A handful of frustrated employees in Los Angeles’ Planning Department have begun waging a campaign to oust city planning director Con Howe, charging that Howe fosters unfair treatment, both of workers at the office and of neighborhoods around the city. The unhappy planners have taken their case to several influential City Council members. But their efforts actually could undermine months of delicate talks aimed at both encouraging Howe to retire and speeding passage of a program to require developers of every residential property in Los Angeles to build, or at least pay for, below-market-rate apartments and condos.
The link between Howe and the much-discussed inclusionary-zoning proposal may seem at first like a bit of a stretch. It is the City Council, and not Howe, that has the authority to adopt laws that regulate just what a developer in Los Angeles must do to win approval for a project.
But some affordable-housing advocates argue that Howe has dragged his feet on inclusionary zoning and other programs by asserting that his department is incapable of taking on new work without a substantial boost to his budget.
“He’s been very good at lowering expectations,” said planner Michael Davies, who left the Planning Department out of frustration and now practices his craft in the city Transportation Department. “That gets into the morale of the department. He has never been energetic about asking for resources.”
But the real leverage against Howe may be in the hands of City Council planning-committee chairman Ed Reyes, who was angered earlier this year by Howe’s failure to attend two key meetings on inclusionary zoning.
“He just really was blowing us off on that one,” said a Reyes staffer. “That was just going too far.”
Reyes was himself a disillusioned Los Angeles city planner before leaving the department to join the campaign staff, and the City Hall staff, of Councilman Mike Hernandez in the early 1990s. On his own election to the council to succeed Hernandez in 2001, Reyes was assigned to the planning committee and eventually became its chairman.
Now Reyes is leading the fight for passage of the inclusionary-zoning law.
The councilman from the 1st District, which includes the city’s densest neighborhoods in Pico-Union, Lincoln Heights, Cypress Park and areas in between, often uses maps to display his anger over what he calls a legacy of unfair treatment of neighborhoods by city planning policies. He points to a proliferation in wealthy areas of specific plans — areas of special restrictions against high-density apartments, traffic and other burdens on residential neighborhoods.
“You just don’t see these things on the Eastside or in South L.A.,” he said recently.
The zeal among affordable-housing advocates for inclusionary zoning, combined with political heat on Mayor Jim Hahn just under a year before Election Day, could increase the pressure on Howe. Hahn has relied on Howe to press forward his affordable-housing initiatives, including adaptive reuse to permit housing in historic high-rises and a density bonus that allows developers building apartments on one parcel to construct up to 35 percent more units than they formerly were able to.
But the mayor has lost key support, including four of his own appointees who left various city commissions last week and threw their support to challenger Bob Hertzberg.
“Hahn needs us onboard right now,” said one inclusionary-zoning advocate. “That means he gets Howe to get Planning to support the program. Or he gets Howe to go.”
A call to Hahn’s office was not returned.
For his part, Howe said he has no plans to retire anytime soon. He acknowledged missing two important meetings on inclusionary zoning, including one that took place when he was out of the country.
“I regret that,” said Howe. “But all of the council members and the mayor know how pro-housing I am. When I do retire, one of the legacies I will be most proud of is what we’ve done to encourage housing throughout the city.”
Whether, and how fast, inclusionary zoning is adopted in Los Angeles is not up to him, Howe asserted.
“I’m going to keep my eyes and ears open,” he said. “Ultimately it is the council and the mayor that set policy.”
Howe said he treats employees fairly. “I’ve spent a whole career being proud of being inclusionary.”
Formerly the executive director of New York City’s planning office, Howe came to Los Angeles in 1992 to take over a department that was foundering under low morale and competing pressures from developers and powerful homeowner groups, both of which wield enormous fund-raising clout. In addition to being charged with articulating a citywide vision for growth in the nation’s second largest city, Howe was expected to effect a series of reforms outlined in a critical audit undertaken during the tenure of his predecessor, Kenneth Topping.
The notion of directing planning for Los Angeles is often dismissed by land-use professionals as a contradiction in terms, so Howe’s task was already monumental when he walked in the door.
But he was immediately faced with an unprecedented series of disasters. The 1992 riots further destroyed the fabric of the city’s most neglected areas. A shift in the economy eliminated most aerospace and manufacturing jobs and consequently made developers hungry for the most meager of profits. The 1994 Northridge quake made rebuilding a priority over planning vision.
Several disappointed Planning Department workers — who declined to speak on the record — said they had gotten a warm reception at several council offices when they asked for support for Howe’s dismissal and insisted they will press harder as election time gets closer.
“I think this is an incredible time for us,” one department worker said, “because of the vulnerability of the mayor.”