October 6, 2011 - From the October, 2011 issue

ULI-Los Angeles: Gail Goldberg’s New City Planning Platform

Gail Goldberg’s tenure as Los Angeles Planning Director was characterized by a professional commitment to community and to doing “real planning” in a city unfamiliar with real planning. Now, as the new Executive Director of the Urban Land Institute-Los Angeles, she is able to offer her talented members to select public & private projects who appreciate their vision and expertise. TPR is pleased to share this interview of Gail Goldberg only weeks before ULI holds its national conference in Los Angeles. 


"ULI brings people together; we share our knowledge; we think about and plan for the future, and we nurture leadership." -Gail Goldberg, Executive Director, ULI-L.A.

Gail, you’ve taken the position of Executive Director of ULI Los Angeles after having spent many years involved with ULI statewide on committees and in attending conferences. What attracted you to say ‘yes’ when asked to fill the position of executive director of ULI-LA?

As you pointed out I do have a long history with the Urban Land Institute, and not just at a state level. I have been involved locally as chair of the San Diego/Tijuana district council, and I have served on the national ULI Board of Trustees. I have been a member of ULI for probably 20 years and have benefitted significantly from that membership. The things that I have learned at ULI and the people I have met have, in many ways, changed the course of my career. So when ULI asked me to fill this position, I felt that it was an opportunity for me to pay back some of what I have received from the Urban Land Institute. I think it is also fair to say that we share values and that our interests are well aligned.

Elaborate on the shared values and common interests with ULI. 

The mission of the Urban Land Institute is to provide leadership in the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities throughout the world. Both ULI and I are interested in smart growth and transportation choices; we are looking for new ways to finance our infrastructure; we continue to believe in the value of public-private partnerships and the creation of new financing mechanisms.  ULI is uniquely positioned to learn from the past, look to the future and to help all of us prepare for a new business environment as the economy begins to come back.

Refresh our readership on ULI.

The Urban Land Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit research and education organization supported by its almost 30,000 members globally.  ULI engages members of the land use community at every level, land developers, builders, architects, designers, planners, bankers, etc. ULI brings people together; we share our knowledge; we think about and plan for the future, and we nurture leadership.

What distinguishes ULI—nationally, statewide, and in Los Angeles—from the many other real estate-oriented, development-oriented, smart growth-oriented organizations?

There are all kinds of organizations that bring together “like” professionals to further the interest of that specific profession. As a planner, I have belonged to the American Planning Association for years. Architects belong to the AIA. Organizationally, we might all join together in some quest for smart growth or to promote other common interests, but the only organization I know that brings all professions together with the express purpose of creating better communities is the Urban Land Institute. We are not a lobbying organization.  We are conveners and educators.

Gail, I think the first article TPR published more than two decades ago relating to ULI was documentation of a TAP for North Vermont. Elaborate on these ULI-TAPs, both locally and nationally; who is involved and what do they produce? 

When a local jurisdiction, business or community group wants to address a land use problem, planning or development issue, and want a comprehensive but fairly quick look at the problem, they often turn to the Urban Land Institute.  We can provide a panel of local experts, a TAP (Technical Assistance Panel), to spend from one to several days examining the problem and providing recommendations.  For more complex issues, we can provide a national or global panel of experts to spend a week or more to address the land use issue and provide written recommendations. 

Could you comment on what TAPs have addressed recently in Los Angeles?

In Los Angeles a Technical Assistance Panel of local experts looked at the Century Boulevard corridor,  a gateway to LAX. This is an area that both the BID and the local councilperson had struggled with over a long period of time. How should it be developed? What are the issues? What are the things that can be done quickly? 

A local panel of planners, architects, urban designers, economists, and developers was put together to look at that area. In one day they interviewed folks from the airport and from the community and came up with a series of recommendations, which they presented at the end of that day to the local BID and to the council office. They are in the process now of finalizing a report. 

And your national panels, the ASPs.

The Advisory Service Panels (ASP) are the national or global ULI panels.  ULI is currently working with Metro to provide an Advisory Service Panel to look at Union Station probably in December of this year. The ULI panel will address how the City of Los Angeles can build on the pending master plan and redevelopment of Union Station.  The emphasis will be on what, if any, land use and planning policies should be adopted, and/or what infrastructure investments should the City make in the area surrounding Union Station.

You mentioned that you had learned a great deal from involvement with ULI over the last two decades. What were some of those lessons learned?

My first lesson from ULI occurred early in my career when I attended a fall meeting and was a guest at an all-day product council (these are special meetings around specific topics). At this Public-Private Product Council, developers and builders presented projects and described in detail  their development financing successes and failures in a very generous and honest way. I learned more about development financing on that day than I had at every planning conference I had ever attended. My ULI education has continued since that day and I think it has made me a better planner.  

In October from the 25th to the 28th ULI hosts its national meeting here in Los Angeles. What can those who attend expect? What’s the theme? What’s the draw that brings ULI members together this year in Los Angeles?

This Fall Meeting represents the 75th anniversary of the Urban Land Institute. Holding it in Los Angeles provides a great opportunity for us to highlight some of the exciting and innovative developments that have occurred here in the downtown area as well as throughout the region.  This will be a celebration of ULI and of our region.

What do you recommend visiting ULI members see and experience? What are some of the place-making Los Angeles developments, particularly in the downtown area, that you focused on during your tenure as city planning director? 

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The last time these folks were in Los Angeles for a ULI Fall Meeting was about six years ago.  There was not much to see around the Convention Center at that time.  They will now find LA Live and all the excitement that it has brought to the area. They are going to see residential neighborhoods with stores and restaurants. I think they are going to find a quite different environment than what they saw last time they were here.

One could say that the L.A. Live is an internally focused entertainment complex. How different is the Arts District and other communities that have flowered into actual synergistic neighborhoods?

They will be impressed with the Arts District, as we all are. I think it is a unique combination of land uses that has resulted in a very vibrant community. It combines light industrial uses, retail, live-work spaces for artists, and new residential uses of historic buildings. 

Is it a testimonial to planning?

It is an area where we planned for a mix of uses and gave a lot of thought to the way those uses come together to provide that sort of synergistic environment.  From my perspective, I think that it is a planning success.

We do this interview at a time when across the state and country planning departments are under budget stress, and some are even being closed. Could you address this trend and the role of planning as it’s been practiced in our communities in California, whether in Los Angeles or San Diego. What planning’s value-added?

I think that it’s a very difficult time for planning right now—in Los Angeles, in California, and in the rest of the country. There is always an impulse during bad economic times to cut back on those things that are general funded and on those things that are not seen as immediately necessary. The focus then changes to those things that are believed to lead to more immediate economic development. In lots of large cities you see planning being dissolved or diminished in favor of development processing.

What’s being lost? 

Yes, I think that any planner would try to make the argument—and I certainly try to make the argument—that in a bad economy it is probably the best time to do real planning. I think communities are most willing to go to the table to discuss long-term planning when they are not being inundated by projects and when they have time to breathe.  This can be the best time to come together, to prepare some plans, and to set the table for when the economy revives. Planners  try to make this argument during  recessions, and still communities and cities choose to cut back on planning.

Who should be the champions of the built environment in our metropolitan areas? Are planners so bogged down in regulatory procedures that they have lost their credibility as such champions with the public?

Everybody believes that they are the champions of the built environment. We all take credit for the good things, and we all complain about the bad things. The trick is, to what extent do we attribute the good things to planning? I think that is probably the question. In some cities where there’s a tradition and history of planning, I think this is an easier question to answer because people have witnessed the value of planning. Developers see the value of planning in providing predictability. Communities see a value in planning because they know what their vision of their community is; they’re not feeling under assault. But in many cities where there is no long tradition of planning, it is a difficult cultural switch.  That’s certainly the case in Los Angeles.  Planners alone cannot create the change.

We’re in almost the last year of Mayor Villagorosa’s term as a two-term Mayor of Los Angeles. He began as a champion of planning, he pivoted more than a year ago when he retained Austin Beutner. Beutner’s mantra was that the market ought to drive how we decide and process development applications. What do you think explains the Mayor’s shift?

I think that it is the common response to a bad economy. How can we make development happen now and quickly? While I think that’s a worthy endeavor in any city, I think it is a more complicated issue than just speeding up the process. There are other obstacles to building—most typically today is the financing challenges.  If the fast processing results in lesser quality in your projects and they still don’t get built until the financing improves, what have you really gained? And when you fast track approval of projects without a real planning foundation, you only further erode public trust.  And you can never make the process fast enough if every project still has to go through a process.  We need both good plans and an improved process.    

You, Cecilia Estolano (when she was CRA/LA administrator), and a few in the business community pressed the case for preserving LA City’s industrial land (4% of landmass) as a platform for job creation. That argument won for a while but seems to be losing today. What explains the weak debate on preserving industrial land?

I think that it was a difficult debate from day one. What appeared to be a reasonable policy issue turned into a difficult one based on the term ‘industrial’ land. Both Cecilia and I looked at industrial land and didn’t think of industry but instead thought ‘employment’. We were very interested in preserving the opportunity for employment uses of the future, whatever they may be. The discussion continued to center around the word ‘industrial’ and whether there was a need for ‘industrial’ in its traditional sense.  It would have been a more appealing argument to the business community had it been framed differently. 

ULI’s ASP on Metro’s Union Station is really a case study of the nexus between land use and transportation infrastructure planning. Will the ULI national conference pick up on this theme? Is it a national theme? 

Transportation infrastructure is under discussion across the country, and I think it is a more relevant discussion locally because of Measure R. Throughout the country folks are investing in transportation and attempting to grow dense, livable neighborhoods around infrastructure that can provide alternatives to the car. Transit-oriented development is a major focus of the Urban Land Institute, and we expect to see best practices presented in Los Angeles from all over the world.

If we talk again at the beginning of 2012, what re the ULI conference will you see as having been a success?

We want everybody who attends this conference to leave and go, “wow, you can’t believe what they’re doing in Los Angeles.” We are looking to make this an exciting conference where we think and talk about creativity, about innovation, about new ideas, and we want to make it a really grand party also. We’re looking for a ‘wow’ factor for people when they come to Southern California for our 75th Anniversary Meeting.

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