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APA Conference: 'You Mean This Place Is Planned?'

Apr 29, 2008
Even on a typical day, Las Vegas often seems like an extension of Los Angeles. Throngs of tourists arrive via car on the I-15 each day, and it's not uncommon to walk down the Strip and run into people you know.

This week, however, the American Planning Association conference – being conducted at two hotels along the Strip – has often seemed like an extension of Los Angeles as well. Not only is the conference flooded with planners from L.A., but there are so many sessions on L.A. that it could become a whole separate track!

Prime-time on the Los Angeles network was a panel Monday featuring Gail Goldberg and Bruce McClendon, who talked about the challenges they've faced in the last two years as the new city and county planning directors, respectively.

Goldberg, who had spent her entire career in San Diego before coming to L.A., admitted being overwhelmed when she first arrived. "It took me two weeks to realize L.A. is a humungous city. San Diego, much as I love it, is a baby city," she said. The City of Los Angeles is 450 square miles and 4 million people, while L.A. County is 4,000 miles with 10 million people, including 1 million in the unincorporated area.

McClendon, on the other hand, said that his longtime views about how to approach a planning challenge have been reaffirmed at Los Angeles County – including the idea of increasing public visibility and improving the reputation of planning. He told the story of buying something in the downtown Macy's while wearing his employee badge with his title on it. "The saleswoman said, ‘My God, you mean this place is planned?', she exclaimed," McClendon recalled. "Our biggest public challenge has been, how can we market planning in L.A.?"

Both planning directors, however, said that they have been fortunate to walk in during a "window of opportunity" that they can best take advantage of by focusing on the creation of community plans for specific neighborhoods because their jurisdictions are so big.

Since her arrival two years ago, Goldberg has managed to get significant budget and staffing increases – in spite of a financial crisis that has L.A. cutting almost every other department except for public safety. She's obtained a commitment from the politicians to update each of the 36 community plans on a three-year cycle, meaning that the city will initiate 12 community plan updates each year.

The reason for her success? She claims it's because the old system of the city councilmembers interposing themselves project by project isn't working anymore, and developers, councilmembers, and neighborhood groups would rather have plans to fall back on. She also said the new plans will be meatier than the 15-20 page community plans currently in existence. "We will never stop planning," she said.

Meanwhile, McClendon said that he hopes to devote more attention to community plans in L.A. County's urban unincorporated areas as well. The County has been updating its general plan for the first time since 1985, but, he said, community plans will be more important going forward.

– Bill Fulton
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