Chat Room : NEXT L.A.: A look at issues, people and ideas helping to shape the emerging metropolis. : Future Is in the Neighborhood

Los Angeles is in the process of updating its city General Plan, which acts as a sort of long-term blueprint for growth. Now awaiting final passage, the plan envisions a Los Angeles 20 years in the future--a city much like the one that exists today, but home to 800,000 more people and supported by a public transit network. How Los Angeles manages its growth will affect the entire region.

The new plan continues the concept of high-density urban centers linked by transit lines and wide boulevards--Century City, Downtown and Warner Center in Woodland Hills are examples. But it refines the centers and encourages new ones, as well as improving the transit network that supports the city.

Con Howe, the Los Angeles city planning director since 1992, spoke with Times staff writer Aaron Curtiss about the General Plan and the city's future.

Howe, 45, was once second-in-charge of New York's planning department. He has said each city is different and must develop according to its own history. He lives in Westwood.

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Question: Where do you see Los Angeles in 20 years?

Answer: Whenever we look ahead 20 years, I think it also causes us to look back and see where we have come from in the last 20 years. First of all, 20 years ago the city of Los Angeles was growing on its periphery and developing raw land as orange groves became subdivisions. That's no longer the case. The development future of the city is going to be in in-fill development in existing neighborhoods. The challenge there is going to be how to . . . strengthen existing neighborhoods and reinforce their character. I think that is a natural maturation in the city's development history. One of the good things it means is that we will be forced not to look at neighborhoods or structures as being throwaways, but instead as being things that evolve over time and must be nurtured over time.

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Q: So this sort of doughnut of decay that people talk about, those effects will be lessened over time?

A: I think that's a fair way of saying it. Obviously in the region there is going to continue to be pretty high growth. But the qualities and advantages of a city will be recognized by the people who live here and it will be much more a process of reinvestment in our existing neighborhoods--be they 100-year-old neighborhoods or 20-year-old neighborhoods.

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Q: What are the special qualities and advantages of a city?

A: With size come the advantages of choice and diversity and the economic opportunities that go with it. Obviously, if we were a small coastal resort community, there would be some wonderful qualities to that. But they would be different than the economic opportunity and cultural opportunities that come with a major city. I think people who don't see advantages to being in a city and having access to the culture and to the economy and to their neighbors are not going to choose to live here.

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Q: Where does Los Angeles fit with relation to other great cities?

A: It is certainly a young city and that's why it is at an interesting and important point in its history. Almost all of the raw land has been built on. We are entering a stage where in-fill development and the evolution of existing neighborhoods becomes important. If we emulate the history of great cities, we will strengthen the qualities we have. That includes preserving the open space and the natural environment we have. We will always be different from other cities because of our topography and climate, because of the era in which the city has grown. We have the opportunity to take advantage of changes that will occur in the 21st Century in a way that some of the older historic cities don't.

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Q: How so?

A: We have basic infrastructure, both cars and now transit. The port and airport are part of the overall mobility in the infrastructure. We have a more modern building stock. We certainly have a more diverse population than most cities. And we have kind of a willingness to take on new ideas and the best ideas from different cultures.

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Q: The allure of Los Angeles historically was that you could have an urban experience, even though we are essentially a giant suburb. You can always go home to your personal piece of country. Do you think that will continue?

A: In the same city there will be everything from a very urban, high-density lifestyle that you would find Downtown to areas that are really still very wild and in a natural state such as our mountain areas. Those are not going to change. Then you will have all sorts of gradations of suburban character from older, more traditional suburbs to some of the newer subdivisions. I can't really think of another city that has that range of choices. I hope that we will be able to retain that range of choice. Everything should not become homogenized. *

Q: What role will the transit system play?

A: If we look 20 years down the road you will definitely see the transit system as an accepted part of life in the region. Obviously, it's not going to replace the car. No one ever said it would. But it will be an important element. It will change mobility, especially for people who are transit-dependent. But it will also add choices in terms of getting around for everyone.

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Q: What role does the new General Plan play in getting us to this point?

A: First, it tries to emphasize that this city has a diversity of character throughout its neighborhoods. Again, it is not attempting to homogenize and say there is one answer for all. But there are some common elements. . . . The notion of allowing housing and mixed-use on commercial corridors. That will not only improve the character of those commercial corridors, but will preserve the character of existing residential neighborhoods by protecting them from inappropriate development. I do expect looking 20 years down the road that you will find the greatest physical change along a number of the city's commercial corridors, which are currently kind of characterless and not functioning very well.

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Q: Where might change take place?

A: I think you will see a lot of change in 20 years in those places where rail service is going to be--along Wilshire and Vermont, a stretch of Hollywood, along the Blue Line out to Pasadena. Those will all be areas that can take advantage of their access to the transit system. I don't foresee changes in the mountain areas. If anything, there will be more acquisition of land as public open space. There are a number of commercial corridors that will succeed with mixed-use development. I think portions of Ventura Boulevard are suited for it, Wilshire Boulevard. Pico Boulevard and Vermont Avenue are other examples of places I would expect to see a number of improvements in commercial and housing.

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Q: How would those boulevards differ from what's there now?

A: In many cases there would be fewer vacant lots and parking lots and more of a walkable shopping and living environment. In many cases we are talking about three- and four-story buildings with commercial space on the ground floor and apartments or condos above. But I also think we will see more recreational space. The Los Angeles River and the Exposition Boulevard rail right of way seem to offer great opportunities for bikeways and other recreational facilities.

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Q: But how do you make it happen?

A: In terms of making it happen, nothing happens if the market, which is ultimately the citizens, doesn't want it to happen. People don't build things that don't either sell or rent. I think the evidence shows that people do like safe and attractive shopping areas and residential areas. I'm afraid that if we don't have clear policies or directions on how to reinvest in our own neighborhoods . . . we may end up with what has happened in 20th Century America--this cycle of deterioration and throwaway neighborhoods. That doesn't have to happen here.

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Q: Los Angeles has been described as a 20th-Century city. What does that mean to you?

A: Most view that as saying this city grew at the time when the car became the most important form of transportation. Obviously, this city is famous for its freeways and its mobility. There are not many cities you can cross going 60 miles an hour. In terms of the technological changes people are talking about, like telecommunications, I think the structure of this city with its multiple centers and differing scales lends itself to being adjusted with the advent of technology. I really believe that the general quality and character of new development is going to be better over the next 20 years. Part of that is because of better development standards and safety standards, but a lot of it is because we are not going to see the same kinds of booms and busts we saw in the last decade. The financing picture is completely different. People are not going to be building speculative office buildings. So what does get built will be saner and I think will have a higher quality and character.

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Q: What sort of choices do residents now and in the future have to make about the city?

A: The first choice they have to make is to see themselves and the neighborhood they live in as inextricably tied to the future of the rest of the city. One of the important choices is what kind of reinvestment is made in the public realm and in the infrastructure of the city. Infrastructure has to be renewed. When you consider this city was made possible because of the investment in a water system that turned it from a desert into the nation's second largest city, you understand the fundamental importance of public investment. This is an era when spending money on public needs is not very fashionable, but that is going to be a key determinant about the livability of this city 20 years from now.

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