May 26, 2004 - From the May, 2004 issue

Mark Winogrond: Retired From City Management, But Still In The Game

Budget battles over the years have been unkind to city planning departments, gutting them of the resources needed to actually be the architects of their cities' futures. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Mark Winogrond, Principal of Planmark Associates, in which he addresses the need for municipal planning departments to assert more influence over the future of their communities and establish a sense of ‘place."

Mark Winogrond

Mark, you've had numerous city management positions in the metropolitan area of Los Angeles, and have grappled successfully with the challenges of growth and urban planning. While the region's leaders often address traffic, housing, and health care as issues, they rarely speak to how we might integrate our responses to make "place." What explains that?

Well, I don't agree. One of my favorite quotes is a remark by Louis Kahn, a great architect, "A street is a room by agreement." And I'd say this is the best time in our lifetime in terms of the number of people understanding that thought. Throughout the Southland, there are many cities, including its political leaders, who have come to understand that a street is a room by agreement, and are grappling with how to improve their public rooms. I will say that there is not a regional understanding of that (although the new SCAG "Compass" plan understands and embraces this). I think many local political leaders still do not fully internalize how critical it is to the well-being and the health of the region. But, place making is much more commonplace today throughout the L.A. region than ever before

Examples of place making are replete throughout the San Gabriel Valley, from Claremont to cities further west. Certainly the Burbank, Pasadena, Glendale region truly has come to understand and embrace the concepts. All of the Westside cities, including the neighborhoods of the Westside that are part of Los Angeles, as well as the coastal South Bay cities, uniformly understand. Throughout the Valley, there are growing examples of understanding this concept. I think it's doing pretty well in L.A. County and certainly as you move into Ventura County and down into Orange County, there are cities that have embraced and understand this notion of place making.

You reject, then, that significant fiscal shortfalls over the last few years have starved public planning with the result that planning staff, rather than planning for growth, are typically assigned the role of negotiator or mediator between private forces that are much stronger and more professional than the public sector?

Certainly, one of my deepest concerns is the enforced abdication of the planning role to permit processor. I did some work for the city of Malibu last year, and it was sad to see very talented and relatively young planners attracted to this beautiful city (which is actually in the middle of a very difficult/bold experiment with cityhood and attempts to retain its core historical values) but relegated to processing the permits for single-family homes and playing a much smaller role in helping the community achieve its larger vision. That example happens frequently. That "permit processing" is the work of the majority of the cities of the Southland, and it's sad. Actually, I find myself dedicating most of my consulting practice now to helping planning departments achieve a greater role in those discussions.

Mark, for health reasons you gave up city management. How have you rededicated your time? Describe some of your project assignments.

I'm pretty involved in national planning politics because I'm the commissioner of the AICP Commission representing California and Nevada. That commission does everything from accrediting the graduate planning schools to helping to set national planning policy. That takes up a piece of the time. My practice is exclusively with public agencies and academic institutions, helping them as a strategist in various matters. My clients include the UC system, Claremont Colleges, the cities of Long Beach, Malibu, and others. I do a variety of things, but mostly what I try to help them do is figure out strategies for having a greater presence at the table debating the types of issues we are discussing here.

Mark, demographers predict that two Chicagos, in terms of population, will be added to the L.A. metropolitan area in the next 25 years. Do we have the infrastructure and socio-political capital to support such growth?

Well, yes and no. "No" dominates the discussions, because this transit system wasn't designed with that density in mind and the land use decision-making wasn't designed with this new density in mind. But, I remain optimistic that those problems are going to force the solutions. What you're describing is a reality, and there's too much good in place in the Los Angeles region to allow it to fall to a scenario similar to a Jakarta or Mexico City, even though that's easy to contemplate and to write about. Fear certainly is one of the trends of the day and very useful for some politicians (and writers). But, there are certainly other models that we're seeing throughout the country. Let me just give you two examples I've thought of recently.

I just returned from Washington, D.C. and took notice of the effect of their transit system, which opened within two years of BART. In both the Bay Area and in the Washington area, you now fly over in a plane and are able to spot from the air where the transit stops are because of the density. Concerned Angelenos would say that's not happening here.

But maybe that's not accurate. Many years ago I facilitated workshops, for what at the time was the RTD, for three metro stops at Hollywood and Western, Hollywood and Vine, and Sunset and Vine. And now, years later, there are transit stops there, people grabbed the land, and a significant density is starting to emerge right next to subway stops. L.A. in many ways is a much better place to live than it was 20 years ago – a much more livable place than it was 20 years ago. And 20 years ago, we were in the same discussions about how horrible it was going to be and how many new people were going to come twenty years from then. So, who knows?

If you were the APA's publicist, what would be the lead paragraphs of that planning organization's white paper to address growth in this region going forward?

There are so many, but I have four concerns that leap to my mind. First is the continued effort to fulfill the belief that a street is a room by agreement. People, in the end, live their lives in the intimate three-dimensional spaces in which they find themselves.

Second is understanding the relationship between land decisions and health. There are two real trends of concern – the effects of health conditions on the inner city and the effects of sprawl. If you lay CDC health information on epidemics in the country on top of sprawl, it's pretty startling. The challenge is providing the information to decision-makers and making it clear that density is a positive public health contribution to their community.


Third is to create more dedicated affordable housing. We're doing a lot in Los Angeles and we need to do much more. There are 116 cities in California with mandatory inclusionary housing requirements. That is a startling number compared to where we were ten or twenty years ago, with 12 more cities studying ordinances right now (including, finally LA). The combination of mandatory affordable housing requirements and a lot of redevelopment money finally has started to create momentum. However, that needs a lot more work and a lot more pressure, because it's the hope for trying to provide housing for those most in need.

And fourth is a national struggle, which dramatically affects Los Angeles-the debate over transportation money. That fight, which is going on in Washington now and over the next few months, is critical to the future of these issues that we're talking about. The President is threatening to veto anything that has too much money in it. The Senate actually understands the need for smart growth, transit planning, and the relationship between the two. A pretty serious battle is going on between the two camps and the result will be critical to the way in which we push forward with transportation and land use planning in this metropolitan region.

Might there be a fifth? People rob banks because that's where the money is. Right now, the money for investing in inner city and inner suburban neighbors is in the $13 billion available in school bonds for metro L.A. for the next five to seven years. One hears very little conversation about place making-about building learning environments and helping neighborhoods build schools as their centers of activity. We do hear a lot about building seats. Your thoughts?

There certainly is a serious disconnect between the place making discussions, which to me are active, and the school shortage discussion. I've sat in a lot of those place making discussions. And, as I said earlier, I have a real belief that the amount of understanding has grown significantly in those discussions. I don't think it's grown significantly in relationship to the role that schools play in the place making.

I'll give you two examples where it's improved. Parks and libraries became enemies in neighborhoods. It's very difficult to build a new library in a residential neighborhood; you have to put it on commercial street nearby. But, the relationship with place making and the understanding of parks and the understanding of libraries has grown more than schools, although not necessarily more than academic institutions in general, but definitely more than high schools, middle schools, and grade schools.

Address the role of general plans in framing and shaping the livability of our neighborhoods and cities. You're involved as a consultant in such efforts. What's the value? What's the challenge? What are the obstacles to communities being the architects of their future vis-à-vis planning?

It's becoming recognized that the general plan is a difficult tool to improve or even identify the core values on which the community rests. It even has some difficulty in identifying the underlying DNA of a community. Certain components of the planning profession certainly are recognizing this, and the tools are advancing so that the early work in the creation of modern general plans is much more focused on identifying underlying values and principals, and then trying to translate it into general plans.

The way this manifests itself is that the seven chapters that the state requires are often getting morphed into multiple elements on multiple subjects, because the general plan wasn't covering the fundamental issues of concern to many community members. Modern general plans are bringing to light these conversations about public safety, school quality, and place making. The reality of creating these new plans is that it's very expensive. Most cities, because of the budget crises that they now face, do not have the luxury or the ability to take on the creation of the modern general plan.

Los Angeles is criticized enormously in these discussions. Los Angeles created a new general plan framework a few years ago, which quietly set the stage for the enormous change going on throughout Los Angeles. The best example is the amount of new housing being created on commercial corridors, in underutilized commercial industrial areas, including downtown Los Angeles, without impacting the existing low-density neighborhoods. There are many other examples where the new general plans are good, but they're very labor intensive and very expensive. So they're limited to either the few who actually set that as a priority, notwithstanding the resources, or those who have the resources.

What is your legacy in Culver City as its former CAO?

I was a lucky man to be in the right place at a good time. They knew what they wanted to do, and sometimes needed help with the details. Today, the community has a renewed sense of place throughout their neighborhoods. They have a restored downtown and vibrant commercial areas.

I always think of a city as a series of separate places-I call them "pumps." And the pump is either pumping water or it's not. And when it's not, you've got to repair the pump and prime the pump. That's the work of planning and redevelopment.

The legacy for the community is what I refer to as a 20-year overnight success story. The changes are dramatic to those who haven't been there in a while. But, to those who were involved, it was ten or twenty years of intense, exhausting dedication to good planning and good results.


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