Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced Saturday that he has hired the head of San Diego’s planning department to help him realize his vision of a denser, pedestrian-friendly Los Angeles that also relies more on mass transit.
Gail Goldberg, 62, who will be general manager of the city Planning Department, said Saturday that she knows little about the lay of the land in Los Angeles but a great deal about working with communities.
“One of the things that I talked to the mayor about is that I’m a big believer in giving neighborhoods great examples of what can be done” with planning and redevelopment, Goldberg said. “I’m not a believer in pushing density into communities that don’t want it.”
Among her achievements in San Diego was creation of a concept called “City of Villages.” The idea is that each village -- there are five underway -- will include housing, businesses, schools and public facilities such as libraries, and be pedestrian friendly with access to mass transit.
Goldberg said she does not intend to try the same concept in Los Angeles, but wants to find neighborhoods that want change and help them formulate plans that will foster new development and the amenities that go with it.
Her task will not be easy. Activists and politicians have often criticized the city planning agency in recent years for not focusing enough on long-term planning and for being slow to fill key job vacancies.
Goldberg “will give communities in Los Angeles the ability to say this is how we see housing developing, this is the kind of land-use patterns we prefer,” said City Councilman Ed Reyes, who chairs the council’s planning panel. “All we’ve been doing in planning is processing” building applications, he said.
Villaraigosa said he was impressed with Goldberg’s ability to explain urban planning to residents. He believes there are many neighborhoods willing to become more dense if projects are well designed, friendly to pedestrians and easier to police.
“I had dinner with Thomas Mayne, the architect, the other night and we talked about Los Angeles having some of the best urban planners and architects in the world, but many of them don’t work here,” said Villaraigosa. “We’re going to give them opportunities to work here.”
Decades ago, planners in Los Angeles envisioned a “centers concept” that called for mini-downtowns with housing and shopping to be sprinkled across the city and linked by mass transit. It never really happened.
Goldberg’s hiring, which must be approved by the council, ends a long odyssey to find a new chief for the planning agency.
Former Planning Director Con Howe announced his retirement in December 2004. In March, then-Mayor James K. Hahn began a search but suspended it after he lost to Villaraigosa in May. Howe ultimately stayed until September.
Jane Usher, Villaraigosa’s appointee as president of the city’s Planning Commission, said recently that the first task of a new planning chief will be to rebuild the department.
“I have spoken with the mayor about his big dreams, and the mayor can be quite a poet when it comes to the [urban] environment,” she said. “But he would be aghast at some of the missing pieces for a city as grand as ours.”
San Diego covers about 73 square miles, compared with 465 in Los Angeles.
But in the last two decades San Diego has remade its downtown with a new convention center, baseball stadium and the bars and eateries of the Gaslamp Quarter.
Goldberg came to planning relatively late in life. On Christmas Eve in 1982, her husband, Steve, died of a heart attack after they had gone jogging.
At the time, she was a stay-at-home mother. But two weeks after her husband’s death Goldberg decided to return to college. “I sort of bet on me,” she said.
She initially studied economics, switching to planning in her fourth year of studies.
In 1988, at age 45, she was hired as a junior planner in San Diego. She worked her way up the ranks and was made chief of the department in 2001.
San Diego Planning Commissioner Gil Ontai said Goldberg is “L.A.'s gain and a tremendous loss for us. She is an excellent communicator both on a professional level and on a grass-roots community level.”
Ontai also said that San Diego’s “City of Villages” is “doing OK” but that it was still too early to call the concept a success.
Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.