November 30, 1990 - From the November, 1990 issue

Topping Out, Squier In: Will New Faces Bring New City Policies?


Fabiani: (For a Planning Director) “A vision means nothing if you can’t process EIR’s expeditiously.”

October 30, 1990. Not quite a day that will live in infamy, but a significant day nonetheless for Los Angeles planning with the resignation of Kenneth Topping as Los Angeles Planning Director and the appointment of Gary Squier as the General Manager of the Housing Preservation and Production Department.

With the ink now dry on the analyses of the events that led to these developments, what changes will these shifts bring to planning and housing in Los Angeles?

An Impossible Job?

For the Planning Department, change hinges on who is chosen early next year as the new Director, a position that is now the subject of a nationwide search. But, given the experiences of Topping, is there anyone who can successfully straddle the lines between Council offices and the Mayor, between developers and homeowners, between long-range planning and short-term projects, between vision and management? Regrettably, many believe that the answer is no.

“That job demands a very good, tough administrator, but it also demands a creative person with vision, the kind of person who is generally not a very good administrator,” says one planning consultant, who asked not to be identified. “The job needs someone who cannot be bullied on the one hand, and one who is a supreme compromiser on the other hand. It’s almost impossible for one person to do this job.”

In the always-active City rumor mill, the Planning Department vacancy is unusual for the lack of names, candidates who seem both qualified and interested. While some Planning Department employees are expected to jockey for the appointment, conventional wisdom pegs them as neither sufficiently charismatic nor visionary to become Planning Director.

Many outside observers long for a Planning Director with “vision,” arguing that only a strong, charismatic voice for planning can shake up the Planning Department and revive staff morale, widely acknowledged to be at its lowest point in years. But potential candidates are looking at Topping’s experiences and thinking twice. “I wouldn’t want that job even if they doubled the salary,” says another consultant, himself mentioned as a candidate for the job.

Just as Calvin Hamilton came to Los Angeles from Pittsburgh and lasted 20 years in the Planning Director’s office, Mayor Bradley may find his ideal candidate in a Planning Director from another large city. But the Department’s pressing, immediate problems argue against appointing someone requiring on-the-job training in the ways of City Hall.

Are Changes Ahead?

Clues as to what changes to expect next year from the Planning Department may be culled from statements by aides to Mayor Bradley, who is responsible for choosing the new Director. “We’re looking for someone tough and independent, capable of saying no to developers and the City Council,” says Deputy Mayor Mark Fabiani. “We also want someone sensitive to the concerns of our diverse city, from the East side to the South side, not only to the areas of traditional concern like the West side.”

Some observers hold out the slim hope that the Topping resignation will lead the City Council to reassess its micro-management of the City’s planning matters. “The big question is whether Council members will begin to realize, as Michael Woo has begun to, that it’s their own attitudes that are part of what’s wrong with planning in this city, says one land-use attorney.

But the first change to expect may be is in the speed of the approvals process. Despite disagreements about the role of the Planning Department, virtually everyone agrees that the process is too cumbersome.

“At a time when the city is asking developers to bear more and more of a burden with the housing linkage fee and transportation fees, developers deserve to have their projects treated quickly and fairly,” says Fabiani. “A vision means nothing if you can’t process EIR’s expeditiously.”

“I would expect a new work program with manageable milestones,” says another City official. “The new Director will have to get the work done, and make those 350 people in the Department productive.”

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New Housing Department Chief

While many question whether anyone can handle the Planning Department, Gary Squier has drawn raves as the right person to handle the Housing Preservation and Production Department. Squier comes to the position of General Manager after many years of non-profit housing experience and after serving as Housing Coordinator for Mayor Bradley and as interim Executive Director of the City’s Housing Authority.

Whatever changes occur with the appointment of Squier will be shaped by the decisions of the new Housing Commission. The Commission began its meetings in October, choosing David Roberti aide Charles Elsessor as its President and the Ward Economic Development Corporation’s Jacqueline DuPont Walker as Vice-President. It is spending its first weeks on a crash course on Los Angeles housing policy, and will soon begin preparation of an initial report on housing policy goals, due by January.

The Housing Department under Squier is likely to emphasize greater targeting of the City’s housing resources. Squier cites the $20 million the City currently spends on single-family rehabilitation. “We’re going to take a close look at where the benefits are going. Are there better ways to spend the same dollars in the same communities? How can we take a program that’s popular and improve it to serve those who need the assistance?”

Obstacles to Success

Despite Squier's popularity, some skeptics argue that the City’s planning landscape is stacked against success for the Housing Department. “I question whether Squier can make a difference at the Housing Department,'” says one land-use attorney. “The Department is not set up to confront the anti-growth forces of the city. How can you do affordable housing when the whole city has been downzoned?”

Squier wants the Housing Department and the Housing Commission to address these concerns, providing information on how growth management measures would affect the housing supply. He also hopes to recast the growth debate in Los Angeles. “As long as growth issues are discussed as simply pro and con, we’ll make little progress,” says Squier. “We need to talk about growth in terms of quality of life.”

Another obstacle facing Squier is a lack of funding. According to Squier, the Department presently has a budget of approximately $50 million per year. Proposition K would have provided $100 million to the Department over three years, but it went down to defeat with the anti-bond fever of Election Day (“A falling tide sinks all boats,” quipped Housing Coordinator Michael Bodaken). With the second defeat of a city housing bond initiative in two years, funds for seismic rehabilitation and non-profit housing will be scarce.

“Squier is a capable guy,” says one City Hall lobbyist. “But I just don’t see the funds available for a ‘War on Housing.’”

Given the defeat of Proposition K, an issue to watch in the coming months will be the final passage of the housing linkage fee, crucial to funding the department’s programs. Despite the slowing commercial real estate market, Squier still expects the linkage fee to generate $15 to $30 million annually for the department.

The fee is now being considered by a Linkage Task Force (consisting of representatives from government, the private sector, and non-profits), which is expected to vote on a fee amount by early December. While the final fee is expected to be around $5 per square foot, the recently-completed “nexus” study justifies fees of several times that amount.

Several thorny issues remain before the Task Force, including determining whether the fee will be applied citywide, which types of development will be exempted, and how and where the money will be spent.

The Outlook

With Squier not assuming office until December 1st and Ken Topping remaining on the job until the end of the year, few changes will come until 1991. But when they do begin, the progress in one department will certainly affect the other. As one consultant put it, “Only by straightening out the way we do planning in this city can we really get serious about addressing affordable housing.”

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