The prime topic these days among those concerned with the future shape of Los Angeles is the vacancies of city planning director and community redevelopment agency administrator.
Recognizing how critical the positions are in the struggle to improve the city's quality of life, if not simply protect it from further erosion, is a healthy variety of community and professional groups and the ad hoc curious.
They have seen what happens when there is an ineffectual planning director, such as Calvin Hamilton, weakened further by his indiscretions, while constantly being buffeted by a rapacious City Council: The city's planning mechanism becomes a farce.
This conclusion is based, not on the thoughtful studies the department has produced or the sincere statements of officials, but by simply surveying the structures rising like sore thumbs above the city, the waning ambiance of residential neighborhoods and the destruction of streetscapes.
Further weakening the position of director has been a politically ambitious Planning Commission chairman, Dan Garcia, and a malleable mayor, Tom Bradley, whose visions of a better city seem to have become blurred as they look to their own future.
The concerned also have seen what happens when there is an effective, committed planner, in this case former redevelopment administrator Edward Helfeld. With the help of an inspired staff, Helfeld had injected new life and hope in downtown and other troubled neighborhoods, stimulating historic preservation, new housing and cultural facilities, along with office development.
One could disagree with Helfeld, but at least you knew he cared deeply, first and foremost about the city, not his job or pleasing some politicos or their campaign contributors. And he did not spend any of his time pursuing outside interests, as did Hamilton.
Unfortunately, Helfeld had the temerity to defend the projects and his principles and not bow to political pressures, and the poor judgment to think he would be supported in his actions by a mayor anxious for downtown improvements or anything for which he could take credit.
For the record, Helfeld did not step down from his job as administrator, he was pushed by those his competence and integrity frightened. How he was treated should not instill confidence in those concerned with the future of the city or those who are seeking his job.
And then there are the self-important architects and urbanologists in local schools wondering in studios and studies why there isn't more of a sense of community in Los Angeles, while declining, in the interest of academic pretensions, to do anything about it other than talk (and expect to be quoted). For all the impact they have on the city, they might as well be practicing and lecturing in some hamlet in the High Sierra.
Nevertheless, some concerned professionals and citizens are hoping against hope that the powers that be here will begin to realize what is happening to the quality of life of their constituents; that good politics may not be getting a planner and a redevelopment administrator who will do the bidding of a favored contributor, but someone committed to improving the city.
This triumph of hope over experience was very much in evidence at a recent forum sponsored by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects to discuss the filling of the two key vacancies. It was held in the tower of City Hall, with the intent that the echo would be heard in the mayor's office and council chambers below.
There was Councilman Michael Woo talking about the need to elevate planning and design concerns, architect Jon Jerde describing an increasingly complex city in search of a communal spirit, urban designer Bill Fain calling for more planning tools, preservationist Ruthann Lehrer praising the redevelopment agency, and community activist Ted Watkins bemoaning the fact that architects and planners no longer seem to care about the poor, as they did in the 1960s.
More pointed was UCLA architecture and urban planning Dean Richard Weinstein declaring that good planning and design needed a broader, more vocal constituency to overcome current political and bureaucratic inertia. USC Dean Bob Harris added that such an effort had to begin at a very local level, in the neighborhoods.
There also were provocative comments by city officials and others in the audience, suggesting that the problem went far beyond filling the positions of planning director and redevelopment administrator; that what must be tackled also are a host of zoning, city charter and political issues.
Unfortunately, the forum was put at a disadvantage by the presence of Hamilton, who kept popping up from the back row like a smiling Jack-in-the-box to offer words of wisdom. He delivered them with stunning guile, as if he was a departing sage and not someone who had been pressured to resign.
Hamilton declared that the planning process has been hampered by the City Council bending to special interests; this from someone who had used his public role to further questionable private ventures and generally never seemed to be around when a controversial issue was at hand.
Nevertheless, his comments prompted a smattering of applause from the amiable gathering, turning what had been an interesting session into a maudlin testimonial.
If indeed such groups as the AIA sincerely want to elevate and expand the discussion concerning the planning and design of Los Angeles, then they will have to become more discriminating, and tougher.
A start would have been not to applaud Hamilton, but to jeer him. Let those who--because of ignorance or arrogance--are misshaping our city know that they will be held accountable. It would be a start on the road to a better-designed and more livable city.