How do we want Los Angeles to grow? That's the key question the city must ask, and finally try to answer, as Planning Director Gail Goldberg prepares to retire and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa searches for her successor. Too often the answer from residents is: We don't want it to grow, because it is already big enough, crowded enough, congested enough, ugly enough and sold out enough to development interests. But that resistance has not protected the city; it has merely kept us from making decisions about our future. Meanwhile, growth continues with little sense or direction.
Villaraigosa brought in Goldberg in 2006 to repeat here some of the success she had in San Diego, where brisk growth boosted, rather than diminished, a sense of neighborhood identity, livability and urban vibe. Residents of Goldberg's San Diego didn't love every new development, but they appeared to believe that they had more of a stake and a say in their neighborhoods and their city than residents do here.
In Los Angeles, Goldberg led the long-overdue update of several community plans, but her success was limited by a sprawling bureaucracy that works outside and often around her department; by a political establishment that gives City Council members extraordinary control over projects and makes development an exercise in political negotiation rather than carefully considered land-use policy; and ultimately by City Hall's poor budget and staffing decisions that left her without the resources to do her work.
If Villaraigosa is serious about the "real planning" and "smart growth" approach to land use that he embraced when running for mayor, he must do more than appoint a successor to Goldberg who matches her planning credentials and vision. He must back his top planner with streamlined and unified planning, permitting, processing and review staffs. Villaraigosa has promised such a reorganization. It's now more crucial than ever that he follow through, because of budget decisions that have left too few other professionals in numerous city departments to get the job done under the current structure.
The mayor must also balance the current pressure for jobs and revenue against the city's continuing need for more than just permit processing. The update of community plans must continue even as the city tries to get more (and needed) revenue by expediting projects.
The rest of us have to grapple with the reality of growth. Business and development interests can't get everything they want, but neither can residents simply say "no" to change of any kind.
Now is the time — when the real estate market is ailing, when the Planning Department is losing its leader, when there is an urgency to streamline the land use process and make it smarter and more efficient — for Los Angeles to finally decide to take charge of its cityscape.