L.A.'s New Chief Planner Sees City as Key Link to Pacific Rim
Kenneth C. Topping, Mayor Tom Bradley’s nominee to become the next planning chief of Los Angeles, doesn’t bother comparing his new home city to New York or Chicago or even to San Bernardino, where he is currently a top county official.
Instead, at his formal introduction Wednesday, Topping left no doubt that he is on the growing bandwagon of city government officials and business leaders who believe that the future of Los Angeles lies in attracting new growth from the west.
“Los Angeles is a world city and is moving forward at a great pace--perhaps for some more rapidly than they would like,” Topping said Wednesday at his first City Hall press conference. “But it is destined, I believe, to become the premier city of the Pacific Rim.”
Bradley, who also pushes the idea that Asia and the Pacific Rim are keys to the city’s future, appointed Topping Wednesday to conclude a yearlong search for an executive to run the city Planning Department, a $15-million, 260-employee operation that has been in turmoil in recent years.
Some City Council members privately expressed chagrin that Los Angeleswas unable to attract more good candidates from the larger cities, but council leaders predicted Wednesday that Topping would easily win confirmation and take the $91,000-a year post as expected on July 14. He would succeed Calvin Hamilton, who is retiring after 20 years as one of the most powerful forces in shaping the present landscape of Los Angeles.
Topping, 50, presided for the last 13 years over rapid growth in a large portion of Southern California’s burgeoning Inland Empire region, first as planning director of San Bernardino County, then as deputy chief of the county’s Environmental Public Works Agency. He listed streamlining of internal procedures in the planning department there as a chief accomplishment.
In Los Angeles, his task will be much different--to balance the mayor’s desire for steady but controlled growth against the competing demands of 15 City Council members, many with close political ties to real estate development interests, and dozens of homeowner groups.
Topping will take over during a tumultuous period. Pressure from homeowner groups already has spurred a referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot, sponsored by City Councilmen Marvin Braude and Zev Yaroslavsky, that would limit high-rise building. The city is also under a court order to reduce the construction density permitted by zoning throughout much of the city.
“Unfortunately we won’t know how well (Topping) does until 25 years from now,” said Howard Finn, chairman of the council’s Planning and Environment Committee.
Topping said Wednesday that he hopes to maintain good relations with everyone, including the homeowner groups fighting the city’s current growth pace. “I would hope they would think of me as a friend, but it’s unlikely that will always be the case. . . . I think it’s fair to call me planning oriented, and of course growth is a very important part of planning.”
Although he pledged to smooth the operation of the Planning Department and touched on other issues, Topping’s main passion was the Pacific Rim, the name the financial community has given to the regions--California, Japan, Hong Kong and the rest of Asia--that depend on each other for considerable trade across the Pacific.
Like Bradley and other key planning officials, Topping said a significant amount of future growth here will depend on how well Los Angeles promotes itself as a financial capital of the Pacific Rim. The city can entice foreign companies, he said, by smoothing obstacles in the planning process that drive foreign investors away and by making sure that Asian firms know how to do business with the government here. “Many Japanese business people don’t even know that they can own property here,” he said.
Topping was born and raised in Tokyo--his parents were Baptist missionaries--and his observations about Los Angeles were interspersed with comparisons to Asia.
“Tokyo, where I grew up as a child, and other cities around the Pacific Rim have the dramatic appeal, and the great energy and technology perhaps,” he said. “But I don’t believe any city around the Pacific Rim and in the Western United States has the pool of ideas and talent that can make this city truly great. And that’s really critical.”
On the question of high-rise development, and the city’s long-standing policy of concentrating high-rises into designated “centers,” he said minor changes might be necessary but said he would withhold judgment until he becomes more familiar with the city and the issues.
He expressed disappointment at the city’s lack of mass transit, and said the proposed Metro Rail subway or some alternative transit system is crucial to the future of Los Angeles and the surrounding region.
Topping, who was formerly an official in the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Department, was appointed by Bradley after selection committees rated him the most qualified of eight finalists. Bradley said he was highly impressed with Topping during their personal interview.
“I think the mayor has made a very impressive choice,” said City Council President Pat Russell. “It’s a choice that is very important to all of the members of the City Council because planning matters rate very high in what we deal with all the time.”
Despite the fact that Topping is generally pro-growth, two representatives of leading homeowner groups who participated in the selection interviews said they are satisfied.
“I’m very pleased that he was selected,” said Ron Rosen, a director of the Westside Civic Federation. “I think Mayor Bradley made a choice based on quality when he had pressures to do otherwise.”
Brian Moore, president of the Federation of Hillside and Canyon Assns., said the appointment signaled that the rating process was accepted and not sacrificed to City Hall politics. “I’m delighted that the selection was made according to the formula.”