February 16, 2016 - From the February, 2016 issue

LA City's Built Environment Has a New Steward Who Believes in the Necessity of a Shared Development Vision

Vince Bertoni, confirmed this month as the new director of the Los Angeles Department of City Planning, returns to LA after his five-year stint as Pasadena’s Planning and Community Development director. Bertoni’s track record includes bringing together economic development interests and communities in Pasadena to update the city’s General Plan. In the context of the county’s extraordinary rail investments, as well as critics of the City of LA’s development process seeking a ballot initiative, Bertoni shares with TPR his conviction in the power of planning.


Vince Bertoni

"We don’t have any choice but to update our community plans so that we can connect a long-term view of what our city ought to look like to an actual development project before us. Then we can evaluate that project, asking: Is this right or wrong for what we want to see in Los Angeles?" -Vince Bertoni

We do this interview one day after your unanimous confirmation as Los Angeles City Planning Director by the Council. You succeed a planning director who, curiously, was not even a planner. As you begin your tenure, what are your priority challenges?

Vince Bertoni: In the long line of my predecessors, they all have had different skill sets, different backgrounds, and different challenges. Their challenges were the challenges of that moment in time.

I feel very positive about the future of this department and what it can accomplish. I’m looking forward to the long-range policy—and understanding how to be effective at it—as well as dealing with the development projects and understanding how that part of the puzzle works. I think I bring to the table an ability to bring those two things together.

I’ve also worked a lot in communities that have had a very engaged citizenry, with a lot of very conflicting viewpoints, yet also have a lot of development pressure. The toughest challenge we have in planning is when those viewpoints are very strong and very conflicting. My job is to bring people together, to find out where the common ground is, and to see where we can have thoughtful change.

You assume leadership of city planning in the midst of a circulation of an LA City initiative that would potentially curtail development for two years, or until some changes are made in the city’s planning process. Harsh medicine for a system that many people agree is broken, even if they don’t agree on the recipe to fix it. What burden does this initiative place on you and how do you respond?

The discussion occurring right now about development—how much and what it should look like—points to the fact that my job is to talk about having a clear vision for planning in Los Angeles: where we should be going and how we should be doing it. That’s, quite frankly, what I would be doing anyway. But it does elevate that in my mind, because this department has to be about good planning. It has to be about understanding how we build consensus for good planning in a place that is so large and diverse, with viewpoints that are so varied. Los Angeles has a lot of very different challenges, depending upon what part of the city you go to.

The critique, fair or unfair, of your predecessor when he was appointed was that, by his training and his history, he was unlikely to be a steward of the built environment. Some have suggested that the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative is a result of a distrust that no one is in charge of the built environment. What do you need from the Council, the Mayor’s Office, the neighborhoods, and the constituents to right that impression with facts, processes, and articulated statements about the value of planning?

First and foremost, we’re all in this together—the mayor, the Council, the commissions, the community, and the staff of the many departments involved in the development process.

It’s not just the Planning Department that is involved with the built environment, although it’s clear we’re a major steward of it. So is Building & Safety, and one of my goals is to have a strong partnership with them. The Department of Transportation is very involved, as is the Bureau of Engineering and, to a certain extent, the Fire Department.  So we have many departments with a lot of impact on what the city looks like.

I think that the way we build the trust back is to get everyone together to talk about how we actually do meaningful long-range planning. How do we stick to that in Los Angeles? While we can learn from other places—San Diego, Pasadena, Santa Monica, Seattle, Portland—we’re not exactly like any of them. We need to work together in Los Angeles to figure out a path forward that is unique to us. But it’s got to be a real commitment to doing long-range visionary planning that is long term and meaningful.

When last TPR interviewed you, you were planning director of Pasadena, and you began your responses by noting: “Pasadena brings together, more than any other place I can think of, a long-range planning vision that guides economic vitality.” Is the latter the major challenge you assume in returning to Los Angeles, where such a vision is perhaps not so clear?

LA is a much larger and diverse place than some of our smaller communities, like Pasadena. Pasadena has many of the elements of Los Angeles, but on a smaller scale, so it’s easier to see a vision and realize it. The challenge for Los Angeles is its incredible diversity—both geographically and in terms of its people. The struggle in having a cohesive vision for LA is due to its size, diversity, complexity of issues, and having to balance so many different needs.

We have to balance the need to have affordable housing along with the need to have a strong economy that must provide different types of jobs for different types of people. We have 35 community plans that implement a lot of what we’re talking about, brought together under the General Plan framework—which is, in essence, the big-picture vision of planning in the City of Los Angeles. But it gets refined and made real through our community plans. 

Former Pasadena Mayor Rick Cole set the bar high for a city’s community engagement process by championing a first-generation General Plan that had the heart and soul of Pasadena’s political interests infused in it. You now assume the leadership of the City of LA Planning Department with Community Plans that are outdated and unhinged to the city zoning code. Do you, the mayor and the City Council really want to update Community Plans and fully engage with stakeholders in facilitating real planning? 

I don’t think I have any choice but to do that, to be honest! We have to be forward-looking. We have to have a vision in our General Plan, implemented through our zoning, that not only deals with what we have today, but also anticipates our needs for tomorrow. You’re right that we haven’t been able to update our community plans in a timely manner, so they’re very much out of date. Their thinking reflects what this city was like 20 or 30 years ago.

We don’t have any choice but to update our community plans so that we can connect a long-term view of what our city ought to look like to an actual development project before us. Then we can evaluate that project, asking: Is this right or wrong for what we want to see in Los Angeles?

Having served with Gail Goldberg in the City of LA Planning Department, you know full well that there’s always a tension, especially when real estate markets are hot, like they are now, between interests who demand “a streamlined approval process” and interests who want managed growth and long-term predictability. How should a city planning department constructively manage that tension today, given that many assert the city missed the opportunity to fully engage diverse stakeholders and invest in planning after the last crash? 

I think about planning as two major parts of the equation. There’s a long-range policy through our community plans, the General Plan framework, and the other elements. Then, there’s dealing with the development projects as they come in, through the entitlement processes. We have to pay attention to both and we have to make sure our development projects are guided by those long-range plans.

Yes, in the past, we may not have had the resources. The problem in economic downturns is that we don’t have the money for the staffing to take care of the plans.  However, we’re in a period right now where we have more financial resources.

One of the challenges that I’m going to have, and that we’re all going to have as a city (because we’re all going to have to do this together) is to come up with the ability to update our community plans on an ongoing basis. We also have to pay attention to what goes into the plans. Are we spending the right amount of time on the plans? Are we making them meaningful without making them overly cumbersome?

In addition to developing policies and regulations, there are two major parts to doing these plans:  One is the community outreach (are we doing that in the right manner? Are we being effective?) and the other is the environmental review.

When we do the public outreach, we have to do it in a way that engages the diversity of opinions by getting those viewpoints in the same room. They need to be hearing from each other as much as we need to be hearing from them. That’s how the community owns the plan.

In planning, we tend to put a likeminded group of people in one room and hear from them on one day. Then a week later, we bring a different group of people who share relatively the same opinions into another room. We keep on doing that over and over again. Then we try to take that information and reconcile it. When we bring it back to everyone, not everyone thinks it reflects their views, because they didn’t see the diversity of opinions out there. We spend a lot of time going through that process. We really struggle with that and need to find a different path forward.

In the smaller cities, they’re all in the same room. They all talk to each other and they start to see the give-and-take. Over time, they start to appreciate the variety of viewpoints. I think we have to learn from that in Los Angeles.

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Clearly, there’s a reasonable respect for the planning process in Pasadena—and little, if not no, respect anymore in LA. How do you and the city begin to win back constituents who believe that the planning process has little integrity?

First and foremost, you have to believe in the process as the public official. You have to be open to hearing from the community and you have to approach the process in such a way that the various viewpoints are really going to matter. In many cases, people lose respect for the process and don’t believe in its integrity if they don’t believe people are really listening to them.

Current observers of land-use and development in the City of Los Angeles often speak in evolutionary terms of a demographic shift, with millennials changing the very nature of what was a “City of Suburbs.” Is what’s happening in LA different from what’s happening in Pasadena? How do you approach a city in transition?

That challenge is happening everywhere, all over our country, and especially in our urbanized areas. Younger people are looking for different things than people were looking for 20, 30, or 50 years ago. We have to be able to respond, in planning, to provide those types of places for them. If we don’t, they will look somewhere else.

We’re entering an era where changes in technology and communication mean people are now coming together to work by choice, not by necessity. That is a huge change. It’s one that we probably haven’t seen before—back to the Industrial Revolution, when we all had to come together because that was the only way to work efficiently. Now, we can work anyplace. So we have to start paying attention to the places that we create if we want to be economically successful and competitive in the future. A lot of the millennials want places that have vitality and excitement. If they’re going to come together to work, they want that coffee shop, café, and entertainment right nearby. They’re going to want a certain amount of presence and ambience on the street.

I’ve seen in Pasadena and I’m seeing in Los Angeles that we’re revitalizing buildings that have been overlooked for many years.  In the past, they just weren’t economically viable. Now, this group of people actually wants to be there. So we’re converting them, like the old United Artists Theater on Colorado in Pasadena that was underutilized as a school supply retail and now is going to be a co-working space. They’re bringing back a lot of the old glory of that building and we’re seeing that in Los Angeles in different places.

On that note: Are WeWork (which is Downtown and coming to Pasadena and Santa Monica) and other space-manager firms like it changing the very nature of urban workspace? Clearly, Airbnb and its like are changing the nature of short-term residential use. Likewise, Lyft and Uber are changing the connection between streets, parking, and parking requirements. You would think it would be an exciting time for city planners, and yet they seem under duress. What explains that?

It seems like we’re always under duress!

What we’re seeing is rapid change in how we live our day-to-day lives. When we talk about the “sharing economy,” it’s not just about sharing our workplaces. It’s about sharing our cars through Uber or Lyft, and sharing our homes through Airbnb and VRBO. It’s all because of these platforms on our mobile devices.

The reason you see duress in planners is that we’ve had 100 years worth of planning laws, rules, and zoning that all of a sudden, almost overnight, don’t seem to be effective in addressing these issues. These new ways of living make it much more difficult to regulate. Airbnb, Lyft, or other sharing apps change how we regulate planning from a use standpoint—how you use buildings. So it’s challenging these long held processes. We know that we need to react to it, and we also know the process to change, through the regulatory process, can take time.

I think we need to be evolving what we do, in terms of general plans and zoning, to anticipate that. We wouldn’t even have thought that an app could result in a sharing economy a few years ago.  As we look forward, I think we’re limiting ourselves if we’re just talking about the next Uber or the next Airbnb. We need to ask ourselves: What does change mean now? The rate of change in technology is happening so quickly that we can’t even anticipate the next thing.

Let’s take something completely different—the changes in technology and communication that have created the makers’ economy. We can manufacture things in such a simple, clean way on such a small scale now, which we never were able to do before. Think about how that changes how we build buildings and how we regulate land use. I don’t know that we’ve even thought about that.

It seems pre-Industrial Revolution to me because of the ability to decentralize. Since so many of our cities were built post-Industrial Revolution, that is a fundamental change to how we do things.

Let’s turn to some of your other challenges, especially in a city comprising 470 square miles, with scores of “publics.” For example, metro LA is investing $40 billion in transportation infrastructure, with the promise, potentially, of another $100 billion. Is Metro’s work being intelligently integrated into the planning process of either Pasadena or LA, and how should it be?

Yes—and Pasadena, being a smaller city, has probably been more fully integrated than Los Angeles.

To accommodate a diversity of future needs in terms of how we’re going to live, we have to integrate transportation infrastructure, especially rail, with land use.  We’ve done it very thoughtfully in some areas. But we need to go back through and look at that much more comprehensively throughout the city.

When Gail Goldberg was San Diego’s Planning Director, TPR did a number of interviews focused upon their goal of a City of Villages. The challenge she faced, in convincing neighborhoods and geographic areas to accept greater density, was a city electorate unwilling to pay for the infrastructure to support the urban burdens that density brought. Is there a willingness in LA to invest and integrate the infrastructure necessary to make density politically appealing?

In Los Angeles, there are lots of opportunities for density in places where we can get broad community support.  However, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be everywhere.

Our challenge as we update the community plans is going to be about capacity. We’ll need to build housing not just for future population, but also for housing affordability. We need to be looking at supply as a key component in bringing down the overall cost of housing. But we also have to look at it from a lifestyle perspective and understand that for the younger generations, we need to give them housing choices.

There are lots of opportunities to integrate these ideas into some of our communities, but we have to be careful and we have to be thoughtful. We have to make sure that we do it in such a way that the heights and densities are in keeping with the overall feel of the community. Also, we have to be thinking about the right types of transitions between densities.

LA’s very unique in that, if you go along Wilshire Boulevard, we have very tall buildings right next to single-family homes. A lot of other cities that have been successful with smart growth and high density near transit don’t have that situation. We have a lot of extremes in development here, so it’s clear why we get a negative reaction from a lot of our communities.  Our challenge in the future is how to integrate new development in a much more thoughtful way.

In closing, readers might imagine the threads of the opposition campaign to the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative being that it’s going to depress development for affordable housing and destroy upward mobility—that it’s really a white NIMBY reaction to change. Is there any way that argument against the initiative could include a positive alternative to the city’s very unpopular discretionary planning approval process?

It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to take a position on any Los Angeles ballot initiative, as the director of the department. But both sides can talk about the positive aspects of good planning in Los Angeles.

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