Villaraigosa's Legacy: A Dubious Meshing of City Departments

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William Fulton, writing in 1997, thought that the "growth machine" yoking political ambition in Los Angeles to developer money had ground to a halt. Fulton saw development in Los Angeles constrained by the lack of land -- "sprawl hits the wall" -- and by the resistance of NIMBYist homeowners.

It's now 2013, and the more things have changed, the more they have remained the same.

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As these pages have noted, new state laws (SB 375 and AB 32), new land use mandates, and the erosion of support for CEQA-backed challenges are making NIMBYist protests less and less a threat to developer interests. And developers have learned to exploit the opportunities created for them in the "vertical" acres found in disused office towers downtown and in the air elsewhere above the city's generally low-rise commercial real estate.

Almost no one foresaw how a retooled "growth machine" -- using new aliases and old allies -- would change the character of downtown Los Angeles so dramatically and so thoroughly for the good of the city.

Unfortunately for good planning, the "growth machine" in Los Angeles operates on a feedback loop: the more that developers cash in from concessions from the city, the more cash the political class in Los Angeles collects, and the more concessions politicians make to developer interests to get more of the cash.

These forces sometimes result in a graceful, appealing development. In many other cases, the result is a mess.

The feedback loop of money and political ambition recently gave politically connected developers a big, end-of-term gift from Mayor Villaraigosa and an eager city council: the merger of the city's separate Planning Department and Building and Safety Department. The marriage of the two departments is supposed -- like other machine-friendly streamlining -- to make the development approval process in Los Angeles swifter.

"Smart growth" advocate Rick Cole argues in The Planning Report that faster isn't better:

Yes, the current "project by project" approval process in Los Angeles can be a subjective, miserable, and expensive nightmare for developers and an equally sickening, dispiriting, and exhausting war of attrition for citizens. But simply speeding up the dysfunctional process is clearly not the solution. The primary problem isn't that the production line is too slow. The primary problem is that it is producing crap.

Ron Kaye, a frequent and acerbic critic of the "growth machine," pins the union of the two departments on the low economics of city politics. Kay notes "how little time and effort went into adopting a revolutionary change that allows every project to be put up for sale to fund political corruption."

Former City Planner Richard Platkin, expanding on an earlier posting to KCET Departures' Laws that Shaped L.A. series, sees reorganization as inflating another real estate bubble:

The deregulation of land use is well on its way at City Hall, albeit obscured by such misleading phrases as "elegant density" or "transit-oriented districts." In some policy circles, government regulations are considered to be the bane of economic prosperity. In fact, this was this outlook that gave rise to the deregulation of the telecommunications and aviation sectors under Ronald Reagan and the financial sector under Bill Clinton.

The race to insulate the city's "growth machine" from both community resistance and good planning is nearing an end after eight years of Mayor Villaraigosa. As Rick Cole bitterly remarked on the mayor's abandoned ambitions:

There has seldom been a mayor who embarked on his first days in office with more soaring promises of pursuing livable, sustainable development than ... Antonio Villaraigosa. He said all the right things at the outset. In picking San Diego's Gail Goldberg (former planning director) to replace Con Howe, Villaraigosa sent unmistakable signals that a new golden age was dawning. Yet within three years, he installed Austin Beutner over City Hall and Bud Ovrom at Building and Safety to dismantle anything blocking new development. That they didn't entirely succeed had less to do with lack of effort on their part and more to do with Villaraigosa's curiously short attention span. (Planning Director) Michael LoGrande has been tasked with finishing the job through the merger.

The products of the "growth machine" are new, but the old logic of the machine survives. Can incoming Mayor Garcetti do anything to change it?

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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