May 30, 1992 - From the May, 1992 issue

TPR Interview: New L.A. Planning Director Con Howe Takes Charge

Since arriving at his post on April 6th, new Los Angeles Planning Director Con Howe has been learning the Los Angeles scene — meeting with key city officials and community leaders.

To provide our readers with an early indication of Howe’s direction, The Planning Report interviewed Howe on some of the broader issues facing his department.

This interview was conducted prior to the recent violence in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict.

Could you give us some insights into the selection process? In particular, what made this a good fit for the city, the Planning Department, and for you on a personal level?

It’s hard for me to separate the selection process from the Zucker audit of the department. My first knowledge of the situation in Los Angeles came during my participation on the peer review panel the department put together, and that was also the first time the planning community in Los Angeles got to know me. That was February of 1991, when the city was still very early in the selection process, and nothing in the peer evaluation experience motivated me to seek the job.

It was only much later that the Personnel Department approached me as part of its recruitment process. I was impressed that they were conducting a truly national search, and were allowing outside candidates to compete on an equal basis: that simply wouldn’t happen in New York. The audit itself was also important to my considerations. I felt it represented the various planning constituencies coming together to face up to the problems of the department and the actions that needed to be taken.

As to the “fit,” what struck me was that a 350-person agency really is different from smaller planning organizations. I hate to say it, but perhaps the best training for being a big city planning director is serving as a big city planning director.

I’ve also been struck by the parallels between cities. While I’m constantly having to reinterpret terms and phrases (like learning to say EIR rather than EIS), I haven’t yet run into an unfamiliar area. Working with community groups representing different neighborhoods is something I’m very used to from New York.

So what do you think the search committee was looking for? That big city experience?

I think that was important. They had to have weighted the issue of how much they wanted to bring in new ideas and a fresh approach against concerns about the learning curve. I think I was also helped, in a curious way, because no one could regard me as anyone’s candidate. I consciously sought not to be anyone’s candidate. I did not make any phone calls, or campaign for the job. I felt that if I were selected, I’d rather come in not being perceived as anyone’s candidate and not owing anyone.

Was there something absent in Los Angeles that you’ve hoped would happen with the decision to retain you as Planning Director?

My main hope has been to raise the level of the dialogue on planning issues. In New York, the dialogue is at a high level, with active and knowledgeable participants who figure out ways to work together while maintaining well-considered, consistent positions.

My sense is that here in Los Angeles, it’s been more fractious, with people at loggerheads unable to pursue a common agenda. I hope that planning becomes something important to all Council members, and that people’s sophistication and knowledge of planning issues are raised.

I’d like to help strengthen organizations — whether they be business oriented, neighborhood-oriented, pro­development, anti-development, or historic preservation — that play a role in the planning process, so they can figure out ways to work with the city and with each other. If this can occur, there would continue to be dissent, but dissent that would actually lead to resolution or problems. There would be more of a common agreement on what problems exist, but still divergence on how to solve them.

I’ve been trying to figure out why there aren’t broadly-based organizations with a long history, institutions that bind together a city. Perhaps this is explained by the city’s newness as a world-class city or its history as a newer city without traditional elements, but that doesn’t mean the city shouldn’t be developing these kinds of institutions now.

What one or two problems jumped out at you from your participation on the Zucker audit that you can address now that you’ve assumed this position?

I was struck by the department’s insularity. Not to sound like a naive populist, but the department lost the sense that its real constituency was the people, rather than the narrow professional world. It needs an orientation to the customer — the public. The leadership of the agency tends to have remained in the department for years, if not decades, and it becomes very easy to lose sight of making policies understandable to the outside world.

So one of my goals is to have the department reach out to the broader public in a way that is understandable. Whereas it’s easy for planners to talk about long-range planning, taxpayers have to understand that in manageable bites.

It’s perfectly appropriate for the department to lay out a long-range strategy, but it should be laid out in steps so people can understand what it means. Otherwise, it remains a discussion floating in the air. When I talk to staff about current projects, I keep pushing for explanations of how elected officials and constituents can understand it as one shorter-term step in a broader, longer-range policy.

We also need to be product-oriented. Though it’s easy to castigate the department as case-oriented, cases are a product people understand, with meaning to people’s lives. I’m not opposed to the department doing an efficient, thorough job on case studies. Some of the comments in The Planning Report’s recent open letters might indicate that we should stop spending time on small details and think instead about the big picture. I think we need to have big pictures, but in manageable steps, related to the case-work yet fully informed by broader planning policies.

Emphasizing only the management aspects of the Zucker audit is one of the traps of the department’s insularity. If all I did was bring better management to the department, that would not be enough. I won’t be spending the rest several months working on the audit, making the department a well-oiled machine, before turning to public issues. The only way for the department to develop credibility and a constituency is by dealing with the very issues people lay at your doorstep.

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But in this city and at this time, you’ll have a short honeymoon period. What can you accomplish during this honeymoon that will have lasting effects thereafter?

One is for the Planning Department to strengthen relationships with other public agencies. I’ve been struggling with how to do that in a system that lacks any built-in mechanism for cooperation. I could go around to these agencies and say, “We have to work together,” but everyone says that. The only way to make that concrete is to have issues and projects where you really do work together — it happens by doing it.

What’s especially important to me are those issues where the agency has not traditionally been in control or even a player. I want to establish our role, our responsibility, and what we can contribute. We can’t convince people we have something to say just because we’re the Planning Department. We have to convince people we have something to say because we say intelligent things.

This means coordination with LACTC, the CRA, the Housing Department. and other agencies. One area I’m baffled by but have high on my agenda is figuring out the coordination of planning with the city’s own strategy for capital investments, or lack thereof.

How, specifically, will this department’s relationship proceed with LACTC and the Metro Rail project?

Metro Rail — the routes, stations, and areas around the station — is a bread and butter issue for which there has to be real coordination. But our coordination has no meat to it unless it’s project-specific. Talking at a general, ephemeral level is not enough — we have to work together project by project. With LACTC, that means working on stations and routes, and how the zoning and community plans can be changed accordingly. I’d rather move the department to that level than leave it at a very broad discussion.

What else will be among your early priorities?

I’m very concerned that the department’s role in poorer neighborhoods is insufficient. Zoning is not an everyday problem in the lives of large numbers of people — we need to address housing, economic development, and capital investments such as parks rehabilitation.

I’d like to work with public agencies that can recognize that the planning strategy for large areas of the city is not a zoning strategy. The Planning Department may be among the best-placed parties to pull that together. Again, it has to be on a focused basis — you can’t just say, “we’re going to do something for the poorer areas of the city.” We have to find prototypes, and bring a variety of public tools to bear on problems.

What's at stake for the Department in the current budgetary crisis?

I understand that it’s not going to be politically possible to ask for more planners at a time of cutbacks in police and fire. My goal is to ensure that the employees we do have can be as productive as possible.

The Zucker report recommended some $24 million in improvements to make the department more efficient. Given the current budget situation, is that in the cards?

One thing we’ll be making clear to the Council is that, given the current budget, a whole host of those recommendations that have budget implications can’t be acted upon. That has real implications for the productivity of this department — it’s not without costs. We’ll have to emphasize the many aspects of the audit that have no direct fiscal implications and keep pushing those that do but which also yield cost savings.

Any other thoughts about coming to the city?

It’s a very energizing time for me. I’m trying to understand the city, from touring its neighborhoods with Councilmembers and others. I’m assimilating the recent planning history and issues. I’m listening to people’s perceptions and ideas.

I keep translating all this in my mind to my own experiences, but no one is going to wait for me to complete my “education.” I will also learn by doing.

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