Although Los Angeles was largely shaped by the automobile, mass transit is becoming the biggest force in building the future Los Angeles. That’s becoming clear in the big developments at subway and light rail stops. You can sense it in fights over new routes, such as the Expo line. Appropriately, the impact of mass transit was one of the major themes Wednesday night at a planning forum held in the old Bullocks Wilshire building, an early symbol of auto-mad L.A.
The forum—“The Future of the L.A. City Planning Department (And The Future of the City”—was a gathering of planners, architects, neighborhood activists and others. It featured a panel of planning experts and me, whose familiarity with planning is pretty well limited to a knowledge of developers, lobbyists, construction union leaders and others who can put in the fix on big building projects.
Michael Woo, dean of Cal Poly Pomona’s College of Environmental Design, organized the meeting. Woo, an L.A. city planning commissioner, was a member of the Los Angeles City Council and a candidate for mayor in 1993. He did a great job in keeping the disparate panelists and audience focused on the theme.
He chose a perfect site. When Bullock’s Wilshire, located on Wilshire Boulevard just east of Vermont Avenue, opened in 1929, it heralded the dominance of the automobile and the eventual demise of the big Red Car mass transit system. Built for the motorist, the luxurious store had plenty of parking. Valet parking was by uniformed attendants. The building is now occupied by Southwestern Law School, which has lovingly preserved the look of the place.
Making the event especially relevant was the appearance of Michael LoGrande, who was picked by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to be the next city planning director. LoGrande, who rose through the Planning Department in the zoning administration office, replaces Gail Goldberg. She unexpectedly retired for reasons that remain a mystery. She probably crossed the mayor and his latest team of advisors.
LoGrande spoke to the group and then listened, taking notes, while the panelists talked planning.It was clear from the panelists that the planning director was just one player—and probably not the most important—in shaping the new L,A.
“Is there a more powerful influence in planning than the M.T.A?” asked Fulton, who is mayor of Ventura, a planning scholar at USC and publisher of the respected California Planning & Development Report. He referred to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, also known as Metro, which is building and running the new transit lines as well as operating the bus system.
Martha Welborne, chief planning officer for Metro, talked about the need to link transit use and planning.
In an earlier era, the Red Car routes into the San Fernando Valley, the San Gabriel Valley and to the beaches were important in the development of the suburbs. When the auto took over, the freeways generally followed the Red Car routes. Today, near the old Bullocks Wilshire site, the Vermont subway stop is making its contribution, with apartments and commercial buildings going up around it in a part of town long moribund, partially because of the flight to the suburbs.
We panelists had plenty of advice for the new planning director. I warned him about the clout of developers and their lobbyists and, remembering what happened to his predecessor, to stay on the same page as the mayor. Jane Blumenfeld, former acting deputy planning director, said the department needed to reorganize so that the planners don’t spend so much time buried in each individual project application. The best advice came from academic-planner-mayor Bill Fulton who warned LoGrande he will have to negotiate politically with elected officials but that he could still run into trouble with the mayor and council members.