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.

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:




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 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:




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?