Los Angeles Planning Commission President Jane Ellison Usher, who transformed the commission through the adoption of a set of principals called “Do Real Planning,” but created enemies on LA’s city council when she urged neighborhood groups to sue the city over a state law providing density bonuses for developers who included affordable housing, resigned on December 11.
As word swept the blogosphere, many asked if Usher, who had at times battled the city council and planning department director Gail Goldberg, had been forced out. In a tightly orchestrated round of interviews, Usher insisted that she hadn't. Despite widespread rumors to the contrary, friends and colleagues of Usher did not break ranks with her official explanation, which attributed the move in part to financial concerns.
In an interview, Usher told AN, “I have pushed my message and my agenda, and I have made progress.” But, she said, “there is a time and a place for every leader.… Sometimes [it requires] a new leader to push the message to a new level.”
She added that such a new leader “can bring new voices to the table" to help build a "stronger, larger more unified coalition.”
Usher had served as the commission’s chair since 2005 when she was appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Her participation in Los Angeles politics reaches back to Mayor Tom Bradley, whom she served as in-house attorney. Her initial actions on the board—brokering compromises rather than basing decisions directly on planning policies—belied her legal training. In one early case involving the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Venice bus yard, Usher brokered a compromise between community and development entities that was the antithesis of smart growth: lower density but higher FAR. But Usher rapidly became an advocate of sound planning policies and what she called “elegant density.”
Her planning manifesto for the city of Los Angeles, a document called "Do Real Planning," which the commission adopted unanimously in 2007, followed development principals advocated by architects and planners such as demanding a walkable city, identifying smart parking requirements, and requiring density around transit. Yet Usher was considered by many to be at odds with the mayor’s development interests, and frequently and vocally sided with neighborhood groups to protect communities against unwanted development.
Few had thought Usher would survive the controversy surrounding her open letter of opposition to the city’s enactment of SB1818, the affordable housing density bonus. Usher objected not only to the ordinance, but also to the fact that the city had enacted it before the planning commission. Within her letter, she laid out a precise and detailed legal blueprint for the ordinance’s legal deficiencies and encouraged neighborhoods to sue over what she believed to be a usurpation of neighborhood authority (despite her often-expressed support of smart growth).
Her four-page resignation letter, dated December 8, was full of such contradictions. While lauding LA Live, which many in the architectural community view as an inward-facing island, she advocated neighborhood-centered planning. Divided into seven categories, the letter recommended, among other things, providing mixed-income housing, enacting urban design guidelines and street standards, and updating the city’s environmental mitigations.
In regards to another proposal, “Mapping Elegant Density,” she suggested that the city build vertically, but not in a precipitous fashion. “Please reject any proposed update that relies on the careless, sprawl-inducing approach of adding density at every rapid bus stop; this would be unnecessarily hostile to many of our appropriately low-rise residential neighborhoods that also reside along our long, multi-faceted corridors,” the letter said.
Planning Commissioner Michael Woo, who is a former city councilmember and now teaches at the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development, credits Usher with a number of achievements. Most prominent among them, he said, was transforming the commission from a “passive, quasi-judicial role,” content with adjudicating cases brought to it, into a proactive, policy-making body.
In addition to "Do Real Planning" and a moratorium on new billboard placements—currently languishing in City Hall—Woo also cited the commission’s revisions to the city general plan’s housing element. “We set higher targets for more housing [despite] opposition from some business groups that thought we were doing too much," he said. "But the city council approved our version.” Woo added that Usher discovered and leveraged each commissioner’s specialty, that her ability to work collaboratively fostered votes that were unanimous, and that her skills as an attorney will be missed on the commission.
As for her future, Usher told AN she doesn’t have a new position lined up at the moment.