January 18, 2006 - From the January, 2006 issue

New Planning Commission Brings Energy, Vision, & Understanding of Smart Growth to L.A. Planning

To help implement his bold vision for the growth and development of the city, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa installed a brand-new Planning Commission to oversee the Planning Department and help put it on a new course. TPR was pleased to speak with commission chair Jane Usher, an attorney and former member of the Bradley administration, and commission member Robin Hughes, director of the L.A. Community Design Center, about their role in creating L.A.'s smart-growth future.


Robin Hughes

You both have been appointed by Mayor Villaraigosa to the L.A. City Planning Commission. The mayor has articulated a bold vision for the city's built environment, including high-density, mixed-use, and other ‘smart growth' strategies. How does his vision coincide with the agenda, as it's evolving, for the City's new planning commission?

Jane Usher: The mayor's agenda is our agenda. His vision is our vision. As commissioners, our job is to add the detail and the nuance necessary to make his agenda real. It falls to us to apply his vision to live cases, and to advance his policy messages to our staff, to our colleagues in other departments, and to the applicants and opponents who appear before us.

This TPR interview precedes the announcement by Mayor Villaraisgosa of his selection of a new city planning director. It therefore gives you an opportunity to elaborate on the relevance and import of that selection to the implementation of this planning vision.

Robin Hughes: Whomever the mayor appoints to head the planning department must share his vision for the city of L.A. and all the things we just talked about-urban infill, density, mixed use-and have the skills to implement that vision operationally utilizing the Planning Commission, the staff, and the other departments within the city. He or she also must also work with the business community, the development community, and the non-profit community. Neighborhood councils will also be important players in this.

The L.A. city controller's office recently released an audit of the Planning Department essentially suggesting that it's bureaucratically inefficient and often fails to provide a bold planning vision for the city. What in that audit do you find valuable, and what's actionable?

JU: The planning commissioners endorsed the audit and accept its findings. The department has reacted more quickly than we believed possible to increase their staff in the wake of hiring freezes that led to inefficiencies and a shortfall in creativity. As we speak, the department is in the process of adding nearly 30 professional planners. Those interviews are in process, offers have been made, and offers are outstanding. That welcome influx will change the face of the Planning Department.

Beyond that, the audit offered a series of recommendations that spoke to processing cases more quickly and smarter, and these too are in process. Under the leadership of the new director, this effort will move more swiftly to its rightful conclusion, which is a case load that is organized not by specialty of a particular planner but rather by geography within the city so that our planners develop ownership of the turf for which they are responsible.

RH: One of the opportunities for the new director is to really create a bold vision for the Planning Department in concert with the mayor. He or she should make the department more than just a land-use review appeal agency, but a department that really does the work of urban planning and creating a vision for how Los Angeles will develop, grow, and sustain itself.

How capable is the department of collaborating with other related city departments: engineering, transportation, building and safety, housing, parks, and public works? How might your commission compel the department to break through the bureaucratic silos in City Hall and constructively incorporate all the regulatory agencies of local government in the city's planning process?

JU: The key to obliterating the bureaucratic silos is this mayor's leadership. The mayor has insisted, in conversations with each of us, that we must take a hands-on approach to cooperation with our colleagues in the other city departments whose work affects our own. He has commenced a practice of monthly meetings of the general managers of the departments you name. As soon as the novelty of our new responsibilities has worn off, we will begin similar conversations with our counterparts on the essential commissions.

Are there any jurisdictional changes within and among the city departments that might be necessary if collaboration is the goal, such as moving some transportation planners over to the Planning Department?

JU: Many of us, including myself, believe that the L.A. Transportation Department performs certain tasks well, such as lane organization, traffic signaling, and the build-out of roadways. But it is not equipped to think conceptually about what roadways we need and, frankly, what roadways we don't need in this age of burgeoning mass-transit in our city. Those tasks are better suited to professional planners whose training and skill lie in mapping a long range land use vision for people, rather than for vehicles. I hope that the city will embrace the notion of adding transportation planning to the roster of tasks performed by the Planning Department.

RH: In our tenure on the commission, I've been impressed with the support the Department of Transportation has given us, particularly as we've looked at environmental impact issues. And they've been there to provide advice and technical support to the Planning Department. But I would also concur that, as we look at larger planning issues, placing transportation staff within the Planning Department is really critical.

Robin, could you elaborate? The mayor's vision appears to include increased density to provide more housing opportunities, including affordable housing, for L.A.'s growing population. What is the capacity of the Planning Department and the city's housing agencies to plan and provide more units, and the infrastructure to support greater density?

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RH: As an affordable housing developer and advocate, it has been my pleasure to serve with my colleagues on the Planning Commission. Each of them has expressed their desire to ensure that affordable housing is a high priority for the city. In order to address the housing need, we need to be very strategic and clever in how we implement our land use tools. One tool that has already begun to be implemented is the Residential/Accessory Services zoning ordinance that allows for increased densities in commercial corridors. In this way we are meeting not only the residential needs of the city, but the retail and commercial as well.

We have to continue to develop other land use tools that allow for increased density within the existing fabric of the communities. We also need to use a community planning educational process to help communities and developers understand and begin to implement land use options to deal with population growth. In terms of financial resources, we've all heard the Mayor's announcement about the billion-dollar housing bond. That is a step towards providing a source to ensure that affordable housing is produced and has the government support that it needs. Equally important is the need for the city to have a permanent housing trust fund to support long-term housing production.

How does this policy goal of greater density comport with the agendas of neighborhood councils? What can the department do to both protect the neighborhoods and involve the councils as well as provide incentives for denser development that the mayor is advocating? (Note: The city charter's provisions regarding neighborhood councils are up for review in 2006.)

JU: There hasn't been a sufficient education program for the neighborhood councils as it relates to the city's land use. And since most neighborhood councils are vitally interested in the topic, a good agenda for us would be to begin educating the neighborhood councils. We need them to know that we intend to encourage denser parcels where they can predictably take people off our roadways and put them into mass transit, relieving everyone's transportation burden. With this clear message, I think the neighborhood councils will become our allies.

This interview is being done a day after the governor's "State of the State" address highlighted the need for more infrastructure investment in the state and metropolitan Los Angeles. Many L.A. urban neighborhoods, as you know, feel overwhelmed by development. Can we have more infill development without more infrastructure investment to mitigate the impacts of growth?

JU: We have not begun to tap the ever-increasing number of rail miles that we have in this city. We have not begun to build vertically along those corridors. That is the logical place to add the density that the mayor, the city, and the commissioners all believe in. The infrastructure has already been, in great measure, bought and paid for. Billions have been spent over the last two decades. Though more is needed, we now have to work to realize our infrastructure's potential.

It is increasingly apparent that the largest pools of new investment dollars in the city's neighborhoods are the school district's facilities bonds, and the fire and police department's facilities budgets. How might the city's planning process better leverage and build upon the investments in public facilities to improve and transform the city's stressed neighborhoods?

RH: The Planning Department has committed working on 12 community plans in the upcoming year, and it is critical to link those community plans with what is happening in other departments. We have already talked about a need to do planning and development not within silos, and the community planning process allows for that to happen.

As LAUSD is thinking about building schools, or the Fire Department considers building fire stations, how can other community plans help to support that and to ensure investment from private industry in those neighborhoods? Through the community planning process, the Planning Department ensures that those linkages happen.

The Planning Department has maintained a fairly low public profile for the past decade. What are you hoping the department's profile will be going forward?

JU: We are counting on the new director to lead us into an era of aggressive and smart growth. There are practices that have been instituted in cities around the country that have yet to see the light of day in the city of Los Angeles. Let me name a few: creative urban design, so that every building that we put on our city streets fits contextually and brings beauty to its place; an industrial land use policy that allows us to balance additional housing with the jobs that support them; green building codes, so that our built environment represents the best practices in making our communities' both sustainable and highly livable. Those are just for starters. I see the department entering a renaissance of advanced thinking, in harmony with the mayor's vision.

RH: I'm looking forward to the Planning Department having a leader that has vision. And at the same time, a leader who does city planning within the context of neighborhood and community participation and who engages the citizens of Los Angeles in helping to inform what the city looks like over the next decade or so.

This needs to be done while balancing the resources of the different neighborhoods, ranging from South L.A. and East L.A. to the San Fernando Valley and the Westside, recognizing that each of these neighborhoods' characteristics that are important within the planning process. The most important thing for the planning director is to do this work with input of the L.A.'s citizens.

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