Saint of Density

It’s a good time to live in the city. After decades of decline, people and investment are pouring back into urban neighborhoods all across the country, and even into L.A.’s long-forgotten downtown. People want urbanity and convenience, and they want lofts, live-work spaces, town homes — a high-rise room with a view. But all this density and development will cause L.A.’s already thick traffic to congeal. What exactly does L.A.’s brand-new planning director, Gail Goldberg, propose to do? L.A. hasn’t had a planning director with a compelling vision since Calvin Hamilton and his “Centers Concept” five decades ago helped create the L.A. we know today — a diffuse city with multiple downtowns. As planning director in San Diego, Goldberg won consensus around a plan called “City of Villages,” which clustered new development around transit. It provided the high-rise, higher-density housing that the market wanted, made mass transit more convenient and kept the units out of single-family neighborhoods. It worked in San Diego, a city consistently ranked as one of this country’s most livable. But density has always been a tough sell to L.A.’s hardcore suburbanistas.

Can Goldberg possibly succeed in selling it here? She’s no stranger to difficulty, a single mom who put two sons through college before entering planning school at age 43. Concentrating growth around transit, she contends, is “more than just a smart growth strategy, it’s a survival tactic” for big built-out cities like Los Angeles that are growing rapidly but have nowhere left to grow. “Either we have to accommodate density very strategically or it will happen haphazardly in ways that will have a negative impact on each of us and on the city as a whole.” The key, she believes, is involving all of L.A.’s neighborhoods in a planning effort that allows them to choose where the density should go.


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