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A City Divided

Fighting the Centrifugal

In all the talk about neighborhood councils, charter reform and secession, who's thinking about the big picture in Los Angeles?

July 19, 1998|Richard Weinstein | Richard Weinstein is a professor of architecture and urban design at UCLA. He was part of the team that established the first neighborhood councils under Mayor John V. Lindsay in New York City in the early 1970s

More charter talk about neighborhood councils. The boggling problems at the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Both raise questions about how the city of Los Angeles governs itself. Yet, missing from discussions of our most serious problems is a voice that crosses geographic and agency boundaries.

Although economic development, poverty, transportation and the environment are interrelated, they are treated separately by government. As a related system of problems, they affect us all. But who speaks to this for the community at large? Under the existing charter, the mayor is too weak and city planning too marginalized, while the public lacks a civic presence to inform the debate and hold government accountable.

The city is increasingly immobilized by conflicting regional power relations among Balkanized city-states, country-sized counties, single-purpose authorities and a state government that is simultaneously too distant and too close. All have overlapping and redundant jurisdictions of such bewildering complexity that it is virtually impossible to hold anyone accountable. There is no way to pin the tail on the donkey, so few citizens want to play the citizenship game.

Charter reform is based on the notion that structure is policy. We may need to encourage political participation at the local level. But considering the city as a whole is vital. Neighborhood councils should only advise the City Planning Commission on land-use questions within set time limits; their power should flow from limited budget authority, their own staff research and the opportunity to express the views of their community. To further fragment the decision-making process by giving these councils too much power would alienate those in the private sector and government we need to morph our future.

We also need a nonpartisan advocate outside government that will hold our political leadership accountable for those policy initiatives, ideally promoted by charter reform, that affect the city at large. For this reason, the civic community of Los Angeles should form a broadly representative association to contribute to public discussions and provide support to elected officials, especially the mayor, who might propose enlightened citywide initiatives. In addition, our universities and research institutions must contribute to the development of these alternatives.

The resulting power of an informed community of civic leaders devoted to the common interest is a necessary condition to improving government.

But it is not easy to formulate citywide policy and to understand the implications for the whole of certain local issues. This is especially true in Los Angeles, a rapidly changing place, whose character and built environment constitute a new kind of urban situation. The provincial failure to understand this environment, and its differences from the older cities of the other coast, has led, among other things, to the emblematic outrage that is our transportation policy.

Hasn't anyone noticed that fixed rail only functions with impacted mixed-use densities? Hasn't anyone, except the courts, realized that we subsidize the middle- and upper-middle-class rail commuter and penalize the poor bus rider? Hasn't anyone figured out that Americans in the West don't take kindly to being told they ought to live on top of each other, climate and their demonstrated cultural inclinations be damned? The way we live and have settled the land and put our buildings and roads on it, however compromised by greed, expediency, corruption and ignorance, is still not an accident correctable by importing a transportation fix from the east.

In order to be better at planning only what it is necessary to plan--a good idea when you are not sure of what to do--we need to be better informed. This means the mayor must have the equivalent of a strong deputy mayor and planning staff that understands the interactions between policy initiatives and the built form of the region. Such a resource at the center would assist Mayor Richard Riordan in developing a persuasive position on such matters as airport expansion, transportation, downtown development, the accommodation of population growth and immigration, and the effect of economic development.

The Department of City Planning should be reorganized to focus on initiatives that affect the larger city. Its burdensome busy work should be shifted elsewhere. The director of planning must serve at the pleasure of the mayor, with fresh staffing resources negotiated with the Civil Service. It is now necessary to exchange the theoretical independence of the planning function in the old charter--which has contributed to its marginalization--for the power and accountability of the mayor's cabinet.

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