"Mayors are always late," a mature woman in the row behind me said to her companion as if it were tacit knowledge. The mayor of Los Angeles may be the only municipal executive chief with an excuse as valid as the rest of us -- that ruthless terrorist of Angeleno early-evening punctuality: traffic.
That's why it was truly surprising when Mayor Eric Garcetti -- new as of seven months ago, and busy with untold political onuses back at City Hall -- took the stage only eight minutes after he was supposed to. In front of the crammed Keck Theater at Occidental College -- conspicuous in its proximity to the precipitately developing York Boulevard retail district -- Garcetti joined L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne for an extempore discussion of public policy surrounding a diverse array of city planning subjects.
The talk opened with Hawthorne running through a slideshow illustrating the shift from the "privacy-conscious" ideal of the hilltop modernist house to a more metropolitan archetype. "There's a good deal of anxiety about that change in some quarters," explained Hawthorne. "[In other quarters], a great deal of excitement. I think what people are really interested to hear is the mayor's sense of that change, and how it looks from his vantage point in city hall and his vision for shepherding that change."
The most significant changes that Garcetti invoked were a population-fueled necessity to urbanize and a desire to shake up the infrastructure that was built for another time's isolationist city, one where people didn't need parks, because the parks were their front lawns. "There's a limit to the old way of navigating the city," said Garcetti. "We have to create spaces that are more compact, more varied. [And] people are increasingly hungry for some sort of meaning in their life. There's a richness of life that people are discovering at the same time that they're facing tougher challenges with navigation. Most people don't spend their day worrying about the design of their buildings. They spend their day worrying about how long it's going to be until they get home."
Hawthorne argued that, perhaps because of increasing frustrations with a car-addled city, more people are trying to live locally. Garcetti agreed, telling an anecdote of settling first in Silver Lake, which became a fashionable neighborhood, and then in Echo Park, which many people said wouldn't improve, but did. Pointing to the evolving York Boulevard, the mayor said, "It's not that the trendiness has shifted from place-to-place, because those other places have embedded, it's that people do want a more self-contained neighborhood -- a place they can live, a place they can work, a place they can go for a drink, a place they can have dinner. People determine where they're going to live by: 'Where am I going to spend the bulk of my time?'"
One of the common gripes about neighborhood life is the utter dearth of parkland, a vestige of that time when Angelenos considered their yards all the green space they needed. When Garcetti was the city council member for the east side of Los Angeles in the 2000s, he increased the number of parks from 16 to 48. "[It was] done there when land prices were soaring, [and] when there wasn't a lot of extra money lying around," the mayor said, describing enlisted entities like the Neighborhood Land Trust and the Trust for Public Land, who could move more nimbly than the city could, and working with Community Garden Councils to put gardens in. "As mayor, that should be the goal for green space: to have a park within walking distance for everybody in Los Angeles."
At this point, the conversation shifted to public transportation, another of L.A.'s elephantine problems. "We're 40 percent there to interconnectivity," lamented Garcetti. "It's a painful moment, because people are stuck in traffic, and they say, 'You really want me to ride the subway or the bus?' It's still slower, and it's slower five percent each year. Widening the 405 is like finding a slightly bigger sponge to throw in the ocean, whereas a north-south line along that corridor is ideal. Getting rail to LAX, which I'm committed to doing. With the Expo Line, if you live on the far west side, you'll have an option next year to go from 'the sand to the symphony' in 40 minutes. And the Crenshaw Line will be a gamechanger for South Los Angeles."
Hawthorne pressed on the hot-button topic of the LAX rail, which has seen several changes and proposals run through the ringer over the past few weeks. "I can't guarantee it will be done by the time I leave, but if it's not underway, that's a pretty good way to judge me," Garcetti opined, before describing the two main proposals - building the Crenshaw Line directly into the airport, or building a nearby stop that will connect to a people mover. "You want the option with the least 'schlep,'" said Garcetti, who made no secret of his preferred proposition. "We're studying what I think is the superior option of bringing [the Crenshaw Line] into a place called LAX Connect, which you could drive to or come off the subway, and every two minutes or so, you'd have a people mover to take you to every terminal."
The end of the talk bounced around from the aesthetics of public architecture like schools, libraries, and Metro stations; turning Los Angeles into a biking city on par with Portland; a total revamping of the L.A. River; PLAN re:code, which will help simplify the incredibly complicated city zoning codes and create an online resource; and the Great Streets Initiative, which promotes beautification, public art, a sense of place, and an encouragement of good planning, will move along at a pace of three to five streets a year, said Garcetti. "We can revitalize this collection of villages, one village at a time," he continued.
One area of Los Angeles that is in a rapid process of growth is Downtown Los Angeles, which has arisen more questions than answers. "Downtown's a huge place," said Garcetti, who seemed as vexed by it as anyone. "As much as the middle seems pretty sweet right now, the poles are worrying. What do we do with ongoing homelessness? Forget gentrification: the working poor are less easy to find Downtown than the abjectly poor. The investment [of commerce] I'm very grateful for; that has been tremendous to our economy and to the experience of L.A., but it can feel soulless at time like at L.A. Live, where it feels brutalist. [But] there's a place for that. Convention-goers are not necessarily college students. All of Downtown can't be the hip, enjoyable, music bar scene. It has to suit the suits, the sports fans, and everyone else in between."
Garcetti left the audience with a neologism about what he wants the citizens to become rather than nostalgists or utopians: "organicists," those people who "look at the difference between each one of these nodes that we call neighborhoods, figure out ways to connect them in strong new manners, but also at the end of the day, realize the city breathes around us. I think that's the L.A. that will show to be the greatest platforms for innovation, for creativity, and for life."