Dear Mr. Mayor: Congrats, and here’s your to-do list (UPDATED)
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Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who won reelection yesterday in lackluster fashion -- picking up 56% of the vote against a weak field -- was during his first term a major disappointment on issues relating to urban planning and mass transit. For all his talk of supporting green development and ‘elegant density,’ the mayor has often pandered to some very outdated and automobile-centric notions about growth and mobility in this city. Instead of using his bully pulpit to push for a comprehensive transit system for L.A., he has instead spent valuable political capital arguing for widening freeways -- when it comes to reducing congestion, a costly fool’s errand if there ever was one -- and turning Pico and Olympic boulevards into one-way thoroughfares. He rushed an ill-thought-out solar plan onto Tuesday’s ballot, only to see most voters apparently reject it.
Even if he has his eye on the governor’s mansion in Sacramento, as has been widely reported, Villaraigosa still has time to turn that rather dismal record around. After the jump, a list of three things the mayor can do, quickly and without spending much money, to begin redeeming himself on these issues, which are crucial to the future financial health and cultural relevance of Los Angeles.
1. Show real leadership on mass transit. Thanks to voters in Los Angeles County and statewide, who approved tens of billions of dollars in funding for subways and high-speed rail last November, there is a huge pot of money set aside for transit projects just waiting to be divvied up. The mayor doesn’t control all of that cash directly, of course, but as the leader of the biggest city in the state and the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, he’ll have a stronger say than any other single politician in deciding how it’s spent. Early in his second term, he should dedicate a major speech to articulating his vision for allocating the new windfall of transit money -- and for using it to leverage additional subway and high-speed rail funding and other transit-related stimulus money from Washington. His mayoral legacy and the record he’ll presumably run on for governor both depend on it. Driving progress on the high-speed rail plan alone, which by relying on Union Station as a terminus could revitalize a broad swath of downtown, could give his statewide chances a significant boost.
2. Expand the powers of the Urban Design Studio. The city’s planning director -- Gail Goldberg, a Villaraigosa appointee -- made some headlines in late 2006 by creating a new urban-planning think tank called the Urban Design Studio. Run by Emily Gabel-Luddy and Simon Pastucha, the studio has so far focused on downtown, pushing for wider, shaded and walkable sidewalks, transit-friendly development and a raft of common-sense but much-needed urban-design guidelines. And yet its wider impact remains so negligible that Gabel-Luddy, at a recent panel discussion organized by Metropolis magazine, resorted to calling herself a ‘GPS’ -- ‘a guerrilla in public service.’ The implication -- too disingenuous by half, if you ask me -- was that the only way she can produce real change is to behave like an insurgent, operating stealthily inside a mayoral administration that consistently puts the issues she cares about near the bottom of its to-do list. And yet the mayor would be wise to give the UDS a far higher profile: Similar initiatives in other cities -- most notably Design for London, which under Mayor Ken Livingstone pushed an inventive planning agenda and helped the city land the 2012 Summer Olympics -- have paid big quality-of-life dividends.
3. Produce a plan for dealing with abandoned and vacant property. As the recession deepens, more and more neighborhoods around the city will be burdened with properties and construction sites that have been abandoned and vacant lots that may not be built on for years. With a little ingenuity, these plots -- such as the long-neglected parcel of land at 1st and Spring downtown, across from the Times -- could be turned into parks or even hold high-design temporary structures by talented architects. As soon as the mayor came up with a workable plan even for a small handful of these properties, an overwhelming number of skilled architects and landscape architects -- many of them now either unemployed or drastically under-employed -- would come forward to help the city turn them from eyesores to valuable community amenities. This is precisely the sort of effort, in fact, that an expanded Urban Design Studio could help run.
Sweeping into office in 2005, Villaraigosa prompted high hopes for a fresh approach to urban planning, transit and development. But in the intervening years, a number of other U.S. mayors have outclassed him in preparing their cities for a green, post-automotive future. This is particularly true in New York, where Michael Bloomberg has surprised some of his critics by turning parts of Manhattan -- including, in a recently unveiled proposal, a significant stretch of Broadway -- into laboratories for innovative thinking on transit, walkability and public space.
Not all of Bloomberg’s initiatives have succeeded; his plan for congestion pricing in Manhattan foundered in Albany. But his administration’s efforts, little by little, are directing the status quo away from tattered assumptions about planning and urban form and the relationship between cars, buses, cyclists and pedestrians.
In Los Angeles, our mayor has far too often allowed the status quo to direct him. Let’s hope his weak showing on Tuesday -- which burdens him with a sort of anti-mandate -- will prompt him to shake up his thinking.
Other ideas for the mayor? Leave them in the comments.
-- Christopher Hawthorne
Photo credits: Villaraigosa with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger along the 405 Freeway, Marc Boster/Los Angeles Times; Villaraigosa and the Pico-Olympic sign, Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times.