August 2, 2010 - From the July, 2010 issue

Martha Welborne: New Chief of Strategic Planning for L.A. Metro

Recent months have been marked by high profile appointments to public agencies, and L.A. County Metro's recent hire of Martha Welborne as its chief planning officer ranks as one of the most newsworthy changes. Already managing director of the Grand Avenue Committee, Martha Welborne will assume the responsibility of planning and facilitating the large scale initiatives and projects resulting from passage of Measure R. As such, she becomes one of the region's most influential and powerful planners. The following TPR interview details her new responsibilities and welcomes her to her new role.


Martha Welborne

You realized in 1996-through your non-profit work linking a first world city to a third world jurisdiction like Curitiba, Brazil-what a third world community could teach a first world city about how to deal with congestion.

That experience actually lasted five years. It started in 1996 and went through the beginning of 2001. In working closely with the MTA, but working on the outside, I realized the power of good ideas and that, even as an individual, I could help shape the larger scale in a way that I never had as an architect, even on large urban design projects. I was working with system-wide challenges, problems, and political challenges. Many, many people were involved in that.

It helped a lot of people in this county when the rapid bus system was built and when the Orange Line was built. We're still building on that. We're still adding lines and routes, and I'm very proud of the system.

I was enticed to work here at the MTA because of the opportunity with the passage of Measure R. There is a lot of funding available to build more projects, create more connections, and create better mobility for people in this county. Another thing I learned from the rapid bus effort is that I'm a very cause-driven person, and I like challenges. This is about as big as you get in terms of challenges, but it's also an amazing opportunity. When the guys at the top of the MTA came after me, I just had to explore it.

What is the role of the chief planner in this large institution with massive challenges?

There's a list of projects that the voters approved through Measure R. That's one reason Measure R passed-because the voters saw what they would get with those tax dollars. Each individual project is in a different stage of conception or planning or design or environmental review, and the planning group here largely goes through the environmental process, which is pretty far down the road. We are extensively engaged with public outreach and trying to determine, first of all, the conception and description of the project; secondly, the alternatives inherent to the project in terms of modes, routes, station locations and the like; and thirdly, beginning the early stages of design and reviewing environmental impacts. After environmental clearance, we work closely with the engineers who take the lead during the detailed design phase of work. We like to have engineers and operations people working with us from the very beginning so that what we plan can be designed and what we design can be built and operated.

As the head of the planning group, I have a whole army of staff who are very skilled and very adept at various aspects of environmental clearance or conceptualization or outreach or any of the other activities that we undertake.

Doug Failing took this position for a while until they were able to entice you. Did he leave a note in the drawer giving you some counsel on where the alligators were and where opportunities were?

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He is going to continue on at the MTA, but will be focused on the highway portion of planning, and I will lead the transit portion. We're sharing it in a way, although the long-range planning falls firmly under my supervision. In terms of the actual project activity, he's on highways and I'm on transit.

Do the two of you meet often?

Absolutely, he is a good partner. Having him here was one of the attractions to coming here as well as, of course, Art Leahy and Paul Taylor.

In collaboratively working to execute on Metro's transportation and land use opportunities, is there a common operational language used by management and board?

To be honest, I'm still learning that. I'm beginning to see the patterns, and this, like many government organizations, is driven by the schedule of the board meetings and all the committees that build up to board meetings. Because of that structure there are inevitably formal ways of communicating as well as informal ways of communicating. I don't have global answer for you yet. Ask me in a year.

How has Metro changed since the late 1990s, when you were intimate with, but not an employee of, the organization?

It has evolved tremendously. When I was involved here I was not on the inside, so I can't describe the actual interactions. But the agency was involved in a lot of difficulties in the '90s that needed to be worked out. They have gone through a series of leadership changes and efforts to stabilize. It's a much more smooth working operation than it was some time ago.

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In 2001, you helped Metro write an analysis of the region's transportation condition. It was not a pretty picture.

You're referring to the 2001 Long-Range Transportation Plan, where we pointed out in the executive summary that we cannot build our way out of the transportation problem. The only solution is to link land use and transportation planning. After we get the 30-10 initiative through and I have set it up to manage it well, I want to turn my attention to the long-range future and link land use and transportation planning and work with the 88 cities within this county to come out with a plan that will help many, many generations to come. I can't wait to get my hands on that.

The voting public has gone a bit sour on the public sector. You have collaborated with the professionals and dedicated people that manage public planning and transportation agencies. Talk a little bit about the quality of the people in these and like public buildings that the voting public never gets to know or appreciate.

There are fabulous people here-people who are dedicated, incredibly knowledgeable, and who pull off miracles all the time. They work just as hard as any private sector employee works. This is the first I've been full time in government, so it is a bit of a leap. For nearly everyone, there might be a moment in your life and your career when becoming part of the government is the right thing to do. If you look at people over the course of history, or even just in Los Angeles, there was a time for Dick Riordan to become mayor, and he'd never been in government. There was a time for Michael Bloomberg to become the mayor of New York, and he'd never been in government. I'm not a mayor, but with any government position, opportunities arise from time to time that you can't help but seize.

Let's drill down a little bit on your first couple weeks on the job. What's on the top of your desk? What are your priorities this week?

Measure R has evolved into the 30-10 program, and accompanying it is the accelerated highway program. The MTA board wants to accelerate Measure R projects to get them built in ten years rather than in 30 years. The challenge, you can imagine, if you're the staff on the inside, is that suddenly your work has tripled and your staff has not. In fact, we've had some layoffs recently. The immediate challenge is how to organize these projects through all the phases of design, environmental clearance, construction, and operation in a way that holds costs steady, keeps the public happy, and delivers the projects to the benefit of all Angelenos. It's an enormous challenge.

The last year has been very tough on public sector budgets. We've seen variations on layoffs. The city of L.A. laid off some of its most experienced workers. Other cities and departments have been laying off. Do the cities and related agencies have the capacity to execute an accelerated transportation grid?

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That is part of the challenge. We're sort of hand in glove. All of these projects are located within the 88 cities in the county. It's all a cooperative effort; it is a challenge.

You didn't give up entirely the other job you had, which was with the Grand Avenue Project. Talk a little about the challenges that remain there. What are your responsibilities to the project?

It has been very hard to get away from that project. I have worked on the Grand Avenue project for over nine years. The goal of the project is to create a new center around the Music Center and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, where there are currently surface parking lots and one temporary parking structure. Here we have one of the icons of Los Angeles, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, surrounded by parking lots. The effort of the project was to create an economic engine and a destination for that part of town, the top of Bunker Hill. The components of it are on four different parcels of land where six high-rise buildings and low-rise structures will be built up to a total of 3.6 million square feet. Another goal is to renovate the existing county mall and extend it down to City Hall into a park that can be programmed-events can be held there, and it could be a fabulous new gathering place for Los Angeles. We've gone through the design of phase one of the development project, which is a mixed-use phase that includes condominiums, a hotel, and 250,000 square feet of retail.

We've also completed the design of the park. Phases two and three have not yet been designed. But just at the time that the developer and Frank Gehry, who is the architect, were finishing the design of phase one, the market crashed and the economy fell apart. Not only was there no money for construction financing for the developer but also there was no real estate market of people interested in buying condos and renting space for retail. The development portion of the project is on hold right now, but the park is proceeding. Construction on the park started July 12. That was a very exciting moment.

There are three things on my plate right now before I can step away from Grand Avenue. One is getting through the final stages of the park. I'm not the one who's going to overview construction, so that will be off my plate very soon. The county is acting as the client managing park construction. We've had two other requests, however, and I cannot walk away from the project until these are resolved. One is that Eli Broad has requested to put the museum of his collection of modern art in part of the phase two site of the Grand Avenue project. All the various boards that we report to will need to consider that.

The third issue is that the developer has asked for an extension for the start of construction for phase one because they are currently required to start February 15, 2011, and that doesn't look possible. Those last two pieces are impossible to hand off to someone else. There are just too many questions and too much background knowledge needed, so I might as well do it myself. Frankly, I leave Metro every day and go to my other office as long as I need to at night. It's going to be a tough few months of transition, but I just don't see any other way. Metro insisted that I start and wouldn't wait a few months.

Can our readers anticipate a resolution of the museum issue and on the Related/Grand Avenue Project extension by the beginning of the fall?

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The beginning of the fall is a good target. I would love to say by the end of the summer, but all of these actions require approval of four boards: the CRA/LA board, the City Council, the County Board of Supervisors, and the joint powers board. To get all of these documents negotiated and all the issues vetted and resolved is a lot of work. I don't control the timing of any of those boards. That's in the hands of others, as hard as we all might push. There are a lot of issues that need to be considered. We're in the thick of it, and have been working on it for about six months.

When we met again in October, what will be the interview's focus? Obviously, you will be a Metro veteran, and you will have some of these issues resolved, right?

I'd be sleeping at night; I'd get to go home at night. That would be pretty nice.

There will be a lot of activity that takes place in the planning arena at Metro between now and October. Let me just give you an example, not all the issues. One example is the Crenshaw to LAX transit corridor, a light-rail project. That will be back at the board in September or October, as will the subway to the Westside, as will the regional connector. All of those big, fabulous projects that will help the county so much are at stages where major approvals are needed, and they will be back before the board. That's not even all of the items the planning department will have before the board between now and October. There is a lot of activity going on.

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