A Strategy Session for Los Angeles

 

If you are at all involved with urban planning in Los Angeles you were probably either in the audience or on the panel at last night's "The Future of the Los Angeles City Planning Department (and the City of Los Angeles)" event, sponsored by AIA, APA-L.A., ULI, and Cal Poly Pomona's College of Environmental Design. I suppose a third option is that you were stuck in traffic and couldn't make it.   

Those of us in the room at Southwestern Law School in Koreatown were treated to perhaps the most far-ranging, sincere, and sometimes entertaining discussion about planning in Los Angeles in recent memory. It was, to an extent, a master class for new Planning Director Michael LoGrande, who attended fresh off his confirmation by the Los Angeles City Council. The event was organized before Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa nominated LoGrande, and his attendance was not promised. But how could he not attend, and how could he not share a few words, given that the entire two hours was dedicated to the equal measures hope and desperation that surround the years to come at the L.A. Department of City Planning?

By the looks of things, LoGrande has not exactly picked a cushy job for himself. His own brief introductory remarks, while replete with the requisite visionary rhetoric, focused on the department's financial challenges and his eagerness to partner with outside firms and organizations to help craft the city's plans.

Moderated by Planning Commissioner Michael Woo, the 10-member panel represented some of the region's most astute practitioners and observers of planning in Los Angeles, ranging from architects to developers to journalists to former members of the Planning Department staff. They amounted to an unusually candid bunch, whose expertise centers not necessarily on planning per se, but rather on that unquiet beast known as planning in Los Angeles. 

If no other lesson emerged -- for LoGrande or anyone else who would dare imagine what the city should and could look like -- it is that Los Angeles is sui generis, in its form, geography, demographics, history, and politics. Jane Blumenfeld -- the recently retired consigliere to Lo Grande's predecessor, Gail Goldberg -- said it most bluntly by calling it "the most politicized planning land use development city in the world." 

The discussion did little to contradict that stereotype. It's an amazing thing when a dozen experts get together and generally agree on goals: We want Los Angeles to be more pleasant (i.e. pedestrian-oriented); we want to preserve distinctive neighborhoods and respect community members' wishes; we want to take advantage of new and existing transit projects and we love the 30/10 plan; we want to provide more housing. To a lesser extent, we want to reach out to under-served communities and we want to stoke the city's economy.  Restoring the L.A. River would be a fabulous thing to do.  All well and good.  

(Notably absent, however, was so much as a whisper of rhetoric about sustainability. I have two theories on this: The first is that everyone has grown weary in the process of hoping for, and not achieving, a mythical "green future" -- especially in this economy.  The second, more hopeful theory is that sustainability has become implicit, especially to the extent that, thanks to legislation like SB 375, it has become synonymous with density. Indeed, now that L.A. is built out and that the transit system keeps growing, it's arguable that almost every new development will be sustainable by some measure.)  

How, though, to achieve those goals? 

Suggestions ranged from "enjoy the recession" as a time to think and plan to "Metro should take all the land surrounding transit stops by eminent domain." Some encouraged LoGrande to align himself with Mayor Villaraigosa's vision (whatever that may be; "elegant density" is still being batted around five years after the mayor first picked it as his slogan) while others were already talking about the next mayor and arguing whether the city charter even made the mayor relevant. Almost everyone agreed that having to serve 15 councilmembers, plus a mayor, is no way to plan a city. Baron Haussmann and Robert Moses would surely concur.  

If there was a single point of consensus about how to move forward with high-quality development, it was articulated most clearly by Forest City Sr. Vice President Renata Simril: "For me as a developer, the notion of by-right speaks volumes to my ears. Time is money. I’m more apt to be able to built a project that yields that (desired) result because there’s clarity, there’s certainty in that plan. And, by the way, I know I’m not going to get challenge by the community because the community has bought into that specific plan." 

Bill Fulton followed up that assertion, saying: “You prove to (councilmembers) that by doing a planning process that results in a consensus that people can buy into that developers will have more clarity…and a roadmap. If you can prove to the politicians that there’s some kind of a plan in place that makes it easier for developers to get to the end and built stuff that the neighborhood wants, that’s how you prove to councilmembers that good planning is good policy."

In other words, Los Angeles needs good plans and public officials who will enforce those plans. Beyond that, the panel offered LoGrande an abstracted, highly intellectualized version of what he will experience in L.A.’s neighborhoods and halls of power: passionate, articulate, and often contradictory sentiments. Some highlights from each speaker include the following: 

Planning Commissioner Michael Woo (moderator): 

"The City Planning Department and the planning director operate in a political culture in which it is more customary than in other cities for elected officials to intervene in the planning process. Also, the Planing Deparmtment and planning director operate in a city in which private property interests have very strong influence over what goes on….and where NIMBYism was not exactly born in Los Angeles but certainly moved here at an early age."

Jane Blumenfeld, former Acting Deputy Director, L.A. City Planning

"If you revise the community plans, a lot of casework is eliminated.  We need to get rid of that so that the people who are there…can function efficiently and effectively without having everybody be forced to do casework. Know what is expected in a neighborhood, you won't need to review the color of paint and roofs.  There’s a lot of work involved, and it’s needless and stupid in a lot of ways.  They won’t have those project-by-project fights."  

Bill Boyarsky, former L.A. Times City Editor

"The biggest obstacle to moderate-priced housing are the land developers, property owners, Central City Association, and the building trade unions. They control planning in LA. I wrote many stories about neighborhoods where Moderate-priced apartment buildings were torn down for more expensive condos...the only thing that saved these people was the recession. When this recession ends, you’re going to have to go back. The mayor is going to have to take a chance."

Vaughn Davies, Director of Urban Design, AECOM

"The rulebook is there to protect and safeguard us from poor development. It doesn’t really promote great development.  Sets a minimum standard.  All the great places we travel to in the world are illegal to build in Los Angeles.  The more opportunities to create traffic and chaos in this city.  Sidewalks and the public realm. Make the pedestrian the priority. We need to move swiftly and we need to be as nimble as possible.  We can’t wait for Planning to unveil some big vision for the city."

Bill Fulton, Mayor of Ventura; CP&DR Publisher

"Duking it our at the community level is better than duking it out at the project level. But given the history of LA, nobody believes that. They all think they can duke it out at the project level and get a better deal." 

Emily Gabel-Luddy, Past Director, L.A. City Planning Urban Design Studio

"NIMBYs play an essential role in the public discussion because they raise things that would otherwise not be raised. People have insights into the local area that none of the planners have because they do not live there." 

Christopher Hawthorne, L.A. Times Architecture Critic

"There’s no city even close to its size that faces so many fundamental questions about what it’s going to be in the coming decades."

"It's a question of whether development is going to guide planning or whether planning is going to guide development.  There are a lot of vested interests who really like things the way they are and that they like piece-by-piece planning and duking it out. I think if we can agree that’s as an ideal to have planning guide development, then the tricky question is politically how do we get there?"

John Kaliski, Principal, Urban Studio-L.A.; Past President, AIA/LA

"The divide seems to be between those who believe these conversations are useful and those who believe they’re useless.  Neighborhood council process that’s advisory.  That’s a huge cultural shift in the city that hasn’t been recognized yet for all that it could be."

Renata Simril, Sr. Vice President, Forest City

"As we continue to move forward, I think the future is going to be bright as it relates to TOD. Coupled w/ the 30/10 plan and the effort to focus on key TOD projects throughout the city.  

"(There's a) battle between density and preserving the single-family house. If we can agree where density occurs, it’s not an either/or.  Focusing on TOD gives you not an 'or' but an 'and.'"  

Martha Welborne, Executive Director of Countywide Planning, Los Angeles Metro

"We've known for some time that we really cannot build our way out of the transportation problem.  If you want to solve mobility issues, a link of land use and transit planning is critical. The MTA controls no land use planning; we just do the transit side. An increased  dialog among the 88 cities in the county and the MTA, is critical if we want to build our way out of the problem."

Elva Yanez, Coordinator, L.A. Collaborative for Environmental Health Policy and Justice

"It's not just the responsibility of the city to create those mechanisms. There is no intermediary in the city of LA that's funded by foundation funds to educate people about planning and do advocacy in an appropriate and constructive manner. We don’t need developer front groups muddying the water."

So that's some of what the panel said. Perhaps the more salient question, though, is who heard it? 

The “Louis XVI Room” (not kidding) at Southwestern Law School was filled to capacity with acolytes, employees, and even peers of the folks on the panel. It was like old home week for the cognoscenti. But there is a difference between knowing about planning and having an interest in planning. 

And who wasn't there? The other four million residents of Los Angeles. 

I don't say that to be flippant, but I do mean that for this discussion to matter, it must, by necessity, reach the people who have not yet heard it. Millions of people in Los Angeles don't know what planning is, much less what "do real planning" means. Many haven't considered the pleasures (or not) of density and walkability, or if they have, they don't believe that L.A. could ever be a dense, walkable city. Many would not feel comfortable attending an event (even one free of charge) under crystal chandeliers in a restored Art Deco palace.  

As the discussion went on, I kept thinking about all the cars, buses, cyclists and pedestrians passing outside (and about the straphangers passing beneath) the Southwestern Law’s Bullocks Wilshire Building in the twilight.  And I wondered if any of them had any idea that, in some small way, the future of their city was being discussed – or if they even knew that the future of the city was up for discussion at all. 

If it’s true that the recession will, as Renta Simril said, give LoGrande and other L.A. planners some unintended leisure time, then more meetings like this have to take place, both with official department sanction and though the efforts of APA, AIA, ULI, and the like. And they should take place throughout the city in front of mixed audiences, so that residents of different communities can mix and undo some of the atomization that clearly fascinates and troubles Christopher Hawthorne and others. 

Los Angeles embodies Jeffersonian democracy at its most absurd, with detached, diverse residents believing that they can control their own fiefdoms – however small – or resigning themselves to having no power whatsoever. And yet, from the city’s architecture to its physical environment, Los Angeles strives for greatness even while acknowledging its own shortcomings. Last night’s event proved, as ever, that nowhere else do ambition and ambivalence coexist with such intensity. 

-- Josh Stephens