Arguments concerning life, liberty and the pursuit of zoning changes continue at the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission, just as they did before George Lefcoe retired last month as a commissioner, but they are not the same.
During his eight-year tenure, Lefcoe not only brought rare insight to the commission's hearings, helping explain the often obtuse planning process to a confused public and press, he did it with an equally rare humor.
As if Los Angeles County was not so fragmented and far-flung, and its government not so dense and convoluted so as to confuse those who question its shaping and misshaping, now we must struggle without the aid of Lefcoe.
"I have no doubt that you and others will be able to find the answers to our multitude of planning problems," Lefcoe said in a recent interview. "But whether those answers will be appropriate, or right, is another matter," he added with his characteristic laugh.
Actually, Lefcoe, who is the distinguished Henry Bruce Professor of Equity at the USC Law Center, admitted to having had increasing difficulty over the years finding answers.
"A problem has been the rigid state planning and environmental statutes," he explained. "While minimizing arbitrary planning abuses, they also have minimized our ability to come up with creative solutions. At times, I have felt more like a traffic cop at a 'stop' sign than someone who should be deciding whether there should be a road there at all."
Following the theme of traffic in another direction, Lefcoe commented on how, in planning discussions, much more time seems to be spent on reviewing minor parking problems than larger and ultimately more important matters of design.
"Listening to our Planning Commission, you could easily believe that we were actually an off-street parking authority, mandated by law to rescue for every stray vehicle a free and available resting place at every corner," Lefcoe said.
Back to the broader issue of planning, Lefcoe declared he felt that too much time also was spent on developing detailed general plans--again to satisfy state statutes--and too little time fine-tuning specific plans. "We should be looking less at the sweep of the county from a perspective of 10,000 feet up in the air and more at the bits and pieces of neighborhoods and landscapes, from the level of the street."
But that perspective also has its problems, Lefoce added. He recalled a hearing where a woman from the San Gabriel Valley began crying because someone wanted to build a house on a corner lot that her young daughter and friends used as a playground.
"That the person who owned the lot wanted to build exactly the same type of house the woman lived in made no difference," Lefcoe said. "She and her neighbors were opposed to it. They also were opposed to chipping in and buying the lot for a playground, or even just maintaining it. It was something we call in law a 'freegood' and they wanted it kept that way."
Lefcoe added that such parochialism tended to wear him down. "The environmental rhetoric of homeowners was fine, and I agreed with much of it, but the reality was that most just wanted to stop something down the block, not do anything positive. A few developers, at least, recognized that good design and good planning was good for marketing."
When appointed to the commission by Supervisor Edmund Edelman, Lefcoe said his hope was to act as a sort of mediator on planning matters while somehow improving the environment, "protecting views and hillscapes and promoting bike paths and nature preserves."
Among projects that pleased him was one in Valencia, where the required flood control channel was turned into a linear pedestrian park. "The developer's plan really did not look inspired on paper, but it turned out just fine," said Lefcoe. "In contrast, I remember some development for Agoura looked great on a paper, but in execution was a real disappointment."
Often frustrated by the protracted and parochial planning process, Lefcoe would turn to humor to try to put the project that was being reviewed into perspective. One of his memorable efforts involved Playa Vista, an ambitious and controversial mixed-use project proposed between Westchester and Marina del Rey and encompassing the sensitive wetlands there.
Wearied of the heated push and pull of the developer and the surrounding community, he suggested jokingly that a disputed water channel be diverted east into landlocked Culver City, creating waterfront property there.
"Since they would be getting a marina and wetlands out of the development, something of real value, residents there would be much more willing to work toward a solution," Lefcoe commented.
Asked to discuss some mistakes he might have made as a commissioner, Lefcoe replied that "like Lot's wife, we try not to look back. If we do, we'll cry salty tears."