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‘I think I accomplished a tremendous amount, considering.’

Twenty-five years ago, a tall, thoughtful, pipe-smoking city planner named Calvin Hamilton arrived at City Hall, determined to save Los Angeles from itself.

The city’s new planning director had big ideas, envisioning a score of high-density “city centers” linked by a high-speed mass-transit system. He promoted the controversial notion of a split-level downtown, with streets for autos and an upper tier of plazas, pedestrian bridges and a people mover.

Many of those ideas were embodied in the General Plan developed during his 20-year tenure. But it was the city’s inability to convert the plan into action and the ensuing court battles that sowed the seeds of Hamilton’s early retirement in 1985. Critics charged that he lacked the skills to smooth out development controversies and implement the policies.

“Cal’s style is visionary, and that has served a purpose,” then-City Council President Pat Russell said, explaining why she and others were pushing for Hamilton’s departure. But “we’re entering an age of implementation and we need those kinds of skills.”

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A year earlier, Hamilton had become embroiled in controversy of a more personal sort when it was revealed that he was using city staffers to help promote his private international trade organization. The firm also had rent-free offices in a building owned by a downtown developer who had frequent dealings with the Planning Department. As punishment, Hamilton was suspended for six weeks.

In a recent interview, Hamilton offered his own explanation of his departure: “Mrs. Russell and Mayor (Tom) Bradley . . . wanted someone who was more sympathetic with large developers.”

When he first came to Los Angeles, Hamilton, seeing the congestion to come, promoted the concept of controlling growth by developing a series of “centers"--some historic, as in downtown and Hollywood; some to be built, as in Century City and Warner Center. Comfortable neighborhoods would be preserved in between, encouraging people to live near their work. Starting in the 1970s, Hamilton’s offices held scores of community meetings to develop 35 separate neighborhood plans.

Much of Hamilton’s vision was undermined by huge cutbacks in federal transit dollars, and he also clashed frequently with developers, the Community Redevelopment Agency, some City Council members and, increasingly, some of the very homeowner groups who once supported him.

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Hamilton, now 64 and working as a consultant, thinks in smaller scale these days, but his presence still can be felt in the city. For example, Olvera Street merchants have hired him to help plan for preservation of their historic block in the face of mammoth development proposals nearby. And he was retained by his old boss, the city, to plan a waterfront recreation area in Wilmington. He also participates in a research project in which representatives of the world’s 15 largest urban centers share planning strategies.

What is his legacy? Critics point to the little-used pedestrian ways above Figueroa Street downtown. But Hamilton sees--at long last--the zoning rollbacks he wanted and a City Hall “that is a little more sensitive to the environment.”

“I think I accomplished a tremendous amount,” Hamilton says, “considering.”


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