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L.A. Planning Director Goldberg Announces Retirement

Jun 30, 2010

Read Bill Fulton's appreciation of Gail Goldberg's time in Los Angeles here.

After four-and-a-half years at the helm of the Los Angeles Department of City Planning, Gail Goldberg has announced her retirement. In a letter [pdf] to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa Goldberg, who arrived in Los Angeles after serving as planning director for the City of San Diego, cited major initiatives that she had championed at the department but wrote that ultimately she has "been long ready for retirement and new adventures." 

The announcement comes just a month after the initiation of a major restructuring in the department. Under the restructuring, projects would be handled by a single staff member, and the department's case processing would be broken into four geographic units intended to enable staffers to focus on their respective communities. The restructuring process is planned to take place in three phases, through January 2011. 

The first woman to head the department -- and one of several early Villaraigosa hires who collectively obliterated the city's glass ceiling -- Goldberg succeeded longtime director Con Howe and promised to bring major reforms and fresh ways of thinking to a department that had been criticized as ossified and overly bureaucratic; a November 2005 audit by then-City Controller Laura Chick found "an agency cast in a time warp of past practices, old procedures and outdated technology" that was "mired in backlogs, often in violation of state law." By contrast, Goldberg had enjoyed widespread acclaim in San Diego, where she promoted community-oriented planning under the mantle "A City of Villages." She was also known for embracing public participation and even using gimmicks like raffles to attract stakeholders. 

In her resignation letter, Goldberg wrote that she was most proud of initiatives to "Do Real Planning" -- as opposed to merely process cases -- even while by the end of her tenure the department was forced to cope with the equivalent of a 45 percent reduction in staff due to budget cuts. Goldberg oversaw the addition of the Office of Historic Resources and the Urban Design studio, in addition to many specific plans and special initiatives.  

Goldberg's efforts to streamline the department met with mixed results. Downsizing forced the department to adopt more efficient structures, but in the process the department lost such veteran planners as Jane Blumenfeld, who had guided the evolution of the city's zoning code. Moreover, the department under Goldberg was the subject of yet another scathing audit by current City Controller Wendy Greuel.

Gruele's audit, from April, found that the department had implemented few of the recommendations made in Chick's 2005 audit and that the department's "cradle-to-grave" approach to permit processing -- by which the process was to be vertically integrated and overseen by a single staff member -- had consistently fallen short of its goals, thus prompting the new round of restructuring. That audit, which Greuel called "most disappointing," also faulted the department for failing to fully implement the so-called "12-to-2" plan, by which the permitting responsibilities of 12 departments would be folded into those of two -- to be led by City Planning. 

Nevertheless, Goldberg has of late had to operate in a vastly different city than the one she joined in 2006. When she was hired, Los Angeles was at the height of its building boom, and plans for smart growth development and new ways of thinking -- championed by both her and Mayor Villaraigosa -- were taking hold in the city. The slowdown in construction and the subsequent loss of both revenues and general plan funds took their toll on the department. Nevertheless, Goldberg leaves a legacy of new programs and strategies, including greater attention to public engagement, pedestrian-oriented planning, bicycle planning, historic preservation, and restructuring of the department's finances. 

Goldberg will officially step down at the end of August, but her last day in the office will be July 16.