Arts Preview: The Garcetti Decade*: A chance to shape L.A. more broadly than any mayor since Tom Bradley

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Architecture Critic

In 2009, Los Angeles magazine put a picture of Antonio Villaraigosa, newly elected to a second term as mayor, on its cover beneath a blaring single-word headline: “Failure.”

His successor, Eric Garcetti, who has now earned his own second term, has never faced that kind of hostility from the media. Yet neither has he whipped up a great deal of excitement. Widely but not wildly popular, Garcetti, 46, has largely packaged himself as a back-to-basics mayor, a persona that tends (by design, presumably) to keep his political instincts and sizable ambition tucked away from public view.

That’s not to say that Garcetti doesn’t have an opportunity to put a major imprint on the city. This is especially true when it comes to the subjects central to this column, including civic architecture, urban planning and the design of public and green space across Los Angeles.


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In fact, the confluence of two factors means that Garcetti has a chance to shape the public character of Los Angeles more profoundly than any mayor since Tom Bradley, who served five terms between 1973 and 1993.

The first is that because of L.A.’s decision to shift its elections from March of odd years to November of even ones, to sync with state and federal voting, Garcetti’s second term will stretch for five and a half years. If he serves the term in full — a fairly big if, and one we’ll come back to — he’ll occupy the mayor’s chair for essentially a full decade, nearly two years longer than anyone else in the term-limits era, which began after Bradley left office.

The second factor is that Garcetti is presiding over an L.A. that is reinventing itself in some fundamental and controversial ways. My term for this emerging city is the Third Los Angeles, following the streetcar-filled and civic-minded First L.A. of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the car-dominated, innovative and deeply privatized Second L.A. of the postwar decades.

This nascent Third Los Angeles is a post-suburban city. It has given up on the infinite expansion that Los Angeles once took for granted — the notion that growth itself is among our chief industries — and is turning inward, adding denser development to its central core. It is investing heavily in mass transit and trying to repair its public spaces while facing the specter of climate change.

It is his capacity to shape that rising city, to give it a stronger sense of coherence and equity than it’s had so far, that gives Garcetti a chance to be one of the most consequential mayors in modern L.A. history. (It helps that he is genuinely engaged by and knowledgeable about subjects like architecture and planning.) He’ll attempt to do so while beating back opposition from homeowners groups and others who are keen to defend what we might think of as their Second L.A. privileges: high housing prices, which protect their equity; low property taxes under California’s Proposition 13; and an approach to urban design that sees taming congestion as L.A.’s most important civic responsibility.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti walks down to the L.A. River after a press conference.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

For all the talk of Garcetti’s preternatural caution, he has already not only identified but grabbed hold of some powerful levers for transforming Los Angeles and the wider region. Among the most notable are the expansion of mass transit, the remaking of the Los Angeles River and the city’s bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics.

Each of those efforts is a potential legacy project for Garcetti; taken together, they could make up an achievement on which to hang a national reputation. But in the first two cases — tellingly, in terms of his style — he has stayed to one degree or another in the background.

As mayor, Garcetti has his own seat and appoints three others on the board of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which is now the owner of a huge war chest of funding — more than $100 billion — after the approval of Measure M last fall. That still leaves him well shy of direct control of Metro, a county agency that will be arguably the most important patron of civic architecture and public-space design in Los Angeles over the next two decades.

At least in public-relations terms, a good deal of river policy — including the controversial decision to ask Frank Gehry to oversee a new master plan for its 51-mile length — flows through River L.A., a nonprofit that was founded by the city but has its own leadership and board. The future of the river also depends heavily on decisions made in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

A milestone in the revitalization effort came earlier this month with the news that the city had completed the $59.3-million purchase of the 41-acre “G2” parcel along its banks in Cypress Park. It is a piece of land that suggests both the potential and the complexity — since it requires major environmental remediation — of turning land along the river from eyesore to public amenity.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti addresses the media and public gathered at Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles as plans to bring the Olympics back to Southern California go forward.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Then there’s the Olympics bid. That also began as an independent effort, though Garcetti later moved it in-house at City Hall.

The wild cards, as so often is the case in Los Angeles, are jobs, housing and public education, along with a crime rate that has begun to rise after years of decline, and the uncertainty of California’s relationship with the Trump White House. The growth of the tech industry in L.A. hasn’t been enough to offset the continuing hollowing out of the region’s industrial base. Opposition to development from slow-growth groups has kept the supply of residential units artificially low, exacerbating the housing crisis.

Garcetti could be much more forceful in confronting the more strident forms of that opposition. It would also be helpful to hear him articulate what developers owe the city in terms of making their projects as public-minded as possible. Forget giant, attention-getting new buildings for a moment: How can we make the typical new mid-rise apartment block a better piece of architecture?

Finally there’s the “if” I mentioned earlier — the reason the headline on this column includes an asterisk. Garcetti will come close to reaching the decade mark as mayor only if he serves a full second term. He’s rumored to be considering a run for governor or senator next year.

Villaraigosa, for his part, began to rebound after that magazine cover, though not immediately. His final year or so in office was surprisingly effective: He pared down his list of priorities, concentrating in particular on helping guide an earlier phase of the transit expansion.

That’s one more reason those extra 18 months could be crucial for Garcetti and his legacy, assuming he sticks around. Los Angeles is a huge, spread-out city that can seem ungovernable. Each City Council office makes up a fiefdom whose power comes at the expense of the mayor’s office.

It can take six or seven years to really figure out how to run this place. Even a mayor as diligent as Garcetti — and he continues to remind me of a student who hands in his term papers a couple of days early — can use all the extra time in office he can get.

For more on Garcetti’s plans for his second term, including a discussion of the future of the L.A. River, debates over housing and development and the 2024 Olympics bid, please join me for an onstage conversation with the mayor at 7:30 p.m. March 22 at Occidental College. Admission is free with registration. Details:

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