July 28, 2010 - From the June, 2010 issue

Who's Qualified to be the City of L.A.'s Custodian of the Built Environment?

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has nominated Michael LoGrande, presently Los Angeles' chief zoning administrator, to succeed the well-respected S. Gail Goldberg as the new Director of the L.A. Department of City Planning. This selection from within, only days after Ms. Goldberg's retirement, without the benefit of either a national or an inclusive vetting process, generated the following Op-Ed by Mark Winogrond, FAICP, Planmark Associates. Winogrond, who managed Mayor Villaraigosa's process for vetting and selecting Ms. Goldberg, questions here whether the nominee has the experience and the vision necessary to be the city's custodian of the built environment.


Michael LoGrande

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa Press Release Statement

"Michael LoGrande has a deep knowledge of the City and its Planning Department that will enable him to immediately implement changes that will ensure the health of our City's growing communities. With his extensive experience and commitment to the City, he is someone who can hit the ground running and quickly implement change."

Op-Ed by Mark Winogrond, FAICP, Planmark Associates

I've known Michael for some years: when I was Mayor Villaraigosa's Interim Director of City Planning trying to restore hope in the Department and coordinating the recruitment for Con Howe's replacement, I was impressed by his can-do attitude. Somehow he seemed fresher than the stale negative, "Our first answer is NO." philosophy that permeated the Department of 2005.

I did not come to this naively. I had created and written San Francisco's ground-breaking zoning code and maps, led the West Hollywood team that took it from a run-down industrial pocket to "The Creative City", managed every concept and detail of the renaissance of Culver City, and helped numerous other cites and colleges get to a better future than they'd expected.

I put him in charge of the "Expedited Projects" unit, and was quickly disappointed. The skill of a good city planner – more importantly, of a good planning leader – is the ability to step away from a project and see how it fits into the context of the City's vision, the Department's goals, and the governing rules. At that time, I was disappointed to discover that Michael did not have that capacity. He had antennae very attuned, especially for his few years in public service, to the internal politics and pressure, and the importance of a particular project to the real power brokers.

I was disappointed to discover he was an excellent "I can get it done for you" lieutenant. Not what I'd call an independent thinker. So...to prepare for writing this, I did what I always do when I want to research an important (or potentially significant) planner: I asked Google. Nothing! No articles written, no speeches remembered, no earlier successes in either LA or other tough jurisdictions. No construction of a national network of colleagues from which to draw when LA needs ideas, creative solutions, free professional resources. One press release on his appointment last week. One critical blog back in 2007. Nothing! Nothing personal. Most troubling: nothing professional.

For better or worse, this has never happened before in the history of city planning in LA. Never has a Mayor let some guys who hire "expeditors" (a misnomer: nothing is expedited in a great city because of the very nature of government) to get their "entitlements" (a word LA power brokers invented when in fact they are "entitled" to nothing except the right to file an application) choose what is essentially an unknown person with no prior citymaking experience, a few years in the local town hall, and no reputation as a real leader, to be the Director of City Planning of the most fluid large city in the U.S.

The risks are staggering, far beyond the capacity to understand of those who staged this appointment. Ironically the Mayor understands the risks; he "gets it". I personally worked with him as he approved and fine-tooled the process that led to the hiring of Gail Goldberg: a national search, input to him from other big-city mayors regarding the finalists and their capacity, input from the LA design, real estate and development communities, input even from Neighborhood Council leaders, two separate review panels interviewing the finalists.

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Gail apparently had her detractors. But she did, despite the political and bureaucratic obstacles, the tough stuff she was asked to do: She removed the old upper managers who were from another era of citymaking; she formed bonds with other Departments; she instilled hope and professionalism in the Department; she de-politicized the approval process as best she could. Equally important, she quietly did as much to improve LA's national reputation in the development, real estate and citymaking community as anyone else in the Mayor's administration.

There are common threads to every American city which has seen great and grand improvements in the last 20 years: Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis, San Diego, San Francisco, especially Chicago, New York, Boston, Baltimore, and on and on. Their Mayors all put city-building first, often on a par with public safety. Many of those mayors went on to national office riding on the backs of the improvements in their city. Some like Mayor Daley, simply love the citymaking process so much, that they stay as long as they can, growing their city, park by park, flower bed by flower bed.

Louis Kahn said "A street is a room by agreement." Gail Goldberg understood this intuitively and fought to create planning-transportation partnerships for the benefit of we, the using citizens. So far nothing tells us whether Michael LoGrande understands that line, let alone agrees with it. Citymaking lives by the old scuba diver's maxim, "Plan your dive, then dive your plan." So far we have nothing that tells us whether Michael understands that maxim, let alone agrees with it.

Michael LoGrande has just become the parent of the only LA agency devoted to a better physical future. Nothing in his past has demonstrated that he is able to create teams who are willing to follow him into the tunnels of Hell in order come out the other side having shaped a better Los Angeles.

The decision has been made. Like with prior Supreme Court appointments, we can only pray that he surprises us and shocks us, with his independence, his leadership, his patient understanding of the complexities of making a better city in the midst of false crises and urgency.

Power corrupts. Absolutely. Many will be at his side, willing to help him negotiate away the hopes of Los Angeles for the expedited dollar. (As they always say, "Time is money." It would be difficult to find a less accurate statement when contemplating planning, and making great streets and great cities.) Fortunately, an equal number are willing to be at his side if he has the capacity to stand up as the independent advocate for fair balanced reasoned decisions.

Time may not be money, but time will tell...as it always does.

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