February 9, 2010

Pasadena's Richard Bruckner To Lead L.A. County Planning Department

The success of Pasadena is well known to TPR readers. The city has become a model around the world for transit-oriented development, especially through careful redevelopment of historical neighborhoods and leveraging of revenue generated by infrastructure assets such as parking. After serving for ten years as the director of the Pasadena Planning and Development Department, and implementing many of the city's success stories, Richard Bruckner has accepted the role of director of planning for the county of Los Angeles, effective Feb. 1, 2010. The following is an exit interview with Richard Bruckner conducted before his transition.


Richard Bruckner

For ten years you've been director of planning and development for Pasadena. Starting Feb. 1 you will take over as the director of regional planning for Los Angeles County. What led you to take on this new challenge?

After ten years here facing challenges in Pasadena, it's a very interesting opportunity and a very interesting time for planning in California. As you know, with the passage of SB 375 and AB 32, the ground has shifted in planning and it looked like a very interesting opportunity to work on a different scale.

Is the county General Plan one of the tasks you'll lead?

Yes, although I have to admit that I have not spent time with staff yet or seen the status of the General Plan. I believe there is a fair amount of work to be done in the General Plan.

Elaborate on your work over the last ten years in Pasadena. What is the accomplishment you're most proud of in your work in Pasadena?

We've been working with the Planning Commission, the great City Council, and the community here, and there have been many things we've accomplished. The thing I am most proud of is probably the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance, which was passed in the early part of the decade and led to the funding of housing that the city undertook, or the production of units by the private sector that were included in private developments. It was a landmark for Pasadena and very successful during boom times.

The other accomplishments included working with the business improvement districts in Pasadena to establish property-based business improvement districts. The playhouse and Old Pasadena have really flourished with the new business improvement districts. On the planning side, we've, in many ways, implemented the city's 1994 General Plan, which included a call for a Central District Specific Plan, which was adopted by the council. That doubled the number of historic districts in the city. These days historic preservation is very important. We rewrote the zoning code, recently adopted design guidelines, and we're at the forefront of green initiatives in Pasadena.

You mentioned the importance of SB 375. Is TOD development in Pasadena a success story?

The General Plan called for preservation and maintaining the character and density of the neighborhood surrounding downtown. The downtown area and Old Pasadena Playhouse, being the core of where growth happened, is also the area served by the light rail line. The Del Mar station is always held up as a model of transit-oriented development, designed by Moule and Polyzoides and ultimately executed and run by Archstone. It includes several hundred units at the rail station and included the restoration of the historic train station. It has restaurants, a little bit of retail, and housing, all on one site.

The areas near the Lake Avenue Station have increased in density, with high quality condo development there. On any given morning you see people accessing the light rail and accessing Pasadena. It's heartening to see the light rail stations in Pasadena maturing. We're certainly looking forward to the extension of the line, which should help others in the eastern portion of L.A. County access Pasadena, but what we've got here now is a very strong foundation.

As you move from Pasadena to L.A. County, how do scale up your successes in Pasadena? Pasadena's success is certainly not the norm in California or in L.A. County. What's the obstacle to scaling up the integration of transportation and planning?

As you said, it's the scale and the integration of planning efforts-on a individual project basis, specific plan basis, or general plan basis-and transportation planning. In Pasadena, a city of 150,000, it was easier to get our arms around that. But I learned that on all of those scales how difficult it is to do mixed-use, and how important it is. From getting simple things right, like the pathway from the train to housing units or retail districts and the integration of the systems, or the crafting of a specific plan or zoning ordinance that gives good direction and allows flexibility for these projects to come forward.

Besides manageable size and scale, what are other ingredients that allow public planning processes to be successful?

It required an educational process for the whole community, the planning staff included, and a certain amount of risk-taking to be forward-thinking and experiment. Fortunately, with a lot of hard work, the experiments paid off. But the downtown area-and hopefully we'll experience this in the county-has the ingredients to create, not a 24-hour, but a 20-hour environment, with housing, ground floor retail, entertainment, and restaurants. What we took away from this is that it isn't just the housing, and it isn't just the retail-all of those ingredients that create an environment where people no longer need two cars and they no longer need to get in their car to do day-to-day shopping.

Our surveys of downtown residents show that they want to be here; they don't want to get in their car and travel. People throughout the county are yearning for this type of environment. It's up to us in the public sector working with private sector investors to deliver it. People are coming to the point in Southern California where they're sick of getting in their car to do every single chore.

There may be other contributors that enriched Pasadena, but wasn't the provision of parking a catalyst for Old Pasadena's turnaround?

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Absolutely-particularly for the historic buildings in Old Pasadena. To get parking investment up front through redevelopment was critical to the reinvestment in historic structures. Also, what we're finding more and more now as the community matures is that it's not just the provision of parking, but also the management of the parking and the integration of parking and development.

But you're absolutely right, it was the initial investment in the parking and the strategic location of parking. My predecessors here studied very hard and made some very smart moves on where to put parking. It wasn't placed on Colorado Boulevard; it was placed, just as the light rail stations are, a block north and south of Colorado so that it fed the retail and supported the residential.

TPR recently interviewed Pasadena City Manager Michael Beck, who opined on the current economic woes, which all cities and jurisdictions in California face, and which will apply especially in your new position at the county. How are local government budgets now impacting the planning process?

One of the greatest impacts on cities is the state's take of redevelopment funds. Redevelopment funds have been the source of funding for infrastructure to allow mixed-use districts. They are the initial funding for the parking structures, improvement to the streets, and land assembly. The state government is taking over $1 billion from communities this year; that's very troubling, and we hope that the legal process prevents that from occurring. That's one of the few tools that communities have to effectuate economic development and change in their downtowns.

Turning back to SB 375. What's your take, from the city perspective, on how well implementation is going to inch along from public policy into the actual planning and development of neighborhoods and city grids.

It's very different from the city to the county in one aspect-that Pasadena has always been forward thinking. The planning that has been done here since well before my time has always had a sustainable approach, an integration of land uses, and that approach has proven successful and is now going to be required with every community throughout California. It is a landmark and a change. The integration of transportation and planning has always happened, but now it's going to happen in a much more regulated way, in a much more conscious way.

What are the obstacles that have to be confronted for SB 375 to really be implemented policy?

Funding. It's going to be important that funding is there and that the economy turns. When you talk about new construction and new buildings, you're dealing with the margin of the built environment. We're in a very large county-most of the infrastructure, most of the housing, most of the commercial space that's going to be here 20 years from now is already built. So how do you make strategic investments at the margin that impact the long term? When you look at green building ordinances and green building codes, you're really talking about a small percentage of the buildings in any community because most of what is there is already built. It's dealing with the existing built environment and catalytic projects that have the possibility to make greater impacts than they would on their own.

Elaborate more on the green agenda that is integrated into Pasadena planning and development.

In Pasadena, we've looked at climate change and green initiatives at every level, from the cleaning materials the city uses to cleaning its own office buildings to changing building codes to ensure that larger new buildings meet LEED Silver requirements. We're finding, which is remarkable, that the development community has embraced this. We were expecting, quite frankly, some push back, but the development community is very enlightened in this and has embraced it. We looked at it from a land use and transportation perspective and from a new building perspective. We're looking at improved energy efficiency and water efficiency in buildings. On every single level: from how the city runs its own fleet, how we clean buildings, how we operate, to how we can influence the built environment in the city.

What is your perspective on the status of the proposed 710 Freeway extension? Might you have a different view on the extension working for the county rather than the city of Pasadena?

From a regional perspective it's an important connector. I fear that 20 years from now we'll still be having the same discussion. Certainly there has to be a balance between neighborhood quality along the route and the regional concern. The idea of the tunnel seems to be one that makes some sense. It provides the connector, and it provides some protection to the neighborhoods.

When we talk a year from now, when you have assumed your new duties, what are we likely to be talking about?

I will actually have learned more about the subjects you asked me about as they apply to Pasadena, the relationship between land use and transportation, how we bring new investment back to some areas that have experienced disinvestment in the inner city, and hopefully some demonstration that some projects in the greenfield areas of the county have successfully dealt with integration of land use and transportation and created a sustainable environment.

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