CCAPA Journal: Planning in California Is Changing, So Let's Talk About It

 

Frighteningly enough, this is the 27th year I’ve attended the California Chapter, American Planning Association, conference and at least the third time here at the Fess Parker in Santa Barbara. Memories both good and weird haunt me here; I remember, for example, standing in the corridor outside the Santa Barbara ballroom in 1995 watching TV as the O.J. Simpson verdict came in.

This year, I’m struck not by how much the conference has changed – it really hasn’t, not all that much – but by the passing of time. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s a kind of a wistfulness this year, a sense of loss. Only a couple of years ago the planning profession in California still seemed robust and energetic, with planners excited about new challenges such as climate change. This year, it feels like there’s tentativeness to the entire profession, as planners are continually laid off, planning departments are shut down, and young planners can’t find jobs.

I’m saddened this year by the absence of two esteemed professional colleagues who have passed away in the last year: Frank Wein and Dave Wilcox. Both were longtime consultants in the planning profession and both were longtime colleagues of mine – beloved by their students – at USC’s School of Policy, Planning & Development. Both passed away this year – too soon -- after long and difficult illnesses.

There was certainly no one more committed to CCAPA than Frank Wein, and so it’s fitting that the California Planning Foundation auction is now named for him. But I’d much rather forgo the naming of the auction if I could see Frank up there again – his wry humor, his good cheer, and most of all his caring for his students and professional colleagues.

Ditto Dave Wilcox. A longtime partner in the economics consulting firm of ERA (now part of AECOM), Dave was one of California planning’s great characters, each year administering "The MPL Pledge" to our master’s in planning students at USC while wearing a Shriner’s fez and referring to himself as "El Capybara," after a rare, obscure, furry and frankly weird giant rodent. (IT was perhaps fitting at an actual capybara turned up in Paso Robles a month ago: As I said on my Facebook page a few weeks ago, back in the ‘80s when I started writing about planning in California as a journalist, I rated folks by how interesting the papers on their desk were (journalists develop the skill of reading upside down). Dave was at the top of the list. The papers on his desk were the most interesting I’d ever seen – because in his practice Dave was always in the middle of all the most interesting stuff in Los Angeles.

Even the change in my own role has me wistful. CP&DR was unveiled for the first time at CCAPA exactly 25 years ago, and for many years after that I was very comfortable as the chronicler of California planning and nothing more. Yesterday I found myself acutely aware of how much my role had changed. First I participated in a redevelopment session with my longtime colleague Morris Newman. In critiquing redevelopment, Morris could distance himself from the system, calling himself "just an observer". (Admittedly, an observer who has, by his own count, written 200 articles about redevelopment.) I got up in my role as the renegade mayor who supported the governor’s attempt to eliminate redevelopment and replace it with something different, carefully couching my words as advice to my fellow local government officials about how to reform redevelopment in a way that is good for "us".

Later in the day, I attended two ethics sessions – a first for me at CCAPA. (As a concession to my primary role as a planning consultant, I finally took the AICP exam not long ago and, thankfully, actually passed.) Expecting to maintain a safe distance from the hypothetical ethics problems presented in the sessions, I was surprised to discover how engaged I was in them – especially the one where the mayor tries to override the staff’s decision on which consultant to pick. Yes, I’ve been on both sides of that one in the last couple of years.

But there’s more to this sense of wistfulness than just Frank and Dave passing away and me playing a different role. The entire planning business in California is changing, and I cannot quite predict where we are headed. So many of the conditions we have lived with for the past generation or two are changing. Real estate development is flat and we can’t predict when the market’s coming back, meaning we can’t use development to leverage needed change in our communities – nor use developer money to fund our practices. Local government revenue is flat and probably going down – meaning advance planning in California is extremely dependent right now on state and federal money, which could dry up anytime. And, of course, nobody knows what’s going to happen with redevelopment in the long run. Cities are on the verge of bankruptcy, planning departments are being rolled up, and planners are out on the street.

In the short run, all these things are harmful to the profession and to California’s communities as well. But it’s possible that some kind of shakeout and rethinking of how planning works in this state is long overdue. Maybe we’ve become too dependent on the same ol’-same ol’ – tax-increment funds, developer impact fees, and so forth. Maybe it’s time to find a new model – one where the local governments play a smaller or at least different role, and developers and nonprofit organizations play a bigger one. All this is in the air here in Santa Barbara this week. I just wish we were talking about it out loud.