Putting a Planner in This Place : Save a City From Itself

<i> Bill Boyarsky is The Times' City/County Bureau Chief. </i>

A colleague and I were walking through a part of downtown Los Angeles that Charles Dickens would have loved -- that stretch of Hill Street in front of the huge rectangular building housing the civil courts. Just-divorced spouses and other winners or losers in lawsuits crowd the stairs and sidewalks, mind-weary from the legal system that always appalled Dickens.

A man had opened a portable shoeshine stand in the midst of this dreary landscape. A musician was playing a clarinet. My colleague said this is how a pleasant place can emerge naturally in a city. If someone put in a portable hot dog stand, to nourish the frantic attorneys rushing across the street, it would be perfect.

If life were that easy, my colleague could quit journalism and become Los Angeles’ new city planning director. But he already failed the test.

The successor to outgoing Planning Director Calvin S. Hamilton will have to know city politics and city law. My colleague didn’t realize that city politics and law restrict portable hot dog stands downtown. The search must continue.


Hamilton, city planning director for some 15 years, will retire in the middle of next year. His decision came after recent months of controversy: Hamilton was attacked by developers who felt he was hostile to them, and by neighborhood activists who felt he had let them down.

Planning director, at least to the general public, is another anonymous department head at City Hall, only slightly more visible than personnel general manager or head of the transportation department.

But the planning director and his subordinates make the recommendations and write the plans that determine the size and shape of buildings. From their desks come the recommendations that can turn a lonely Sunland horse trail area into a huge apartment complex.

Recognizing the importance of the job, the Bradley Administration obtained $27,320 from the City Council last week to finance a nationwide search for a new director. Candidates recruited by an executive search company will join aspirants in the department to take an examination. Mayor Tom Bradley will make the final choice, subject to council confirmation.


“We need someone who is technically competent, who has political skills and who has no preconceived notions of what Los Angeles should look like,” said Daniel P. Garcia, who heads the planning commission. The commission, appointed by the mayor, approves planning department recommendations.

The choice is particularly important at this point in city history. The city is under a court order that would, in effect, limit growth. The courts have ordered the city to comply with a general plan, largely written by Hamilton and his staff, calling for far less density than old zoning laws. Developers will be lobbying the City Council for exemptions and the new planning director will be in the middle.

In addition, the new planning director will have to provide leadership in a growing number of neighborhood fights over zoning changes proposed for Metro Rail subway sites, changes that will happen even if the subway is not built. Finally, the director will have to confront the Community Redevelopment Agency and its influential big-builder allies about construction projects in a downtown where traffic is getting worse and public transportation more inadequate.

The new planning director will have to be someone with enough background, experience, prestige and personality to make members of the council listen.

A touch of Police Chief Daryl F. Gates might help. Not everyone at City Hall agrees with the police chief. Many dislike him. But there is something about his personality that makes people listen.

The new planning boss needs political sense. Each of the 15 council members has a separate district planning agenda, shaped by neighborhood groups, campaign contributors, old friends, trusted clergymen--or even by merchants patronized by the council member’s family.

The council, as a whole, has a citywide planning agenda. This is determined by each member’s view of the city and by the big campaign contributors who so often advise the legislators.

Bradley has his agenda, also shaped by his view of the city and by the desires of his campaign contributors, who are important in a year when he is expected to run for governor.


The new director could take a safe course and walk a tightrope between these forces. He could become another anonymous city administrator, holding down a job and being a respected after-dinner speaker at professional meetings.

But more is needed. The director needs a vision of the city and a sense of how it can grow while maintaining its diversity.

Hamilton grappled with that, coming up with a centers concept -- commercial and business centers such as Warner Center in the San Fernando Valley and Century City, where nearby residents could work and shop. But growth and lax zoning have overtaken the idea. Unplanned centers spring up all over the local map.

The fate of the centers concept shows that putting plans on paper and having them approved do not shape the city. Immigration and market forces are more important.

To be a force in the city, the new director will have to be strong and smart enough to mobilize political support behind a city vision that retains diversity, promotes growth and modifies the short-range profit goals of land owners.

Does it take an urban affairs saint to meet those requirements? No. Saints and cities do not mix. But the search firm may find a municipal expert in some planning department, somewhere, waiting for the chance to save Los Angeles from itself.