Michael LoGrande, who had been the city's chief zoning administrator, was confirmed Wednesday by the City Council to become the new planning director. He'll be charged with creating and executing a vision for the city's future built environment. It's a big deal.
It's one of the most high-profile and crucial jobs in city government, and one would think LoGrande would be thrilled at this opportunity. But at a symposium on the future of L.A. at Southwest Law School Wednesday night just hours after his confirmation, LoGrande looked and sounded almost grim. And when the panelist of visionaries, current and former public officials, urban planning and design gurus and enlightened developers started talking, it didn't get much sunnier. Welcome to the new job, LoGrande!
LoGrande said he hoped to enact an ambitious program, updating dozens of community plans to give neighborhoods their proper texture, as well as executing policies consistent with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's somewhat ill-defined “elegant density” and transit-driven new urbanism.
But he also warned of the fiscal realities: “We're competing with police and fire, and we're losing.”
He also dryly noted, “We have people excited about planning, but now we need to get people excited about funding planning.”
Beyond the budget woes, there's the political swamp. The moderator of the symposium, Michael Woo, a former City Council member and current dean of Cal Poly Pomona's School of Environmental Design, noted that each member of the City Council thinks he or she is the real planning director, often meddling in development issues. Moreover, “Private property interests have very storng interests in what is happening in planning. And though NIMBY was not born in L.A., it came here at an early age,” he said, referring to the always active, Not In My Backyard caucus.
So, LoGrande, looking forward to the job?
Bill Fulton, mayor of Ventura and a scholar at USC's School of Policy, Planning and Development, recalled writing a piece for The Los Angeles Times about how impossible the job of L.A. planning director is. That was in 1992. If anything, the situation may be worse now. Fulton also cast the job in starkly political terms: “You gotta figure out how to make forward planning relevant to powerful forces in City Hall. Make community plans valuable for City Council members,” he advised.
Bill Boyarsky, a former L.A. Times columnist who now writes for LA Observed, among other publications, offered yet another frank assessment of the politics: “You have to have the support of the mayor. Then, you need to have the support of members of the council.” He concluded: “You have to build your political support at the top in City Hall.”
At this point, we were thinking, what a depressing conversation. It's as if the bosses at City Hall are recalcitrant children in need of fistfuls of psychotropic downers to get them to sit down and behave, let alone read a book, or, in this case, participate meaningfully in solving the city's often wretched development landscape.
The conversation did take a turn eventually, however, with some input and insight beyond the crass transactional politics of City Hall.
L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne offered a few tart assessments for the locals, comparing — unfavorably — L.A. to New York and Chicago. As for L.A., he said, “I don't think there's any question that it works worse. An awkward, but fitting locution. And, discussing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Hawthorne said, “There's an unorthodox approach … that is refreshing and interesting and a complete counterpoint to what's happening in Los Angeles.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement for LoGrande's boss.
Jane Blumenfeld, former senior planning official, said finishing the community plan revisions is crucial and would save a lot of time and money. Once neighborhoods and developers know what's expected, and assuming the department and the politicians insist developers follow the rules — a big assumption — then there won't be costly fights over who can build what and where. It will all be in the plans.
Martha Welborne, director of countywide planning for Metro, laid out a stark choice: If you want better mobility, meaning less traffic, then you have to tie land use to transit. Meaning, you have to let them build dense near the train stops.
The discussion continued, with talk about affordable housing; what to do with public spaces; the need for speed; the need for neighborhood consensus, the need for transit.
But in the end, the messy and unpleasant realities of City Hall politics had an almost corporeal presence at the symposium, like a neighborhood's unwanted eyesort — a 7-Eleven.