LOS ANGELES PLANNING Commission President Jane Usher, who, in a controversial letter slamming the policies of her political ally Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa once advised L.A. residents to sue City Hall over its move to increase housing density in neighborhoods citywide, publicly resigned with a similar missive, on December 11.
Usher was widely viewed as independent of the city’s powerful developer sector. Villaraigosa almost immediately filled her seat with a figure deeply involved in development, Sean O. Burton, head of the West Los Angeles Planning Commission, formerly a land-use attorney with O’Melveny & Myers and
formerly on the board of the Los Angeles Business Council. He is now an executive at CityView, an investor in market-rate homes chaired by his father-in-law, the politically well-connected Henry Cisneros, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Shortly after Usher announced her decision at a commission meeting, she handed commission members a four-page letter outlining her vision for the city’s future. Her tome was disseminated to media faster than a press release — and as quickly as her missive advising activists to file suit, which many had said spelled her demise months before.
“It’s just one more example of how difficult it is to take on this mayor and this City Council and the entrenched forces that really are destroying our neighborhoods through greed and incompetence,” believes community activist Jim O’Sullivan.
O’Sullivan noted that Usher’s resignation followed that of longtime civic figure Nick Patsaouras, who headed the oversight committee that acted as watchdog over the Department of Water and Power. Patsaouras, concerned with the city’s direction, is making a surprise bid for city controller against Councilwoman Wendy Greuel.
Usher’s controversial first memo, issued the weekend of March 8, decries the loss of community control over the size, height and density of apartment complexes and other projects under the Villaraigosa administration’s implementation of a state law designed to encourage more housing.
O’Sullivan is suing the city, with a coalition of homeowner and chamber-of-commerce groups, over City Hall’s interpretation of the controversial law, Senate Bill 1818.
“It’s a loss for the city, for the residents,” he says of Usher’s departure. “I think she’s tried to hold the line on a lot of issues.”
Planning commissioner Michael Woo credits Usher for changing the nature of the Planning Commission. “There has never been such a proactive commission,” says Woo, a former Los Angeles city councilman and now an adjunct professor in the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development.
Woo said City Hall often resists what residents want — and as an example he pointed to the billboard moratorium announced more than a month ago, a highly popular measure with many constituents that languished in the City Council’s powerful Planning and Land Use Management Committee until the City Council finally voted on the issue on December 17. There had been support for a six-month or one-year ban on new billboards, but the City Council, after coming under pressure from billboard lobbyists, on Wednesday approved a three-month moratorium.
Though many observers theorized that Usher had been pushed out by Villaraigosa, her unwavering response has been that she resigned to return to her career for economic reasons.
“I don’t tend to see conspiracies everywhere, so I tend to think that she probably did want to go out and make some money,” says O’Sullivan.
The news of her departure was rapidly posted, texted and BlackBerry’d everywhere within Los Angeles’ political, neighborhood activist and development communities. Her four-page letter listed her successes but also delineated problems with development in Los Angeles.
“We continue to be too free in our disregard for what [community plans] have to say,” she stated in an obvious jab at the City Council, Villaraigosa and his zoning administrator and planning commission, all of whom issue many variances and exceptions to the rules in favor of developers. “It is still the case that we routinely ‘plan’ — that is to say, make significant alterations to our city — by these piecemeal exceptions.”
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Usher laid out a road map for better handling of density, mixed-income housing, urban-design guidelines, environmental mitigations, billboards and community plans.
“We still need to update our Transportation Element ... a controversial process because it requires us to identify land-use winners and losers,” she said, referring to neighborhoods that are expected to be targeted for apartment complexes and other dense development because they are near bus and rail lines.
On the roughly 11,000 billboards that bristle along the city’s streets and boulevards, 4,000 of which are believed to be illegally erected, she accused City Hall of letting the process spiral out of control “in order to obtain droplets of fast cash.”
But she also commended large projects driven by deep-pocketed corporations, citing troubled Grand Avenue, recently expanded L.A. Live, Blossom Plaza, Sunset & Gordon, Boulevard 6200 and Westfield Century City—endeavors that have proved far more popular with Villaraigosa and the City Council than with community activists and many residents.