July 31, 2017 - From the July, 2017 issue

LA County Planning Director Richard Bruckner’s Exit Interview

For 40 years, Los Angeles has been well served by the expertise of Planning Director Richard Bruckner. Over the years, Bruckner planted the seeds of balanced growth in Pasadena, North Hollywood, Anaheim, and recently, unincorporated LA County, with a state-of-the-art general plan. As he exits the county, Bruckner reflects on his lessons learned and rewards reaped, and traces the factors that created the current climate  for housing and city planning in the Los Angeles region.


Richard Bruckner

“The traits that have served me and others in the planning profession are communication skills, common sense, and hard work.” —Richard Bruckner

Richard, after 40 years in the planning and community development profession, you’ve recently announced your retirement as Planning Director for the County of Los Angeles. Looking back over the decades—during which you’ve served multiple jurisdictions—share how your career has evolved, and the accomplishments that make you most proud.

Richard Bruckner: In my first years in California, in the 1980s, I worked in redevelopment. Toward the end, redevelopment was somewhat vilified because of a couple of bad actors, but overall, it was a very powerful tool to help revitalize underinvested neighborhoods in inner cities—and it was a local tool, driven by local decision-makers. We helped to spur reinvestment in North Hollywood, Hollywood, and many neighborhoods around LA’s center city.

North Hollywood, particularly, has really grown. I worked there at the time of the emergence of the Red Line, and it’s been very heartening to see what’s happened around those stations. We fought hard for the Hollywood/Highland station; at the time, the now-defunct Rapid Transit District (RTD) saw it as a very expensive move, and actually wanted a Sunset/Vine station to go right to Universal Studios instead. Having done so much revitalization and planning work around Metro, seeing the emergence of those neighborhoods around the rail stops is encouraging.

In the 1990s, I worked in Anaheim in the community development area, where I did lot of affordable housing and redevelopment planning. I had a small part in the investments around what is now the Honda Center and the stadium area. But mostly, I’m encouraged by the emergence of historic preservation neighborhoods and the emergence of the downtown area.

After that, I moved to Pasadena as planning and redevelopment director. Clearly, Pasadena has a great history of planning and redevelopment, from both its staff and its elected leadership. I’m very proud of the work we did around the light-rail stations and the emergence of those neighborhoods.

Historic preservation was always in place in Pasadena, but during the decade I was there, it blossomed, and we doubled the number of historic districts. We saw the revitalization of Paseo Colorado (now the Paseo), and guided city growth that was respectful of neighborhoods and transit policies.

At the time of my move to the county in 2010, the general plan had not been updated since 1980. It was a bit of an embarrassment to be a planning director where the guiding and fundamental policy document was decades old. A few years after I got here, the Board of Supervisors adopted a new general plan, which set a 21st century tone for development in the county.

By that, I mean that it was supported by the transit policies at Metro and that it was founded on the preservation of important ecological areas, avoiding development in hazard areas—like high fire and earthquake areas—and focusing development in communities that were underinvested in and that had good transit access. I believe it’s a good foundational document for policies to come.

In the seven and a half years I’ve been with the county, the Board has also adopted its first historic preservation ordinance, as well as several area plans, including the first update in quite a while of the Antelope Valley Area Plan. That is a major accomplishment. We also worked closely with Universal Studios to update their plan, which they have been remarkably successful in implementing.

Internally, we’ve put in place a new electronic permitting system, which will help the organization understand where investment is going and streamline the permitting process. In the near future, developers and property owners will also be able to use it as a window into where their plans are and the next steps, and how the permitting process is going in real time. 

For the benefit of those currently involved in general and community plan updates in Los Angeles, describe what makes for a successful general plan update—such as the county’s 2015 general plan update.

In the general plan, you widen the lens and look at things from a policy perspective. But individual projects all have to land somewhere. They have a very specific geography and typography.

Many people can easily agree on the broad strokes of general policy: we should preserve important ecological areas; we should concentrate development near transit; we should reinvest in neighborhoods that have not been invested in. When a project lands in a neighborhood, that’s different.

Equally as important, when we say, “No, that project violates one of the tenets of the plan,” it has profound economic and financial implications for property owners, and real or perceived impacts on neighborhoods. That’s where the rubber meets the road in planning.

At the county, we recently had a discussion about a proposed housing project along Rosemead Boulevard just outside Temple City. In many ways, it was—from a planning perspective—the “right project.” The site was a motel that was not doing particularly well and was causing problems for the neighborhood, and it was going to be transformed into housing for the homeless, and specifically veterans.

But it caused quite an upheaval in the neighborhood. The neighbors were very concerned. I think those concerns were completely unfounded; it was fear of the unknown. Maybe we didn’t do enough work educating the public about the amount and type of services that would be associated with the use. In the end, unfortunately, it didn’t go forward for financial reasons.

What lessons are you able to offer on how good planning may be used to alleviate today’s affordable housing crunch?

Over the years, I’ve learned that the plans need to mean something and to have buy-in. We do a particularly poor job of educating communities about the implications of zoning and plans. As a result, it always seems to be a surprise when a new development pops up, particularly a dense housing project.

Also, people are pretty mobile, particularly in the Los Angeles area. If you do a plan, and then eight years later a project comes forward, it may be an entirely different neighborhood and different constituency that sees that project come out of the ground.

Advertisement

Given CEQA and the litigious society we live in, I think we need to craft plans with clear implications that communities understand, and then say clearly to the private sector: “You can build within these rules by-right.”

These discretionary processes—conditional-use permits, variances, whatever—are the causes of a lot of anxiety, and, quite frankly, lawsuits and delay. If we all understand what the plan is and what its implications are, and if there’s good buy-in, then the private sector should be allowed to step up and move forward.

Why is it so difficult for local jurisdictions and planning departments to adopt such a model?

I think there’s a fear of letting go, and letting the plan be implemented without levers and controls. There’s a lack of belief in the controls that are in the plans.

I also think that, since the demise of redevelopment, we in the planning profession haven’t put enough time into communicating and building trust with communities. When the plans are written, there’s always a public hearing, a conditional-use permit, a zone change, or some other discretionary action. That’s why nobody feels comfortable letting go.

After holding so many leadership positions in city planning, what do you think should be the criteria for choosing a successor for LA County?

I’ll leave the prospective look to the Board, but I’ll look back over my four decades and let the decision-makers glean from that what they wish. The traits that have served others and me in the profession are: communication skills—both in public and in relationships to decision-makers—common sense, and hard work.

I’ve stayed in touch with every one of my supervisors. I’ve been blessed to work with great people—most of them women, by the way. Each one brought a different aspect of planning to my education.

In Connecticut, I worked for a guy who worked extremely hard. He came in early and left late. This is hard work. It takes a lot of time. There are no shortcuts. In Los Angeles, Ed Helfeld would always ask: “Is this the best plan you can make? Is it the right plan?” You have to have the courage to stand up and say, “It’s the right plan.”

Lisa Slipkovich in Anaheim was always about making sure that, in a housing negotiation, the public got the best deal possible, and that the community understood what the plan was.

In Pasadena, I worked for Cynthia Kurtz, who is a great leader and city manager. She always enforced the idea: Make sure you understand the decision-makers’ agenda. Then work toward achieving their agenda in your planning, and position projects to achieve that agenda.

Having an agenda from a public elected official is an important thing. At the county, with the board and with CEO Sachi Hamai, it’s really about collaboration among departments and between departments and the board.

 You need someone who works hard, collaborates, and can understand the policy agenda. It’s a combination of all of those things.

Does the profession today have an abundance of professionals with such traits?

Let me put it this way: The type of planning we did in redevelopment, because we were very focused on specific neighborhoods, sharpened everyone’s communication tools. It brought us closer to neighborhoods, and it brought many more resources to planning and implementation than we have today.

I think we’ve lost some of those skills in Los Angeles, because we deal in such broad geographies—in both the city and the county. The county is over 4,000 square miles; in the unincorporated areas, there are 1 million people. The city of LA is a smaller geography, but with 4 million people. I just don’t think the resources are there for planners to drill down into the detailed neighborhood conversations of making plans and building trust. We have to work harder at that now.

Lastly, if you were to leave a note on your desk for your successor, what might it say?

Much of it is about communication on many levels: communication with decision-makers, communication with neighborhoods, and communication with staff. Understanding implementation of the plans is also important. And I do think implementation by-right is where a lot of planning is headed now, because of the litigious nature of discretionary decisions.

Advertisement

© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.