On a recent Saturday, Gail Goldberg, chief planner of Los Angeles, stood under an Arco sign and contemplated the junction of La Cienega Boulevard and Rodeo Road.
The intersection's four corners had a strip mall, another strip mall with a Carl's Jr. in the parking lot, a 7-Eleven and the Arco gas station. Traffic was thick in every direction.
A posse of planning employees surrounded Goldberg -- dressed in a black warmup suit and sun visor -- as she asked them to tell her all the things wrong with the cityscape.
She then put her question another way:
"How old would your kid have to be," Goldberg said, "before you allowed them to come here on a bike?"
"Twenty-seven," answered one.
In the 15 months since she was hired away from San Diego by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Goldberg's public profile has steadily grown, owing to hundreds of appearances before community groups who can spot her just as quickly as their photogenic mayor and tough-talking police chief.
At once plain-spoken, funny, motherly, charismatic and diplomatic, Goldberg, at 63, finds herself in a position to determine whether a city tolerant of sprawl, traffic and cheap architecture can grow elegantly. She, too, represents the mayor's radical new take on Los Angeles: Both are determined to rebuild some of the city's old neighborhoods and make them taller, denser and linked to mass transit.
Yet not everyone with sway over city affairs has figured out where Goldberg fits and if politicians will listen to her. When downtown's much-ballyhooed Grand Avenue project was approved in February, for instance, no one so much as asked if she thought it was all that swell.
But those who know Goldberg stress that she is not to be underestimated and that she has come to the job by persistence and overcoming tragedy. A child of the 1960s who for years was a stay-at-home suburban mom, Goldberg now embraces an urban lifestyle and believes deeply that planning is not just about building things, but about social justice and providing a nice place for people to live.
"I like to think we're speaking for people not at the table or for residents who don't live here yet," Goldberg likes to say.
City government, of course, has been trying to "plan" Los Angeles for decades, with decidedly mixed results.
Walking away from Rodeo and La Cienega, near the Baldwin Hills, that Saturday, Goldberg declared: "It's almost impossible to believe that this kind of lack of planning could be an accident."
A sudden loss
On Christmas Eve in 1982, Goldberg's husband Steve died of a heart attack after jogging with his wife. The co-owner of a successful air-quality monitoring firm, he was just 40, his wife 39.
The Goldbergs were raising two sons in the San Diego suburb of Del Mar. Gail Goldberg was known as the neighborhood's "cool mom" because she could talk to kids without judging them -- a skill that has since proved useful with adults. She was civically inclined, mostly through the League of Women Voters, and had just begun seeking a college degree.
Two weeks after her husband's death, Goldberg refocused her life and resumed her classes. "I sort of bet on me," she recalled.
"We, of course, mourned and went through a long process," said her son, Matt Goldberg, "and it didn't surprise me that ultimately her MO and reaction to the whole thing is, 'You move forward and make the best of the situation.' "
In her fourth year of classes, Goldberg changed her major from economics to planning. "It became really clear to me that planning was all the things that I loved put together," Goldberg said. "It was working with the community, creating livable environments, and I had traveled a lot with my husband and had visited many wonderful cities."
And it helped her land a much-needed job. Straight out of UC San Diego, Goldberg was hired by San Diego's planning department in 1988. In 2000, she became chief of the agency.
Her rise came at a propitious time. San Diego was sprawling. But it had also become a hot spot of urban planning as the city's rail system was expanded, its old neighborhood centers were being preserved and its downtown was opening to residential development.
The accomplishment that emphatically put San Diego on the map in planning circles was the "City of Villages," a plan to create or expand several neighborhood centers, each with all of the urban accouterments: businesses, residences, schools, parks and mass transit.
The idea, Goldberg said, was to capture what residents said would be an ideal neighborhood. The City Council approved the plan on a 6-3 vote in 2002 after thousands of proposed residential and commercial units were stripped from the villages because of lower population projections for the city.
So, in 2000, Goldberg sold her home in Del Mar and bought a condominium in downtown San Diego. "I loved it from day one," Goldberg said. "I remember sitting on the terrace and the streets were all lit up and carriages were going by and I said, 'I think I'm in Disneyland.' "