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Who Controls Rebuilding of Los Angeles?

April 06, 1986|Edward Helfeld | Edward Helfeld was director of the Community Redevelopment Agency from July, 1976, until December of last year.

Much has been said in public discussion about the need for City Council control of the redevelopment process. But the council has always had control over the programs of the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), which has been spending large sums of public funds for housing and for economic development to revitalize 20 areas of the city. The agency's annual budget, adoption of plans, annual work program, sale of land--all have to be reviewed and approved by the City Council. It is no rubber-stamp process.

For the past 30 years the redevelopment agency, in fashioning public-private partnerships, has fostered development that has benefited the entire city: creating jobs, rehabilitating housing, constructing new housing--particularly for people of modest means. Historic buildings have been preserved; the visual and performing arts have been encouraged.

The agency has been the identifiable and credible entity with the development community, the lead negotiator in public-private transactions. In dealing with developers, the agency consults the mayor's office, the council offices, city departments and commissioners, particularly the Planning Commission. By the time the terms of a real-estate transaction are approved by the council, a developer has reasonable assurance that the project can proceed. The agency has worked well, clearly responds to elected officials and should not be changed.

There is a second notion related to city planning that undermines the structure of representative government. This thesis maintains that planning is of such importance to our urban environment that public planners should be "insulated" from elected officials--that decisions should be made by trained professionals, since officials don't have the understanding to make the "right" decisions.

This position negates our democratic process and system of checks and balances. Its logical extension would lead to rule by a trained elite not accountable to the public or its elected representatives.

Now Los Angeles must choose a new director for the City Planning Department. Perhaps too much public discussion has involved the individual to be selected. While a professional of outstanding quality is essential, without major changes in planning function and process, no new director will be able to meet the public's high expectations. I suggest the following:

--The City Planning Department budget should be commensurate with the tasks to be accomplished. For years, funding has been inadequate. The incumbent director has been criticized for not undertaking particular activities, when in fact he did not have the budget to do so.

--The transportation planning staff should be transferred to the Planning Department from the city's Department of Transportation. Transportation planning and policy is a major element in land use, density and urban design decisions. If the Planning Department is to be the city agency that provides a comprehensive approach to solving current and future problems, it is essential that transportation planning be located there. The Department of Transportation would continue its essential role in implementation.

--A self-generated citizens committee, not selected by government, should be organized to promote sound planning, design and development--with the entire city as its concern. Such a committee, wholly outside city government, could play a significant role in advising appointed and elected officials. Many cities have such organizations, and they have made a difference in improving public policy. The Citizen's Housing and Planning Assn. of Boston and the Regional Plan Assn. in New York are two examples.

Finally, there is a public confusion concerning the roles of the City Planning Department and the CRA. Some officials and some citizens question the need for planners in the Community Redevelopment Agency if the city has a strengthened City Planning Department.

This question reflects a misunderstanding of comprehensive planning (a function of the City Planning Department) and implementation (the role of the redevelopment agency). The City Planning Department and the Planning Commission are responsible for the preparation of general community plans. Many of these community plans recommend redevelopment as a tool to revitalize particular areas of the city. Following council approval, the redevelopment agency then carries the process forward.

Implementation requires detailed land-use planning; intensive citizen involvement; analyses of environmental compatibility, and design input. These essential functions are performed by redevelopment agency planners and architects in consultation with the personnel of many city departments.

Most important, redevelopment agency planners and architects work in a larger CRA team effort including such professions as real estate, law, engineering and finance. Such interaction has resulted in better development for the public, both physically and financially.

Public planners and designers, as part of the team negotiating with private developers, are essential to the redevelopment process and the search for a more livable and beautiful city.

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