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Planning Panel Picks: Mayor Walks Fine Line

Times Staff Writer

With the Los Angeles mayoral election seven months away, Mayor Tom Bradley has made key changes on the city’s Planning Commission that indicate he hopes to walk a fine line on growth issues by both winning the hearts of development-weary homeowners and shoring up his traditional base of support in the building industry.

In recent weeks, Bradley has appointed three new members to the five-member commission--a prominent Westside homeowner leader, a relatively unknown Encino developer and a Latina attorney who serves on the RTD board. It is the mayor’s first overhaul of the panel, which wields considerable influence over what projects are built in the city, since his reelection campaign four years ago.

The City Council and mayor ultimately determine the fate of most land-use issues in the city, but it is the Planning Commission that first sorts through them and makes recommendations. Week after week, the commission serves as the battleground for homeowners and developers knocking heads over new housing developments, proposed building restrictions and changes to local plans and zoning codes.

In a practical sense, the commission’s greatest political power rests in its relationship with the City Council. The council must garner 10 votes to overturn a commission decision--two more than the simple majority required for most council actions. For the mayor, who has only veto power over council actions, appointments to the commission give him a proxy voice in land-use debates as well as an important opportunity for political patronage.

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Besides Bradley’s appointments, the commission has gone through a change in leadership that could have even greater repercussions. Members elected a Carpenters Union official, William G. Luddy, to succeed outgoing president Daniel P. Garcia, giving organized labor the helm at the city’s two most important land-use panels.

Garcia, an attorney who thoroughly dominated the commission during the last 10 years, was generally regarded as a centrist on development issues. He has been credited with keeping the commission from earning a reputation as either pro- or anti-growth. With a union official in charge with professional and personal ties to the construction industry, some say that delicate balance may be in jeopardy.

Campaign Theme

While the mayor’s office shies away from reading much into the changes, City Hall observers say they portend what will likely emerge as a critical theme in the upcoming campaign: How would the mayor and his expected challenger, Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, deal with increasingly demanding slow-growth homeowners and environmentalists while fostering continued growth and prosperity during the 1990s?

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Bradley’s new Planning Commission appointments include homeowner leader William R. Christopher; developer Theodore Stein Jr., and public interest lawyer Carmen Estrada. They replace Garcia, a 12-year veteran, as well as retired San Pedro liquor store owner Sam Botwin and developer Robert J. Abernethy, both of whom served since 1984. All three departing commissioners, the mayor’s office said, asked to leave the commission.

Luddy, the panel’s new president, has directed a labor-management program for the Carpenters Union since last December and served as the union’s spokesman before that. He is close friends with Jim Wood, chairman of the Community Redevelopment Agency and an official with the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Wood is said to have helped persuade Luddy to move to Los Angeles from New York.

Luddy’s ascension gives organized labor--which has traditionally favored growth because it provides jobs--a firm grip on the city’s two leading land-use panels. Deputy Mayor Mike Gage characterized the situation as “irrelevant,” saying the Community Redevelopment Agency board and the Planning Commission seldom deal with each other. He also said Luddy was chosen president by his colleagues on the commission without any interference by the mayor.

But others described Luddy’s new role as “frightening” and “disconcerting.” One City Hall official, who asked not to be named, said Luddy’s promotion creates the potential for “endless political warfare” between homeowners and the building industry.

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Yaroslavsky, who hopes to capitalize on slow-growth sentiment to oust Bradley in April, said Luddy’s newly found influence illustrates that Bradley is not serious about dealing with homeowners’ concerns over growth and the environment.

“Two of the most important land-use agencies in the city are being run by two of the most pro-growth, pro-development personalities in city government,” he said. “If you believe the mayor doesn’t have anything to do with who becomes the president of any of his commissions, then let’s talk about some South Dakota beachfront property.”

Luddy, who has been vice president of the commission since being appointed in 1984, dismisses his critics as “people making general characterizations to fit their agenda.” He described his voting record on growth issues as in the “midriff” and said his views are in line with most Los Angeles residents. Several of his supporters said he has moved toward the center on growth issues since his early days on the commission.

In what has been widely interpreted as an overture to the city’s expansive homeowners network, Bradley named Christopher, president of the Westside Civic Federation, to replace Botwin. Word was out at City Hall that the mayor was looking for a highly visible homeowner who “wouldn’t wind up as an extremist,” as one source put it.

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In choosing Christopher, the mayor was apparently willing to set aside the issue of political loyalty. Of the three new appointees, Christopher alone declined to say in an interview with The Times whether he will support Bradley’s reelection. He is the only appointee never to contribute to a Bradley campaign, and before accepting the appointment, he sought advice from rival Yaroslavsky.

Ambassador for Residents

As head of the coalition of 13 Westside homeowner associations for the last three years, Christopher is a popular ambassador for residents, who, in his words, want him to “control, manage and direct growth.” But Christopher, an architect who lives in a condominium near Hancock Park, is also considered a safe appointment for Bradley. A self-described “conciliator” in homeowner politics, he has numerous professional ties to developers and is regarded as a moderate on growth issues.

Several of his supporters privately expressed fears that Christopher’s inclination to compromise might leave homeowners with just one vote on the commission--that of veteran member Suzette Neiman, founder of the Encino Property Owners Assn. and a commissioner since 1973. Neiman, however, predicted that Christopher will be both “a strong voice” for homeowners and “a good ally” to her.

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In appointing Stein, the developer, and Estrada, the attorney, Bradley selected two supporters who have maintained relatively low profiles on growth issues. Stein served two years ago on an advisory committee set up by the Planning Commission that eventually recommended the creation of community planning boards throughout the city.

A former deputy district attorney, Stein is a real estate attorney and president of his own development company, Raider Planning & Construction Inc. in Canoga Park. He deals mostly in small residential projects in the San Fernando Valley. He is building a 75-unit condominium project in Encino and a 19-house development in Chatsworth.

Stein was recommended to the mayor by Councilman Hal Bernson, who chairs the council’s Planning Committee, and he earned high marks from Garcia, the outgoing commission president. “He represents a practical building side without being radically in favor of growth no matter what,” Garcia said.

Many homeowner leaders had never heard of Stein, but Christopher, who served on the advisory committee with him, said Stein did not “have your typical developer viewpoint” on issues.

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In an interview, Stein described himself as an independent who disdains labels.

“I believe that growth is inevitable (but) it should be reasonable,” he said. “The people who are trying to predict what direction the commission is going to take aren’t doing a service to the new people coming on.”

By far the biggest unknown on the new commission will be Estrada. A Bradley loyalist, she developed a reputation on the Southern California Rapid Transit District board as an independent-minded member who frequently questioned and criticized transit district management. She adds an ethnic dimension to the commission, which has no other minorities. As an attorney for the last five years at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, she also brings concerns about low-income housing and other issues affecting the poor.

“It is not always popular to talk about poor people and their needs in the face of the ‘pull-up-the-trap-door’ mentality we have in this city, but that needs to be done,” said Garcia, who recommended Estrada for the post.

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Several City Hall observers said they see Estrada as the potential swing vote on the commission if Luddy and Stein line up with builders and Christopher and Neiman side with homeowners.

Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who was elected last year on a slow-growth platform, said she was “quite optimistic” that Estrada would lend a sympathetic ear to homeowner and environmental concerns. On the other side of the spectrum, George J. Mihlsten, who represents numerous developers before the commission, said he expects Estrada to help form a new “planned growth” majority on the commission.

In an interview, Estrada said it was too early to tell how she will vote on development issues but said each project will have to meet a needs test.

“I think what makes the most sense for the city is to grow where dividends are paid to the local community,” she said. “In areas where the community doesn’t receive dividends--that the downside of traffic and pollution are very great--it would be more difficult to support growth in these areas.”

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