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Tall, Green, Vital: L.A. as Mayor Dreams It

Villaraigosa sees a city of parks, high-rise housing, a subway to the sea. Can the idea become reality?

February 19, 2006|Jim Newton | Times Staff Writer

There are at least two Los Angeles landscapes in the life of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

There is real-life L.A., through which he hustles daily, running late by afternoon as the pictures and autographs, the abrazos and the press of eager constituents pile up. And then there is the Los Angeles of his imagination, the city whose outlines he hints at in speeches and whose details spill out when he settles in long enough to ruminate.

Villaraigosa's imagined Los Angeles is denser, taller and greener than the city he now governs. High-rises dominate the skyline and hold not just offices but thousands of apartments, cleared for construction by zoning rules that encourage development of housing towers. The subway reaches west under Wilshire Boulevard, paid for with money Villaraigosa is convinced he can secure from the state and federal governments.

Islands -- villages, as he calls them -- sprout around subway stops and are ribboned together by swaths of green space, most notably along the Los Angeles River, where the mayor imagines trees and grass in place of the long segments of concrete culverts and channels that once carried runoff to the ocean. And all across that vast landscape, scores of pocket parks bring smatterings of green to even the densest urban neighborhoods.

Downtown is the heart of Villaraigosa's future Los Angeles. It hums late into the night. The Civic Center is a sloping park surrounded by museums, restaurants and shops. New apartment buildings feature courtyards that offer public space during the day and protected enclaves at night. Some of the new buildings have small parks on the roofs, projects designed with energy efficiency in mind.

Not everyone believes in that future: Some argue that it's not desirable; others say that even if it's a worthy goal, it's impractical. Villaraigosa argues that it's not only compelling but something close to inevitable.

"This is going to happen," he said last week in an interview at City Hall, where the mayor agreed to rhapsodize about the Los Angeles he believes possible. Even as he did, he displayed his characteristic impatience. He talked about subways and high-rises but interrupted himself to bounce around his office, gossiping and joking, riffing on the news, complaining that his staff does not schedule enough time for him to exercise, marveling at the story of Vice President Dick Cheney's hunting accident.

On the topic of Los Angeles' development, Villaraigosa emphasized that the city he imagines will come to pass only if it is carefully planned and pursued, starting now.

"We're going to have," he said, "stylish density," "transit-oriented development," "a sea change" of high-rise construction, a "string of emeralds" proposed decades ago but never adopted.

Buoyant and ebullient, Villaraigosa plowed through the time set aside to discuss the issue, pressing ahead while aides tried to flag him to the hour.

Interviewed separately, Robin Kramer, the mayor's chief of staff, typically was both in agreement with her boss and more concise: "Density," she said, "is not an enemy."

Villaraigosa's notions of what Los Angeles should look and feel like -- and of what a mayor's job is in advancing that future -- represent his sharp break from his immediate predecessors.

Richard Riordan embraced a hybrid of neighborhood self-determination -- government, he liked to say, would not do anything for a community until the community banded together by itself -- and a belief in the galvanizing effects of big projects like Disney Hall, Staples Center and the new cathedral.

Riordan got those projects, and they succeeded much as he had hoped. But he chose not to articulate a comprehensive vision for the city's physical development; that, he felt, was better left to neighborhoods.

James K. Hahn, who succeeded Riordan, was more of a maintenance mayor, concerned with fixing problems but shy about proposing a grand template.

If Villaraigosa's version of the city's future has a precedent, it lies a bit further back in Los Angeles' history. As in many other aspects of his early administration, Villaraigosa picks up where Tom Bradley left off. Bradley, Los Angeles' first black mayor and its chief executive from 1973 to 1993, was the mayor who built the subway and pushed Bunker Hill development, who envisioned downtown as the center of the metropolitan area; he did not always succeed, but he pushed for that vision during his five terms as mayor.

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