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Norman Murdoch, 80; L.A. County Planning Commission Chief

October 19, 2006|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Norman Murdoch, who led the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission from 1974 to 1988 and later developed a detailed street-tree plan for his Windsor Square neighborhood, has died. He was 80.

Murdoch died Oct. 8 from complications of myelodysplasia, a bone marrow disorder, at Garden Crest Convalescent Hospital in Los Angeles, said his daughter, Cathy Jaramillo.

When he came to Los Angeles as the county planning director from a similar position with the city of St. Louis, Murdoch was awed by the geographical difference -- Los Angeles County covered more than 4,000 square miles compared with 61 square miles in St. Louis.

"Overwhelmed by smog and sprawl," the county had "lost its image as one of the most attractive places in the United States," Murdoch told The Times in 1975. "Yet the natural setting remains. There is a lot we can do to ... recapture the old image."

Among the ideas he championed were preserving open space, including ecologically threatened areas, and seeing Los Angeles as the center of a network of satellite communities.

"He promoted the understanding that Los Angeles isn't one cohesive area with a single downtown but different downtowns with Los Angeles being the central one," said Jon Sanabria, chief deputy of the county Planning Commission.

Under Murdoch's leadership, a new general plan -- essentially a blueprint for long-term growth and development in unincorporated areas of the county -- was adopted in the 1980s. The plan is generally revised every 20 to 30 years.

During his tenure, the planning agency oversaw development in vast unincorporated areas of Malibu, the Santa Clarita Valley and the east San Gabriel Valley. Many community activists saw him as pro-growth.

"I can't say that the growth in the north area of the county is something he promoted," Sanabria said. "People were coming, and he couldn't keep them away ... so he had to make sure the services were there."

In 1988, Murdoch became the county's director of economic planning and retired in 1992.

Before arriving in Los Angeles, Murdoch had spent six years in St. Louis and seven years as head of planning and architecture for the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency.

Although he had no previous affinity for trees, Murdoch had a passion for historical preservation, which led him to chair the tree committee in Windsor Square, an area of stately mansions near Hancock Park.

He oversaw the cataloging of the neighborhood's 2,490 parkway trees and compilation of a 45-page master plan that led to the planting of more than 900 new specimens.

"Norman would be the first to credit his teammates, but there is no denying this was Norman's brainchild," said Jane Ellison Usher, a neighbor and president of the Los Angeles city Planning Commission.

"The trees are a legacy that will last another several generations," she said.

The son of a contractor, Murdoch was born in Stockton in 1926.

At UC Berkeley, he earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering and a master's degree in city and regional planning.

During World War II and in the early 1950s, he served in the Navy.

On a cruise in 1952 that was part of a European architectural and city planning tour, Murdoch met his future wife, Sheila. She died in 2003.

In addition to his daughter, who lives in Seattle, Murdoch is survived by a son, Dr. Geoffrey Murdoch of Pittsburgh; a sister; and a granddaughter.

The Windsor Square tree committee plans to dedicate a tree on Larchmont Boulevard in Murdoch's honor.

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