August 29, 2005 - From the August, 2005 issue

Polyzoides Offers a ‘New Urbanist' Perspective on Planning in the Region

A principal in Moule&Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists, located in Pasadena, Stefanos Polyzoides has helped lead the New Urbanist movement. A founding member of the Congress for New Urbanism, Polyzoides has promoted building and urban design that respects the human scale and tries to reduce dependence on automobiles. The Planning Report is pleased to present Polyzoides's thoughts on the opportunities that the L.A. region faces as several cities choose new planning directors.

Stafanos Polyzoides

Stefanos, let's focus on the cities of Los Angeles and Santa Monica and their opportunity to select a new planning director this year. In a TPR interview recently with George Lefcoe, a former city and county planning commission chair, George argued, "The energies of the planning department are necessarily directed to political mediation. It is best to recognize that without surrendering completely to it." How do you, as a leading advocate of New Urbanism, react to George's limited view of what a city planning director ought to focus on?

One of the things is that there is a remarkable difference between Santa Monica and Los Angeles. I think the problem of Los Angeles is that it is too large and too politically constrained to generate an appropriate planning process, and I think we spent the last generation witnessing small cities prosper based on a more direct and more elaborate and consequential relationship between politicians, appointees, developers, and community activists. In places like Pasadena, Santa Monica, and Culver City, and I can go down the list to all of the places we are working now, like Yorba Linda and in Newhall and so on, the smaller the city, it seems, has the more direct the relationship between the governing and interested parties. Los Angeles is 15 or 20 years behind the curve in this respect.

That is a well-spoken analysis, but allow TPR to press the Lefcoe thesis that Americans are different than Europeans-that we plan from the bottom up rather than the top down. In fact, George went on to say in that same interview, "For us (Americans and Southern Californians) planning is about reconciling the demands of specific interest groups, homeowners associations, unions, homebuilders, commercial developers, environmental advocates. It isn't about imposing an urban vision."

I completely agree with that, but I think at best I would say the process is not about muddling through the process, but it is about a set of advocates believing in something much more than their project and believing in the future physical and economic prosperity of their town and getting themselves together to form a vision and then advocating and managing it over time. I don't think that George's statement talks against visions. He talks about the nature of the visions: who sets them, who advocates them, and how they are executed. In many cases, those are done by the public sector, in the case where they have a downtown strategic plan, or we are working in more than one place where the vision actually comes from a developer and it is picked up by the community and at least supported enough to become a reality. I completely agree, and I think as a New Urbanist, I can say that my view of the subject is absolutely not from the top down.

Elaborate more on the perspective that the New Urbanist movement brings to the selection of a planning director of a city like Los Angeles.

I haven't thought about it in a specific list of tasks or list of strategies. Let me just say a couple of things as they come to mind in a short discussion. The first thing I would imagine that a planning director would do or be as a New Urbanist planning director would be capable of executing as well as administrating. I hope that they would be involved enough in the political process to try to affect the political process as an advocate, because I don't believe that Los Angeles can prosper with 15 fiefs as a planning framework, one per councilperson. I would hope that they have an elaborate technical view of the balance between transportation and land use. By that I mean that they would try to overlap this to important areas and bring transportation projects and the management of transportation into the fold of planning.

I think they should be very interested in reaching the standards of Santa Monica and Pasadena in terms of planning and design review and the expectation of high-quality projects. I would imagine that they would have a very high interest in understanding the city not as one big blob of land use designations, but to begin, maybe through form-based coding, to think of it as a series of small sub-city scaled places and then maybe even neighborhoods of particular character within them and their planning needs.

I have been around for a long time, approaching 30 years, and when we first arrived, the scale of the city seemed to be endless and not understandable, and all of a sudden I think it has become very understandable. And even a place as vast as Los Angeles has its levers and its buttons, and I think that over time it can be addressed, it can be attacked, and it can be maintained, and made consequential in terms of its planning process the way every other place has in the last thirty years.

In terms of talking about the neighborhood scale, what role do the citizens of the city of the region play in helping the planning director or guiding the growth of the city or accepting a certain style of developments?

This is a very hard question because I think it is fundamentally a political question. You have to see a balanced view of this in a place like Santa Monica or Pasadena. By that I mean, neither of those cities or any small city are actually ideal cases, but contrasting Los Angeles is very important. I don't really believe it is possible to control quality on the scale of a vast metropolis. But I don't think it is possible to do it on the scale of an individual neighborhood either, because the views of those neighborhoods can be totally parochial.

I was recently in a neighborhood meeting out in the West Valley, and it is very clear that the neighbor's view of Los Angeles from the perspective of a single neighborhood is unattainable and unsustainable as well. So the question becomes, and it is again a political question: How does the city reduce itself into small enough entities so that the decisions related to particular projects or the fate of particular neighborhoods become decisions in balance between the neighbors, the city as a whole, and the technicians both the staff and higher technicians that in fact can best get engaged in a discussion about how these issues are resolved. Certainly, it is not top down, but it is also not bottom up in the most extreme view of these two vectors.


As an advocate of New Urbanism have you seen L.A. begin to accept it more on the level of project or the neighborhood?

My sense is that Los Angeles County is probably one of the most advanced places in the United States in the advocacy and particularly the execution of New Urbanist projects. We don't know it very well and we are not very well coordinated, but, for instance, the fact of the eighty-eight or so cities within the county every one of them has pretty much recycled or is in the process of recycling its downtown is an extraordinary thing. I don't think it is happening anywhere else in the country. I feel very optimistic because this is being done without allegiance to New Urbanism. This is being done without brand-mongering of any kind. This is simply being done, and that is extremely exciting and very rewarding.

You have seen good things happen around the L.A. area. What regulations have you seen have been helpful for promoting and allowing cities to do the exciting sorts of things that you have identified?

It is a very general statement, but I think zoning is a negative and untenable instrument that needs to be replaced as soon as possible. It sows both administrative chaos and political confusion, and certainly architectural and formal discombobulation. The instrument that saved the show, as far as I am concerned, has been specific plans and the focus of cities on the careful execution of limited physical projects beyond the single building.

I think the whole form-based code movement, which is picking up tremendous steam – we ourselves are doing some, others are doing some – is really the force by which zoning will be reformed citywide in cities. There has been an entire general plan in zoning called the form process in Azusa. And another one is under way in Ventura. There are some in Northern California. There are some in Southern California. We just finished a form-based code for Irvine, of all places. I think what is going on is that the instruments, although not perfect in every way and not always perfectly executed, are by far more instrumental in automatic pilot better development than zoning as we have known it. 

Are there any particular regulations for the city of L.A. that you think would have a particular impact?

I have noticed with great trepidation and great interest and great pain, the work that someone like Jane Blumenfeld has done over time. It is just simply trying to patch and patch and patch the code, and I would say the time has come for the City of Los Angeles to basically scrap the code. In the office we pride ourselves on being able to understand regulations, and write them and read them and execute them in our buildings. We actually had to hire a lawyer to figure out how to do a project in Westwood. That is how massively confused the situation is, which comes out of this incessant patching. I think Los Angeles needs to choose a bunch of neighborhoods or a particular district or a particular subject somewhere and actually hire somebody with a national perspective, and do something that matters finally. The short version of it would be stop patching and start thinking.

Stefanos, The Los Angeles Unified School District just this week voted to put another almost $4 billion school bond on the ballot for its 700 square mile jurisdiction. That coupled with past bonds at local and the state level means that we are spending about $40 billion in this basin for new and remodeled schools. How could that or how does that fit into the New Urbanist agenda?

I am going to just suggest to you an outline because there is a political problem that has to do with how the city is broken up into smaller pieces, and that includes the schools. I think that some degree of control, whether it is at the neighborhood level or at the borough level or some kind of intermediate level is absolutely necessary to make parents and citizens and neighbors more directly connected, not only to the schools, but to every aspect of city life. When it comes to the architectural and urbanist side of it, I think that this is an immense opportunity that I would hope the next planning director sees because it strikes me that schools are not just schools anymore. They can be the core of neighborhoods, and if they are properly understood in their community-building dimension they could really regenerate much of the basin.

If this became a crusade through which Los Angles leveraged this building to generate both a public process and a new city structure that builds confidence and builds places such as parks and retail and after-hours programs-all of the things that residents need in their neighborhoods-I think that that could truly change the basin. I don't see another $40 billion floating around in the next 30 years, and I would hope that whoever picks up the helm of the planning department along with the mayor could actually make this happen. It's an immense opportunity. It comes once in two or three generations.


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