It looks like the 2009 Los Angeles mayoral race has begun. And it looks a lot like the 1989 race. In the role of an incumbent determined to bring L.A. to the next level as a "world city" – the Tom Bradley role -- is Antonio Villaraigosa. And in the role of a crusading neighborhood activist seeking to protect the city from overdevelopment – the Zev Yaroslavsky role – is, well, Zev Yaroslavsky.


Mayor Villaraigosa and L.A. County Supervisor Yaroslavsky have been sniping at each other over the densification of L.A. for weeks now. It began when Yaroslavsky got exercised about how Villaraigosa's planning department was increasing densities all over town – often in clever, technical end-runs around Zev's Prop. U, the 1986 initiative that cut densities in half on most commercial strips. This led the L.A. Weekly to run a snarky article about Antonio's "density hawks" – Planning Director Gail Golberg and Jane Blumenfeld, one of her chief policy deputies.


Then L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez, the Southland's king of snark, trailed Zev for a day and watched as the supervisor was shocked – shocked! – that taller buildings are being built in L.A.


Though he's usually been pretty vocal about "elegant density," the mayor laid low through all this, apparently fearful of getting swift-boated on the density issue. But on Thursday he fired back strongly – without mentioning Zev by name – at the Regional Transit Summit sponsored by the Southern California Association of Governments. Villaraigosa framed his lunchtime remarks around his support of the "Subway to the Sea" and advocated for a third half-cent sales tax in L.A. County for transportation.

"This is what a great metropolitan region must do," he said.

Villaraigosa also went after the anti-development crowd by saying, "You can't oppose every development in the city," and claimed that when his own constituents complain about gridlock, he challenges them to get out of their cars and take the bus or the train. "We can't all complain about traffic as we drive two blocks to the market and wonder why there's gridlock," he added.

Um, I think we've been here before, as I documented in my chapter on Bradley and Yaroslavsky in The Reluctant Metropolis. Back in 1987, shortly after Zev's slow-growth initiative passed, Bradley declared: "All cities must grow to survive and prosper. Every city that has ever tried to do otherwise has died." Meanwhile, Zev, then a city councilmember from the Westside, was boasting to the Los Angeles Times: "From the day I walked into this office … we have done nothing but roll back and impose limitations on development rights on every single commercial street in my district." It was clear that Zev's intent in sponsoring Proposition U in 1986 was to set himself up as the slow-growth alternative to Bradley in the 1989 mayoral race.

Of course, as the yarn unfolded over the next couple of years, Bradley turned out to be a much more skilled politician than Zev was. He seized on Zev's support of the Westside Pavilion shopping center to outflank Yaroslavsky on the slow-growth front, thus forcing Zev out of the race, and won a fifth term easily.

Villaraigosa is surely not unmindful of history. At the SCAG event on Thursday, he referred several times to Bradley's longstanding support for a subway in L.A. And in a rare moment of humility, he called Bradley "the greatest mayor in the history of Los Angeles." But what will Antonio do next year? Will he take a page from Bradley's book and outflank his opponents as a slow-growther? Or will he decide that the 21st Century is a different era in L.A. – and conclude that challenging his constituents to ride the bus will help him get re-elected?

-- Bill Fulton