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10.24.2011
Q+A> Gail Goldberg
Sam Lubell talks with ULI LA director Gail Goldberg about issues facing today's cities.
Courtesy ULI

From October 25–28 the Urban Land Institute is hosting its Fall Meeting in Downtown Los Angeles. The new executive director of ULI’s LA chapter is Gail Goldberg, former director of LA’s city planning department from 2006 to 2010. Goldberg sat down to talk with AN’s West Coast editor Sam Lubell about her new job, about her time at LA City Planning, and about the myriad issues facing the city.

 
Gail Goldberg.
 

You were thinking of retiring after you left the planning department. What made you join ULI?

I was perfectly satisfied to be in retirement. ULI actually came to me after about ten months of retirement. I have such a long relationship with them—as a trustee, as a past chapter chair. When they asked me to take this job, it occurred to me almost immediately that in the 25 years I’ve been involved with ULI they have never said no to me. So I was going to have a hard time saying no to them.

Is there anything you are eager to accomplish at ULI?

I am very familiar with the mission of ULI, and I am very comfortable supporting it. ULI is about bringing people together. It’s about education. It’s about learning from one another. It’s about research and thinking about the future. It’s about coming up with best practices and building great communities. Their priorities around affordability, disadvantaged communities, and infrastructure are all things that I care about. It’s less about my agenda and more about my comfort with their agenda.

What’s interesting to me about ULI is its ability to get planners, architects, and developers together. Can you talk about that?

I think all of us who are in a field that contributes to building communities spend a lot of time in our own field. ULI feels like the single place where all those professions come together and can really learn from one another. Each of us only contributes a piece of the process, and we are all dependent on the other pieces. Having access to an organization like this, where you can really learn about the full process, allows you to be a lot more successful in your own piece of the process. For example, it was so important for me as a planner to learn about development financing. That was just stuff that wasn’t taught in planning school. It wasn’t anything I was going to learn through APA or doing my planning job. But lack of understanding it could really get in the way of my being able to do good planning. If you as a planner don’t create a plan that a developer can really pick up, then you’ve got a plan but you don’t have that community that you’re trying to build.

Do you think architects lack the ability to develop an understanding outside of their particular field?

I think in the practical application of their profession architects who are busy and working for developers learn pretty quickly what’s financeable and what’s not. But it’s not clear to me that architects or developers really understand policy development. They often don’t understand the political environment they’re working in. I think architects often get frustrated by planners, because if we don’t understand the cost of things then we start telling architects what to do. Maybe we’re not communicating well either.

Politics is so deeply wound up with planning, architecture, and development in LA. Can you elaborate from your experience?

Every city has its own culture. LA for a large city doesn’t have a long history of planning. This is not a city where people sit down and really think about what the downtown or our communities ultimately should be. What we’re good at is transactions and big projects. We probably can do those better and maybe more creatively than other cities. As a result we often get some great projects in LA. But we don’t always bring them together to make a great neighborhood or community. Changing the culture of a city is very hard. It takes almost constant vigilance. There’s a tendency for the system to keep producing what it has always produced.

We’re a city that celebrates creativity and entrepreneurship. We’re open to people coming here with grand ideas. Because we don’t have a plan or a common consensus about what’s supposed to happen it makes us a little more open to somebody else’s great idea of what should happen. In other cities that have a process where public agencies, community members, and business owners have created a real vision and a consensus around a plan, they’re not as open to new creative ideas. Those cities typically support the implementations of their own plans. So developers can go to Vancouver, and if they want to build what the plan says, they can build it quickly. But they probably would really struggle if they wanted to build something totally inconsistent with the plan. We don’t have a plan getting in our way, if you will, but it also doesn’t provide for the kind of predictability that most developers need.

LA’s culture must have been frustrating for you as planning director?

It was clear to me when I came here that there was an interest in promoting planning. But it was increasingly difficult to find a strong constituency for planning. It’s hard to make the initial change, because there were a lot of folks invested in the system that was in place. And it was sometimes hard for people, who might benefit from the new system, to trust that the change would bring what they needed. I think for community members especially, who desperately needed predictability, it was hard for them to trust that others would honor or support the plan. They’ve never seen it, so it’s hard for them to imagine how it would change their life.

It continues to be my intention to create real plans that have real implementation tools (like development regulations and zoning ordinances) to go with them. I think over time people will begin to see the value of that. Talking about what it could do for you is one thing, but actually producing a plan and letting a community have the experience of having a plan that they support, I think that’s the only way we can change the culture in LA.

Then what kind of planning policies do we have in LA?

We have citywide policies. We have policies for accommodating growth around transit corridors. We adopted our framework plan for the city in 2000, which lays out our idea of how we’re going to do the rest of our planning in the city. But we need planning for the rest of the city. So in LA while we have the general plan framework, we have not adopted new elements of the general plan that make it totally consistent, and we haven’t implemented that framework in the community plans. We’re beginning in LA to update some of our community plans with implementation tools.

We’ve started about ten community plans. The Hollywood plan is coming forward, and there are four or five right behind it. There are 35 community plans to be developed in the city. We thought it would take three years. It’s taken much longer.

Now that we’re in a downturn it seems like a good time to do this kind of thing.

Communities are much more open to looking at themselves in times when they’re not being inundated with projects. Bad economic times are perfect for not only bringing the community out to do community planning but also to think about setting the table for the recovery. Are we going to be ready when the economy starts to turn around? I think planners all make that case, but almost across the board we’re unsuccessful in changing a political environment where there are limited resources.

Did this resistance to planning have anything to do with why you left?

No. I knew it was going to be a battle. And it was not going to be a battle that was going to be won in five years or frankly ten years. It’s going to be an ongoing battle that involves more than any planning director. It needs community members and the development community all aligned to do better planning. I certainly never thought that I could walk in and change LA in five or six years.

I had hoped, and I believe that I did, push things in that direction. I think there’s a lot more conversation now about community plans and about implementation tools. There’s a lot more discussion now about urban design and about the quality of the public environment and pedestrian orientation. I think we initiated a new dialogue in LA, and the architecture and urban design communities certainly partnered with us to give planners and community members a common vocabulary to talk about the public environment.

When you have a place with a weak planning environment does that mean that developers and politicians call the shots?

That’s certainly the environment we have here. Land use is very political in LA. The council makes a lot of decisions about land use based on projects and transactions that are being proposed.

So was there any one reason that you decided to leave?

As it became increasingly clear that priorities needed changing and there was less and less support for real planning—in fairness that’s in every major city—I had to evaluate how I wanted to spend the next few years of my life. I’ve spent my entire career building planning departments. The thought of spending the last few years of my planning career having to watch one decline wasn’t for me.

Let’s talk about the conference.

This will be ULI’s 75th Fall Meeting. It will be held at LA Live. We expect six or seven thousand people from all over the country to come to LA. There will be tours all over the city to provide an opportunity for the visitors to get a comprehensive view of all the changes that are happening here. We’ll be talking about the financial situation and capital markets. We’ll be discussing development products, quality environments, and sustainability. There will be a strong focus on smart growth around transportation. It’s going to be a very exciting environment and a great party.

Sam Lubell