July 8, 2013 - From the July, 2013 issue

LA Roast - (TJ) Plunkitt explains it all… LA's Answer for Gridlock: A Streamlined Planning & Permitting Process!

This is another in a series of TPR exclusive interviews with TJ Plunkitt, a direct descendent of the infamous George Washington Plunkitt, the sachem a century ago of Tammany Hall, who proudly and infamously generated fortunes for the city’s deep-pocketed elite, and also, not incidentally, for himself. TJ is now in Los Angeles on a travel and study grant from the family’s Institute of Government Studies to substantiate his forefather’s thesis that political conniving is essential to the economic health of cities, if most citizens even cared. But TPR does, and has been following TJ's shoe-leather research.


R Genn

"Despite good intentions in the past, the planning department always seems to be a step behind as it stumbles forward. Frankly, Los Angeles appears, from walking its streets and neighborhoods, to be a city that grows not according to an informed, innovative planning process, but opportunistically, project-by-project, catch as catch can." -TJ Plunkitt

The Planning Report had previously encountered TJ in Downtown Los Angeles in the Department of Water and Power and LA Metro headquarter cafeterias, as well as the LA City Hall second floor coffee shop, mingling there among the more secure, self-satisfied bureaucrats and their trailing sycophants. Last month, TPR found TJ in Hollywood, checking on how then mayoral candidate Garcetti served his council district. With election results now in, he was there again this month, with us in tow, speculating on how Hollywood's high-rise rebirth might foretell Los Angeles’ courtship of elegant density. 

TJ: As an LA resident of now six months, it is a place I actually avoid, as do most natives, leaving it to the tourists. I happen to be here today just still checking out the council district Eric Garcetti represented for 12 years for some clues as to what he might do now that he has been elected Mayor of Los Angeles. My great forefather told me politicians, to survive, tend to say one thing, especially during an election campaign, and do another, often the opposite. Therefore, to avoid being just another academic or a blogging pundit scouring hearsay and second-hand information, I have to push away from the computer screens and get out and walk the neighborhood streets.

TPR: And what are you hearing there?

TJ: That young Eric, like his predecessor Antonio Villaraigosa, and, for that matter, the City Council, the Planning Department and most other domains at City Hall, continues to bend, understandably, to the will of developers and their entourage of consultants. Case in point: the proposed Millennium project. It has gotten a lot of residents angry, and it has made the usually calm Caltrans concerned.

TPR: Yes, it’s interesting to note that while campaigning, Garcetti disavowed the 35 and 39-story twin towers. But in the Council he blessed the mixed-use residential, hotel, and commercial project, citing, as has a chorus of other public officials and most of the good government types, that such developments—including the newly noticed Hollywood Palladium Towers—are vital to the economic growth and rising profile of Hollywood and Los Angeles.  

TJ: I have to admit, I liked the developers alliterating that the projects are “transformative and transit-oriented.” Nice ring to it, if not particularly accurate. I don’t know how many of the denizens of the proposed high-end development will ride the subways; more likely their help will. For sure they won’t be driving. They’d never survive the already terrible Hollywood traffic to find a parking space, a situation sure to worsen if the projects are built.

Whatever, GW loved those turn of phrases, as he did expediting most any sort of big bucks construction project. He undoubtedly would have described the Millennium as a form of “honest graft,” contending it would create jobs and generate profits for all involved, but particularly for investors. You know, “creating jobs” is the magic platitude to open City Hall doors these days, like “open sesame” was for Ali Baba in the long ago adventure tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves

TPR: But you don’t have to attend the public-spirited academic conferences, seminars, and workshops on our urban future to recognize that real estate has long been City Hall’s basic sustenance. As even the liberal, neighborhood advocate Jan Perry declared during her ill-fated mayoral campaign, the only way for the city to beat this lingering recession is to build. This was reiterated in a TPR interview with planning director Michael LoGrande and in the lame duck council’s approval of the merger of the city’s permitting and planning departments, supposedly to expedite the project approval process. It is reported that almost everyone who breached City Hall’s “Do Not Enter” barriers and security to be present at council cheered, in particular sponsoring Councilmember Mitch Englander, but especially the land use lawyers and their consultants. By all accounts, they can’t wait until it is polished and takes effect January 1 of next year.

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TJ:  This, no doubt, will give everyone affected a little breathing room to maneuver, find a new sinecure, and/or solidify their present one, all very much in keeping with my forefather’s benign public service philosophy. If anyone leaves public service, it usually is the more competent, confident of a comparable, better-compensated job in the private sector. Those remaining tend to be protected but less energetic.

TPR: That is pretty harsh, if not a cliché. Public service is very much a challenge, as former Ventura County manager Rick Cole contended in an article accompanying this exchange. Even your misanthropic forefather would agree—public servants are underappreciated.

R GennTJ: Yes, GW was very much a paragon of public service, even if the press constantly was taking him to task. But he really didn’t mind, as long as his bread was being buttered—and on both sides, too, holding down four city jobs at once and making him, in time, a millionaire. Certainly he would have cheered the merger, since apparently no jobs will be lost in the Planning or Building and Safety departments—at least that is what the proponents say. Indeed, my forefather, in his wisdom, would further predict that in most likelihood more jobs probably would be generated, especially the ever-invincible managers and their aides they always seem to need to track the heavy in-and-out basket activity between the persevering personnel. I expect permit applications rather than being expedited will soon be piling up on select desks, not unlike before the merger, with no one rushing to sign off lest they be criticized for some reason or other in the initial self-conscious cautious operations of the hyped fresher and cleaner Garcetti administration. GW often observed that when someone feels they are at the end of a rope, they tend to make a knot. And to be sure they will not be Boy Scout knots, and most likely will be daunting to untie, probably Gordian.

I note that in approving the merger the LA City Council in particular directed the City Administrative Office to retain a management consultant to aid in the transition plans. You can expect the extras to pile up, as Cole hints at in his insightful op-ed for TPR. I note he also questioned whether the merger really is needed to spur the city’s development and job creation; that it just might not be as effective as hoped; and in the bureaucratic shuffling, planning could be subsumed by the permitting process.

TPR: Perhaps, but changing names on doors and moving chairs in offices might be an excellent opportunity for planning to assert its prerogatives, and pursue a more enlightened vision of an evolving Los Angeles. What do you think GW would say?

TJ: As he always said, “You see your opportunity, and you take it.” Despite good intentions in the past, the planning department always seems to be a step behind as it stumbles forward. Frankly, Los Angeles appears, from walking its streets and neighborhoods, to be a city that grows not according to an informed, innovative planning process, but opportunistically, project-by-project, catch as catch can. That, no doubt, is an occasion for the private lawyers and project facilitators, as is every conflicted move the City Council attempts to improve Los Angeles, and, as GW would predict, themselves. But maybe also, with some initiative and imagination by a new mayor, this also might be an opportunity for the idealistic planners as well. Certainly it is grist for my mill.

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