The Vision of Michael LoGrande

Villaraigosa stands behind Michael LoGrande.

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.

Developers benefit.

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.

LoGrande says he will quickly fill a vacant deputy director post in charge of long-range planning, and will find funds to pay for plan updates and long-range projects.

He says that his division approves so many exceptions because of old, "suburban"-style land-use plans and outdated codes that make it hard to proceed even when projects are popular in the community.

The Weekly interviewed more than a dozen current and former planners, city officials, developers and community members who have worked with LoGrande, in an effort to gain a more complete picture of an administrator better known within mayoral and City Council political circles. LoGrande inspires sharp disagreement among those who have dealt with him.

Diana Plotkin, president of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association, calls her dealings with LoGrande "very, very dismal; I don't think he knows what he's doing — even as head of [Office of] Zoning Administration."

Three years ago, she says, her request to put restaurant parking–lot leases into a database so zoning officials could easily determine which restaurants weren't providing enough parking proved too much for LoGrande to handle.

"He totally ignored us up until a couple of weeks go" — in fact, just before Villaraigosa nominated him to become the top planner, Plotkin says. "If that's the way planning in the city of Los Angeles is going to be done, it will be destroyed forever."

But Lisa Sarkin, of the Studio City Neighborhood Council land-use committee, has the opposite view. The real estate agent and accountant found LoGrande committed to long-range planning, and having a good grasp of issues. "He understands that all the neighborhoods are different and have different necessities," Sarkin says. "He has a good grasp of real planning, and supports what Gail (Goldberg) was doing."

Dan Rosenfeld, who dealt with LoGrande when Rosenfeld was a developer and is now on Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas' staff, says LoGrande was fair and "wasn't a pushover."

However, Mark Winogrond, Culver City's former chief administrative officer, who was the interim planning director before Goldberg, caused a war of words several days ago with his published remarks in The Planning Report newsletter. Never before has such an "unknown person with no prior citymaking experience, a few years in the local town hall, and no reputation as a real leader," been chosen as director of planning for the "most fluid large city in the U.S.," Winogrond wrote.

Goldberg, as well as several senior planners who have left, and former City Planning Commission President Jane Usher, were all seen by some in the Villaraigosa administration as roadblocks because they sought to create a planning framework that developers would have to live within — one that emphasized a higher quality of life for L.A.

James O'Sullivan is president of the Miracle Mile Residential Association and part of a lawsuit targeting the city's planning practices, including City Hall's suspension of an annual report on growth and infrastructure. He calls Villaraigosa the "puppet master" of development and citywide planning. "They will block anything that we consider, in the communities, to be good planning."

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