Photo by Art Cueto

Los Angeles is about to select a leader whose vision, skill and personality will determine the city’s course through a wrenching period of growth and reinvention. The person who gets the job will place an indelible stamp on L.A., making decisions that will determine how smooth traffic flows, how thick the smog becomes, even how genuine the city’s democratic culture will be.

It’s not the mayor. It’s the planning director, a little-known post in a city with a laughable reputation for a lack of urban planning. Academics and professionals make jokes about the job of L.A. planning director, comparing it with, say, supervisor of snowplows in Honolulu.

With the retirement announcement last year by city planner Con Howe, though, long-frustrated community activists, besieged homeowners, and developers angry over City Hall red tape have become excited over the rare opportunity to change course. But the opportunity to weigh in on the selection nearly got away from them. Mayor James Hahn set March 4 as the deadline for applications after doing little outreach other than placing the job description on the city’s Web site. No national search firm was hired, and no listing was placed with the usual Web and other resources for planning professionals. It was as if LAPD Chief William Bratton announced his retirement and the mayor quietly set out to pick his replacement — before Election Day.

Responding to complaints from neighborhood and activist groups, Hahn extended the application period to March 18 — still far too short a fuse in the view of a coalition of organizations and individuals who sent the mayor a nine-point list of criteria to be considered in the selection, together with a request that no final decision be made until at least after the May 17 mayoral runoff.

“It is so hard to do things right, isn’t it?” complained activist Helen Coleman, who has organized efforts for equitable treatment of Los Angeles neighborhoods south of the Santa Monica Freeway.

In many ways, the city does need the Bratton of city planning, whoever that person may be. The city’s planning department is overwhelmed with a nearly impossible workload, and planners describe an environment with low morale and little vision. City Council members complain of paltry assistance from the department staff, but also chafe at the prospect of giving up any of their near-feudal power over development in their districts. Builders of affordable housing, as well as market-rate homes and commercial properties, blast the department for an East Berlin–type bureaucratic maze of red tape. Homeowners feel under assault by a new wave of building and community densification that, unchecked, could undermine L.A.’s characteristic suburban neighborhoods. At the same time, the high cost of housing has spurred a crucial need for affordable units, and an equally dire need for an accompanying infrastructure — first, streets wide enough to accommodate the additional cars of the new residents, and bus and rail lines to lighten the load; then, conveniently located schools, stores and public services.

Some elected officials quietly call for an empowered planning director who has the courage to tell them “no,” offering them political cover for development decisions that may not play well with the voters in the short term. That brings to mind a visionary autocrat like Robert Moses, the redevelopment guru who swept away whole New York neighborhoods in the postwar era and dictated the location of parks and major development projects.

But that kind of personality would never play in Los Angeles, where neighborhoods are just beginning to shake off the feeling of powerlessness in the face of City Hall dictates. Many urban activists are calling instead for a leader who is as much a community organizer as an urban planner, to empower communities enough to give them a real stake, and a real role, in developing the future.

“At this point, the job requires someone who thinks of himself/herself as a mobilizer,” said Occidental College professor of urban and environmental policy Robert Gottlieb, one of the drafters of the letter to Hahn. “Someone who works with constituents to build and empower.”

The mayor, Gottlieb said, also must be willing to “unleash” the planning director in a way some might find uncomfortable, while the council must be willing to back up the new official instead of simply asking, “What goods can you deliver to my district?”

The letter calls for a director who will design a city with affordable housing, “viable alternatives to driving alone, jobs that pay a living wage, streets that are pedestrian and bicycle friendly, and parks and plazas in every neighborhood.”

The progressive vision for planning in Los Angeles, taken to its extreme, calls for a revolutionary re-creation of the city, similar to efforts undertaken in smaller cities like Portland, Oregon. In Portland, a neighborhood-based movement has begun to take over residential intersections, turning the city streets into town centers of community interaction and even fairs and neighborhood-sponsored art projects.

Grassroots planning of this sort, Portland architect Mark Lakeman said this week at an L.A. lecture on “People’s Urbanism,” is about recapturing democracy.

“It’s about people engaged in a place and not just making decisions, but coming out and saying ‘hello,’” Lakeman said.

It’s not clear that the Portland model could ever gain traction in Los Angeles, a city many times larger and with a starkly different history of development and political and social organization. Free enterprise and real estate subdivision and development have a more central place in L.A.’s civic lore than planning and commonwealth projects. It’s merely amusing, for example, to imagine Portland-style urban villagers turning the intersection of the 405 and the Santa Monica Freeway into a community gathering spot.

But planners in cities more similar in size and history to L.A. — San Diego, for example — have adopted more human-scaled and sustainable urban visions. San Diego is creating a city of villages, giving stakeholders power over local development, while the city devotes its resources to infrastructure, like streets, parks, schools and police stations.

Hahn responded to the letter from Gottlieb and others by rolling out a process for public testimony on selection of the new director. The first hearing is at the planning-commission meeting on March 10, with additional hearings at each of the seven area planning commissions over the next two weeks.

Hahn also has given an unprecedented role to neighborhood councils, calling for a group of one representative from each of the seven planning areas to screen his final picks and make a recommendation for the appointment.

“We did this same process for director of Animal Services,” said Deputy Mayor Doane Liu, “and it worked very well.”

That should be enough to send shivers up the spines of planning activists. Many vocal animal-welfare groups were deliberately omitted from the selection process that ended up in the appointment last year of Guerdon Stuckey. Stuckey has been greeted with continuing protests as he fights the perception that interested activists still have no role in the city’s animal-welfare system.

There is also concern that neighborhood councils are too dominated by homeowners — or too early in their development — to play an evenhanded and constructive role.

“If they’re like my neighborhood council, we’re in trouble,” said Helen Coleman. “We’re still in the learning stages.”

Liu said groups represented in the letter to Hahn would take part in the final selection committee for planning director.

The planning department’s chief antagonist, City Councilman Ed Reyes (who once worked in the department), applauded Hahn for extending the deadline but said it wasn’t enough. He wants hearings in front of his committee — the City Council’s planning and land-use panel. But he acknowledges that the council’s official role is limited to approving or rejecting the mayor’s final selection.

“It is bothersome that we didn’t have a search firm, we didn’t go through all that is done for other departments,” Reyes said. “But the charter has taken away a lot of our role in terms of how you hire and fire a department head. So I’m doing the best with what I have.”

Reyes also is concerned about what he said were reassignments of staff in the department in advance of the director appointment. He introduced a council motion, which has yet to come to the floor, calling on the department to stop making internal promotions that, because of the civil-service system, would tie the hands of the new director.

In the background of the whole process, of course, is the mayoral election. Anyone appointed by Hahn today could be ousted by a new mayor on taking office in July.

It’s hard to attract the best applicants under those circumstances, said Reyes.

“It’s unfortunate it’s getting caught up in the turbulence of the mayor’s race,” he said.

The letter to Hahn can be read at

LA Weekly