Modest Goals for New L.A. Planning Head

 

At a press conference at City Hall this morning Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa introduced Michael LoGrande, his nominee to success Gail Goldberg as the city's planning director. At some moments the rhetoric of the mayor and fellow speakers -- including LoGrande, City Council Member Ed Reyes, and Planning Commissioner Bill Roschen, and affordable housing activist Jackie DuPont Walker -- sounded as if they were building the world's next great city.

Other times, their emphasis on customer service made the city sound more like a Nordstrom store than the writhing metropolis that it is. 

The nomination of LoGrande comes a only three weeks following the announcement of Goldberg’s resignation. Goldberg had been the popular planning director in San Diego before arriving in Los Angeles and ushering what many hoped would be an era of smart growth and progressive planning in the original home of sprawl.  Though Villaraigosa said that the department conducted a national search the mayor instead dug deep into the department’s existing talent pool to tap LoGrande, a 13-year department veteran who has most recently served as chief zoning administrator.  

If confirmed by the Los Angeles City Council, LoGrande will become one of the only -- if not the only -- planning director in California not to hold AICP certification. Nevertheless, Villaraigosa said that LoGrande's name came up continually when stakeholders both in and outside of the department were consulted.  

It's worth noting that while LoGrande had clearly braced himself for his introduction to the spotlight, the mayor has rarely looked more relaxed. Villaraigosa recently suffered a nasty bicycle accident that left his right arm in a cast, so he appeared with shirt untucked and partially unbuttoned as if he was the mayor of Key West. He joked about the need to make the city more bicycle-friendly and offered kisses in lieu of handshakes (no one took him up on that one). Hanging loose is, perhaps, a fitting attitude for a mayor who has endured his share of indiscretions and literally taken his lumps, not the least of which is the replacement of a planning director who had, four years ago, embodied his highest hopes for the city.  

Not surprisingly, much of Villaraigosa's rhetoric about the city's future has remained consistent. The motto of "do real planning" has been around long enough to have gone from inspiration to albatross. Even so, the mayor today once again presented the city's challenge as that of walking a “tightrope between boundless ambition of the city’s stakeholders to build a new urban paradigm…..brimming with mixed-use, transit-oriented development to create a more dynamic skyline.”  

At the same time, Villaraigosa introduced LoGrande as "the person most qualified to reform the department from the bottom up." 

"Michael will be able to hit the ground running on the first day," said Villaraigosa. "Nobody knows the inner workings of the department, the different neighborhoods of LA, and city bureaucracy better than he does." 

In brief prepared remarks, LoGrande acknowledged the convergence of architecture, urban design, and outreach but otherwise did not lay out a broad vision for planning in the city. Instead, he emphasized, transparency, collaboration, predictability, and completion of the city's 35 community plans. He praised the department's staff and expressed optimism that the department's crushing budget cuts would not impair their ability to streamline case processing and reach out to stakeholders. 

"We want to show Los Angeles that we’re open for business," said LoGrande. "So whether you’re doing an addition to your house and need to come across the counter and talk to a planner or you have an issue with maybe a business that needs to be talked about...we’re here to work with you and the other city departments to make them happen."

Most notably, he will be expected to implement the city's "12 to 2" system, by which Planning will serve as a single point of contact, thus enabling developers to avoid trips to multiple city departments. This had been a goal of Goldberg, whose enthusiasm brought new public attention to the formerly low-key department. LoGrande made it clear that his first priorities would center on in-house reform. 

LoGrande briefly responded to criticism that his bureaucratic background did not prepare him well for the political tumult and that his desire to create more certainty for developers would equal hasty approvals. 

"People may think because of my past title as chief zoning administrator think that I’m somehow really tied into the entitlement process and the status quo, which is really far from the truth," said LoGrande. "I’m a consensus builder, I like to reach out to people."  

A rough transcript of LoGrande's prepared remarks: 

"I’m looking forward to collaborating with the city and various communities and stakeholders throughout los Angeles to make sure that we have a really vital planning department that looks at architecture, urban design, quality plans, and make sure that there’s a contract with the community and the development community to ensure that when developers come to neighborhods, they know what to expect. They’ve shaped them and actually worked with the departments and the city family to make sure that we have a credible process but also an engaged process where people are informed, can roll up their sleeves and work in collaboration with the department to make sure that we grow the city for the next century."

"I’m very excited for this position. One thing I’m really, really proud of is the staff we have in the planning department. We have some of the best staff in the nation. That staff is ready to engage with our neighbors and our diverse group of people we have in Los Angeles to move us forward. We have to have dialogs in various communities to see what they want to see in their neighborhoods and we have the tools inside to bring those forward."  

"We’ve got some very, very tough budget years. A lot of the staff is on furloughs. There’s been early retirement program. But we want to show Los Angeles that we’re open for business. So whether you’re doing an addition to your house and need to come across the counter and talk to a planner or you have an issue with maybe a business that needs to be talked about about some of the conditions they have to operate to coexist well within the community. We’re here to work with you and the other city departments to make them happen."

-- Josh Stephens