November 30, 1992 - From the November, 1992 issue

Michael Woo’s Mayoral Agenda for L.A. Planning and Governing

The Planning Report seeks to lift the level of debate on the future of Los Angeles by presenting the planning visions of the major 1993 mayoral candidates. As part of this continuing series, we present this month the views of Councilman Michael Woo.


With some luck and some leadership, the 1993 mayoral elections could be animated by the struggle to give L.A. a new identity as an “urban community.”

The coming mayoral election is the first chance in 20 years to redefine the urban vision of Los Angeles.

Has L.A. ever had an “urban vision”? The answer is yes, if one counts the vision of a dream metropolis characterized by affordable low-density housing, a booming economy, easy mobility for private automobile owners, plentiful supplies of water, ample private open space, consumer preferences for new construction over preservation of the physical past, and undemanding ethnic minority groups unfazed by their exclusion from the city’s mainstream.

But that era is gone. There is a new era struggling to be born in Los Angeles, but it lacks a name, a vision, an advocate.

Next year’s city election could be another battle of typically content free campaigns. Or, with some luck and some leadership, the 1993 mayoral elections could be animated by the struggle to give L.A. a new identity as an “urban community” which speaks to the unceasing tension between its inner-city intuition and its suburban soul.

Creating the Vision

The City departments most responsible for implementing L.A.’s urban vision need to be recharged, retooled, and even rethought.

Consider, for example, the Department of Planning. The recent independent audit by the Zucker firm had it right when it described the Planning Department as overworked, understaffed, vulnerable to political meddling, preoccupied with short-term microplanning, and largely irrelevant to the fundamental planning dilemmas facing Los Angeles.

Or consider the Community Redevelopment Agency. The CRA may need to shift its emphasis to financing manufacturing projects, job training, and business retention and expansion in the aftermath of the economic and racial disparities underscored by the civil disturbances earlier this year. Ironically, the money and the autonomy which uniquely empower the CRA to address post-riot needs may also attract political finger-pointing and obfuscation which may only confuse, delay, and ultimately undermine the CRA’s legitimate work.

Rigid zoning and building code requirements can have a stultifying effect on innovation. If we could experiment with minimum lot size requirements, we might demonstrate that smaller single-family homes could be made affordable within the city limits. If we could encourage projects mixing residential and commercial uses on the same site, we could encourage people to live closer to their work places and reduce the need for cars. If city codes are obsolete, redundant, inflexible, or out­of-touch with economic reality, it ought to be easier to change them.

Because economic growth (or the lack of it) is central to the city’s current crisis, I have proposed a complete revamping of the City’s fragmented business development efforts. Instead of literally 20 separate departments, agencies, task forces, and offices scattered across City Hall’s organizational chart, I propose to consolidate all City business development efforts under one roof with one person in charge. Only then can the Mayor and Council expect true accountability in this area which is so crucial to the city’s future.

The Mayor’s Role

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Some say that the position of Mayor lacks the power to provide leadership for real change. On the contrary, I contend that the Mayor can do more than any other local figure to unite people with a compelling vision of the city’s possibilities.

In order to crash through the political gridlock and the maddening lack of accountability in L.A. politics, the anachronistic City Charter must be overhauled. The Mayor should be given the real authority of a chief executive officer, starting with the power to hire and fire department heads and the power to restructure staff positions within the Mayor’s office without City Council review.

Absent the political will to modernize the City Charter, a resourceful Mayor can still triumph over political fragmentation and the cacophony of the City Council. But triumph requires a clear understanding of the Mayor’s power, unspecified in the Charter, to set goals — to define the agenda — for the overall best interests of the city.

It means using the Mayor’s “bully pulpit,” the Mayor’s position of moral leadership, his prestige, his extensive staff resources, his unparalleled access to Southland news media, and his ability to get others to pick up the phone when he places a call to persuade them to accept and support the agenda defined by the Mayor.

It means the Mayor walking into the Council Chamber not only to greet a visiting dignitary, but also to coax a vote from a stubborn councilmember.

It means the Mayor convening a weekly meeting with the Council leadership to anticipate upcoming controversies, ask questions, line up support, or agreeing to disagree.

It means the Mayor periodically convening his commission appointees and the department heads within the format of unofficial “cabinet meetings,” in order to find out what is going on within the bureaucracy and to seek accountability even where the Charter discourages it.

It means the Mayor walking up the hill to the County Hall of Administration, transcending the petty rivalries and the ego games which have long separated the City and the County, to seek compromises on long-unresolved mutual concerns such as the cap on CBD development, the future of landfill sites, and the funding of services for AIDS patients and homeless people.

Perhaps most difficult, it means the Mayor staying disciplined and focused on demonstrating achievement on the handful of highest-priority city goals — the “big ones” such as fighting crime, rejuvenating the local economy, and easing racial tensions. It means consciously avoiding the myriad of distracting goals which will bubble forth inevitably from an electorate in which expectations have been freshly raised. It means the Mayor enforcing discipline and accountability from his commission appointees and staff so that their commitments of time and energy reflect the priorities set by the Mayor.

A Mayor cannot single-handedly fill in the institutional cracks which fragment a city. But only a Mayor can provide the healing vision which would make urban unity more than a dream.

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© 2022 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.