By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Los Angeles Planning Director Gail Goldberg, who resigned July 16, had envisioned creating a citywide blueprint of best-case scenarios for L.A.'s future neighborhoods and business districts. Her surprise replacement, Chief Zoning Administrator Michael LoGrande, could not be more different.
As L.A. Weekly reported in its February 2008 story "Bitter Homes and Gardens," LoGrande worked as the city's key expediter — heading the unit that approved permits for apartment complexes, office towers, condos, minimansions and other projects sought by developers, homeowners and businesses who wanted exceptions from zoning, height, size and other land-use rules.
In all but a fraction of the cases — 10 percent — they got those exemptions.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's sudden promotion of LoGrande, without conducting a search among top metropolitan planning talent nationally, represents a sea change at the head of the powerful Department of City Planning — an agency that is often the focal point of community anger.
The decision has caused a furor of speculation among developers, within neighborhood councils, at City Hall and on political blogs.
LoGrande's 13-year history at City Hall includes little long-range planning work. He has few planning credentials. He studied political science, not planning, at California State University, Long Beach.
And, most importantly, it seems beyond unlikely that any major U.S. city would hire LoGrande, an obscure big-city zoning administrator, to take on the executive position of city planner, a job that requires an adept knowledge of commingling the art of design, politics, architecture and zoning to further a city's quality of life.
LoGrande went before the Los Angeles City Council for his confirmation August 4. The 15 council members are deeply averse to showing disagreement during votes, even on hotly debated citywide issues such as this. According to the Center for Governmental Studies, of 1,854 votes cast by the Los Angeles City Council during the first seven months of 2009, council members voted unanimously 99.993 percent of the time. City Council "mavericks" Greig Smith and Richard Alarcon voted no just five and four times, respectively, out of those 1,854 votes. As expected, the council did as it was told by Villaraigosa on Wednesday, voting 14-0 with Jan Perry absent.
Critics such as Dick Platkin, who retired from the planning department after 20 years and is now a consultant, suggest that Villaraigosa and his economic czar, Austin Beutner, chose LoGrande, with his "case-management" skills, as part of an economic strategy to encourage real estate speculation and construction in which the fast-tracking of construction permits and special zoning exemptions — known as "zoning variances" and "conditional-use permits," are key elements.
The upshot? Not quality of life but more revenue for city coffers.
Platkin told the Weekly last week that allowing lots of extra density — taller buildings, wider buildings, less open space — has become the default position at City Hall in order to appease L.A. developers who have "business models that don't allow them to build within existing zones and planning limitations." Simply, hard-fought zoning restrictions in many areas of Los Angeles do not allow enough density to satisfy the profit margins of some developers.
If land-use and zoning rules are more broadly interpreted under LoGrande, developers of the resulting apartments and office towers will pay higher permit fees and ultimately higher property taxes than if they built within the existing zoning rules. That, in turn, would help feed City Hall's thrashed budget, and fulfill Villaraigosa's frequent pledge to bring "elegant density" to Los Angeles.
The city budget benefits.
Do city residents benefit?
LoGrande, 39, a Long Beach resident, is seen by many as understanding codes and regulations and being in sync with Villaraigosa's development goals. He works long hours to move projects along.
But when LoGrande was asked about his experience in urban or community planning, he listed work from a decade ago — and then only as an assistant planner working to help update modest "community plans."
In 2008, the Weekly reported that LoGrande's division approved 90 percent of all requests by developers, builders and homeowners seeking to waive city zoning restrictions so they could build taller, wider or fatter commercial or retail buildings, homes, condos or apartment complexes.
This process of continually overriding zoning laws was decried by Gail Goldberg as having rendered L.A. planning efforts "disastrous" and handing developers the controls to "determine the value of the land" in Los Angeles.
Under Villaraigosa, Goldberg proved unable to change that basic calculus.
In recent days, the Weekly reviewed more than 100 applications for variances and other exceptions sought at LoGrande's zoning division by those hoping to build multi-use commercial complexes, condos, small residential projects and other undertakings in 2009.
All but a handful of the 100 exceptions sought were approved, the city zoning for the area overridden.
Officials at the "expedited-processing section" say their approach has helped to fast-track and construct massive apartment complexes and office developments and more than 15,000 housing units since 2004. But as the Weekly reported in its January 2009 story "L.A.'s Hidden Housing Disaster," the city allowed the destruction or conversion of 13,713 affordable and rent-controlled units during the rush to erect these 15,000 mostly luxury units.
LoGrande told the Weekly that the mayor and Beutner privately promised him that long-range planning will be a priority. "If people give me a chance, they'll see there is more to me than my past job," he says.