June 27, 2005 - From the June, 2005 issue

Con Howe Offers An Exiting Planner's Take On LA City Planning

For more than 12 years, Con Howe has directed the often controversial processes of the Los Angeles Department of Planning. During his tenure, he has worked on some of the city's most recognizable projects, such as the Staples Center and Union Station, and completed the first comprehensive revision of the city's General Plan in 20 years. In this excerpt of remarks he delivered to the Westsude Urban Forum, Mr. Howe reflects on the changes the city has undergone since the early 1990s.

As I prepare to retire from my position as Director of Planning for the City of Los Angeles, I would like to share some of my thoughts about my experiences at the department and the future of planning in this great city. When I came here 13 years ago from New York City, I had a great deal to learn and to acclimate to when I first arrived. Three weeks after I moved here the civil disturbances related to the Rodney King trial happened. I was touring the area with then-Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas, driving among the burned out buildings. He asked if I was uncomfortable, and I explained that I had seen plenty of burned-out buildings in the South Bronx, where I once lived. Actually, I was more afraid on the previous day when then-Councilmember Marvin Braude and Cindy Miscikowski, who was his Chief of Staff at the time, showed me the dirt part of Mulholland Drive and warned me about the rattlesnakes.

I was so green at the time that when people claimed my goal was to "Manhattanize" Los Angeles, I didn't fully understand that it was meant pejoratively, and during the early days on the job I feared that people would find out that I had never owned an automobile before. I was also bewildered by a public transit system that was so class-based, and by the debate about whether we would "dewater" the Santa Monica Mountains by building a subway tunnel under them.

I also remember being very impressed by the level of civic discourse and the fundamental good intentions of many of those that I met when I first arrived.

There have been many changes in the city in the last 13 years. One change has been the sense of optimism that has developed since the pessimistic days of the early 1990s that resulted from a string of setbacks for the city. Within two years of my arrival the city had to contend with the civil disturbances after the Rodney King trial, an economic recession and the Northridge earthquake. The city has rebounded from these calamities. It has rebuilt itself physically and psychologically. Perhaps these disasters had a Darwinian effect: those who were faint of heart or lacking commitment, left the city, their places taken by those who are more comfortable with the complexity and diversity of life in a major city.

There have also been many changes directly related to planning in the city. For instance, we used the lull of the recession to establish high but realistic development standards, to encourage people to build "by right." We rewrote the General Plan-calling it the "General Plan Framework"-to embody a physical vision of the city that would encourage new development-especially housing-in the city centers and along the commercial corridors, where transit existed. We also updated 34 of the 35 community plans to reflect those policies. As a department we developed policies that are predictable and consistent throughout the city.

There have also been some more revolutionary changes in planning.

Access to information-essential for informed public debate-has been greatly increased. All plans, zoning for every parcel of land, meeting agendas and hearing notices are all available to the public on our website.

Structure for decision-making in planning has changed. Authority as been devolved to seven area planning commissions and there are 85 neighborhood councils that provide input on planning decisions. These changes have created opportunities for more people to become involved in the planning process.

This is a region with a history "moving out", where older neighborhoods were abandoned by people who could afford to make the choice. Now, there is a great deal of re-investment in older neighborhoods. As part of this effort the number of historic districts in the city has tripled, and downtown is experiencing an unprecedented level of investment. Bonds issues support significant reinvestment in the civic life of neighborhoods throughout the city, including new or rehabilitated schools, libraries and parks.

Of all these changes the one that will have the most impact on the physical form of the city is infill development in the centers and commercial corridors of the city. This kind of development has been facilitated by removing regulatory barriers such as adaptive re-use ordinance, and by providing incentives such as the by-right density bonus for affordable housing.

Step-by-step, we are providing the housing we need in proximity to transit services, improving the commercial corridors and preserving stable neighborhoods adjacent to them. Over 60 percent of the record 12,000 new housing units permitted in the city in 2004 are in the commercial centers or along the commercial corridors.

While I view these all as positive changes, we all know that profound problems persist and many challenges remain. Because of these challenges, many are asking what role the new director of planning should play and what characteristics should he or she have, and expectations for the new director are very high.


I was recently reminded of just how varied and high the expectations are for the new director when a reporter covering a public hearing on the topic called me and asked, "How does it feel to know that you can only be replaced by God?" The idea, however, that the planning director should be a shining knight on a horse-or, more likely, Don Quixote on a donkey-is misguided. We should not invest one individual with all the aspirations of such a diverse population.

Planning, rather, is rife with countervailing forces; it is messy, dynamic and there is seldom a single right answer. Planning also takes time, patience and commitment. You have to keep working for improvements and moving things in the right direction in hundreds of incremental steps every day. It is also the untimate democratic sport. Everyone should play; it cannot be left to the technocrats or the ideologues. To continue the sports analogy, maybe a director should be one-third referee, one-third quarterback, and one-third coach. But rather than discuss what, in particular, we should expect from the new director, I can tell you what the new director should expect from us.

The most important ingredient for successful planning in this city and region is a sustained, informed and active civic community.It has been said that this sprawling region has a civic culture to match, consisting mostly of isolated and self-interested groups, and there is probably some truth to this. What is needed to overcome this fractiousness and to pursue a planning agenda that improves the region is a civic community that has the following attributes:

First, it is organized, whether in coalitions, conservancies, associations, alliances, neighborhood councils, or forums.

Second, it is broad in its concerns. Currently, there are too many one-project groups, too many people passionate about the project two blocks away, but uninterested in broader issues beyond.

Three, involvement needs to be sustained. Many groups form to address a single issue or project and then disperse.

Four, involvement must be inclusive and open to new people and ideas, and willing to listen to all points of view.

Fifth, participants need to be informed. This takes work, but is critical for meaningful civic dialogue.

Sixth, the civic community needs to be supported by the media and by academia.

Thirteen years ago, when I arrived in LA, my private goal was to become a real part of the civic life of Los Angeles. The rewards for my participation so far have been significant. While I am retiring as the city's Director of Planning, I will not be retiring from the civic life of the city, which is my home. I look forward to working with my fellow Angelenos to help this city live up to its great potential.


© 2023 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.