Perhaps when Mayor Tom Bradley turned to leave his press conference last week, he thought he had escaped without a question about Planning Director Calvin Hamilton, who was being nudged toward early retirement by some City Hall critics.
The mayor was mistaken. As he began his customary farewell turn--a semipirouette designed to signal the end of questioning--someone dared to ask a question about Hamilton. More questions followed and soon Bradley revealed that Hamilton had gotten the message and would leave after he hosts a national planning conferenced in Los Angeles next April.
Hamilton's critics said he was a poor administrator. But imperfect administration has seldom been cause for departure in city government. Political, economic and ideological differences over development of the city were at the heart of this case.
Unlike some City Hall political sagas, this one affects every Los Angeles resident. For much of the impetus behind Hamilton's announced departure came from powerful real-estate interests who favor intensive development and who feared that the Planning Department under Hamilton was an obstacle. In the year ahead, this will be one of the more important controversies in the city. The outcome will determine the future of residential neighborhoods, the location of businesses and office buildings and the amount of traffic on the streets.
Of course, the matter was not expressed so bluntly in a City Hall where politicians hate to confront controversial issues publicly in such a direct manner.
In fact, for a time, it was hard to find public expression of unhappiness with Hamilton. His foes declined to say anything negative until Council President Pat Russell, in an unusual moment of candor, told Times reporter Frank Clifford that she felt Hamilton's time had passed.
"Cal's style is visionary and that has served a purpose," she said. "But we're entering an era of implementation and we need those kinds of skills."
Even more specific was Norman Emerson, a Bradley and Russell adviser and public affairs director for Voigt Cos., a major Los Angeles developer.
"The Planning Department is adrift," he said. "There is an environment of uncertainty that concerns everybody, whether they are homeowners or developers. People don't know what to expect. For developers, that translates into some bottom-line dollar concerns."
Publication of the remarks by Russell, Emerson and others caused such a furor that Russell quickly retreated into the more comfortable City Hall stance of obfuscation.
Russell called a late-afternoon press conference last Tuesday and said she was concerned about attempts to have Hamilton "hounded out" of office. "I am not trying to get him to leave. I really feel that he has been doing a very good job as our planning director," she said.
But in truth, as reporter Clifford learned, Russell had met with a top council aide, Chief Legislative Analyst William McCarley, and others on the Hamilton situation. McCarley later said he was dispatched to Hamilton to tell the planning director that Russell and the others wanted him to retire. After meeting with McCarley, Hamilton told Bradley he was ready to leave next year.
Emerson's comment about the "bottom-line concerns" of developers was an indication of why Hamilton decided to leave. Hamilton's great achievement was the writing of a general plan to replace old zoning laws that allowed major commercial development in residential areas.
Instead, he proposed business and commercial centers throughout the city, such as Century City in West Los Angeles and Warner Center in the San Fernando Valley. Residents could work and shop near where they lived, but the traditional single-family residential nature of the city would be preserved.
But, as his critics said, Hamilton was more of a visionary than a hard-headed manager able to push his plans through. Even if he was such a manager, his job would have been difficult. For many real-estate interests, which are a dominant influence in the council, opposed his plan.
In addition, Hamilton's boss, Mayor Bradley, was moving away from the Hamilton path. Although neighborhood groups that strongly influenced the design of the Hamilton centers plan were major Bradley backers in his 1973 victory, once in office, Bradley began to tilt toward development. Organized labor, with its construction unions, approved of the Bradley path, as did downtown Los Angeles developers.
Downtown Los Angeles provided a clear example of the split in city government. The Community Redevelopment Agency backed extensive high-rise contruction. Hamilton worried about the congestion such buildings would cause. Bradley backed Edward Helfeld, the CRA chief.
The backers of Hamilton's center plan, the neighborhood groups, were unhappy about his failure to implement the plan. It took a lawsuit, initiated by a neighborhood group, to force the city to implement the General Plan. Unhappiness of the neighborhood groups cost Hamilton his political base.
The selection of his successor will be important in shaping future Los Angeles. Many neighborhood groups will want the General Plan to be implemented in such a way that large areas of the city are rezoned to prevent commercial development in residential districts. Developers will argue that there is already development in some of those neighborhoods, and the plan should be put aside in those areas.
Dan Garcia, president of the Planning Commission, which oversees the Planning Department, said both sides in the fight are hoping for a Hamilton replacement they can control. From his previous stands, it appears Bradley may tilt to someone more friendly to development than Hamilton. But that is not certain. As Garcia said, when the issue is settled, both sides "may be kicking themselves."