Los Angeles Planning Director Kenneth Topping never could overcome the fact that smog, traffic congestion and other Southland ailments don’t respect city boundaries. His replacement, whoever he or she will be, will succeed or fail only by coping with that fact and only if the political realities of the job change. The odds are long against that happy occurrence.
Topping resigned this fall after an unsuccessful struggle with growth and congestion. Growth-control measures were approved. But so were huge housing tracts in the San Fernando Valley, as well as high-rises along Wilshire Boulevard and in downtown Los Angeles.
Growth and congestion were not, however, the immediate cause of Topping’s departure. The municipal political labyrinth just proved too much for him, and he became an easy victim for a City Hall hit job. From the first, Topping was hobbled by city zoning laws and procedures that have made dealing with the Planning Department a nightmare. Anyone who’s ever stood in line for information or a permit can testify to that.
Topping had too many bosses--Mayor Tom Bradley, the City Planning Commission (appointed by the mayor) and every member of the 15-seat City Council. If Topping had been a stronger person, he would have said no to the council members who overwhelmed his overworked department with requests for special ordinances and planning jobs for their districts.
He lacked toughness and City Hall political smarts. If Topping could have built a political constituency among militant homeowners, he might have resisted the final assault by land developers.
Finally, Topping didn’t have the vision of his predecessor, Calvin Hamilton. Hamilton had proposed that commercial growth be limited to centers, such as the Westside’s Century City and the San Fernando Valley’s Warner Center. Growth-happy elected officials allowed rampant development of other commercial districts. But at least his concept provided a strong guide.
Let’s pretend, however, that the new planning chief has vision, political strength and faces none of the institutional obstacles that defeated Topping.
We’ll assume Mayor Bradley and the council, as a present to that yet-unchosen person, vows to simplify the zoning laws, and give the newcomer a free hand.
Finally, we’ll make the impossible assumption that the new director, the mayor and the council will agree on some sort of city plan that restricts growth in the city’s remaining pristine areas. Generations of a municipal laissez-faire attitude toward development would be forgotten. New zoning laws would save the mountaintops from further destruction and development would be channeled to areas where it’s needed.
But even if all that happened, the streets and freeways still would be jammed and the air polluted. A look at development in downtown Los Angeles explains why.
For years, the City Council has given a clear field to downtown development. That hasn’t changed since a stroke crippled the area’s council representative, Gilbert Lindsay. Even with Lindsay hospitalized, the downtown development machine has churned on, driven by powerful lobbyists and developers. More high-rise office buildings have been approved despite warnings from middle-level Planning Department officials that the freeway and street system won’t be able to handle the traffic.
A good portion of the downtown work force comes from the city of Los Angeles--from the harbor area, the Westside and the San Fernando Valley. But many also funnel through the San Gabriel Valley, arriving on the San Bernardino and Pomona Freeways. Downtown-bound vehicles from Riverside and San Bernardino counties also feed those crowded highways. More out-of-city traffic comes from the South, from Orange County and the cities of southeast Los Angeles County, pouring in on the Santa Ana Freeway.
A person trapped in downtown traffic probably curses City Hall. And the cursing wouldn’t be entirely misdirected. City Hall approved the high-rises that attract the traffic. But those high-rises do create jobs that fuel the local economy.
The real solutions to the traffic jams are found outside City Hall--at the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, building new rail and bus transit lines for distant commuters; in other cities and counties that have encouraged growth; and with state highway builders who have to modernize the freeways.
Some relief is in sight. Voter approval of the Proposition C sales-tax increase last month will provide funds for the launching of two commuter rail lines to the San Fernando Valley and one to the San Gabriel Valley. In addition, there’ll be money for expansion of bus service on the San Bernardino Freeway busway.
For further help, the new planning director should be prepared to deal with governments outside Los Angeles, as well as with elected officials in City Hall.
This may be the time for such an approach. The Legislature is considering a package of bills creating regional governmental agencies to deal with growth, traffic and air pollution. They were introduced last year, but went nowhere. This year, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, the author, has promised to push harder.
The next planning director is going to have to be in the middle of such efforts or else the new chief’s reign will be as difficult as Topping’s was.