She has a city to build on

Times Staff Writer

On a recent Saturday, Gail Goldberg, chief planner of Los Angeles, stood under an Arco sign and contemplated the junction of La Cienega Boulevard and Rodeo Road.

The intersection's four corners had a strip mall, another strip mall with a Carl's Jr. in the parking lot, a 7-Eleven and the Arco gas station. Traffic was thick in every direction.

A posse of planning employees surrounded Goldberg -- dressed in a black warmup suit and sun visor -- as she asked them to tell her all the things wrong with the cityscape.

She then put her question another way:

"How old would your kid have to be," Goldberg said, "before you allowed them to come here on a bike?"

"Twenty-seven," answered one.

In the 15 months since she was hired away from San Diego by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Goldberg's public profile has steadily grown, owing to hundreds of appearances before community groups who can spot her just as quickly as their photogenic mayor and tough-talking police chief.

At once plain-spoken, funny, motherly, charismatic and diplomatic, Goldberg, at 63, finds herself in a position to determine whether a city tolerant of sprawl, traffic and cheap architecture can grow elegantly. She, too, represents the mayor's radical new take on Los Angeles: Both are determined to rebuild some of the city's old neighborhoods and make them taller, denser and linked to mass transit.

Yet not everyone with sway over city affairs has figured out where Goldberg fits and if politicians will listen to her. When downtown's much-ballyhooed Grand Avenue project was approved in February, for instance, no one so much as asked if she thought it was all that swell.

But those who know Goldberg stress that she is not to be underestimated and that she has come to the job by persistence and overcoming tragedy. A child of the 1960s who for years was a stay-at-home suburban mom, Goldberg now embraces an urban lifestyle and believes deeply that planning is not just about building things, but about social justice and providing a nice place for people to live.

"I like to think we're speaking for people not at the table or for residents who don't live here yet," Goldberg likes to say.

City government, of course, has been trying to "plan" Los Angeles for decades, with decidedly mixed results.

Walking away from Rodeo and La Cienega, near the Baldwin Hills, that Saturday, Goldberg declared: "It's almost impossible to believe that this kind of lack of planning could be an accident."

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A sudden loss

On Christmas Eve in 1982, Goldberg's husband Steve died of a heart attack after jogging with his wife. The co-owner of a successful air-quality monitoring firm, he was just 40, his wife 39.

The Goldbergs were raising two sons in the San Diego suburb of Del Mar. Gail Goldberg was known as the neighborhood's "cool mom" because she could talk to kids without judging them -- a skill that has since proved useful with adults. She was civically inclined, mostly through the League of Women Voters, and had just begun seeking a college degree.

Two weeks after her husband's death, Goldberg refocused her life and resumed her classes. "I sort of bet on me," she recalled.

"We, of course, mourned and went through a long process," said her son, Matt Goldberg, "and it didn't surprise me that ultimately her MO and reaction to the whole thing is, 'You move forward and make the best of the situation.' "

In her fourth year of classes, Goldberg changed her major from economics to planning. "It became really clear to me that planning was all the things that I loved put together," Goldberg said. "It was working with the community, creating livable environments, and I had traveled a lot with my husband and had visited many wonderful cities."

And it helped her land a much-needed job. Straight out of UC San Diego, Goldberg was hired by San Diego's planning department in 1988. In 2000, she became chief of the agency.

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Good timing

Her rise came at a propitious time. San Diego was sprawling. But it had also become a hot spot of urban planning as the city's rail system was expanded, its old neighborhood centers were being preserved and its downtown was opening to residential development.

The accomplishment that emphatically put San Diego on the map in planning circles was the "City of Villages," a plan to create or expand several neighborhood centers, each with all of the urban accouterments: businesses, residences, schools, parks and mass transit.

The idea, Goldberg said, was to capture what residents said would be an ideal neighborhood. The City Council approved the plan on a 6-3 vote in 2002 after thousands of proposed residential and commercial units were stripped from the villages because of lower population projections for the city.

So, in 2000, Goldberg sold her home in Del Mar and bought a condominium in downtown San Diego. "I loved it from day one," Goldberg said. "I remember sitting on the terrace and the streets were all lit up and carriages were going by and I said, 'I think I'm in Disneyland.' "

Goldberg did not seek the Los Angeles job. A headhunting firm urged her to apply and she went through several interviews before receiving a call from Villaraigosa in early 2006.

"He spent the first 20 minutes talking about his vision for the city and the next 20 minutes talking about what he liked about me," Goldberg said.

"She had this youthful vigor about her -- a hopeful optimism that made her seem like a teenager," said Villaraigosa. "I love that. To be honest, I wake up in the morning feeling that. This was somebody who was really going to live and breathe this job night and day and love every minute of it."

Goldberg moved to Larchmont Village, a few miles west of downtown, because it met her three criteria for a neighborhood: She could walk to a coffeehouse, a bookstore and a movie theater, though she's still driving to City Hall.

On Saturdays, Goldberg often walks 1.3 miles to the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood for a matinee. "There are places where someone could grab you and I doubt anyone would notice," Goldberg jokes. "The good thing here is that someone could do a lot better than grabbing me."

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Case-by-case decisions

One of the most striking aspects of planning in Los Angeles is the number of decisions made on a case-by-case basis. Nearly every new building requires variances from the city's zoning codes -- which politicians routinely grant, giving them enormous power over land use.

With every recommendation, Goldberg knows she will have to endure -- if not overcome -- the city's political winds.

"What the prior planning process has fostered -- and you can't blame it on any one person or predecessors to Gail -- is a system that has almost no design standards," said Kate Bartolo, a vice president of the Kor Group, a development firm. "It has been left, for better or worse, to developers."

Upon her arrival, Goldberg started by tackling internal issues in her City Hall office. She hired new planners, named the department's first historic-preservation manager, put deputies to work on building design guidelines and began writing nine new community plans to her standards.

Her standards? That anyone can read them and understand what they allow to be built, something she finds lacking in the city's 30-plus current plans.

She also began trying to persuade people to become enthusiastic about "great streets": Goldberg likes them vibrant, with developments that face outward to the street.

An example: Larchmont Village, which has a thriving restaurant scene and a mix of stores that sell what Goldberg calls "real things," such as hardware.

What Goldberg didn't do was just as important. Namely, she refused to knock specific developments built before her arrival, such as Beverly Center, The Grove and Hollywood & Highland -- all of which face inward, away from the street. Instead, she talks about what she likes in Los Angeles in general terms.

In February, Goldberg was in City Council chambers when billionaire Eli Broad declared that another mega-project, downtown's Grand Avenue plan, "changes the entire complexion of the center of the city." Goldberg wasn't called on to offer an opinion.

Shortly after the vote, Goldberg offered a tense smile when asked by a reporter if she was miffed about it. No, she said.

"In the best case, I look at it more closely and love it," she said. "But what if I don't love it? Then I create enemies and I don't think enough will be gained to make it worth it. I am willing to jump in and make a tough decision, but I don't want to win the battle and lose the war. I want to build relationships."

Goldberg believes there are ample development opportunities without having to rely on mega-projects. The key is to steer clear of neighborhoods that want to stay as they are and help communities that want her help -- thereby creating examples the rest of the city can see.

"All the data support that growth is happening in this state with or without development, and most of the growth -- the kind that is controllable, if you will -- is around" new jobs, Goldberg said. "Any city that is producing jobs is going to attract people to that city, and L.A. is doing both."

If good planning means more density, it remains to be seen how that will play here. Most residents fight such projects, believing they will add more vehicles to the road. Goldberg says, however, that good development can lessen the number of car trips people take.

Carol Sidlow, co-chair of the planning panel for the Bel Air-Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council, is effusive in her praise for Goldberg's candor and hopes she can bring order to development in the Santa Monica Mountains.

But Sidlow has issues with more density. Traffic is bad enough, she said.

"I think that [density] is a wonderful utopian idea and I don't think it works in L.A.," Sidlow said. "We don't go up, we go out. Because we can."

Goldberg is aware of such talk and doesn't take it lightly. She, too, knows that most politicians won't release their hold over the city's planning process without a fight.

But Goldberg says she still believes she can effect change.

"This isn't just a job," she said. "It's a place where you can change someone's life because everyone is impacted by the kind of neighborhood they live in. It's not just about building things. It's the process -- bringing in the community and maybe changing their minds."

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steve.hymon@latimes.com

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