August 30, 1992 - From the August, 1992 issue

Bill Luddy: Exit Interview with L.A. Planning Commission Chair

During July, L.A. Planning Commission President Bill Luddy announced that he was leaving his post to accept an appointment with the Metropolitan Water District board. Luddy’s position as President has been filled by Commissioner Ted Stein, with Commissioner Fernando Torres-Gil moving up to Vice-Chair. Mayor Bradley then filled the vacancy on the Commission by appointing David Louie, a broker with CB Commercial (for more details, see here). The combination of these moves may give the Commission a somewhat different balance.

As Luddy stepped down, The Planning Report met with him to discuss his reflections on his tenure and the future of the Planning Department in Los Angeles.

In the eight years you’ve served on the Planning Commission, what are the most important lessons you’ve learned?

One of the most important lessons has been the problem of trying to do comprehensive planning in Los Angeles given the nature of the city structure. The city charter was designed to diffuse power, and the problems which that creates become apparent very quickly after you have been on the Commission.

Can you give us some specific examples where this diffusion led to poor policy choices?

One example would be in the area of coordinating transportation and land use policies. When the Hope St. Promenade plan was being developed to encourage pedestrian activity in the CBD there was agreement that we would have wider sidewalks. But when the proposal went to Council, the Department of Transportation objected because from their perspective moving vehicular traffic was the first priority.

Ultimately, the resolution of conflicting policies comes at the Council floor, and that is hardly the ideal situation because by then positions have been taken which departments and Council offices feel they have to defend.

Another example comes from the Zucker audit of the department, which made important recommendations on coordination of planning efforts. As you know, when the audit was completed Councilman Bernson and the Mayor convened a working group to begin implementing the recommendations. That group’s first, unanimous recommendation based on the audit was to recommend that the department develop its work program.

But any work program the department might develop will be meaningless without interdepartmental coordination. Planning can commit to a work item but, if another department is involved in a key piece of that program (whether DOT or the City Attorney) and they do not have the same work priority, the Planning Department will not be able to meet its work program.

What else did you learn from the Zucker study?

It provided a clear assessment of the need for improved management skills.

We have a department where people join to become planners but later become managers, so it’s critical to provide management training. Another key recommendation was the need to reallocate some of the resources in the department.

For example, the recommendation to reassign some of the Zoning Administrators was probably the most controversial: the ZA position has attracted some of the best talent in the department, yet we need to utilize some of that talent in other areas. Unfortunately, that recommendation has been seen as an attack on the position rather than a recognition that we’re not using some of our best people fully.

Now that Con Howe has been in office for a few months, how would you assess his strengths and weaknesses, and his chances for success at the department?

I think he’s going to be successful. He has the right mix of talents to get the job done.

He’s shown me that his orientation is toward discovering how we can solve a problem rather than just recognizing a problem and waiting for someone else to provide the answer, or defending the old ways.

He’s also shown diplomatic skills and the backbone to step into discussions. At the Commission, he’s not been shy in articulating the department’s position, and I think that’s of critical importance.

Can you talk about the role you’ve played on the Commission in balancing the various interest groups that come before the Commission?

You’ve put your finger on the key role the chairman has to play. It’s not just to set the agenda or to be the only voice for the Commission. It’s to draw the other members into discussion and draw as much as you can from all of the commissioners to develop a solution.

My intention was to be the traffic cop of the discussion. That role continues to be critical today because there are more voices arguing for a piece of a shrinking pie. The fights are getting tougher, and it’s going to be harder to strike that middle ground.

What are the key issues facing Ted Stein, your successor as Commission President?

He’s going to be continuing the implementation of the audit recommendations and he’s taken steps in expanding a subcommittee system for the Commission. The land-use/transportation policy is also becoming increasingly important as an element of the General Plan Framework.

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In this time of increasing fragmentation in Los Angeles, what should the public be looking for from the Planning Commission?

The Commission’s job is to maintain an even strain as the tug comes from all sides — it has to continue to keep a five-, ten-and twenty-year perspective, to look down the road. The role of the Commission is to be the non-elected public representative, not to worry about the election cycles.

And how should the Commission handle the proposals to decentralize the Commission into four regional planning commissions?

The Commission has to point out that the decentralization of planning began some time ago with Citizens Advisory Committees. If Council offices or communities want more immediate contact with planning, those vehicles already exist.

To set up small commissions would defeat the purpose of the commission — it would give immediate responses to small areas at the expense of an overall assessment. If issues concerning the airport, the harbor, or landfills were decided only at the local, micro-level, you’d have a shortsighted viewpoint.

Is the Commission active enough in policy discussions on big picture issues such as the land use/transportation policy, or does it mostly react to smaller cases brought before it?

We spent a great deal of time in my tenure to move in that direction: when I started on the Commission, there were no policy discussions. It’s difficult to spend as much time on that as you might like given that Commissioners have jobs and that there’s an agenda each week of very particular cases.

A couple of years ago, we tried special commission meetings on policy issues, but found Commissioners couldn’t come downtown another day each week. So now we try to carve out time within the regular commission meetings.

How do you see the role of the Planning Commission vis-a-vis other agencies with impacts on development, such as LACTC and the CRA, particularly with the recent raid on the CRA’s budget?

The CRA is one of the few effective means available to get something done in communities that most need development. The move on its budget just doesn’t make sense in the context of rebuilding L.A.

I’d like to see an analysis of whether the monies that CRA opponents claim could otherwise go back to the County could actually be spent on needed services given the Gann limits local governments face.

On land use and transportation, we began meeting over a year ago with LACTC, and Commissioner Fernando Torres-Gil has been a very strong voice on this issue.

We’ve begun working on station area plans with the Vermont/Sunset station. On the Pico/San Vicente station, the Planning Commission has instructed staff to work with LACTC to do a LA/DAPT-style charrette to design how the community surrounding the station can capitalize on that investment.

How would you advise the incoming mayor in the spring of 1993 on how that Mayor should pick a Planning Commission and give direction to planning in L.A.?

Maintaining a broad range of interests and talents among commissioner is essential. I would advise the Mayor to put real emphasis on completing the Centers Concept.

Everyone agrees it remains valid, but little work has taken place to implement it. We did recently give more attention to implementing the Concept as we worked on adjusting the Warner Center Specific Plan. Also, the Mayor should insist upon a work program and use the General Plan Advisory Board to get department heads to agree on comprehensively coordinating major programs.

And finally, does all of this mean that you’re in favor of a Charter reform?

Yes, absolutely.

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