January 30, 1993 - From the January, 1993 issue

TPR Interview: Mayoral Candidate Tom Houston Shares Planning Visions

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 Los Angeles mayoral candidates. As part of our continuing series, we present this month an interview with candidate Tom Houston

Houston, 47, is a senior partner in the Los Angeles law firm of Carlsmith Ball et. al., where he practices environmental, transportation, real estate, and political law. From 1984 to 1987 he was Deputy Mayor and Chief of Staff for Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. From 1979-83 he served as Chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission. 

In your written campaign plan for Los Angeles, you talk about depoliticizing the Planning Department. How would you accomplish this as Mayor? 

First, I’d accomplish it through Charter reform to create a strong Mayor system. That would give the Planning Department a lot more autonomy and remove the City Council from constantly interfering with Planning Department decisions. There has been a constant debate over priorities, competition between Council districts, and changing staff assignments that’s hurt morale and caused the Planning Department to have a larger staff than necessary. 

Secondly, we need to assure autonomy in the Planning Department by logging the contacts that come from the City Council and the Mayor’s office and make those logs public every Monday morning — who called whom and what they called about. We used this system when I was in the Federal Energy Administration for congressional and White House contacts — it was very effective in cutting down political interference. 

I’m also a firm believer that the Planning Department should enforce zoning and plans. There’s an overuse of Conditional Use Permits today. There need to be clearer signals to developers as to which projects are satisfactory and which are not.

You’ve also proposed Community Planning Advisory Councils around the city. How large a decision-making role would they play? 

I haven’t proposed a hundred of them, as another candidate has. I’ve suggested six councils. They would play an advisory role in looking to the future on where their communities are heading, looking at upcoming development issues in those areas. Some of them, in poorer communities, might have broader powers to come up with a list of incentives for businesses and developers to expand. 

What is your proposal for rebuilding Los Angeles and what are your feelings about the appropriate role for the Mayor with respect to RLA? 

I think the Mayor should lead the effort. The original philosophy of RLA was wrong — it’s a philosophy that emphasizes only what business can do on its own. That hasn’t worked and now there’s a clamor for what they’re calling the “government component.” From personal experience in trying to get to Uebberoth and others in the program to help secure federal funding, I found that they not only did not help, but they actually discouraged the effort. I think we could have had $400 million in public works projects for riot-torn areas if we’d merely asked.

I’ve said publicly that the biggest mistake they’ve made is misleading the people of South Central about the level of private investment coming and its form. I don’t believe that major industry is coming to South Central until small businesses get going and the community pulls itself up by its bootstraps. Times are tough, they’re going to stay tough, and people in that area are going to have to work their tails off. Then and only then will industry come into the area in substantial fashion. 

On transportation planning, the current policy has been “on-time, on­budget” without regard (as Nick Patsaouras has pointed out) to the effects that this massive infrastructure investment will have on the city over the next 100 years. How do you think the next Mayor should modify or add to the mission of the new MTA? 

I’d take a look at some of the transit routes to analyze which ones really make sense. For example, I’d revisit the Valley route: there’s no reason in the world that, with today’s quieter systems, the system cannot go above ground along the Burbank/Chandler route. We need to take a look at ridership and whether some of these systems make sense. To have made Metrolink such a top priority may also have been a mistake. 

Nick has good ideas, but the problem is that they’re so far off that they will be difficult to implement. They rely on new investment coming in around the transit stations, and I don’t think there will be much of that in the near future. Nick’s plan is a good academic exercise but I’d focus much more on the near-term issues. 

Economic summits are in fashion at the moment. Many have suggested that cities and regions should be at the forefront of shaping economic strategy. Do you subscribe to that theory and, if so, what would be the elements of your economic revitalization strategy? 

I think an economic summit could be a useful exercise. You’d have to start with the defense industry. But first, you’d have to find out if they have any plan at all. The defense industry itself hasn’t really been heard from as to its plans: they seem to be in survival mode rather than creatively looking to the future. 

I think there is a danger if government starts announcing goals without support from private industry. An example is the electric car industry, where the government has decided it’s a goal, without a full buy-in from industry. I hope it succeeds, but I think you have to start with the businesses as a first step. 

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Is there a role for the Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles to play in the economic revitalization of the city?

I think there is, but its strategy has to be carefully targeted to rebuilding L.A’s manufacturing base. It could focus on high-tech or on low-tech industries like meat packing that are ripe for investment — meat packing could be brought back to South Central and there’s a need in Los Angeles for fresh meat. If you assign that as a clear goal, the CRA could play a role in making it possible, as an example.

The CRA has a major role to play in directing private investment into poorer areas, very similar to the role it played in rebuilding downtown Los Angeles.

How will your policy on affordable housing issues differ from that of Mayor Bradley or the other mayoral candidates? 

It probably doesn’t differ much in that I’d try to give more emphasis to housing at the CRA and consolidate the various agencies that now have n role in affordable housing. I’d also try to develop more housing along transit lines. 

You mentioned Charter reform earlier. Doesn’t that imply a mayoral vision for what departments should do?

It basically means that someone’s articulating a policy and is accountable to voters for whether that policy succeeds. You set a series of objectives and hold your staff accountable: you’d issue a report card every year on whether departments have or haven’t made progress. 

How would you get to Charter reform? Could you get it through the Council? 

Probably not. I’ll try, and then I’ll go the initiative route. I just don’t see the City Council being willing to give up its powers voluntarily. 

Finally, how do you plan to tackle the City’s major fiscal problems, which so affect planning and real estate? 

First,  I’d favor a very steep trash collection fee. I’d take away the recent business tax increases. I would have raised the water and power rates two years ago when everybody knew it needed to be done. I also think the biggest pool of money that’s justly L.A.’s is for services we provide for illegal immigrants that should be reimbursed fully by the federal government. The shortfall is at least $600 million for the County; the City hasn’t done it's analysis yet, but San Diego, a much smaller city, found its illegal alien burden to be $114 million.

There’s also going to have to be a lot of cutting just to make ends meet. And that’s without an increase in police officers unless the ballot measure passes in April. 

Some City Council members who don’t understand the budget are mouthing off about cuts in departments generating hundreds of millions of dollars: there are cuts that can be made, but they don’t generate that kind of money. That’s why I'm glad Zev Yaroslavsky is staying in his Council seat to chair the Budget and Finance Committee: he has a clear handle on the budget and on what’s required.

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