ordinance Departments compete for staffing, funding, and relevance.

Any promise of a Vision and of a Plan will become a reality when the Budget process supports active solutions. Departmental competition must stop and the Mayor's Budget must be developed with a commitment to connectivity of purpose, of process, and of procedure. LA will do more with less if the budget is developed with connectivity as the driving force.

2) Durability - City Planning is a marathon endeavor, not a sprint, and yet each year the Budget Crisis stirs a mad dash as sofas are searched and nickels are rubbed, all in an effort to stave off the inevitable. Los Angeles will take its place as a Great City when the budget process supports long term planning with a financial commitment that keeps the focus on the future.

The City's General Plan will be a meaningful document only when it is supported by a City Budget that funds the city services and infrastructure improvements based on the priorities in articulated in the Plan. When cultural affairs, urban forestry, parks, libraries, social services, and neighborhood councils go up on the chopping block, the quality of life in the community is threatened and the downward spiral continues, budget crisis after budget crisis.

3) Sustainability - Budget solutions that consist of raising fees for basic municipal services such as water and power and garbage collection are short sighted and regressive. Increasing fees, fines, and penalties will aid in postponing the inevitable but they are not sustainable budget solutions.

Los Angeles goes to the same funding sources as other local cities but comes home with less than the others and then fails to implement. From Emergency Preparedness funding to Transportation funding to Safe Routes to School grants, the City of LA competes with itself, performs poorly and then blames the system.

A long-term commitment to the implementation of funded programs would put the city staff to work, invigorate the economy, and fulfill a long-term commitment to improving the quality of life in the community.

4) Accountability - Several months ago, I was honored to be selected as one of the 14 (2 per Planning Area) Neighborhood Council Budget Advocates. We met with the Mayor, we offered our insight and recommendations and we enjoyed access to the Mayor's office.

We met twice a month at City Hall, we met in the community to grapple with the details. We wrangled and we wrestled and we asked the hard questions. But most of all we waited. Some of the simplest answers are still "on the way!"

A budget that even the CAO's office and Mayor's staff can't explain is simply a haystack, neatly bound and ready for the shelf. That must change so that the people of LA can hold on to the City Budget as a tool for improving efficiency and effectiveness and performance in the City of Los Angeles.

LA's City Budget is more than a simple accounting task that enables the city bureaucracy to pass Go, it's a living breathing contract between the people of LA and City Hall. It's a plan for bringing LA's vision to life, for improving the quality of life, for engaging in the business of operating a Great City.

To that end, the process must be open, it must be ongoing, it must include the public and it must result in a living, breathing document that the people of LA can rely on as a roadmap to the future.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Stephen Box urges Mayor Villaraigosa to partner in making our streets safer for all users

Hollywood, CA - Stephen Box, candidate for City Council District 4, joins Angelenos in wishing Mayor Villaraigosa a speedy recovery from the injuries he sustained on Saturday evening as he rode his bike in the bike lane on Venice Boulevard. News reports varied in their version of the events but the LAPD report indicates that a taxi cab operator pulled out from a parking space without looking, causing the Mayor to lose control of his bike and resulting in a broken elbow.

"News of the unfortunate incident resonated throughout the community and cyclists cringed because this type of incident is all too common, unique in this instance only because of the stature of the victim. I'm pleased to hear that the Mayor was able to walk away and that he is healing after surgery." said Box.

California Vehicle Code 21804. (a) addresses this situation stating "The driver of any vehicle about to enter or cross a highway from any public or private property, or from an alley, shall yield the right-of-way to all traffic, as defined in Section 620, approaching on the highway close enough to constitute an immediate hazard, and shall continue to yield the right-of-way to that traffic until he or she can proceed with reasonable safety."

Initial reports that the motorist responsible for causing the mishap left the scene without exchanging information were incorrect. This stirred much discussion over the nature of a "fleeing the scene" violation. Motorists have long operated under the misconception that "no-contact" incidents are not their responsibility.

The LAPD's Chief Beck recently addressed the issue of "fleeing the scene" and issued an LAPD directive that clarified any incident resulting in injury, regardless of contact, is a reportable traffic collision and subject to California Vehicle Code 20001. (a) "The driver of a vehicle involved in an accident resulting in injury to a person, other than himself or herself, or in the death of a person shall immediately stop the vehicle at the scene of the accident and shall fulfill the requirements of Sections 20003 and 20004."

Through it all, Box expresses hope. "I'm hopeful that the Mayor will mend quickly and that he will soon be back on his bike and back on the streets. I also am hopeful that he will work with me to make our streets safer for all users."

Box believes that this unfortunate incident puts the spotlight on the real opportunities for advancing Education, Enforcement, and Encouragement as tools for supporting pedestrians, cyclists, mass transit passengers and motorists as they cooperate in getting to their respective destinations.

"Ultimately, the steps we take to make our streets safer for cyclists also benefit other road users along with the merchants and residents in the neighborhood."

Box says "Our streets are the new 'public space' and our ability to share that space is one of our greatest opportunities for revitalizing and redefining our communities."

For more information,

Contact: Stephen Box, Candidate for District 4

Friday, July 16, 2010

LA Needs a Plan that Endures

CityWatch, July 16, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 56

The upside of having LA's Historic Preservation Department housed within City Planning is that it makes it simpler to care for LA's General Plan, dusting it off periodically and waving it about to prove that, at one time, LA actually had a plan for the future. LA's General Plan is mandated by State law and Municipal Code and is intended as a blueprint for the growth and development of Los Angeles. In reality, it is a ceremonial document, an unmonitored relic completely lacking in enforcement authority and political support. It is, by definition, a piece of history preserved for antiquity.

This is not to say that old plans are not good plans. The Chicago Plan is very old, yet it continues to guide and inspire.

Visitors to Chicago are greeted at the airport by an exhibit that offers an overview of the plan.

The Borders bookstore on Michigan Avenue has an entire display section dedicated to the Chicago Plan along with maps, commentary and updates.

It's fair to say that the Chicago Plan's co-author was correct when he said ""Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will not themselves be realized."

As for visitors to LA's airport, they are greeted by huge banners urging them to "Visit Las Vegas!" While one might argue that this is part of a creative revenue enhancement scheme, the "anywhere but here" strategy for encouraging tourism is of dubious merit.

It also reveals a lack of identity, something the Los Angeles Plan should provide, if only as the starting point for a General Plan that moves Los Angeles forward into the future.

The City of Los Angeles must have "A Plan that Endures" for these four reasons:

1) It's the Law. The City of Los Angeles, like any other municipal authority, is required to plan for the future. LA's dusty, outdated and ill-enforced Plan creates an adversarial environment that is generating lawsuits against the city. Community members should be partners, not plaintiffs, and a solid General Plan with enforcement authority would move LA forward.

LA's current General Plan is the beginning point for negotiations and challenges and variances that make a mockery of the process. By design, the Plan should clarify policies and ideals, ending debate over challenges, and serving as the beginning point of actions that are consistent with LA's Great City vision.

2) It brings LA's vision to life. The City of Los Angeles has allowed the development of our communities to take place project-by-project, requiring community members to fight individual variances and specific curb-cuts, one at a time.

This process is profitable for the consultants and lawyers, it's simply the cost of business for the developers, but it is absolutely painful and demoralizing for the neighborhood.

The tyranny of development must stop and a General Plan that clearly articulates the policies and ideals of LA's vision for the future must be the blueprint for moving forward.

3) It's an active solution to our challenges. No city can afford to function without a plan, especially one in a budget crisis.

Yet Los Angeles continues to engage in short term planning, political wrangling, and data-free decision making. It is imperative that the City of LA double down on Planning, collect the data, engage the public, and commit to implementing long-term solutions to the challenges that threaten the quality of life in Los Angeles.

4) It moves our communities forward. The quality of life in our communities is threatened. The people of Los Angeles deserve a General Plan that can be held up as the guiding document for all land use and development decisions.

Now is the time to develop and implement a General Plan that allows the community to come together on issues ranging from mobility to air quality to the environment, avoiding the piecemeal debates that take place when planning is conducted project-by-project with no vision for the city as a whole.

Los Angeles is a city of talent, recognized around the world for innovations and creativity. LA deserves a General Plan that is more than a museum piece, a dusty vestige that merely satisfies an administrative requirement.

LA deserves a General Plan that moves this city forward, a Plan that brings our vision to life, establishing a narrative for the future that sees Los Angeles taking its place as a Great City.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

LA Needs a Vision that Connects


CityWatch, July 13, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 55

The City of Los Angeles is recognized as the land of promise, of opportunity, and of talented people.

LA's rich history is the stuff of legends but that promise will be squandered if we sit by and wait for the city of the past to return. Now, more than ever, it is imperative that the people of Los Angeles move forward in creating a city of the future and it starts by developing a vision that connects.

1) LA's Environment: Los Angeles was founded when forty-four Pobladores walked from the San Gabriel Mission and established a new home, El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora Reina de los Angeles sobre el Río Porciúncula.

They made their choice based on the availability of water and their connection to the environment continued as the City of Los Angeles developed.

The streets of downtown were aligned with the movement of the sun, positioning the buildings to benefit from a connectivity to the environment, maximizing the benefits of nature.

Since then, the city street grids have been "corrected" and the LA River has been "corrected" and the City of LA has drifted from its original connection to the land it occupies.

If Los Angeles is to become a City of the Future, it will take place when municipal decisions and actions are in sync with a vision that is based on a connectivity to the Environment.

2) LA's Communications: Los Angeles has a track record for telling stories that resonate around the globe, shaping culture, politics, fashion, society, and business along the way. Somehow, this local talent for communication has failed to breach the walls of City Hall which has elected to maintain a Tower of Babel approach to connectivity.

The LAPD uses a traffic collision report provided by the CHP but is unable to capture the data because the LAPD's database is outdated. This results in lost information, misinformation, outdated information.

The DWP relies on a computer language that is considered "dead" requiring new employees to forget what they know and to learn an archaic communications protocol, denying the City of LA the opportunity to implement "smart technology" solutions.

The LADOT uses technology that is outdated, requiring the adjacent communities to "dumb-down" in order to synchronize traffic control communications along city borders.

If Los Angeles is to pursue its destiny as a Great City, it will be because we connect as individuals, as communities, as departments, as municipalities and as partners in communication.

3) LA's Partners: Los Angeles is the rudder that steers the ship and yet at turn after turn, the people of LA hear "that's a federal issue" or "that's under state authority" or "we have no power" and the multi-jurisdictional morass of municipalities, authorities, and agencies is offered as an excuse for the simple fact that LA is not moving forward.

LA's ability to improve the quality of life for the people who live here, work here, own property here and operate businesses here depends on the City of LA laying down a vision for connectivity that draws LA's many neighbors into a partnership that benefits us all.

From the LAUSD to the Metro, from the County to folks on the other side of the city limits, LA is not an island. LA's vision must include a commitment to connecting with the many partners who have an impact on LA's journey to becoming a City of the Future.

4) LA's Story: From around the world, people travel to Los Angeles to experience the mythical LA Story and yet we allow that rich legacy to simply fade into a postcard theme, a brass plaque memorial, and a bit of charm that prompts people to pine for the old days.

LA's pioneers turned a small patch of dusty land into the center of the universe and it's our destiny to write the next chapter in that story.

LA's current challenges are formidable and there are many obstacles. But a vision that connects our strengths will result in a renewed commitment to the Entertainment Industry, the Tourism Industry and the Theatre Community.

It will also capitalize on the many challenges we face and seize them as opportunities to employ the creativity and innovation that is recognized around the world. Connecting LA's assets with the opportunities will result in new standards in technology, communications, sustainability and a revitalized municipal health.

The City of Los Angeles is positioned at a fork in the road. We can continue to embark on the "more of the same" journey or we can embrace a vision of connectivity that sets us on a course to become a City of the Future.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Friday, July 09, 2010

“We the People” Now Includes Me!

CityWatch, July 9, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 54

This past weekend, my wife Enci and I celebrated the Fourth of July with a ballgame, some apple pie and lots of fireworks. It was, in many ways, a traditional celebration except for one significant difference; for the first time, I celebrated as a participant, not simply a spectator. This was my first Independence Day as an American Citizen.

My parents worked hard to get to America, saving up for years in order to buy passage on the S.S. Canberra which at the time was a cheaper way to travel than by air. We left Australia and were at sea for 19 days before landing in San Francisco where our American adventure began.

Since then I’ve lived all over the country, in large cities and in small towns, in extreme climates and in resort environments, all the while impressed with the limitless diversity of the American people and unlimited opportunity of the American country.

Thirteen years ago, I moved to Hollywood and made it my home. I met Enci and we shared a love for our community, our neighborhood, and our American Dream journey. Along the way we traveled to Budapest and Munich to visit her family. We traveled to Melbourne and Sydney to visit my family.

Each time we returned inspired and challenged and more committed to making our adopted home better, not just for us, but for our friends and our neighbors.

Last month I sat in a small office in a downtown Federal Building, just me and a federal interviewer.

The office was stuffed with files and the officious nature of the process was daunting. I had studied to the point of absurdity, overstudying the names of the original colonies, the names of federal departments, and the names of obscure historical characters.

The question that gave me pause was simple, “What are the opening words of the Constitution?” I paused because I choked up. “We the People...”

Two weeks ago I sat in the LA Convention Center with several thousand strangers from all over the world in order to take the oath of naturalization. For a few hours the Convention Center was officially a Federal Courthouse.

We sang the national anthem, we took the oath, and we were greeted by the President of the United States, Barack Obama, who spoke directly to me (it felt that way) and declared that immigrants were the backbone of America. Again I choked up, this time as the President spoke of Freedom, Opportunity, and Responsibility.

This past weekend I enjoyed a classic July 4th weekend, my 45th since moving to the United States, and as I stood under the American flags snapping in the wind, I choked up, this time because I was home.

My parents are no longer with us but I know they’re proud of me. My family here in the US is quite small, just my wife Enci and my sister Sharon, and it is to them that I give my commitment to pursue the American Dream with all that I have.

As for my extended American family of Three Hundred Million people, I have given my oath to uphold all that America stands for and to support them in their pursuit of the American Dream.

It’s good to be home!

(Stephen Box writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

LA's Sharrows Program prompts formation of National Sharrow Task Force

"This Sharrow on the approach to Vermont 
positions cyclists to the right of two right-turn lanes, 
setting up a right-hook collision"

The debate over LA's inaugural Sharrows program went to Chicago where transportation experts from the private, public, and advocacy sectors took one look at a picture of the meandering 4th Street Sharrows and let out a collective groan of disapproval. The LADOT Bikeways Department's unique Sharrows standards stirred a new debate among the members of the National Committee of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD), one that sees the Bicycle Technical Committee (BTC) reconsidering its years-long development of Sharrows guidelines and the recently adopted recommendations.

Over the last several years, Sharrows proponents fell into two groups; those who wanted ambitious and strong guidelines that would ensure proper Sharrows implementation and those who argued that soft language would facilitate Sharrows approval from the full NCUTCD. The "aim low to get approval" proponents prevailed long ago and the LADOT Bikeways Department is in the process of demonstrating the folly of the "aim low" strategy, much to the dismay of the Sharrows proponents who have worked for years to gain approval.

This past week, Enci and I attended the NCUTCD conference in Chicago where we joined the members of the BTC as they briefly discussed the details of LA's Sharrows program, including the meandering path that results from measuring from the curb instead of from the adjacent travel lane, and the question was raised "Will the LADOT have to populate the streets with "Bikes Merge" signs?" Additional discussion was given to LA's variable positioning of Sharrows before and after intersections, areas that should be consistent and based on destination, as opposed to LA's standard which is simply based on the presence of curbside parking. It was at this point that the Chair moved the dialogue from the specifics of LA's fumbled implementation, offering his opinion that "the unintended consequences of an ill-advised and poorly executed Sharrows campaign are costly and dangerous."

From the discussion that ensued, the following points were made:

  • Lanes that are less than 14' wide are non-sharable (side-by-side) and "Bicycles May Use Full Lane" is the appropriate signage support.
  • The "Share the Road" sign is "a completely ineffective traffic control device." The presence of a cyclist does not constitute danger nor does it warrant a warning sign.
  • Sharrows that are part of a study are painted and Sharrows that are permanent are installed using Thermoplastic. The removal of Thermoplastic is costly and damages the surface of the street.
  • Sharrows should be positioned in relation to the left travel lane or street center, not from the curb lane. The recommendation to go no lower that 11’ from the right-curb does not infer measure from the right.
  • Sharrows should be positioned so that cyclists follow a straight line that follows the direction of travel, not a meandering path.
  • Sharrows can be supported by "Bikes Merge" signs where appropriate.
  • The Bicycle Technical Committee dumbed down the language to get the Sharrows approved. "It feels like we shot ourselves in the foot. It will be used for a number of years but without the guidance that we proposed.

The Sharrow controversy is just one of the many issues that the BTC is working through the process and the others include use of the "Except Bicycles" signage, Bike Lane treatments at intersections, Barrier-Separated bike lanes, Bike Merge signage, Colored Bike Lanes, and Door Zone Markings. Given that the NCUTCD meets only twice a year, the opportunity to present findings and recommendations to the full body is limited. The Chair of the BTC moved the Sharrows debate into the formation of a Sharrows Task Force that will return with recommendations that will be presented at the January 2011 NCUTCD conference in Arlington, Virginia.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, it is incumbent on the LADOT and its many partners to heed the advice of the experts, to review LA's implementation of the inaugural Sharrows program, and to consider the full spectrum of guidance including proper lane positioning and clear communication to road users.

It is also incumbent on the cycling community to consider the regrets that are being expressed by transportation professionals at the NCUTCD as they review the folly of soft language and conclude by declaring "We need to fight a better fight in the future so we’re more more effective."

The Sharrow in the foreground is 10' from the center of the street. The next Sharrow is 15' from the center, followed by a Sharrow 10' from the center. This is engineered conflict and a collision between a motorist and a cyclist would be the responsibility of the cyclist because the Sharrow positions the cyclist as merging traffic, not as through traffic. Through traffic has the right of way. These Sharrows are dangerous and provide a false sense of security.

The National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices is sponsored by organizations such as League of American Bicyclists, International Association of Chiefs of Police, Institute of Transportation of Engineers, Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals, American Society of Civil Engineers, National Safety Council, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, American Automobile Association, American Highway Users Alliance, American Public Works Association, American Public Transportation Association, American Railway Engineering & Maintenance of Way Association, American Road and Transportation Builders Association, American Traffic Safety Services Association, Association of American Railroads, Governors Highway Safety Association, Human Factors Resources, International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, International Municipal Signal Association and National Association of County Engineers.

CityWatchLA - Can LA's Theatre Community Save City Hall?

CityWatch, July 6, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 53

The Hollywood Fringe Festival has come and gone, leaving in its wake a revitalized arts community, an engaged local audience, and a new standard for LA's Theatre professionals.

Spread over two weeks, the Fringe saw nearly 200 theatre productions offer up 800 performances in three dozen venues, all within the Hollywood Theatre core and all within walking distance. It was inspiring and it was evident that the seeds of greatness lie in LA's Theatre Community.

If, as the Bard writes, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players;" perhaps it's time for City Hall to look to the theatrical community for direction.

Based on my Fringe experience, here are four lessons from LA's Theatre Community that will position Los Angeles as a Great City:

1) Connect with the audience! Great theatre is based on a relationship between performers and the audience.

The words that are written, the characters that are brought to life, the staging that creates a new world, and the story that is told are all meaningful if there is an audience to experience and interact.

The objective all along is to engage the audience, informing, challenging and entertaining. But all along, it's the relationship and the dialogue that continues past the curtain call that is the objective and it all starts in the theatre.

The City of Los Angeles would do well to consider that the work it does depends on the audience, the public. Obstacles for engagement must be removed, the process for participation must be simplified, and an environment that fosters civic engagement must be created.

The audience is the reason for the performance, anything else is simply rehearsal.

2) Customer Service counts! The relationship between production and audience starts well in advance of the performance and lasts long after the curtain call.

The box office experience sets the tone for a journey that includes the ticket-taker, the washrooms, the ushers and the production crew. From the Pantages Theatre to the courtyard on Hollywood Blvd., great customer service is not a function of budget but of a commitment to the audience's experience. It matters.

It can crush a performance when it's missing but when it works, it's seamless and it frees up the audience to truly connect and become part of the production.

City Hall could improve the quality of life in Los Angeles dramatically simply by remembering that the people of LA are the purpose for the city.

Human infrastructure is LA's greatest asset and the most meaningful opportunity for change is in the little transactions that make up life in Los Angeles.

The details count and they are often simple and free, but they are critical to a Great City commitment.

3) Critics are an asset! They're human, they're fallible, but they play a respected role, informing and entertaining their audiences, hopefully stirring great dialogue and piquing the interest of their readers.

As for the actors, directors and producers, it's the feedback of the critics that offers an opportunity to improve, to adjust, to take a production to the next level.

Regardless of the love-hate relationship that exists between performers and critics, there is no doubt that getting reviewed is an honor while being ignored is simply crushing. "Love me, hate me, but don't ignore me!"

The City of LA's absence of performance-based evaluation has resulted in long-running performance of the "Mutual Admiration Club" that relegates critics to the cheap seats, a pattern that firmly establishes mediocrity as the status quo.

City Hall would do well to engage and respond to the critics, embracing the feedback as an essential gift and as a tool for improving performance.

4) Budget is no excuse! A big budget doesn't automatically translate into big production value and a small budget doesn't necessarily limit creativity or innovation.

In fact, some of the best performances came from producers who had to overcome significant financial limitations, requiring that they focused on the things that truly matter.

A great story, brought to life by believable characters who are able to connect with their audience is priceless.

The City of LA is mired in a budget crisis that is positioned as an excuse for mediocrity and as the justification for a reduction in the delivery of services.

It's completely unacceptable to have that conversation without first establishing priorities and committing to the fundamentals.

Now, more than ever is the time to connect with the people of LA, not alienate them, and to focus on creative solutions that resonate.

City Hall would do well to get in touch with LA's story, focusing on what's important and bringing it to life with character and conviction, embracing the critics, connecting with the audience and delivering a performance worthy of a Great City.

(Stephen Box writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at

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