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Sam Hall Kaplan

Topping's Test Will Be Leadership

August 03, 1986|Sam Hall Kaplan

As the seasoned bureaucrat that he is, Kenneth Topping, the new director of the Los Angeles city Planning Department, spun a comforting web of cliches over a recent meeting of a citizens urban design advisory committee.

Saying that he would only talk for 10 minutes to leave time to answer questions from the committee, Topping spoke for half an hour. And when he did finally field a few questions, he answered them at leaden length, leaving little time for more.

One can understand from Topping's ready smile and slow, studied answers, why he impressed Mayor Tom Bradley. There is definitely a similarity there, beyond both standing as tall and as stiff as the Statue of Liberty. But so much for public sculpture. What about urban design?

The comments Topping did make echoed what he was reported to have said in earlier interviews for the $91,000-a-year job: That he envisions Los Angeles as the premiere city on the Pacific Rim and that he would seek consensus in the management of the planning department and in his relationships with other city departments, the political and development communities and homeowner groups.

Topping stressed his managerial abilities, ticking off his accomplishments, while downplaying his views on design and planning. The latter was probably wise, judging from the city and landscapes of San Bernardino County, where Topping most recently oversaw planning and development. With a few exceptions, it is not a very inspiring scene.

Actually, it really does not matter much what Topping said or says, or how he says it.

The city's last, and unlamented, planning director, Calvin Hamilton, had an actor's grasp of the latest planning jargon and could at times be eloquent, even inspiring.

Unfortunately for Hamilton, and more unfortunately for the city, little of it was translated into a workable, imaginative planning effort. As the city moved forward on a rising tide of growth during Hamilton's 21-year tenure, planning and design sank to new bottoms.

The test of Topping's abilities will not be in his public statements, but in his leadership of a Planning Department that has been all but ignored in recent years. There is talent and concern in the department ready to be tapped and directed to better serve an awakening urban design concern in the city's varied neighborhoods, not just to process zoning appeals.

The test of Topping's mettle also will come in his dealing with the myriad forces and personalities at play in the city. This includes, generally, being able to bridle insensitive development, such as now under way west of the Harbor Freeway, to specifically stopping unneeded street widenings, such as has been proposed by the Transportation Department for the Central Library site.

In effect, will transportation chief Donald Howery continue as the de facto planning director by dictating development by the way his department mismanages traffic? Shouldn't the Planning Department plan traffic and let the traffic department implement the plans? Traffic and development in Los Angeles are just too interrelated to be handled any other way.

How Topping handles the relatively small item of the proposed widening of 5th Street bordering the library, which will come to the fore shortly, could be an indication of what we can expect from our new planning director. We will be watching.

To Topping's credit, he did not leave the meeting of the advisory committee after his remarks, but stayed to listen. The committee, formed with the blessing of Planning Commission Chairman Dan Garcia, is taking a fresh look at the direction of planning in Los Angeles. The time is ripe.

Being conscientiously drafted at present by the committee is a redefinition of the city's planning goals, a needed reevaluation of the city's "centers" concept that has directed growth into select communities, and a restructuring of the planning process to involve and focus community concerns.

It is no modest task being carried out under the level hand of Studio City homeowner association President Dan Shapiro.

Promising to be most controversial is the possible restructuring of the planning process by establishment of community planning councils or boards. Such a restructuring could give communities a legitimate role in a process that to date has been mostly a back-room affair at City Hall.

Now operating in a number of cities, the concept has been credited with channeling community concerns into positive programs, stimulating improvements, and generally awakening municipal pride.

But there have been problems, not the least of them parochialism and petty politics. And almost everywhere that it has been implemented, the resulting community involvement has prompted--in time--political change.

It therefore will be interesting to see what details the committee comes up with. Will the boards just review and recommend and act as a buffer between City Hall and their neighbors, or will they have the power to approve and disapprove, to change designs and develop improvement programs?

And for city watchers, just as interesting will be the reaction of the Planning Commission and Planning Department and, of course, the City Council.

In the center of the storm sure to be stirred by such a radical change in the planning process should be Topping, no doubt striving for a consensus. That is fine. But in such situations needed also will be leadership. The hope is that Topping will be able to supply it.

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