WHEN MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA announced last week that he had appointed a new city planner, the general reaction was "Huh?" It is a measure of the job's current anonymity and future challenge: convincing residents that this incoherent, gridlocked sprawl of a city can be knit together in ways that steadily improve ordinary lives.
Luckily, Villaraigosa, the City Council and a fresh city Planning Commission seem ready to put wind in the sails of the new planning director, Gail Goldberg. During her term in that position in San Diego, she has shown that planning is more than a dull string of zoning laws. Goldberg can also take inspiration from Police Chief William J. Bratton, who came to L.A. not just with a vision of a safer city and better community relations but the persuasive power to help both his officers and city residents see that it would work.
Goldberg faces an even more basic task: Before she can revive a coherent vision for the city and its neighborhoods, she has to make Angelenos aware that such a thing exists. At the same time, she'll have to reinvigorate a Planning Department that, by general perception and according to a performance audit by City Controller Laura Chick, is stuck in a rut. Instead of crafting better frameworks for whole neighborhoods, much less the whole city, it slowly judges individual building projects. The department employs scores of smart people but doesn't encourage big thoughts or build paths for advancement.
Goldberg will also have to demand cooperation from the city's many departments, such as the Transportation Department, which currently cares mostly about moving traffic, no matter what that means to merchants, pedestrians and residents. She'll need to court developers, yet put them on notice that stacks of stucco won't do, even -- especially -- for low-income areas. This could require her intense involvement in two or three major projects that best express what she intends to do.
Finally, Goldberg will have to juggle all of this while fending off neighborhood councils and homeowner groups that want attention paid to their problems (traffic, density, open space, illegal construction, you pick it) right now. At the news conference announcing her appointment, supplicants were all but plucking at her sleeve.
Goldberg has a reputation as someone who is able to generate broad excitement about urban design and deal considerately with opposition. She encountered both with a sweeping vision for San Diego called City of Villages, a plan that places schools, businesses, housing and civic services together while honoring local character. Five such villages are underway.
Los Angeles is going to get more crowded in the coming decades, whether it plans for the growth or not. The need for housing and services will grow even more urgent. The smart thing would be to build near transit hubs, along major commercial streets and around the smaller shopping areas that define many neighborhoods. How the growth is managed will affect the character of places as different as Boyle Heights and Canoga Park.
Thanks at least in part to Goldberg, San Diego is already seeing the benefits of such planning. Los Angeles has a lot of catching up to do, and with the right support from above and below, Goldberg can catch and harness the city's imagination -- then help shape its expression in bricks and mortar.