October 27, 2005 - From the October, 2005 issue

With Creative Planning & Community Involvement, W. Hollywood Makes the Most of Its 1.9 Square Miles

Since its inception in 1984, the City of West Hollywood has sought more than just clean streets. The famously liberal city has pursued not only progressive public policy but also innovative urban design, which recently garnered it the Westside Urban Forum's 2005 Legacy Award. TPR was pleased to speak with founding city councilmember and current Mayor Abbe Land about the efforts and civic vision that have made it one of the region's most distinctive cities.

Abbe Land

Mayor Land, West Hollywood, your city, turned 20 last year. Many commentators believe it is one of the newest and, by some accounts, most innovative cities in L.A. County or anywhere else. Give us a brief history and tell us how your city came so far so fast.

Twenty years ago a broad coalition of people got together to incorporate the city. At the time, there were a lot of people concerned about the rising cost of rent. We were under the L.A. County rent control ordinance, and there was a concern that the County might be sun-setting that ordinance. Renters felt that by establishing our own city, we could enact a rent control ordinance that truly met the needs of the community. Additionally, many people were concerned about development and felt that if we had our own city, we could better handle development by getting more residents involved. It was a group of people who got together at the right time and right place and worked hard to become a city.

In the short span of 20 years, we've accomplished quite a lot. I think this was possible in part because there were a lot of eyes on the newly incorporated City of West Hollywood, including LAFCO which felt that our financial position was precarious, and people really didn't think we would succeed. This inspired us to work extra hard to ensure our success. We had a diverse community with varied interests, so the focus was on how the council would adequately address those competing interests.

The council and the community wanted to show everyone that we could succeed as a city. We might be just 1.9 square miles, but we're the best 1.9 square miles in L.A. County! We agreed that we are a city which cared about and cared for our constituents. We allocated considerable funds for social services and law enforcement in order to differentiate West Hollywood from the rest of Los Angeles. The fact that West Hollywood is a smaller bureaucracy than other surrounding areas allows us to try different things. We are able to get immediate feedback on the efficacy of our programs and can move things forward in a way that other communities may not be able to do. We have worked really hard to get community input into issues which affect our city. In creating our very first general plan we invited the community to give input. We had a map of the city on the floor and everyone was able to draw how they wanted the city to look.

West Hollywood bills itself as "The Creative City." Can urban planning be creative? How is creativity applied to the civic form of the city as projects are considered and approved?

Urban planning can definitely be creative. For instance, 20 years ago people weren't talking about mixed use at all and now many cities are actively developing mixed use projects. Sustainable development that incorporates environmental components into the planning ordinance calls for creativity. Early on we looked at regulating water conservation, landscaping, and making sure there were electric vehicle hookups and bicycle parking. That is certainly creative and innovative urban planning. Land use issues in a densely populated area require thinking outside the box like finding innovative ways to use side yards on small lots. When you factor in the whole design component, encouraging one design over another, urban planning is one of the best tools a city has to show its creativity.

The Westside Urban Forum recently honored West Hollywood for providing "an inspiring example." What can Los Angeles learn from West Hollywood's success? What can other smaller cities learn? Is your success applicable elsewhere?

One of the things that Los Angeles can learn is that getting constituent input is very, very important. In fact, L.A. has started instituting neighborhood councils for this purpose. You can never please everybody of course, but it is vital that people have the opportunity to give their input, especially on important projects such as a general plan. We adopted a new strategic plan a couple of years ago and worked hard to gather community input. Now the city's core values are not only the council's core values but are the community's core values as well.

Other small cities should look for innovative ways to gather community input into projects and legislation because it is important for the community to be able to relate to what the council is deciding. None of us want to work on a document that is just going to sit on a shelf. You have to make the connection between urban planning and your own personal quality of life. Although a continual struggle, we have done it well on a number of occasions and we can certainly serve as a model in that respect.

Our philosophy is that everyone is equal and civil and human rights are something that drives the city and has definitely helped us coalesce as a community. We feel that women have a right to choose and that gay, lesbian, transgender, and bi-sexual people should absolutely have the same rights as anyone else. We feel that seniors should be taken care of and that they should have a good quality of life despite diminishing income. The model we have established for other communities to follow is to work at finding those shared values of the community and use them to lead.


In terms of caring for your residents, one city priority that has never changed is the provision of affordable housing, which you mentioned was one of the impetuses for the city's creation in the first place. How affordable is shelter in West Hollywood today and, with L.A.'s housing prices continuing to rise, what is the city doing to ensure that it can support housing a diversity of residents?

Currently, every city in California is struggling with this issue, and we are no exception. Obviously we have a long-time commitment to affordable housing since the first day of cityhood, so this is one issue on which we continually focus. We had one of the first inclusionary zoning ordinances in the county. We invested in and worked with a few different affordable housing providers to build affordable housing. Through our redevelopment agency, we will have some grand opportunities over the next few years to increase our housing stock. We're also looking at creating more live/work space so that people can live and work in the area, or at least walk to transit to get to work. We try to negotiate units when we can, and we are always open to new and creative ideas to secure more affordable housing for our residents.

Over the last decade West Hollywood has invested in major upgrades of Santa Monica Boulevard. What is your assessment of the success of that infrastructure investment project?

It was an incredibly successful project. Almost every week someone mentions to me how great Santa Monica Boulevard looks and how much they love walking and/or driving on it. The public agrees that the result was well worth the months of construction and sacrifice.

Any time a city embarks upon a major capital campaign like that you learn what you could do better such as how to keep the public better informed. We definitely learned a lot during that project, but at the end of the day I think the beautification of Santa Monica Boulevard was truly one of the most important infrastructure projects that the city has ever done and will help us as we plan for the future.

You are now running for State Assembly. In the event that you are successful, what in your tenure on the Council and as Mayor are you most proud of - what will stand the test of time in West Hollywood?

I'm most proud of the fact that this was a little city that people weren't sure of and now I feel that we have really carved out a niche in this Los Angeles megalopolis. I'm proud of the fact that we govern based on what the community's needs and values are and that we look at those issues when making decisions.

I'm also proud that we have enacted some very innovative legislation. West Hollywood was the first city to be pro-choice, the first to ban the .25 caliber hand gun (known as the "Saturday Night Special"), and the first to create a model domestic partnership recognition. I hope the City of West Hollywood continues to enact innovative public policy that helps insure its vitality and diversity, that every creative and sound planning principal is used to insure a diversity of housing stock for low income, for working people, and for older people so our residents have a great quality of life and feel proud that they are in a city that cares about them.


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