August 23, 2004 - From the August, 2004 issue

Congress for the New Urbanism 2005 Conference In L.A.

The extraordinary efforts of the smart growth movement in Los Angeles have not gone unnoticed nationally. Fresh on the heels of the Rail-volution conference in September, the Congress for the New Urbanism announced that it will bring its national gathering to L.A. in 2005. TPR is pleased to present this interview with John Norquist, former mayor of Milwaukee and current President and CEO of the CNU, in which he addresses the challenges of place making and the appeal of bringing CNU's 2005 national conference to Los Angeles.


John Norquist

Mayor Norquist, we do this interview at a summer programming session for a planned Congress for the New Urbanism conference in Los Angeles next year. Please articulate for our readers CNU's mission and why Los Angeles has been chosen as host city for the 2005 CNU gathering?

The purpose of the Congress is to restore urbanism as a form. California is a good place to be right now because a lot of transportation improvements and zoning reforms are being done in the region to restore the urban form.

Governor Schwarzenegger recently signed legislation that allows form based zoning, which encourages urbanism. Throughout the 20th century, the United States was damaged greatly by the tendency for cities to adopt separate use zoning, which took the ingredients of the city and spread them out over the landscape separately. Multi-family residential, single family residential, and commercial were in their own separate pods. It was like taking the ingredients of a cake and putting them on the kitchen counter and consuming them separately instead of mixing them together properly and baking. L.A. had a lot of that isolation of uses, but it reached its climax 25-30 years ago. Since that time, LA's been slowly coming out of it. Pasadena went through a period where its retail was turned into an interior facing mall, which of course failed like all the rest of them in the country eventually do. But now, Colorado Boulevard is urban, with buildings close to the street, mixed uses, and apartments above retail. Pasadena is a glorious success. It's a great place to hold a Congress.

But there are still plenty of problems to look at in Los Angeles, especially in the industrial belts and suburbs such as East Los Angeles, Compton, and Watts. Urban design is a great way to improve those neighborhoods in a way that doesn't stigmatize or patronize the poor. When neighborhoods that have a lot of low income people recognize the importance of design, it can lift the neighborhood economically and inform the public.

Developers get tarred with a broad brush all across the country as being somehow bad. But developers want to develop beautiful communities and have been forced into producing undifferentiated sprawl instead. Sometimes it's just little things like the obsession people have with making big wide streets to accommodate fire trucks. However, you can have streets that will accommodate a fire truck without them being 46 feet wide. Developers don't like paying for 40 foot wide residential streets because it sucks up all the money that they could be putting into the housing itself, cutting into their profits.

One of the things that new urbanism strives to do is to facilitate investment while creating communities without the burden of unnecessary regulation. One of the things we want to do with this Congress is get some of the people from the Fire Chief's association together with reform traffic engineers that are active in CNU and come up with a consensus to make it easier to develop beautiful neighborhoods.

As a former mayor, you know the challenges of balancing the many forces that bear upon a city when it must make choices about how to invest in its neighborhoods and make its communities more livable. What needs to be better understood by the public and by constituencies that support CNU's vision to reduce sprawl and improve livability in the urban core?

For Midwestern cities, it's been a little different than for Southern California cities. In Midwestern cities, there was a much more negative attitude toward the city itself. Detroit is the prime example. They abandoned the city in favor of the suburban dream, and then years later found out it wasn't working so well. But by then, the city is so damaged that it is hard to raise it up again. The communities that make up Los Angeles cover a vast area of land and are very decentralized. It's more like jewels on a necklace than one big diamond. All the various communities-Pasadena, Santa Monica, etc.-had their own transition from rural to suburban to city. It's a little bit different from the Midwest, where typically you have a central city that decayed.

But the damage that was done came from the outside. The incredible, wasteful overbuilding of highways basically created a system that allowed people to travel further and further between increasingly insignificant destinations. Combined with separate use zoning, this has led to the degradation of the urban form.

All of America shares that problem. But some Midwestern cities have come back to life really strong. Chicago and Milwaukee are two places that have made substantial recoveries. You see a reverse in the real estate gradient. The most expensive condos in these cities used to be in the suburbs, where they could zone out the poor and so forth. Now the most expensive condos in Illinois are in urban neighborhoods of Chicago. The most expensive condos in Wisconsin are in the central city of Milwaukee. Rediscovering urbanism and the blessing of urbanism, as opposed to the chaos of sprawl, is something that cities are discovering all across the country.

LA and other cities have learned their lessons and are now moving away from sprawl. There is still some bad stuff going on, but there is definitely a community dialogue where the developers, the designers, and the community are struggling to figure out how to make it better. But there are mega-cities worldwide, such as Shanghai, adopting the worst of the American form; they are building undifferentiated sprawl, overbuilding highways, not building a transit system to serve their people, and destroying their vernacular neighborhood architecture. Shanghai is the biggest and fastest growing city in the world and it's on the road to ruin. They have a lot to learn from L.A.

Mayor Norquist, if you were ever to be Mayor of Los Angeles and forced to deal with the challenges of exponential growth in the region, how would you approach the opportunity? What would be your priorities?

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With Los Angeles, there is a lot of work that needs to be done at a more granular level. There is always a tendency to look at the big picture, because it is such a big sprawling city. But the precious details of the past and of the future are the things that really add quality to the streets and to the places. For example, in Pasadena, where our conference is going to be, you can see it with the resurrection of quality and detailed building on Colorado Blvd. If that was just about the big picture– about determining where Pasadena fits into the region – you wouldn't have seen the positive transformation and restoration of Colorado Boulevard.

For the mayor of the city of Los Angeles, restoring neighborhood identity is important. James Hahn is trying to help neighborhoods regain their identity with neighborhood signage and things like that. Place making requires attention to detail on the micro level. Anybody who spends enough time in Los Angeles is going to find tremendous variety in the neighborhoods, and tremendous differences in the attractive details of different neighborhoods. That is starting to happen. The overlay of regionalism– moving towards building transit instead of freeways – is a really positive thing for Los Angeles because transit relates better to the neighborhood scale.

You make reference to the notion of place making. The Planning Report has included a number of interviews and articles over the years about place making. But it seems to be a daunting task to move away from silo-like public planning of housing, parks, libraries, and industry to place making. Describe the obstacles to integrating our planning and resources to build place when you are a locally elected official? How does one confront the challenges to making place?

One of the great obstacles we had in Milwaukee was a lot of rule based bureaucracy. As long as people obeyed the rules, they thought they were doing the job. So we had to change the thinking to what adds value to the community. For example, we had a regulation to make sure that sidewalks were clear at all times, which made it virtually impossible to have a sidewalk café. Anybody who has ever gone for a walk knows the attraction of sidewalk cafes. It helps the walking experience, even if you are not going to that café. So we changed that rule to encourage sidewalk cafes instead of stopping them.

We had rules that made it hard to develop because the process was done consecutively instead of simultaneously. Sometimes it would take over two years to get a permit to do any complicated project. We changed that so that the permitting rarely lasted longer than three weeks. And because of that, we could stop subsidizing projects. We stopped doing TIF (tax incremental finance)-districts for projects in our downtown. When we offered subsidies, we had a few developers who were really good at lobbying and sucking money out of taxpayer pockets for themselves. Once we got rid of the subsidies, we ended up with thirty or forty developers downtown, many of them doing small infill, projects with better urban design. We had a good urban code, fast permitting, and no subsidies-and a housing boom in our downtown as a result. The population increase also helped to support the retail that had been suffering in a decaying downtown.

Milwaukee, your city, has struggled for more than a decade to revitalize and to support its neighborhood schools. Los Angeles-a 400+ sq. mile city within a 700 sq. mile school district-is about to build 160 new schools within its inner city and inner suburban neighborhoods. LAUSD is not required by any laws or regulations to collaborate with other local jurisdications when siting, designing and building these facilities, and too often LAUSD takes land and builds as if in a silo, with a state approval process driving the development of new seats. What can the Congress for the New Urbanism teach LAUSD and other school districts about the value of integrating new schools into the fabric of our existing neighborhoods?

There are a lot of issues related to school design that affect the way schools and communities interact. First off, there are these ridiculous standards that cause 2 or 3 or 4 blocks to be torn down to build a school. Some of the most popular playgrounds in the world are those little urban playgrounds like in NYC, where they play stickball on the playground and there is hardly any space at all. Vast pieces of real estate for schools are not a good idea. Schools should be on smaller lots.

In Milwaukee, we dealt with neighborhood schools by getting into one of the most controversial issues in America – vouchers. The movement wasn't driven by right-wing conservative philanthropists, but by parents in the inner city who felt ignored by the public system and by the fact that anybody with money was fleeing to suburban public school systems. Today, we have almost 15,000 students now on the voucher program. But the public schools didn't suffer– enrollment actually increased. Vouchers have empowered low -income parents to pick the school that's best for their child-whether it's public, private, or parochial. They get help to go to whichever one they want to go to. It's really helped a lot in Milwaukee.

The vouchers we have are equal in value to the amount of state aid Milwaukee's public schools get from the state per pupil. So, the system recognizes the value of the children instead of short-changing them. Here, it's been a right-wing, left-wing issue. Obviously, any union would rather have a monopoly because it's easier to organize. But, we now have a school system where parents are really important. Neighborhood schools are important to some parents, while some are willing to have their children travel long distances for a really good school. I'm hoping it spreads to other cities. CNU doesn't usually get that involved with this issue, although I'd say the majority of our board is for school choice, including vouchers.

Last question. This September, Rail~volution will hold its 15th national symposium in Los Angeles. The focus: transit-oriented development, with Earl Blumenauer as its champion in Congress. What if anything, is the relationship between CNU's work, Rail~volution and Earl's livable communities work in the House of Representatives?

We're close partners with Rail~volution and Earl Blumenauer has spoken to the CNU. We work closely with him on everything. Their focus is on promoting urban rail transit, while our focus is on urban design issues and trying to legalize urbanism. If our agenda succeeds, it makes it really easy for rail transit to have a market. And if rail transit succeeds, it makes it a lot easier to build urbanism.

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