May 30, 1993 - From the May, 1993 issue

Neil Peterson: TPR Exit Interview Offers Lessons for MTA’s Future

What does the future hold for the new Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and how will the new transportation agency's policies reshape land use in this region? Perhaps no one is in a better position to analyze these questions than Neil Peterson, fresh from four years as executive director of the L.A. County Transportation Commission (LACTC). 

Peterson reflected on his tenure and on the links between land use and transportation at a recent dinner discussion with the Urban Design Advisory Coalition (UDAC), a group of influential architects, planners, and academics. Peterson left his post in late March, when New York State Transportation Commissioner Franklin White was selected to head the MTA, created out of the merger between LACTC and the Southern California Rapid Transit District. 

The discussion with Peterson yielded insights into the successes and failures of planning the Metro Rail system, as well as the future of MTA. 

Peterson: “The new Mayor will be critical in appointing commissioners to the MTA who care about more than simply who gets contracts.”

Joint Development 

In recent years, planners and architects criticized LACTC for failing to capitalize on the upcoming $180 billion investment in transportation in order to reshape land use in the Los Angeles area. In 1991, LACTC responded to some of these criticisms by creating a new “joint development" unit and hiring planners and architects as consultants to prepare station area plans. 

But some UDAC members who participated in those planning efforts remain skeptical about LACTC's joint development planning. "Joint development was offered up as a palliative, and it was said that revenues from the sale of land would pay back the system itself," said architect and planner Michael Pittas. "It's an engineering driven system. Architects and planners get their shot at joint development on a limited basis, while the engineering firms are already cranking away." 

“We were always urged to think portal down rather than portal up, which would have included the urban fabric above ground," said architect Brenda Levin.

Peterson responded by saying that his choices were limited, in part, by choices made before he arrived. "You're always coming into a situation at some point in the process, never at the beginning," he said. LACTC was always playing catch­up, doing the planning that should have been done years before at stations already largely designed. The end results were mixed. "The Seventh and Flower station is a disaster," admitted Peterson.

To the UDAC members, this points to more than just circumstance; it reflects a wholesale neglect of civic architecture in Los Angeles. “We haven't had good experiences with transportation agencies in Los Angeles in creating a sense of districts and of places," said UDAC's President, Bob Harris of USC's School of Architecture. 

"If this were the 1930s, a major public works project would have been magnificent," added Michael Pittas. "It's only in the last quarter-century or so that we have lost civic grandeur." 

Backfilling the Planning 

Peterson said that during his tenure the constituencies for urban design and planning were relatively weak: "It's not like every politician in town was crying out for this," he said. 

Meanwhile, demands by politicians and the media for "on-time/on budget" performance from LACTC dominated the atmosphere. The Los Angeles Times, viewing itself as the fiscal scold for transit, keeps close tabs on short-term cost overturns and scheduling delays while often missing the bigger picture of how the system will look, feel, and fit into the city for the next 50 years. 

“The pressure on me when I got here was, 'How come nothing ever happens in L.A.? Get something done,"' said Peterson. "The pressures from the engineers were terrific. So we set a tone that schedules were important and that we were going to meet them. In the meantime, we tried to backfill our planning and make as much of an urban design statement as possible." 

Experiences from other cities indicate that it may not be too late to inject planning and urban design into the process. Norman Ross of the engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, who has experience with transit systems all over the country, pointed out that in the Washington, D.C. Metro system, policymakers were initially uninterested in the land use impacts of their decisions. "It's only now, as they have a mature system, that those discussions are taking place," said Ross. 

LACTC may have initially given short shrift to architecture and urban design by equating these issues solely with the arts and aesthetics, rather than with broader city-making concerns. LACTC did give the artistic community attention and commitment early on, resulting in an award-winning art program in the Metro stations. "In Seattle, we had brought in the 'artist' community ..... On Hollywood and Vine, we brought in artists from day one. But we may have missed a whole perspective by not bringing in urban design in the same way," said Peterson. 

Hard to Get Things Done 

A percolating conversation is taking place in the City of Los Angeles on charter reform, meant to restructure a system of government so fragmented that it is almost impossible to get anything done. Though Peterson was operating within the county structure rather than the city, he faced such structural hurdles - and many others.

"I recently spent an entire speech to some students discussing how unbelievably hard it is in Los Angeles to get something done," said Peterson. "Robert Moses and Mulholland don't exist today ... There are plenty of groups that know a lot about how to stop something from happening. There's not a lot of leadership in L.A. in getting things done.” 

As with city government, many of the problems facing the transit agency stem from its governing structure. "I am troubled by the way it's governed," said architect Mark Futterman, “with board members who are not directly elected to the MTA and have no regional constituency. That leaves staff members trying to find their own constituencies wherever they can.” 

"The message I want to leave you with,” Peterson told UDAC, "is that if you're sitting here relying on government to think through decisions and then make it happen, you're making a major mistake." Government, Peterson indicated, is more often told what to do by outside societal forces. 


Nevertheless, Peterson did manage to cobble together fragile coalitions behind transit that included business representatives, downtown interests, labor unions, city officials, ethnic communities, suburbanites, and environmentalists. Nurturing these fragile alliances required constant work but had its rewards. 

"I'm tremendously proud of what we accomplished during my four years here," he said. He cited the securing of long-term financing for the system, the completion of the first legs of the Metrorail and Metrolink systems, and the creation of a 30-year plan for transportation in the region.

MTA Outlook 

Peterson called the creation of the MTA, "the right thing to do." But he did express some fears about how planning issues will fare now that he has left. 

As an example, Peterson cited the support of the environmental community: "We were able to bring the environmental constituency with us, to a point where the environmental community supported our system beyond what others communities have seen. That was something that required constant attention, and that could go in a second." 

"Though it may look like the (Metro Rail) system is now unstoppable, I can easily see things unraveling to where there won't be any stations to argue about," added Peterson. 

On a more positive note, Peterson sees the potential for the MTA to become a powerful catalyst for economic development in the region -a proactive, entrepreneurial agency that has the tools to get things done. "It's going to be the CRA of the future," Peterson said. "They could say, 'Tell us what you need to make your deal work,' and then make it happen." 

A Corrupt Process? 

But dealmaking can have a seamier side, as well. Peterson described to UDAC a contracting system in which dealmaking and political influence prevail. He said that corruption does not pervade the entire system, but that skewing the process only takes a few powerful commissioners eager to steer contracts to cronies. 

Peterson expressed amazement that, in a city with as many media outlets as Los Angeles, the media have missed this major story. "If people saw one-tenth of what goes on in that system, there'd be a public outcry," said Peterson. 

Peterson sees the need for an independent good government association, such as the Chicago Better Government Association, to call such issues to the attention of the media and the public. "The allies could be the environmental community, the media, the development community, law enforcement, and the academic community. The common ground is corruption, and the need to create fair, open and equal participation. Reputable firms don't want to spend their money on lobbyists." 

Short of such a groundswell, Peterson believes that strong leadership could clean up the system. ''The new Mayor will be critical in appointing commissioners to the MTA who care about more than simply who gets contracts," he said. "It will take someone to stand up and say, 'This won't be tolerated anymore, and it's going to stop.” 

To the UDAC members, several of whom had worked on small urban design and joint development contracts with LACTC, Peterson's tales meshed with their own experiences. "I always sensed that something was going on," said one urban designer. "This just confirms what I'd only suspected." 

Looking Ahead 

With LACTC and SCRTD now history, Peterson's own immediate plans include exploring the country with his young son for two months. Over the longer-term, Peterson is weighing several options, including an offer to write a newspaper column. 

Meanwhile, at the MTA, the powerful "super-agency" is finally upon us, raising expectations that the new transit behemoth - a well-funded behemoth, no less - will change the Southern California landscape forever. 

But Peterson's remarks point to an atmosphere in which politics typically prevails over planning. The experiences of other cities may indicate that the politics of planning will gain added verve as the Metro Rail system matures. However, the fragmented context in which the MTA must function could leave it somewhat less potent than often anticipated - at least when it comes to planning and development issues.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.