CityWatch, Feb 28, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 17
LA MAYOR'S RACE 2013 - Austin Beutner arrived fashionably late for his AIA/LA Mayoral Candidate Forum, a conversation moderated by Bill Roschen, President of LA’s Planning Commission, and Christopher Hawthorne, Architecture Critic for the LA Times, with an audience made up of architectural and planning professionals, City Hall insiders, transportation advocates, and community activists.
Faced with an opportunity to either demonstrate his architectural chops or to defer to the professionals and commit to partnering with experts, Beutner instead chose to speak confidently but superficially, expressing common platitudes but without solutions.
When talking about transit, Beutner pointed at the folly of a Green Line that doesn’t get to the Airport but failed to offer a solution or to comment on other struggling options such as the Flyaway.
Beutner took the time to point out that the Subway to the Sea doesn’t actually go to the sea but failed to address solutions or to demonstrate an understanding of the transit planning process or to even simply acknowledge that there is a difference between the Metro and the Metrolink.
Both Roschen and Hawthorne went to great lengths to establish the connectivity between land use, urban design, and mobility but Beutner failed to position himself as someone who could get LA moving.
“I wasn’t prepared to be so disappointed,” exclaimed the Transit Coalition’s Bart Reed, “but this guy has no idea how mass transit works or how it’s funded!”
Beutner riffed on Downtown’s Broadway Streetcar (it’s about managing resources), Leimert Park’s Train Station (it’s about good choices), High Speed Rail (it’s about priorities), and light rail down freeways (it’s about common sense).
Along the way he fumbled by referring to Streetcar/Leimert Park funding as fungible, by missing the recent developments in High Speed Rail planning, and by failing to recognize that light rail down freeways is typically disconnected from walkable communities.
While Beutner’s transit cred left his potential audience scratching their collective heads, his low-key style is likable, as are his anecdotes that come close to positioning him as the guy next door.
Beutner refers to himself as a simple guy who washed dishes, drove a truck, went to college, worked hard and gave proof to the validity of the American Dream by creating a company that went public and made him comfortably rich.
When asked about his four kids (aged 8 to 15) and if any of them had expressed an interest in becoming architects, he answered “They’re in their deconstruction phase.” This prompted an audience member to declare “Perfect for an LA architect!”
While telling a story of his early days, Beutner is quietly charming as he refers to himself as the original Twitterer, driving a floral delivery truck and sharing gossip from one customer to the next.
Along the way, his folksy tone fails him. His commentary on governmental absurdities is the equivalent of having a nutritionist point out that hot dogs come in packages of ten while buns come in packages of eight. It’s true but hardly a significant observation and completely irrelevant unless it comes with a plan for action.
“The City of LA has custom built trash trucks,” he notes, failing to point out the relevance, his solution or how this relates to the recent developments in commercial trash hauling in Los Angeles.
“Chicago’s Mayor Daley simply took bulldozers and did the work in the middle of the night,” he pointed out admiringly, while failing to make it clear if he was that kind of “get it done” candidate for Mayor.
“The City of LA owns loads of prime real estate that should be park space,” he observes, while failing to address how he would facilitate the transfer of property or fund the development and maintenance of parks or if he would simply well it off to balance the budget.
“Our sidewalks and our streets are collapsing,” he notes, drawing the audience in for an empathetic embrace, then leaving them hanging as he passes on the opportunity to present a plan for funding, for repairing, or for invoking the spirit of Daley in declaring himself as the guy who will get it done.
Granted, the AIA/LA is a tough audience, seasoned veterans of LA’s urban design battlefield who are well versed in community plans, zoning code, funding obstacles, and the democratization of land use policy and implementation.
But the AIA/LA crowd are also optimists, die-hard visionaries who still believe in transformation and winning them could have been as simple as invoking the skyline that must be protected but when challenged as to the identity of those buildings that must be protected, he came up empty.
Given another chance for historic preservation redemption, he again came up empty when asked what buildings we have lost that should have been protected.
Beutner spent 15 months inside City Hall, reportedly running the city for all practical purposes, an experience that armed him with enough anecdotes to fill the typical Candidate’s Forum and this was no exception.
When asked about the Planning department, he told a story about the LAPD.
When asked about the streamling City Hall, he told a story about homelessness.
When asked about appointing General Managers, he told a story about how many city departments it takes to change a light bulb.
When asked about the role of architecture in our community, he told a story about the ability of the Broad Museum to draw in the community and the world.
Austin Beutner has a fairly unique vantage point in the Mayoral race, with three City Hall insiders to one side and a grassroots outsider on the other. It is up to him to clearly identify himself as the candidate who brings charismatic presence to the role, or as the candidate who is incredibly aware of the intricacies of City Hall, or as the candidate who can tap into the world’s experts and manage them as they run the city or any of a number of combinations but he simply fell short.
He failed to work the room and to demonstrate the ability to charm individuals or read an audience.
He failed to demonstrate a mastery of the details of land use, urban design, planning policy, and mobility issues or to communicate, leaving the audience wondering if this is the candidate who can connect LA, literally and figuratively.
He relied on information from handlers and briefers that was superficial if not incorrect, leaving the audience to question his judgment and his ability to tap into LA’s pool of experts.
He referenced Great Cities from around the world, all of them led by charismatic characters who charm the masses or municipal powerhouses who fund and execute visions or great coaches who wrangle the best performances from teams of geniuses.
Beutner’s opportunity was to communicate that he was one of these three styles of leader and his performance fell short. Granted, he is a significantly successful man who is quite comfortable in many arenas and he speaks confidently and assertively.
He tells a story of his first days as Deputy Mayor, when he picked up the phone and called Steve Samples of USC and Gen Block of UCLA. The point of the story is to illustrate his wisdom in calling the two largest employers in LA as well as to ask for their help. “Nobody had ever called them before,” Buetner points out, “and this is where the expertise is found.”
Missing from this anecdote is the fact that two thirds of LA’s local economy are small businesses and the opportunity for Austin Beutner the Mayoral Candidate is for him to connect with individual operators, either as the charming charismatic candidate, or the municipal expert, or as the local guy who can lead professionals in the delivery of city services.
The LA chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA/LA) is committed to promoting the role of Architecture in LA’s municipal battlefield as the public grapples with urban design, planning, mobility, and land use policy issues.
The AIA/LA believes that the Mayoral race of 2013 is an important opportunity to engage the candidates in a conversation that allows the architectural community to communicate its priorities and the candidate to present their architectural street cred.
To this end, the AIA/LA is hosting a five part weekly series that allows each of the five leading Mayoral candidates to engage in a conversation about urban design, mobility, architecture, and LA’s built environment.
There are three more AIA/LA Mayoral Candidate Forums taking place over the next four Friday evenings. Kevin James is scheduled for Friday, March 2, followed by Wendy Greuel on Friday, March 9.
Visit City Watch LA for video of the evening as well as for highlights that feature Beutner’s comments on his role in City Hall and the need to address overlaps between city departments.
For more information on future AIA/LA Mayoral Candidate Forums, visit the AIA/LA website.
(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. You can also find him on Twitter and on Facebook.)